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Privilege and populism

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The Architecture of John Lautnerby Alan Hess. Thames & Hudson, 1999. 276pp. £40

Where would the story of twentiethcentury architecture be without the design of the exclusive private house, and more particularly, where would American Modernism be? To a greater extent than in Britain or Europe, the role of upper-middleclass patrons in the USA has been instrumental in the careers of generations of architects. It is for this reason that America has witnessed the greatest tension between the populist, everyday aspirations of democratic Modernism, and the high-end cultivation of an elitist aesthetic.

Now we have two more monographs on architects who died during the 1990s, both of which show the dialectic between West Coast and East Coast practice, and the complex links with Europe. One of the two architects, John Lautner, came from Michigan, and joined Wright's nascent Taliesin Foundation in the mid-1930s before moving to Los Angeles in 1939. The other, Albert Frey, was born in Switzerland and worked briefly in Le Corbusier's office, before emigrating to New York in 1930 and pitching up in Palm Springs later that decade.

Both monographs suffer from being too hagiographic, but they do have good points. The book on Lautner is written by Alan Hess, whose obvious love for drive-in coffee bars and Vegas glitz fuels his praise for Lautner's gaudy excesses. Amazingly, Hess does not reproduce a single plan or section, though to be fair, Lautner couldn't draw. So the book relies on some of the most seductive photographs you are likely to see.

Lautner is obviously best known for his sumptuous houses in the Hollywood Hills and Malibu, but Hess touches on other projects. There is a tantalising mention of the now-disappeared Googie's coffee bar on Sunset Strip, which was apparently frequented at different times by Rudolph Schindler and James Dean (now there's a pairing).

Lautner fused the two economic bases of post-war Los Angeles. On one side was the hard-headed technology of advanced aeronautics, and on the other the fantasy futurism of Hollywood. By the late-1950s, Lautner's houses consisted of supple shapes made in free-form curvilinear concrete, riddled with buttons and gadgets that made glass walls and other elements come and go. His houses were perfect sets for any film-maker who wanted a slightly dystopian vision of Modernity. After all, the Malin House, 1961, really did look like a flying saucer on a stick, and the domed living room and pool of the Elrod House in Palm Springs, 1968 (see picture), provided a sinister location in Diamonds are Forever for Bond to take on two bikini-clad go-go girls, who just happened to be martial arts experts.

Lautner claimed to hate the ugly visual sprawl of LA, yet he helped to promote the fashion for low-density, car-based, suburban enclaves. It was only his fondness for ostentation that marked him out from the Case Study crew, and kept his projects out of Arts and Architecture. Lautner sure knew how to spend. The client for the Reiner House (195674) was a wealthy technology freak, and one feels that the escalating costs - from an estimated $70,000 up to $700,000, and rising - might have had something to do with the client's bankruptcy.

There is a different sensibility but similar story in Joseph Rosa's book.

Albert Frey was one of those European emigres, like Walter Gropius, who believed that the scales of production and the technological inventiveness of America could deliver the Modernist dream of lowcost prefabricated housing. Frey, like the others, was soon disappointed. On the East Coast he did erect a prototype Aluminaire House (1934), a sort of cut-back version of the Villa Savoie with aluminium columns, but it proved a costly way to build a three-storey house with only one bedroom.

Frey's move to Palm Springs in the 1930s, where he stayed for the rest of his life, slanted him even more towards luxury. Palm Springs was 125 miles inland from LA, and became notorious as a sex-fuelled winter retreat for the Hollywood set and their hangers-on. Frey tried to adapt his designs to the astonishingly hot and dry climate. He created (along with Neutra and others) the approach known as 'desert Modernism', as seen in his own house (1940) and in the holiday home for the industrial designer, Raymond Loewy (1946-47). The dwellings were single-storey sprawls of wood, glass and canvas, peppered with brise-soleils and awnings, and laid out around courtyard pools. Most essential of all, they had air-conditioning.

Frey saw the desert landscape as a virgin site for housing experiments. 'The parcels of land look like laboratories of architectural and materials research, ' he told Le Cor - busier. But Frey soon ran out of paths to explore, despite branching into schools, hospitals, and the Palm Springs City Hall (1952-57). Neither the escape into the desert as a kind of privileged laboratory, nor the fulfilment of the dreams of the Hollywood rich, were likely to bear cultural fruit. Debates about American domestic architecture simply bypassed Lautner and Frey, and took new shape in the projects of Venturi, Meier, Eisenman, et al.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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