Don’t miss the redwood-slab auction at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, California, on 5 October. Having seen these gorgeous pieces up close and knowing their special pedigree, I’m reminded that, for wood connoisseurs and craftspeople, for lovers of wood furniture, for weekend carpenters seeking one-of-a-kind materials, this is simply an opportunity that you’re not going to come upon again. And it’s a chance to support California’s most unique center of the countercultural literary arts. Help keep The Henry Miller Library healthy. Call for details, and see the video below. The Henry Miller Library: (831) 667-2574.
Two Wall Street Journal articles from this week are a painful reminder of much of what’s wrong with home design and “architecture” in general. Have you seen?
Based on my field research here in Calif these last few years, combined with the previous decade-plus spent interviewing designers and builders and homeowners and investigating the neighborhoods of the US and Europe while researching for my other books on residential and while scouting houses for AD as its architecture editor, I can say with confidence that neither of these points of view, each exclusionary in its outlook, is in touch with what’s happening out there.
First of all, sweeping generalizations about how people will live “in the future” can make for entertaining reading, but they can’t represent more than a microscopic fragment of the population and its actual day-to-day activities, present or future. Such subjective viewpoints cannot possibly capture the present or predict the coming zeitgeist of the deeply unbalanced housing situation, the multifarious housing industry itself, and the historically change-resistant dwelling habits in this nation of 317 million. Essentially, such articles are valueless. Which is troubling because in the mainstream media there are increasingly few slots to discuss the real issues of how we shelter ourselves, both known and anticipated.
Sarah Susanka’s point of view is classic East Coast-suburb elitist. In her relatively lengthy article, which you might be able to access in full here, in her casual talk of $70,000 Tesla cars and $500 Dyson vacuum cleaners—as if both were widely attainable and thus culturally ubiquitous—the architect and author doesn’t identify the demographics of the community about which she’s being paid by the WSJ to speak representatively, although in her very first sentence she does say “most of us,” so we are led to believe she is speaking for “the masses,” or at least the majority opinion of WSJ readers. (The WSJ is supposed to be a news-reporting entity, not a club.) But does “most of us” include members of, say, the Black or Hispanic populations? Are we to believe that this is how they, too, are going to live in the future? In speculating on a subject such as the “house of the future,” one ought to be a little more specific about the expected inhabitants’ demographics. Whose “house of the future” are we reading about? When it comes to home building and houses in general, one “size” doesn’t fit all. It never has and it’s safe to say it never will, even in “the house of the future.”
I have to mention the ethnic-diversity point because, in making my latest book, in thoroughly exploring the history of “green” residential architecture in Calif, I haven’t been able to find, or have even heard about, a single Black or Latino owner or in-progress client of an architect-designed “green” home. That’s a deeply disturbing statistic. Not a single one. Ethnic diversity—wow; I won’t bother to go into how generally invisible Blacks and Latinos are in the pages of architecture books or in the shelter magazines, such as in Dwell and Architectural Digest and Elle Decor.
And for Susanka to suggest that the practice of site-built construction is on its way toward obsolescence and that, in its place, those of us who can afford a new house will get (much less even welcome) factory-made assembly-line architecture is quite the reach, a gross oversimplification of a gigantic and endlessly complex industry and a very personal subject for human beings. And her comment that the house will be “a place for assessing the world around us.” She’s getting paid to offer this “wisdom?” With wireless Internet and 42″-wide TVs present even in low-income housing situations, has there been a time recently, or even since the days of Walter Cronkite, when the home wasn’t the principal perch from which we observed and evaluated the world around us? For those of us out of school, where else would such activity happen? At work?
All this talk about the house of the future… So what are we going to do with all the existing houses, the houses of the past, the defuncts conceived according to “antiquated” practices?
Meanwhile, in the other article, there’s Tony Fadell’s prediction of a new green nomadic housing phenomenon, one in which gasoline and jet-fuel prices and the attendant environmental effects miraculously have no bearing worth mentioning and where accessibility design practices and eco-focused tech that’s been available since the 70s finally conquers resistance to cost and sees widespread popular adoption. His is a far-removed first-class-seats-only viewpoint, one that could only stem from an experience marked by considerable privilege—well, that of a millionaire (or is it billionaire?), right?
Let me go out on a limb, as these writers so boldly have, and say that now and in at least what I consider to be the foreseeable future, here in the “mainstream,” the rest of us working folks, especially ones with families, will continue to reside close to where the work is, and in the preexisting housing (some of it quite attractive and spatially suitable and intelligent even) that fits our income brackets.
Sorry, Tony, not everyone has Google money and can afford—or would want—to live like an itinerant Trustafarian.
This house-of-the-future talk is not “news,” but rather yet another unwanted dose of the same stale old concoction. It’s a heavy stone that hasn’t come upon a wall substantial enough to stop its roll.
In effect, the house of the future is part of the classic “Architecture for everyone” fairytale. It’s for you too, really it is…so long as you’re rich enough.
