AN L.A. STORY

The great architects of the greatest cities capture the essential nature of their home, whether that's Bernini with his fountains and churches in Rome, Christopher Wren with St. Paul's Cathedral in London or the sensual modernism of Oscar Niemeyer in Rio de Janeiro. In the long roster of great Los Angeles architects, John Lautner stands out more than any other as the mirror of this city.

Lautner, who died in 1994, would have marked his 100th birthday this month, and a slate of events is celebrating his legacy. He was the architect of houses and commercial buildings as emblematic of L.A. as the circular Chemosphere house, hovering on its concrete stem above Mulholland Drive. As the author of a book on Lautner, I'm partial to his work, but I'm not the first to admire his astonishingly complex and original architecture, and his unmatched design of light and space. His mastery of concrete architecture is as great as Mies van der Rohe's mastery of steel and glass.

For the 56 years he lived here, Lautner had a complex relationship with the city. Los Angeles -- the ideal of Los Angeles -- was one of his muses. Lautner was no naive admirer of his adopted city, though.

"When I first drove down Santa Monica Boulevard," he said of his arrival in 1938, "it was so ugly I was physically sick for the first year I was here."

For the city's part in this thorny relationship, it threw stifling bureaucrats and crass commercial clients in Lautner's path -- and never gave him the major public commissions he craved.

But Lautner's ire really stemmed from frustration over the city's missed opportunities to live up to what it could be, not revulsion for its basic nature. He spent his career trying to show Los Angeles how to be true to itself as a Modern city.

You still can't spell Lautner without L.A.

His birthday is a good time to come to terms with our Lautner legacy. He still has a lot to show us about who we are. The city and the architect shared the same creatively rebellious soul. Both have the courage to be unorthodox and defy conformity, and both have suffered for it: Critics still skewer Lautner and L.A. alike as undisciplined and self-indulgent.

Lautner never won the Oscar of the architecture world, the Pritz- ker Prize. That says much more about the shortcomings of that award than about Lautner's talents. Experts rarely knew what to make of him -- or Los Angeles. Neither could be defined in conventional terms.

Today, L.A.'s attitude toward Lautner is mixed. In some ways, he is praised more than at any time in his career. Real estate agents regularly boost the work of lesser architects as "Lautner-inspired." His houses still star in movies. Nearly four decades after the spectacular Elrod house in Palm Springs was in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971), the elegant Schaffer house of Glendale was home to the title character in "A Single Man" (2009).

Even movies reveal an ambivalent undercurrent about Lautner: They often cast his homes as villains' lairs.

In "Body Double" (1984), the extraordinary 1961 Chemosphere house is the hangout of an actor skidding to the sleazy side of life. In reality, it was exactly the opposite -- the family home of an aerospace engineer, his wife and three children.

What are we implying? Only morally corrupt people would want to live in such unconventional houses? Or in such an unconventional city?

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Crossroads of cultures

The truth is that Lautner's actual clients were a cross section of Southern California in the midcentury boom years: teachers, musicians, grocers, doctors, philanthropists.

Underlying this ambivalence about what Lautner's architecture signifies is our lack of self-confidence. We love living here, but we often hesitate to defend it.

Those of us who live here must realize that Los Angeles has never been conventional. It's not urbanist Jane Jacobs' Greenwich Village, which many critics favor. No, the ideal concept of Los Angeles is Broadacre City, the daring urban model of a suburban metropolis designed by Lautner's mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, in the 1930s. It was a city with widely spaced high-rises (think Mid-Wilshire, Century City, Universal City) connected by low-rise districts where people live close to the ground and close to trees and gardens. Lautner understood this.

Critics judging Los Angeles by the Greenwich Village standard found much to criticize.

Through that lens, Lautner's houses are escapist fantasies for the ultra-wealthy. In the second half of his career, he became known for a series of opulent houses that seemed unfettered by budget constraints. Several, such as the 1968 Elrod house, are constructed of concrete and seem to be built for the ages. They also had push-button ease: At the Elrod house, the floor-to-ceiling curving glass wall slides away entirely, opening the room to the outdoors at the touch of a finger. The undulating roof of the luxurious 1975 Beyer house on a rocky Malibu point takes the shape of the waves crashing around it, and the living room floor looks like a sandy beach embedded with boulders.

Some Lautner houses seemed to be soap opera fodder: Silvertop, perched above Silver Lake, became a quixotic story as its construction stretched on from 1956 and 1974 -- and finally helped to bankrupt its owner. When the second owner finally finished the house, features such as the 3,000-square-foot living room, the electrically operable skylights in the master bedroom, the push-button glass wall and the cantilevered driveway up the hill added to its renown.

