Pierre Koenig, 78; Architect's Designs Personify Modernism

Times Staff Writer

Pierre Koenig, whose sleek glass-and-steel houses became emblems of the progressive values of Postwar suburbia, died Sunday of leukemia at his home in Brentwood. He was 78.

As part of a group of architects that also included Charles and Ray Eames, Raphael Soriano and Craig Ellwood, Koenig was a key figure in a generation that helped make Los Angeles one of the great laboratories of 20th century architecture. Of these visionaries, Koenig seemed best able to capture the hopes and anxieties of California's booming middle class.

His reputation in large part rests on the creation of two houses -- Case Study House #21 and #22 -- that were completed in 1959 and 1960 as part of an ambitious program that sought to introduce the values of Modernist architecture to suburbia. Clean abstract compositions, with a powerful relationship to their natural context, they exist as enduring emblems to Cold War America's faith in technological progress and its transformative powers.

"Until the end of his life he remained an ardent believer in industrial materials and prefabricated systems -- the idea that life could be improved through architecture," said Elizabeth Smith, who curated the 1989 Case Study show, "Blueprints for Modern Living" at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.

The son of a salesman, Koenig was born in San Francisco. He often recalled taking walks along the city's industrial waterfront, where he became fascinated with the massive steel cranes and merchant ships that were potent symbols of American industrial prowess.

The family moved to Southern California in 1939. After returning from a four-year tour in the Army during World War II, Koenig enrolled at USC's school of architecture.

By then, architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra had already built a number of major architectural works that sought to adapt the Modernist aesthetic to Southern California. These architects were drawn by the city's vast open tracts of land, its distance from the often oppressive conventions of traditional cities. They helped create a climate of architectural experimentation that was unrivaled anywhere else in the U.S. at that time.

Koenig -- a precocious talent -- fit neatly into this tradition. His first house was completed in 1950, while he was still a student at USC, and is an expression of many of the themes that would concern him throughout his career. Built at a modest cost of $5,000, the house was a model of industrial efficiency. Its L-shaped form was supported on slender steel columns and capped by a corrugated metal roof. Sliding doors opened onto a small private garden. Inside, more sliding partitions separated living and sleeping areas.

Other projects, such as the 1953 Lamel House in Glendale and the 1957 Burwash House in Tujunga, signaled Koenig's early mastery of composition and form. Mostly designed of affordable Industrial Age materials, they were a reflection of Le Corbusier's famous dictum that houses were "machines for living." The difference was Koenig's ability to root such ideas in the particular ethos of suburban L.A., with its trim lawns and whirring appliances. In Koenig's mind, the ideal house would one day be mass-produced "just like a car."

The breakthrough came a few years later, when Arts & Architecture editor John Entenza tapped the emerging architect for his Case Study House program. Nestled within its canyon site in the Hollywood Hills, Case Study House #21 was conceived as an idealized blend of natural and man-made landscapes. In an effort to dissolve the boundaries between inside and out, Koenig surrounded the house's simple geometric form with a series of reflecting pools. Large windows and skylights flooded the interior with natural light. The house's steel frame, meanwhile, gave it a striking ephemeral beauty. In essence, the entire structure was nothing more than a conceptual frame -- one that defined an almost utopian relationship between man and nature.

By comparison, Case Study House #22, completed two years later, was high drama -- one in which the entire city becomes part of the architect's composition. Approached along a winding street set high in the Hollywood Hills, the house first appears as a blank concrete screen. From here, the visitor steps out onto a concrete deck that overlooks a swimming pool. Just beyond it, the house's living room -- enclosed in a glass-and steel-frame -- cantilevers out from the edge of the hill toward the horizon.

The house was immortalized in a now famous image taken by the architectural photographer Julius Shulman. In it, two women, clad in immaculate white cocktail dresses, are perched on the edge of their seats in the glass-enclosed living room, their pose suggesting a kind of sanitized suburban bliss. A night view of the city spreads out beneath them, an endless grid of twinkling lights that perfectly captures the infinite hopes of the postwar American dream.

The image helped establish Koenig as the poster boy of the Case Study program. But it also served to cloud its importance as a work of architecture. Set on axis with L.A.'s urban grid, the house evokes a fragment of the suburban landscape that has been somehow dislodged and is floating free in space. The bedrooms are nestled close to the street at the back of the space, setting up a delicious tension between security and freedom. Only the shimmering surface of the water, reflected on the vast expanses of glass, evokes the deeper psychological realities that may or may not lurk beneath the house's highly polished surfaces.

Perhaps no house, in fact, better sums up the mix of outward confidence and psychic unease that defined Cold War America. The design suggests a culture charging toward an unknown future. At the same time, its structural bravado reminds us of the social instability that this leap implied.

"I think the slickness of the Shulman image makes people forget that these were really experiments," said Sylvia Lavin, chair of UCLA's department of architecture and urban design. "It is important to remember the risks they took. They were really trying to create a way of life that they believed in. It was really a calling. With Koenig, part of the evidence is that he stayed the course, even when it was no longer fashionable."

Koenig, in fact, went on to complete a number of important, mostly residential commissions during the 1960s. Among the most unusual was the 1963 Iwata House in Monterey Park, conceived as a series of stacked, rectangular forms whose louvered facades open onto stunning mountain views.

But by the end of the decade, the architect's stripped down Modernist aesthetic had largely fallen out of favor with an architectural establishment that no longer believed in Modernism's social promise. What is more, the architectural values he championed relegated him to the fringes of a profession that was increasingly caught up with mimicking older, historic precedents. As such, most of Koenig's time in his later years was spent teaching, first running a design studio at USC, then as director of the school's Natural Forces Laboratory, whose aim is to raise awareness of structural and environmental issues in the profession.

The "Blueprints for Modern Living" show brought renewed focus on the Case Study program, and Koenig's work enjoyed a sudden revival. The show included a full-sized replica of his famous Case Study House #22. And since then, the clean lines and sensual undertones of such late Modernist works have made them sought after status items among the city's cultural and fashion elites.

Koenig is survived by his wife, Gloria; sons, Randall and Jean Pierre; and two stepsons, Barry and Thomas Kaufman.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. April 17 in the courtyard of USC's school of architecture.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°