Monday, June 16, 2008

The Eames Case Study House #8 (Notes from Los Angeles)

Member Appreciation Day (Sunday, June 15, 2008)

Sunday I made my first visit to the Eames House, more properly known as Case Study House #8, which I have wanted to see for years but never actually visited. The house is located on Chautauqua Blvd. in Pacific Palisades, in a meadow on top of the bluff overlooking the ocean. When the house was completed in 1949 this area was still considered “the boonies,” pretty far away from Los Angeles in the days before freeways. It’s still in a fairly hidden enclave, surrounded by enormous houses (one on top of Casa del Mar looks to be close to 20,000 square feet!). The Eames case study house, by comparison, is 2,300 square feet between the house and the studio, which are located in two separate buildings (1400 sq. ft. in the house, 900 in the studio) connected by a generous patio.

My old architectural history professor at UC Santa Barbara, the late David Gebhard, was interested in the Case Study House program, and talked about it a lot in his classes. The Case Study House program was an attempt to popularize modern architecture, to make it more widely accepted, more mainstream. It was sponsored by the magazine Arts and Architecture, chiefly by its editor, John Entenza; the magazine commissioned the houses, which were paid for by clients. These were meant as prototypes for suburban housing. Most of the Case Study Houses had open plans built in flexible systems with interlocking outside/inside spaces, and were designed for what Gebhard called the “mobile, efficiency-minded and consumer-oriented mass culture.” The program completed 23 Case Study Houses between 1945 (when they were commissioned) and 1962. The Eames house was one of four Case Study Houses built in this wooded tract on palisades overlooking the ocean; next door was the Entenza House, designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen (his old friend from Cranbrook). Another Case Study House on this block was designed by the Viennese architect Richard Neutra.

As a building type, the glass-enclosed pavilion was suddenly huge in American architecture in the 1940s, due to the influence of German Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who immigrated to the United States in 1937. He had developed the pavilion as a recurring theme, most notably in his Barcelona Pavilion (1928-1929). In 1945 he designed the Farnsworth House (completed in 1951) in rural Illinois, and under his influence, Philip Johnson designed his own famous Glass House (1949). Both of those were meant as one-of-a-kind “masterpieces,” high-end examples of a kind of luxury home with a certain austere, minimalist aesthetic. The Eames House, on the other hand, was built inexpensively and, although unique, was intended as a prototype for middle-class dwelling. It was assembled from pieces ordered from catalogues; its ready-made structural elements contrast with personal décor of the interior. Here in the Eames house, the Miesian vocabulary takes off in a lot of directions, incorporating a Mondrian-like color palette in contrast to the monochromatic predecessors. As in Mies and Johnson’s houses, we see transparency and opacity at play. Instead of looking anonymous it looks very personal.

Those who work in the House say that because of the glass walls, after being there for a little while you forget the building is there; you feel like you're in nature, surrounded by trees. (The house is bordered by towering eucalyptus trees.) On the tour one of the guides told us the Eameses said that after they had lived in the House for a few years, it "disappeared" for them.

Entenza hoped the Case Study Houses would be not merely single performances but plans which could be repeated. Their critical success promoted public acceptance of experimental design; in 1962 Esther McCoy wrote,

“The banks had previously taken the view that a house with glass walls, open plan, no dining room, kitchen facing the street, flat roof, and slab floor was a poor investment and had no resale value. That all Case Study Houses were excellent investments is proved by the prices at which they have been resold. Three Case Study Houses sold recently fetched 90 to 125 percent above the original cost.”

The house’s historical significance was confirmed by its National Landmark Status, conferred in 2006.

The event I went to on Sunday (see photos) was a Members Appreciation Day, the only day of the year when visitors (i.e., donors) are permitted inside the house. The rest of the year, visitors may only tour the exterior of the house. The Eameses’ daughter, five grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren (as well as one great-great-grandchild!) were present at the event, and were very generous and gracious hosts. They as well as various docents and employees of the Eames Office (at 850 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica) were on hand to answer any questions and converse with donors for a large part of the day.