Bob and Dolores Hope's house, completed in 1980 in Palm Springs, was also delayed when a construction fire destroyed its enormous roof, shaped like a turtle shell. The glamorous 1979 Segel house in Malibu was recently back in the news as part of the spoils in Jamie and Frank McCourt's divorce.

The quirky publicity didn't have much to do with Lautner's architecture, but it magnified the perception that he specialized in fabulous sanctuaries for the rich, isolated from the problems of ordinary life.

And yet even Lautner's sumptuous hillside homes do embrace the city. Typical is the 1963 Sheats-Goldstein house, a Beverly Hills design that is one of his best known and has appeared in movies, music videos and commercials. It's an angular, sheltering cave of concrete, dappled with sunlight and nestled in a lush landscaped Eden. It also frames a glimmering panorama of Century City through its enormous glass wall. The beauty of the sprawling skyline becomes part of the architecture, and part of daily life for its inhabitants -- by design.

But Lautner also used the same skills in more modest houses to connect residents with nature and the city. Lautner particularly enjoyed the challenge of designing a house for Peter and Ann Tolstoy in 1961. They had modest teachers' salaries but wanted good architecture, and they were willing to build it themselves. Their taut cable and sprayed foam roof is as daring as anything Lautner ever built.

The 1949 Schaffer house in "A Single Man" is Lautner's version of the suburban ranch house. The 1969 Walstrom house used standard wood framing instead of concrete, and yet its spaces are as adventurous as those of the Sheats-Goldstein house. For the unpretentious 1946 Mauer house, Lautner developed a prefabricated plywood column and beam hybrid to speed construction, lower costs and provide the Mauers with the feeling of living in a garden.

The list goes on: Though it's on fashionable Balboa Island, the 1980 Rawlins house is a compact row house squeezed between its neighbors on a 30-foot lot. Lautner also designed rentals, including the 1949 Sheats apartments in Westwood.

These buildings undermine the myth of Lautner as an extravagant architect dependent on lavish budgets. He could accomplish the same innovative architecture on a shoestring. He used the same imagination for his public buildings too.

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Modern in spirit

No building better reveals Lautner's innovative urban rethinking -- and the perils of being innovative -- than Googie's, his influential 1949 restaurant at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards, now gone 20 years.

Here was a building that brought a small piece of Broadacre City to life. Thoroughly Modern in spirit, it was a jazz riff on nature, urbanism, automobility and new lifestyles.

For a small building, it commanded motorists' attention as a landmark at the start of the busy Sunset Strip. Lautner lined its jazzily tilted roof with corrugated steel decking painted red, a material as outrageous (and effective) as Frank Gehry's use of chain link fencing at his Santa Monica house 30 years later. At the street, Lautner's roof shot up into the air to frame a view of the Hollywood Hills for the customers inside.

Lautner railed against Los Angeles' bad commercial architecture, but here he gave this small, everyday coffee shop all the effort he would have given a concert hall -- if he'd ever been given the opportunity. He believed that the ordinary places where people shop, eat, play or work in this suburban metropolis could inspire design as excellent as buildings for the great and the powerful.

So hip, so right was Googie's that it attracted some serious admirers: fellow architect Rudolph Schindler, critic and historian Esther McCoy and actor James Dean, who made it his hangout. It was that cool.

But as usual, Lautner's daring leap beyond convention caused him problems. Many uncomprehending critics glommed onto this unconventional car-oriented design and turned the very name "Googie" into a definition for cheaply built commercial architecture. Lautner smarted over this for the rest of his career.

"Thorny with ideas" is how McCoy described Lautner's architecture. Few interpreted the fundamental if thorny urban truths of L.A. better. Living in a city shaped by these ideas, we should look at his architecture again and again to see ourselves more clearly.

Lautner wrestled with L.A. his entire career. It wasn't easy, but the struggle resulted in great buildings that give us insight into our city. Like Lautner, Los Angeles shouldn't need to look over its shoulder to know when we're doing it right.

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An article and photo gallery on John Lautner's Chemosphere have been added to our Landmark Houses library online, latimes.com/landmarkhouses. Comments: home@latimes.com

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Lautner centennial celebration

The John Lautner Foundation and the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House report that their Lautner home tour on Saturday has sold out. But some other events remain, celebrating what would have been the architect's 100th birthday this month:

* Exhibition. The Art Catalogues Bookstore at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art displays an archival model and photographs of Lautner's Goldstein office through Sunday. Free. 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. www.lacma.org.

* Films. Three documentary films explore Lautner's work. The short "John Lautner: The Desert Hot Springs Motel" (2007) will be screened with the features "The Spirit in Architecture: John Lautner" (1991) and "Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner" (2008). 7 to 10:30 p.m. July 30. $7 to $11. American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. www.american cinematheque.com .

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