A 1968 dining table in shedua by Gerald McCabe, of McCabes Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, has come on the market at Surfing Cowboys and looks to me like a very rare opportunity, and one worth sharing here. I can’t imagine it’ll be around for more than a few days.
An exploration into the avant garde of 1950s San Francisco—specifically the anti-consumer-culture, suburb-dissenting, and, as I’ll show in the book, green-design-prefiguring architectural parallels of the art, music, Eastern philosophy, and literary scenes—is the focus of a chapter in my forthcoming book, California Green. The book comes out in late 2015.
Composer, instrument maker, and occasional furniture builder Harry Partch, a topic of that chapter in my book, was an endlessly fascinating component of a milieu of iconoclasts that included Surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford, collagist Jean Varda, the young sculptor J.B. Blunk, filmmaker and poet James Broughton, carpenter Roger Somers, and Zen Buddhism philosopher Alan Watts. For several months I’ve been researching Partch, his midcentury experiments with driftwood-furniture design and construction in particular, and, other than one fantastical sofa for Onslow Ford that I’ve got going into the book, finding traces of the work has been a bit of an uphill journey.
Last week, while visiting Sandy Jacobs, during a break from the documentary film that is being made about him Jacobs mentioned having a tape containing a Bruce Goff lecture from 1954 that I might be eager to hear. Turns out it also includes a Partch lecture, recorded in April of ’56. Both recordings were made at the University of Oklahoma [Partch was there the year following Bruce Goff’s controversial sudden exit from the position of Chair at OU’s School of Architecture. Check out architect Herb Greene’s unique insight on Goff and that incident here.]. A big piece of the puzzle had come together.
Serendipity—when making this kind of a book, you have to trust that the wind will blow some your way. That and plain old help from friends. Thanks for yet another hook-up, Sandy.
Check out this documentary on Partch.
The 1956–57 Pearlman Cabin, a Star Wars intergalactic cruiser earth-docked on an array of peeled poles, little known it seems and one of my favorite John Lautner houses, was a feature in my ’06 book for Abrams on log cabins. Unlike anything I’ve encountered, this house, it could be said, predicted the Space Age, which of course had its formal beginnings with Sputnik 1’s 1957 launch and which would have a resounding effect on the appearance of domestic architecture and interiors during the period.
And yet despite all the interest in and big marketing of Midcentury Modern now, I haven’t seen the Pearlman Cabin around at all. Which can probably be explained by the fact that Lautner tends only to receive media attention for houses unlike this one—those that are celebrity owned (Kelly Lynch and Mitch Glazer; Courtney Cox and David Arquette; and on and on) and/or that have been used in blockbuster movies (Diamonds are Forever, Lethal Weapon 2, Less than Zero, The Big Lebowski). In the increasingly unsteady shelter-magazine universe, there are only so many slots for “architecture” stories, and these days there isn’t a single magazine editor who isn’t hunting for a job-securing celebrity scoop. So that’s what we get, over and over. Such is life in this top-10-list Kardashian culture of ours.
In midcentury Los Angeles, Lautner (1911–1994) was the guy who could put a house on the ether. Back then, if you were among the small percentage of would-be homeowners who were inclined to hire an architect for your house project and also had a lot that was challenging or risky or, worse yet, said to be unbuildable (in LA, there are many of those), Lautner likely would have made it onto your radar. And so the story of the Pearlman project is a typical one in the exciting Lautner canon. It goes like this: Agnes Pearlman was seeking an architect who could give her family of four a progressively designed but small and inexpensive vacation cabin in Idyllwild, a mountainous rural area near Palm Springs, about two hours east of Los Angeles, that was then becoming a popular getaway destination for “alternative-minded” Angelenos. It was 1956, and the middle-class bohemian Pearlman, a resident of L.A., was having trouble finding a taker for the job.
“Mom didn’t want an ordinary four-walled log cabin,” recalled Pearlman’s daughter, Nancy. “That’s what they were building up there then.” One of several architects from the city (Idyllwild itself didn’t have any architects) who’d turned down the job suggested that Pearlman see the LA–based Lautner. “Mom had studied interior design and Modern architecture in the 1940s,” said Pearlman. “She knew Lautner had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Like his mentor, Lautner usually took his design cues directly from the natural characteristics of the building site. Highly inventive, he was a great problem solver, and that too was evident in his architecture.
While not as off-putting as some of his Hollywood Hills jobs, Pearlman’s site was nonetheless a potentially costly major inconvenience—steep to the tune of about 40 degrees and boulder-strewn and with an enormous jagged rock outcropping in the very spot where a house would have optimal views of the adjacent mountain range. Access was narrow and similarly rocky. Heavy materials would have to be at least partially transported in by hand.
“They couldn’t get anybody up here to built it according to Lautner’s design,” Pearlman told me. Her uncle, William Branch, ended up constructing it, with great competence it should be said, and he lived on the property in a tent for several months until the job was completed.