Charles and Ray Eames First-Day-of-Issue Ceremony (Tuesday, June 17, 2008)

Another first – I had never been to a first-day-of-issue ceremony, and this one (held at the Eames Office) turned out to be a lot of fun! The U.S. Post Office issued a beautiful set of postage stamps with 16 different Eames designs, from architecture to furniture to film and textile design. This U.S. government ceremony began with the “presentation of colors” (flags of the nation and the state of California being walked up and down the aisle) and the national anthem (sung by Melodi Dalton, an appropriately named soprano with the San Francisco Symphony), followed by brief remarks by the postmaster and the mayor of Santa Monica; and finally Eames Demetrios, the chairman of the board and grandson of Charles & Ray Eames making a brief thank-you speech. There were so many people and so much going on! One line to buy stamps, another line to get your first-day-of-issue cancellation stamp on your stamps and envelopes and memorabilia, and another line where you could collect the signatures of all the family members present. Most of those present for the ceremony were Eames fans, but there was also a small clique of hard-core philatelists who had their systems for creating first-day-of-issue memorabilia honed to a science. These folks had made their own cards and envelopes and had developed elaborate systems of cataloguing their creations once cancelled; the mind-boggling thing about it to me was that they weren’t necessarily fans of Charles and Ray Eames, just serious stamp collectors! They would travel to these first-day-of-issue ceremonies whenever they could, and trade their cancelled memorabilia with other stamp collectors they meet at conventions.


For more information on Charles & Ray Eames, see:

"The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention," exhibit at the Library of Congress

veerle's blog (lots of great photos, especially Eames furniture)

Great Buildings Online

Wikipedia essay


Esther McCoy, Case Study Houses, 1945-1962. Originally published in 1962 under the title Modern California Houses. Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, 1977.

Elizabeth A.T. Smith. Case Study Houses 1945-1966: the California Impetus. Taschen, 2006.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Quid Pro Quo and Fur (film review)

“Normal is a setting on a washing machine.”

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, the new(ish) venue of the American Cinematheque. Last night I caught another film there, Quid Pro Quo, and it was a real L.A. experience – a preview before opening night, with the writer/director Carlos Brooks, leading man Nick Stahl (of In the Bedroom and Terminator 3), and two of the film’s producers on hand for a discussion afterwards. The screening was free to Cinematheque members, with the respectful silence throughout the entirety of the closing credits a sure sign that you’re in L.A. (and of course everyone remained seated). In fact last night’s screening probably had a higher percentage of those credited people actually present in the room than any other screenings of the film will have!

I recommend this film highly; it was smart and well acted, and the production design was beautiful. It revealed an entire subculture that I never knew existed, which I expect most viewers will also find surprising: able-bodied people who want to be paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. They're called “wannabes.” It’s so improbable that I sat through the film wondering if the writer invented this subculture (this disorder), but no, he says it really exists.

In the film the lead character, Isaac (played by Stahl), is a paraplegic, who encounters a surprising number of able-bodied people whose greatest desire is to be confined to a wheelchair. They each, for whatever reason, have a deep psychological need to “use” a wheelchair (the verb of choice, not coincidentally, the same one that describes drug addicts). One of them in particular, Fiona (played by Vera Farmiga), fixates on Isaac, seducing him and sharing her private, secret wish – to become paralyzed – with him.

But it’s not some kinky sexual fantasy for her (in case you were thinking of The Company of Strangers); oh no. At first you think it’s going to be something twisted like that, but it turns out to be a much deeper psychological disorder, a form of hell that Fiona - daughter of a broken home and an alcoholic mother - has created for herself. Nick is a paraplegic not by choice, but as the result of a car accident, but he makes little effort to convince Fiona and the others that they should be grateful they ARE able-bodied. Instead he is respectful towards them, and tries to understand them. Oh, yeah, and then he finds some magic shoes that enable him to walk.

