Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, "Turn the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles." While Southern California is properly maligned for its endless streams of mini malls and tract housing, the region has produced some of the world's most spectacular and iconic architecture. Progressive attitudes, spacious landscapes, and temperate climate have provided architects with a playground to experiment with materials, style and technology. Los Angeles has been a long-standing incubator of residential modernism, with transformative contributions from such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and the Eames. I'm exploring the evolution of SoCal residential architecture in Inhabitat's new California Modern Home Tour series. As a long time CA resident and humble admirer of great design, I'll be touring some of the region's "masterworks", digging into the roots of architectural innovation and influence. My first stop? John Lautner's unique and inspiring Elrod House in Palm Springs.
When interior designer Arthur Elrod first approached the architect John Lautner about building a new home on two recently purchased lots, Lautner answered that he would take on the task if, and only if, Elrod would let him excavate the site down by eight feet. Lautner‘s unexpected response set the stage for a totally unique and organic design for the Elrod House.
When the site was excavated, the bedrock which now punctuates the home was revealed. Rather than tearing away or leveling the natural rock formations, the architect integrated the rocks making them the primary feature of the home. Unlike other modern architects of his time, Lautner was bored by the rectilinear configurations of his peers, in this case incorporating two circles into the plan which would define the form and the circulation of the home. The design gives the Elrod House a unique “Jetsons-meet-the Flintstones” aesthetic, which, while rooted in the 1960’s, feels very modern– even by today’s architectural standards.
While the UFO-esque shape of Lautner‘s Palm Springs masterpiece is indisputably the first thing to catch the eye, the design of the Elrod House is full of surprises and hidden innovative details which can only be appreciated by looking beyond the grand gestures of the concrete dome and boulders.
The living room pavilion of the Elrod Home was originally enclosed in glass, but desert storm winds blew out the glass-pane walls in 1971. Lautner said he knew the blowout was a possibility, but he decided to take the risk. After the windstorm shattered the glass, the pavilion was left as a completely open space. The owner liked the effect so much that instead of replacing the panes, he asked Lautner to open the pavilion by designing retractable glass doors. There are now two mechanized 25-foot doors fabricated by an aircraft manufacturer.
Like a hovering space-craft, the roof’s 60-foot concrete dome appears to “float” on a few small vertical steel columns, connected by clerestory windows positioned just above eye level. Lautner said he made a clay model of the house in the design process and thought of the roof as petals in a desert flower.
To authentically connect to the desert setting, Lautner decided to dig the house into the hill and build around excavated boulders. Lautner was experienced in desert building from his work with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin, and the idea to unearth the site came to him as he studied the already graded lot. In 1958 he convinced his client to spend an extra $15,000 to $20,000 to excavate and he then reworked the plans to incorporate the boulders throughout the home.
Fred Flintstone, meet George Jetson. This boulder outcrop, which serves as a wall in the master bedroom, juxtaposes with the LCD screen.
Geologists had the boulders reinforced by drilling and bolting them together with 20–30-foot rods. “They used to drill (like this) for dynamite,” Lautner said. There are no visible signs of drilling, bolting or dynamiting.
Lautner poses the additional challenge of connecting the boulders to walls of glass. Note that the glass panes are only connected by a thin line of adhesive, most dramatically displayed in the corners to create a seamless blending with the outside.
The boulder-glass interplay is intricate and the type of detail worked carried out by Lautner and craftsmen in the field during construction.
The site’s original boulders appear throughout the house. Here they poke through the glass in the master bathroom.
In the guest house, Lautner’s faceted glass again connects only with adhesives, creating rounded glass shapes without distortion.
Camouflaged stairs add to the space’s organic and serene atmosphere. Above, Lautner stacks boulders to connect the main pavilion to the pool. The velvet rope discourages tourists from taking on the slightly tricky descent.
Like his beloved mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lautner uses low ceilings for dramatic forced perspectives and big reveals. Above, a 6-foot-5-inch portal connects the board-formed concrete work of the master bedroom to the soaring pavilion. The pavilion’s 25-foot glass doors are monumentally weighty, countered balanced and motorized.
Lautner’s work appears in many Hollywood Films and the Elrod house is used as a primary set in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. In the film, Bambi and Thumper attack Bond (Sean Connery) with impressive acrobats in the pavilion, before throwing him into the pool.
“Lautner’s fascination with new shapes and structures had nothing to do with Space Age futurism, or movieland glamour, or virtuoso engineering, but came from his determination to humanize the spaces of the built world and create an endlessly varied organic poetry. This was a profoundly serious agenda,” says Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum, in a foreword to the book on Lautner that accompanied a retrospective exhibition of his work.
Bob Brisco is an internet media pioneer and the Chief Executive Officer of Internet Brands, a highly successful Internet media company, attracting more than 110 million unique visitors per month. Prior to Internet Brands, Bob held the positions of president of Universal Studios Hollywood and CityWalk, and senior vice president at The Los Angeles Times where he oversaw all of The Times’ new media operations and directed the launch of LATimes.com. In 2012, Bob received an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Greater Los Angeles Award from Ernst & Young. He is a long-time CA resident and humble admirer of great architecture.