Pierre Koenig and Frank Gehry were born only four years apart yet the two houses featured here represent two poles of modernism. In their own way, each defines a very particular moment in architecture, both cool, both laconic, both quintessentially West Coast. One is a clean, crystal-clear villa, the other is a tough, gritty street hood. And both remain hugely influential.
Koenig (1925-2004) made his name with a couple of houses designed for the Case Study Houses programme set in motion by John Entenza, the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, in an attempt to inject a shot of modernism into US housing types in the immediate postwar period. His first design was an impeccable black steel and glass Bel Air villa (much influenced by the Germanic perfectionism of Mies van der Rohe), but the second (Case Study House number 22, otherwise known as the Stahl House) was the real groundbreaker.
Precariously cantilevered over a steep edge in the Hollywood Hills, with glass walls and a pool with a dramatic view, the house captured an image of glossy life in Los Angeles, a more effective piece of cold war propaganda than CIA-supported abstract expressionism or literature. In fact, this is a house that, perhaps more than any other, was defined by a single photo as the epitome of cool LA life, a poolside existence of continuous cocktail hour, a twilit snapshot capturing a combination of party dresses and bikinis, in which the interior melted into the terrace and the terrace melted into the pool. The glass walls and the shimmering surface of the water sparkled in the California sun.
That photo was one of a series by Julius Shulman (1910-2009), the greatest and smoothest snapper of the emerging Los Angeles modernism. The photos are windows on to a world of free-flowing space, fashion and leisure. That most famous of photos shows the glass box suspended over the illuminated grid of LA below, the streets lit up like geometric constellations. Inside the glass fishtank is a glimpse into a life of party dresses and chic chairs, of slim ladies and slender-legged furniture. There are no walls here, just floor-to-ceiling glass. Unlike much of the other suburban LA architecture of the era – which could just as easily have been in Palm Springs or Connecticut, this was a house that acknowledged the city below. It is a house that revels not in isolation but in its bird’s eye view of the city; the photo must surely have influenced David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), in which the city is seen from a hillside, twinkling and sinister.
The deep eaves of the overshooting flat roof, though, hint at the persistent warm sunshine they shelter the interior against during the day. The impossibly slim beam holds it up with no effort at all. Even the lights, opalescent glass globes, appear to float in the space like mini-suns. A glimpse of a sunlounger at the bottom of the picture leaves more clues as to the house’s daytime life of luxury. There isn’t that much more to the house. It is as if it were all set up for that one Shulman shot. The plan is a simple L holding the pool in its elbow. The bedroom and bathroom are less glassy, less chic and less photographed. But that lounge is plenty, everything that was needed to express a lifestyle.
A few miles away in Santa Monica is another archetypally Los Angeles house that seems to have nothing at all in common with the pristine clarity of Koenig’s house. Instead of glass walls, a pool and barely-there beams, this one is defined by chicken wire and corrugated steel, by cheap plywood and rough-cut timber. It looks like a crack house barricaded against a gang war. But this isn’t South Central, it’s a few miles from Venice Beach.
The extraordinary house was built by Frank Gehry for himself. It is hard to remember that Gehry, now aged 84, was once a cult figure. He made his name with exactly this kind of junk aesthetic. The purity of glass houses such as Koenig’s had lost its lustre by the 1970s as corporate behemoths adopted, adapted and finally bludgeoned to death this kind of steel and glass minimalism. Gehry, who later became famous for crumpled metal blockbusters, such as LA’s Disney Concert Hall and the Bilbao Guggenheim, introduced a pop art sensibility to architecture. His use of cheap, DIY materials echoed Warhol’s soup cans and Brillo boxes and the celebration of the ordinary and the everyday in the work of contemporaries Richard Hamilton, Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha.
His was an ordinary house but his 1978 extension was a mash-up of harsh angles and rough surfaces, an ad hoc assemblage that echoed the informal aesthetics of shanty towns or junk yards. Its skewed geometries, perverse angles and über-urban materials (in a distinctly suburban setting) presaged a trend that would later become known as deconstruction – the architectural equivalent of the then fashionable literary notion that one ought to take apart or deconstruct all texts to reveal hierarchies or power. In architecture, this was a way of subverting the orthodoxies of building – right angles, straight beams, vertical walls and so on. Gehry himself always denied that he was anything to do with deconstruction, though his influence on it is undeniable. Gehry doesn’t do many houses now. Too big, too famous. But he did recently design one for Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans. And it is good. A mix of cheap siding, crinkly-tin roof terrace and stick-built, porches, its junky, self-built modesty belies its sophistication – both semiotic and practical.
If we take a musical analogy, Koenig’s house might be the equivalent of Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” or Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, both released in the same year as the house was completed. Gehry’s house might be more akin to Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”, released about the same time as Gehry was drawing up his plans. Koenig is cool and laconic but determinedly modern; Gehry is harsh, deliberately playing with conventions and expectations, searing societal critique dressed up as catchy pop. Any eclectic modern record collection has still got to contain both.
‘The Meaning of Home’ by Edwin Heathcote is published by Frances Lincoln, £12.99