You wouldn’t know it from looking at his body of work but it turns out Lautner has a long and intimate history with the log cabin. In 1923, at age 12, he helped his father build the family’s Swiss Chalet-style log house (Lautner’s mother was the designer) on Lake Superior in Michigan, a property that the architect would, himself, later own and keep for himself his entire life.
But the incredible Pearlman Cabin, all earthy and warm and yet also as tech oriented (from a construction standpoint) as some of the architect’s celebrated works, is what could be called Lautner’s only riff on the log genre. Certainly it’s a triumph, and one of a kind.
For more on Lautner, check out this website.
P.S. In the period since my interview with Pearlman, the cabin was placed on the market for film-and-television location rental.
Gusty sea-mist moments periodically relieving a blue-sky summer day. Golden coastal light filtering through a perfumed forest thick with cypress, banksia, and tea tree. Within earshot: a cobblestone right hander, uncrowded!, with a lone rider—an old friend at that—smiling wide and stretched out inside yet another perfect gaping foamy peeler. (Someone smartly glued down the repeat button on this image.)
Right here, near the point, on a little plot of land of one’s own, a vision of a home base coming to fruition, built exclusively with friend labor and unencumbered by code or other for-the-masses restrictions. Improvisation, of an original tune being recorded for posterity.
Ahh, to be coming into one’s own like this on the north coast of New South Wales in the late 60s/early 70s, what that air of freedom must’ve felt like! For years, among not just surfers, that lifestyle’s been romanticized, mythologized even, and, well, here I am now pouring on some more. But to John Witzig, who lived that experience and even helped give shape to some of its more memorable characteristics, it’s of course something very real.
While also capturing the images that to a great extent define the revolutionary change chapter in a once-happily-slack lifestyle pursuit that’s evolved into a billion-dollar industry (see his new book with Rizzoli, A Golden Age;) and editing Surf International; and, in 1970, co-starting Tracks (the surfing mag that radically took its editorial cues not from sport journalism but from The Whole Earth Catalog and Rolling Stone), Witzig was pursuing a career in architecture.
While I’ve touched on this subject and his new book here before, and I included a bit on Witzig’s story and a few pics of his house in Handmade Houses, it’s time I respond to the requests from friends and fans of A Golden Age to fill in gaps and show more of Witzig’s own house.
I recall the first time I met the late architectural photographer Julius Shulman, in 2003, and spent time inside his Raphael Soriano-designed nest in the Hollywood Hills, a 1947 house that was the epitome of architectural adventurousness for its time. [It should be finally known that Shulman, too, had been drawn to and photographed surfing.] I immediately realized then and there that, while a great photographer’s unique viewpoint will always be present in his pictures in ways worth understanding, how the photographer sees for himself— his particular requirements of his own personal sphere—demands as much study and understanding if you’re going to get a real handle on the work.
Witzig, who, like Shulman, is responsible for more than a few genre-defining and legend-making photographs, shares the distinction of having housed himself in a way that represents the very cutting edge of progression for its time and place. It was all about breaking the mold of conventionality…or at least loosening things up as never before. But in the counterculture-architecture statement that Witzig ultimately created, there’s no getting past certain allusions—the Northern California coastal-barn vernacular forms of the Sea Ranch, Prickly Mountain-style improv woodwork, the Australian vernacular and its emphasis on the veranda, and even the kind of indoor-outdoor plan fusion seen in the early Taliesin West tent shelters. Here was a design that was dead set on openly embracing its particular eco system, built of materials that might otherwise have ended up littering it. These and other moves show that Witzig, all sun-kissed and surf-blissed and out there in the land of “country soul,” hadn’t completely unplugged, that he had his history down and an eye on larger concerns. And now, I say, what he built has to be read as a vital part of that discussion—those larger concerns.
One of the most significant homes in Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design—and one of environmental architecture’s seminal houses— just became an eco retreat, available to rent as a private getaway. To present it as such, the house’s owner had hired me to photograph the property and build a website, and all of that is now live. Check it out: vanderryn-eco-refuge.com
In a few days, Sim Van der Ryn‘s second book to be published this year, Culture, Architecture & Nature: An Ecological Design Retrospective arrives in stores. In 2012, Sim hired me to help him create an editorial concept around his talk transcripts and essays from the 1960s to the 2000s. There was an enormous amount of material to consider, with even the very earliest topics having surprising relevance today—some more now than when they were written decades ago. For the final selections, we ended up employing a reverse chronology, so you start the book in the 2000s and dig your way ever deeper to get into the past, decade by decade. Along the way, many of the major issues of the day are called out and explored and challenged. And for each decade, there’s a list of books for further reading—the books that, in those moments, had most captured Sim’s attention. Partly for purposes of pacing, we chose to illustrate with his own watercolor landscapes painted during the same time span, which I think worked out beautifully.
Buy and read printed books. Build home libraries. Live happier…