Endless View


Architect Pierre Koenig answers the door of the West L.A. home he built in 1985 for himself and his wife, Gloria. At 77, he seems younger, his curly gray hair and sparkling blue eyes accented by the blue open-collar shirt and black Nike jacket he’s wearing. Clearly, he is pleased to give a tour of this home, built with his trademark steel-and-glass materials; its open plan, with a 30-foot atrium, is flooded with soft light. A pair of sea-green sofas flank a coffee table topped with copies of the new book published by Taschen on the Case Study Houses, the 1950s and ‘60s architectural experiment that made Koenig’s name, as well as a copy of “Iconic L.A.: Stories of L.A.’s Most Memorable Buildings” (Balcony Press), written by his wife.

All is spare and refined here because the architect knows that the secret to a clean modern lifestyle is adequate storage. His 6,000 record albums and stereo equipment are hidden behind a mirrored wall partition.

As Koenig walks a visitor through the 3,000-square-foot house, he points out that its dimensions were predetermined by the prefabricated steel he uses. “It’s like a giant erector set,” he says. “The frame of the house was put up in one day. I use the same technology as I did in 1950; it’s an industrial approach.” Glancing through a window at the overcast sky, he adds, “It’s a dismal day, but the house is designed to get sun in the morning, and not the rest of the day, so it stays naturally cool.” With pride, he notes, “There is no air-conditioning in any of my buildings.”


It is a good time for such retrospection; an exhibition of Koenig’s eight drawings and two models for his two most famous houses, Case Study Houses No. 21 and No. 22, are on view at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica, along with photographs of the houses by architectural photographer Julius Shulman. Though the pictures capture the sybaritic lifestyle possible in such elegant steel-and-glass houses, Koenig’s drawings document the intellectual rigor and formal purity of his buildings.

In his office filled with drawing tables, computers and books, Koenig, who is still a practicing architect, picks up a framed ink drawing of his 1963 Iwata house in Monterey Park to make a point about his drawing style. “This is a lost art,” he says. “Nobody is doing this anymore.

“The computer has been a boon. It’s so efficient,” he says. “Creativity is something else again. I still use pencil and paper to draw.”

Drawing is what brought Koenig to architecture in the first place. At Alhambra High School, he did cut-away drawings of airplanes in an aeronautical drafting class. After serving in World War II, he returned to San Gabriel to stay with his parents. At the local library, he read the avant-garde bible of that time, Art and Architecture magazine, which was founded by John Entenza and was the sponsor of the Case Study program, founded in 1945, that enabled adventurous Modernist architects such as Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames to construct innovative low-cost houses using industrial materials. In the magazine, Koenig spotted drawings by architect Paul Rudolph.

“They appealed to me a lot. Instead of the usual washes, these were pen and ink,” he remembers. Seeing a similarity to his drawing style, he decided to study architecture and industrial design at USC. In 1950, while still a student, the ambitious Koenig built his first house and sent the drawings to Entenza, who published them. After his graduation two years later, Entenza asked him to be a part of the Case Study program.

After Koenig built his steel and glass Case Study House No. 21 in 1959, and No. 22 in 1960, Shulman’s photographs of the finished homes and Koenig’s drawings for them were published in Art and Architecture. They attracted attention to the young architect and brought him clients. In fact, Case Study House No. 22, which stands cantilevered on a hillside overlooking the lights of Los Angeles, has become one of the most published images in the world.

Looking at his drawing for the Iwata house, a geometric assembly of roof lines and glass walls rendered in three-dimensional perspective for clients Dr. Richard Iwata and his wife, he points to shadows he rendered exactly as if they were cast at 3 p.m. on a day in June. “It helps me and the client to understand where the sun is going to prevail in the building,” he explains. “That’s why my buildings, even with all that glass, don’t have sun penetration in the summer.”

Koenig says he believes most architects do not practice this laborious technique of documenting the flow of light. “People don’t do what I do because it takes too much time. For me, it’s a personal thing, and I like to do it. It’s how I get my pleasure out of life.”

In addition to having designed 50 houses, 42 of which were built, and three commercial buildings, Koenig is director of the undergraduate Building Science program at the USC School of Architecture, where he is also distinguished professor. He recently conceived a course on the Modern architecture of Southern California. “The students often have the impression that there was no culture here, when in fact it was the most creative explosion of Modern architecture anywhere!” he says. “When I started preparing the course, I was astounded. I started counting the names of architects doing good Modern work here who got published, and I got over 100. No other area of the world can match that.”

Much of the reason for such creativity is due to the topography of the region. He says that in 1950s and 1960s, “hillside land was inexpensive. You paid less for the land, so you could spend more on the design. The first thing you had to have was an architect and an engineer. In the hills, you had to have expertise, so the houses tend to be unusual and better designed than in the flatlands.” Koenig’s current home, on a flat, residential street, proves the exception to his rule. He built his first house, for himself, in 1950, on a hillside in Glendale.

Koenig is clearly devoted to the Modernist aesthetic. “I think Modern implies that some thought is going on. Modern is a way of life, not a style,” he says, adding that the Modernist mandate was to build better houses for less money. “When I started, the rule of thumb was that you spent one-tenth of the cost of the house for the land. I now have one job where the lot cost more than the house!” Case Study House No. 21, built for $20,000, recently sold for $1,675,000.

For Koenig, however, drawing remains the propeller of his invention. With commissions for several houses in the works, he still draws his designs with a pencil on paper. Later, he brings in the computer. “You should design in your head. Otherwise, the building will be static,” he says.

“The computer can’t take the place of a brain. Yet.”

Pierre Koenig: Case Study Houses No. 21 and No. 22 through June 29 at Craig Krull Gallery, B3, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 828-6410.