ARCHITECT John Lautner was out there. He learned at the elbow of Frank Lloyd Wright that boxy buildings were only good for jails and animal pens, so he created living room walls that swung open to become outside decks and houses in the shape of spaceships, with head-spinning views.
Lautner captured international attention in 1949 by making steel take flight off the roof of a Googie’s coffee shop, and later by building arching houses that were so futuristic that client Bob Hope quipped, “Well, at least when they come down from Mars they’ll know where to go.”
This rebel, this engineering genius, this man who hated city life and was given outstretched spaces in which to anchor his swooping creations, was an odd choice to dream up a home on a slender sand lot on Newport Beach’s Balboa Island, one of the most dense communities in California.
It’s “the most urban of Lautner’s houses,” according to Alan Hess, author of “The Architecture of John Lautner” (Rizzoli, $30), which was reprinted this year. Squeezed between two predictable-looking beach homes, Lautner’s house stops passersby in their tracks. And because it’s in a tourist spot, the exterior of this private residence is seen by more people streaming by on the sidewalk than any of his others, even those occasionally open to public tours.
Lautner’s approach to building the dome-shaped two-story was to walk around its 35-by-80-foot lot, which had nothing on it except a volleyball net. He sniffed the air, took in the views and the features of the landscape, then listened to his clients’ wish list. The owners had moved from their Joseph Eichler-developed house in Palo Alto, Calif., and wanted another modern home that they could manage without a lot of fuss. They also asked for a place where entertaining could extend outdoors and one that framed the bay view and drew in sunlight.
“It’s an orchestration of light,” says Warren Lawson of Calabasas, who worked with Lautner and served as the project architect until it was completed in 1980. “The fun thing about what we do is there are so many ways to bring light into a house.”
Even in its compact domain, the house seems larger than 2,100 square feet because it holds more light than a supernova. The narrower second floor is suspended on steel beams and, because it stops about a yard short of reaching the outside walls, sunlight from well-positioned skylights shoots from the roof through to the ground level’s ceramic tile floor. There are no interior walls downstairs to stop beams from illuminating every inch of the expansive living room-dining room-kitchen, only a shoulder-high cabinet that stores pots and pans.
One effect is like something out of “Star Wars”: The 30-foot-wide facade opens completely, dematerializing the line between inside and out. On the ground floor, nine glass panels, sealed together without wood or aluminum framing, recede into a sidewall with a flick of a switch.
“It was easier to do in concept than reality,” recalls Lawson. “It still amazes me that we made it work. The front is the poetry of the whole space, the way the materials work together on a very small lot.”
Lawson says Lautner, who died in 1994 after a 60-year career, experimented in dramatic ways. In Lautner’s world, buildings melded into nature. He grew up among pine trees in Michigan and joined Charles Eames, R.M. Schindler and other California Modern architects in blowing walls away to make rooms become part of the surrounding terrain. People, he said, “want a little shelter,” but they also “want to be free.”
That’s the kind of thinking that helped him come up with the octagonal Chemosphere, which he completed in 1961. Like a glass treehouse, it pokes out of the Hollywood Hills on a concrete pillar, dislodged from its steeply sloping site.
On the Balboa Island site, Lautner had to build a home that could withstand whipping salt air, shifting sandy soil and airplane noise. He achieved solidity and privacy with a mix of formed concrete walls, exposed steel supports, Douglas fir ceilings and a copper balcony and roof.
The combination creates a sophisticated modern home that delivers a jolt in its contrast with the expected beach motifs of the island’s 1,400 homes, lined up shoulder to shoulder. Strolling amateur architecture critics evaluate as they go: applauding or panning rare wood-sided bungalows from the beginning of the last century, new Mediterraneans, marine-blue Cape Cods, storybook-style cottages and the few Moderns. But none of the multimillion-dollar homes stirs up as much response as the Lautner.
Neighbors scratched their heads as the home was going up in 1979. They couldn’t understand the mouth-like gap between the copper pieces that cap the rounded roofline and balcony. Someone said it recalled the great white shark in the movie “Jaws.” A few days before Halloween that year, one of the workers in the building crew cut ragged teeth from plywood and filled in the “mouth.” When the owners saw the prank, they made him take it down, but it was too late: The nickname stuck.
“No one paid much attention to the house until it was halfway built,” says Balboa Island resident Jim Jennings. “Then they laid the floor, and the concrete walls went up, and everyone became interested. When the ‘Jaws’ part took shape, everyone stopped to gawk, as they still do.”
Lautner admitted he owed some of his success to having “rugged individuals as clients.... Out of 10 million people in this area, I find maybe five or six a year with some independent thinking and concern for architecture.”
He defined his design goals this way in Progressive Architecture magazine a year before he died: “It has to be something that improves human life, with some spirit, some feeling, some real ideas contributing to human welfare: joyful; with light, air, free spaces; things that are alive, that are art.”
The Balboa Island house hasn’t changed in 23 years, and most of the furnishings are original. A leather sectional sofa forms a crescent across the floor. Chess sets rest on a Joe Colombo-style acrylic coffee table and several side tables. An Arne Jacobsen orange fiberglass Swan chair is tucked under a drop-front desk that is part of the built-in bookshelves. A long, Navajo-inspired rug hangs from the narrower second floor into the first floor, rustling when the wind catches it.
The decor’s brown, orange, red and tan palette relaxes the look of the concrete and glass’ T-square edges.
There is another surprising texture: The sinks in the three bathrooms are carved out of oak, a suggestion made by contractor Duncan Stewart, who was also a boat builder and woodworker. Thick coats of varnish have protected the basins and counters from scratches. “It’s not ornamental,” says Lawson, “but an accent that gives the space a rich domestic feeling, a human touch.”
Despite their initial hesitation, longtime island residents have become more accepting of Lautner’s legacy. “It is kind of easy maintenance inside and outside,” says Jennings. “The house is not overdone with furniture and pictures. It’s beautiful but simple.”
The Balboa Island home is a private residence that is not open to the public. However on Tuesday, other John Lautner-designed houses, including the Sheats-Goldstein home in Beverly Hills and Chemosphere in the Hollywood Hills, will be part of a tour led by architects. For more information, contact the John Lautner Foundation at (323) 644-1534 or www.johnlautner.org.