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Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner Film at the Lighthouse

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Steve Parnell on John Lautner, the architect who housed Hollywood’s baddest boys

Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner. 29 March, Glasgow Film Theatre, 12 Rose Street, Glasgow G36RB, as part of the exhibition, The Architecture of John Lautner, until 26 July, The Lighthouse, Glasgow, 11Mitchell Lane, Glasgow G1 3NU. www.infinitespacethemovie.com

‘My life wouldn’t have been complete without having done that,’ a tearful, 95-year-old builder, John de la Vaux, says about making six John Lautner-designed structures during his career. Scottish documentary-maker Murray Grigor’s latest architectural film, Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner is full of such encomia, including short cameos by Julius Shulman, Sean Connery and Frank Gehry talking about LA’s most stylish residential architect. We learn that Lautner was a difficult, uncompromising man who had big hands and couldn’t draw neatly, and that his habit of putting work before family resulted in a divorce. But there is little insight to the man himself – for example, the film neglects to tell us that he was actually married three times.

Despite cringe-worthy muzak throughout, the film is a fascinating portrayal of an alternative modernism, as well as being visually sumptuous in places. It opens with a scene from the 1971 Bond film Diamonds are Forever, where 007 enters the archetypal villainous retreat of reclusive Las Vegas millionaire Willard Whyte. This was filmed at Lautner’s Elrod House (1968) in Palm Springs, California. Despite Lautner’s loathing of the commodification of architecture, his houses have been used in several Hollywood films: the Garcia House (1962) is the baddie’s home in Lethal Weapon II, the Sheats-Goldstein House (1963) is home for the wealthy pornographer in The Big Lebowski and the Malin House (known as ‘The Chemosphere’) is a space-age bachelor pad in Body Double.

It must be Lautner’s uncompromising resistance to the clean, rectilinear lines of the normative post-war modernist style that associates his buildings with cinematic ne’er-do-wells, helped by exuberant gimmicks such as pools that flow between inside and outside and revolving walls with built-in couches. His unique, unconventional approach to each individual problem denies the categorisation of critics whose livelihoods depend upon championing simplistic taxonomies. The result of this is that he hasn’t yet been written into the conventional history of 20th-century architecture. But perhaps his time is coming: Grigor’s film forms part of the exhibition Between Heaven and Earth: The Architecture of John Lautner, which begins a three-month run at Glasgow’s Lighthouse this week.

Lautner believed in the ‘genius’ method of designing buildings. In the film, his daughter reveals how he would sit at his drawing board for days, staring at a topographical plan, just thinking up his grand idea. This was surely instilled in him as an apprentice at Taliesin West, where Lautner witnessed the conception of Fallingwater. Wright had a massive influence on the young English graduate from Michigan – throughout Lautner’s narrative, taken from interviews, he always refers to the caped crusader as ‘Mr Wright’.

After leaving Taliesin, Lautner moved to Los Angeles, a city he hated because of its ugliness, but that would provide him with the clients he needed to build. It was here that in 1949 he inadvertently invented what became known as ‘Googie’ architecture: named by architecture critic Douglas Haskell, referring to a coffee shop called ‘Googie’s’ that Lautner had designed to appeal to passing traffic. Googie architecture was for the streamlined jet-age of the tail-finned automobile. But the taste-makers considered it part of popular culture and panned it as vulgar and cheap. It wasn’t until the theorising of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour’s 1972 text Learning from Las Vegas that popular culture could be taken seriously. Falling on the wrong side of such taste-makers almost ruined Lautner’s career before it had really started – and this was perhaps where his revulsion at what he called architectural merchandising started. ‘People still deal in styles,’ he says. ‘Postmodernism, deconstructivism and all kinds of juggling of geometrics. The media writes it up as though it were architecture. It’s still superficial, fad stuff. It’s not built on contributing to human life, it’s merchandising.’

Whenever Lautner is recognised, it is for his series of stunning, original and style-less houses. Infinite Space shows a number of these, along with footage of them being built and restored by their current owners. The Chemosphere of 1960 (pictured left) is a UFO that’s landed on a 10m-tall concrete column and is only accessible via a funicular, Lautner’s answer to the problem of a steeply sloping site for an aircraft engineer’s house. Several houses are built on large rocks that protrude into the living space. Lautner finally broke from his master’s voice around 1963 when he discovered an affinity with concrete while designing the Silvertop House. He uses
the material to impressive effect in the cantilevered car ramp. From this point onward, Lautner’s designs become more plastic and structural – and the film’s gorgeous visuals reflects the fun he’s having. The houses are about being inside and moving through the space, and film adds that extra dimension to photography, enabling the viewer to appreciate it more fully. The climax is the Arango residence in Mexico (1973) with genuine inside-outside ambiguity and sweeping concrete roofs – Oscar Niemeyer crossed with Félix Candela. Instead of hand rails around the spectacular viewing platform, Lautner designed a 2m-wide swimming moat, for a completely unobstructed view of Acapulco Bay. Irresistible for a future Bond villain.

Resume: A fittingly filmic tribute to the father of Googie architecture

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