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Spirit of the mid-twentieth century


Most British architects of my age will recognise the night-time shot of the Stahl House (1960) with its dramatic prospect over downtown Los Angeles, but how many of them remember that Pierre Koenig was its architect and that it was £22 of the Case Study Houses promoted by Arts and Architecture magazine (of which the Eames House had been £8)?

Recalling his Yale sojourn in the early 1960s, Norman Foster (in his foreword) recalls that same photograph as, for him at the time, one of the images that captured the spirit of mid-twentieth-century architecture. Hardly surprising, for Foster - like Koenig before him - was still under the sway of Le Corbusier's machine aesthetic, which transferred the supposed technology of machines of travel to static buildings. But for most of us then, unaware of the details of the house, the excitement of the shot was simply the ecstatic view from the edge of a precipice. One is reminded of Curzio Malaparte showing General Rommel around his truly remarkable house on its rocky sea-perch on Capri at the end of the 1930s. When Rommel asked if his host had been the architect, the reply came back: 'Only of the view.'

And yet to many of us in the 1950s and '60s, Le Corbusier's early aesthetic, and his belief that the house was a machine, were symptomatic of his dilemma about a new architecture - a naivety from which he soon turned. Small wonder that few ordinary people who were not destitute could see their homes so simplistically, for the notion had no truck with the psychic need for certain traditional forms and materials that improve with maturity.

This book was spurred by the la Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition, 'Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses' (1989-90), which suddenly threw a spotlight on Koenig who - now 73 and still teaching at usc alongside his practice - was architect for the Bailey House (csh £21) the year before he built for the Stahls. In 1950, while still a student at usc, he had built a house for himself out of steel (against the then common practice of timber), winning an aia House and Home Award and, no doubt, some clients. Koenig is now quoted with: 'It was my notion, when I started, to make anonymous architecture for ordinary people: to create houses that were better than ones done by anyone before - built more quickly and cheaply using steel and all the new materials had to offer.'

Being from Phaidon, the book is well produced, and the text by James Steele (of usc) and David Jenkins is clear and methodical - yet I have to ask why Koenig should be so feted. First, the well-intentioned Case Study House programme, promoted by Arts and Architecture's enlightened editor, John Entenza, sprang from earlier one-off houses by greater minds - Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra. Next, the parti pris of Corbusier/quasi- Mies needed questioning, although the authors have not forgotten Reyner Banham's label, 'The Style that Nearly'. Lastly, apart from Koening's first house and the two Case Study houses he designed, his output is unimpressive.

Perhaps I have lost a spirit of adventure; more likely, and more sadly, Koenig's quoted early intention was a touch ingenuous.

Patrick Hodgkinson is emeritus professor of architecture and urbanism at Bath University

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