Living Legends of Architecture

Share via

Half a century ago they were American architecture’s young Turks, apostles of a bold new design style intended to meet Southern California’s climatic and cultural needs. They were brought together by John Entenza, editor and publisher of the avant-garde monthly magazine Arts & Architecture, who had a vision: to foster the creation of modern, easily constructed and affordable housing prototypes that would address the demands of the postwar building boom, primarily in the Los Angeles area. And for the 21 years between 1945 and 1966, the architects of the Case Study Houses program worked to fulfill that iconoclastic ideal.

On Sunday, when five of the program’s surviving architects met at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles, it was mainly to be feted as living legends whose once-radical influence still persists in contemporary building and design. The occasion was this month’s publication of “Case Study Houses: The Complete Program,” a lavishly produced, handsomely illustrated, 440-page tome that weighs in at 13 pounds and is priced to move at $150. The book’s publisher, Taschen, which specializes in the arts and pop-culture related topics, hosted the afternoon event at MOCA’s auditorium, followed by a reception and book-signing.The Case Study project’s revolutionary character lay in the belief that single-family houses, assembled from standardized components and materials such as steel, glass and aluminum, could be mass-produced like Oldsmobiles and sold at prices that middle-class families could afford. The aesthetic called for flat roofs, open floor plans that minimized internal walls, and the use of sliding glass doors to encourage a seamless “indoor-outdoor” lifestyle flow befitting the mild climate. Influenced by an earlier generation of Modernist architects, such as Rudolf M. Schindler, the 36 Case Study plans expanded Modernism’s vocabulary by, in the words of the book’s author, Elizabeth A.T. Smith, maximizing “the use of technology in their design and construction” and rendering it visible. In theory, the program added up to a bold assertion of American liberal democratic values and postwar optimism.

For the architects themselves--Donald C. Hensman, Edward Killingsworth, Pierre Koenig, Don Robert Knorr and Beverley Thorne, who were joined by acclaimed architectural photographer Julius Shulman--Sunday was a rare and timely reunion. (A sixth Case Study architect, Ralph Rapson, was supposed to attend the event but had to drop out after breaking his leg, said Smith, who also attended Sunday’s gathering.)


Now all in their 70s and 80s, the architects assembled just a few weeks after a landmark Modernist home designed by the late Richard Neutra, in Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs, was torn down. Although the Maslon House, built in 1963, was not a Case Study house, it embodied many of the program’s most sacrosanct principles: simplicity, elegance, environmental sensitivity and the innovative use of modern building materials. Neutra was among several other architects in the program, a group that included Charles Eames, Craig Ellwood, A. Quincy Jones and Raphael Soriano.

The loss of the Maslon House was repeatedly referred to on Sunday, and Shulman included it in a brief slide-show presentation. Though the structure had been “viciously and vulgarly” destroyed, Shulman expressed hope that its loss might inspire more awareness of the Modernist architectural heritage that still remains. “The only way we can preserve is to create something wonderful out of a disaster, and I think we can. It’s never too late,” he said during an hour-long panel presentation, the afternoon’s centerpiece.

The discussion, a harmonious mix of warm reminiscence and confident predictions about the Case Study program’s enduring significance, was moderated by Smith, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. As a former MOCA curator, Smith helped spark the current resurgence of interest in the Case Study project by curating MOCA’s 1989 exhibition “Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses.” Despite the intervening decades, the men’s enthusiasm and pride in their historic labors was undiminished.

“The effect of the program is worldwide, as well as locally,” said Koenig, who continues to work in Los Angeles and has taught at USC since 1964. When he began his practice, Koenig told the audience of about 175 people, “houses had to have shutters and they had to have shingles and they had to have a picket fence. They don’t do it anymore, and the reason is a lot of dedicated people.”

Koenig credited his colleague, Killingsworth, with supporting his work and Shulman with popularizing it through his photography. In particular, one of Shulman’s pictures of Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22 (1959-60) has become a defining L.A. image, a still from a virtual movie that invites viewers to project their own desires. Shot at night, it depicts two well-dressed women sitting and talking in the cantilevered home’s living room, with endless rows of city lights visible below the promontory and through a glass wall. A serene vision of modern urban sophistication, it captures the glamorous ease of upper-middle-class life: You can practically hear the cocktail glasses clinking and the bossa nova tunes wafting from the hi-fi.

Killingsworth also gave thanks to the Case Study program and Entenza. Noting that much of his firm’s subsequent work was in hotel design, Killingsworth said, the program “certainly changed everything for our firm.” He also praised Taschen’s book, which is chockablock with sketches, renderings and other documentation, along with text reproduced from Arts & Architecture. “I told one of the Taschen people the only thing they did wrong is, they should’ve had a little boy go along with it to carry it,” Killingsworth said, alluding to the book’s Gutenbergian proportions.


In the book’s introduction, Smith emphasizes the individuality of each of the Case Study houses, despite the program’s stated mandate of creating prototypes. Several panelists concurred that their designs were driven, not by a manifesto, but by particular design problems. Koenig, for example, said two homes he designed for the project, Case Study No. 21 and 22, were tailored for two entirely different clients, lots and programs, though both featured exposed steel and glass.

But Koenig asserted the program also was “a social movement” that helped challenge and remove long-standing restrictive housing covenants based on racial and religious prejudices.

Knorr said he “never turned down a job,” because he always wanted to solve the specific set of architectural challenges that the prospective client had presented him. “Some clients are a real pain in the butt and give you projects you really shouldn’t do,” he said. “But I did.”

Speaking after the panel presentation, Thorne said that at the time of the Case Study program “there were only a couple of nuts in the Bay Area doing steel-frame houses. I wasn’t on a mission; I just solved problems on a hillside and ended up with these guys.” Meeting the other architects, Thorne said, was “a little spooky” because he felt like “an interloper.” “Some of this is as awe-inspiring to me as they are to the audience,” he said.

Several of the architects expressed concern about the fate of the remaining Case Study homes. Hensman noted there had been a listing in Sunday’s edition of The Times that Case Study House No. 20, a three-bedroom home in Altadena, designed by his firm of Buff, Straub & Hensman, has been put on the market at $575,000. He expressed the hope that it could be restored and saved. Others seconded the need for more preservation and enlightened patronage. “If there’s anyone in the audience tonight who wants to contribute a million dollars, there’s going to be a lady upstairs,” Shulman joked at one point.

There was little need to persuade audience members, many of whom bought copies of Taschen’s book and waited patiently in line for half an hour to get them signed. “For many of us who knew them when they were doing this work, it’s a great, great experience,” said Randell Makinson, a Pasadena architect and expert on the turn-of-the-century Arts & Crafts movement master builders Charles and Henry Greene. Amy Hoffecker, an Echo Park photographer and artist, said it is important for Angelenos to learn about and value their architectural inheritance. “You’ve got to get the word out,” she said.