The film was shot in HD and the production designer achieved a film noir look. Brooks explained that the character Fiona thinks she’s in a noir film, and that the movie is shot from her view of herself. In fact the film’s voice-over narrative is characteristic of a lot of noir films (Bladerunner instantly comes to mind), but in this case the tone of that voice-over is deliberately conversational, modeled after the radio style of Ira Glass from NPR's This American Life (according to Stahl). His character is, in fact, a radio personality who tells stories, and the film is framed as one of those stories. Stahl calls it a beautifully written detective story, and it is, but it’s also much more. It’s about families and relationships, and how a single person or a single incident can change one’s life forever; and about the devastating impact of a dysfunctional family, and how our inner voices and inner demons can generate the narratives by which we define ourselves and our lives. It’s also profound; at one very intense point in the story Vera says to Nick, “I’m thinking about how easy it is to get used to a miracle;” at least she’s aware of enough to realize what she’s doing, and to marvel at the miraculous.

One of the producers says they hope the film will have wide distribution later this summer “when people are sick of seeing stupid movies.” Other films it reminded me of were Dirty Pretty Things (dir. Stephen Frears, 2002) and Caché (dir. Michael Haneke, 2005).

Most of the supporting cast are New York actors; Stahl said if you IMDB them, they've all been in "Law and Order;" they mentioned one who is in "The Wire." The film was shot mostly in New York and New Jersey, with the flashback scenes shot in La Conner, Washington.

Fur (dir. Stephen Shainberg, 2006)

Oddly enough, I had watched Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus on the previous night, and Quid Pro Quo resonated with some of the same themes. (For the record, I’m NOT recommending Fur, it’s pretty bad – but this fall I will be teaching my “Artists’ Lives on Film” course again, so I’m trying to catch up on all the artist biopics that have been released since I last taught the course.)

As unrealistic as Quid Pro Quo seems, it turns out that this disorder – able-bodied people wanting to be paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair – really exists. Fur, on the other hand, tells the story of a man (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) who suffers from hypertrichosis, a disease due to which his entire body is covered with long, thick, fast-growing hair – which I cannot believe is an actual phenomenon. It also tells the story (or a version of it) of Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman), the photographer famous for her portraits of society’s “freaks” – giants, midgets, and even just plain old twins. Arbus’ photos are ambiguous; most discussions of Arbus speculate about whether her gaze was sympathetic or exploitative. Was she just a voyeur, or did she, as this film suggests, care deeply about the marginalized members of society? I personally have no opinion on the question of Arbus' own intentions, because I haven’t read much about her, but I do think she leads us to look at and think about people we might otherwise ignore. Also, I do know that the hairy man in the film (his name is Lionel) is purely fictitious.

What the two films have in common is this: they both show us society from the point of view of outsiders, of people who are outside the norm, and their struggles to love and be loved (thus representing the larger human condition). It’s not just the “wannabes” in Quid Pro Quo who are outsiders; as we are introduced to Isaac we see all the barriers he encounters on a daily basis: women don’t want to date him, taxis won’t pick him up, buildings and even streets aren’t accessible. It made me think about my own reactions to people in wheelchairs: do I treat them like they’re invisible? I’m ashamed to admit that frequently I do. In the performance I saw last week, “Action: Conversations” at Highways (see June 12 entry), these same questions were raised with regard to veterans. We have a lot of veterans in our society, a lot more now thanks to the Bush administration; but they’re not really so visible most of the time. Where is Diane Arbus when you need her?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Random Reflections on L.A. (Notes from Los Angeles)

Architecture and Public Spaces:

This summer I am extremely fortunate to be spending a lot of time at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where I am conducting research so that I can turn my dissertation into a book. Not only does the GRI have a fabulous research library and Special Collections, but it's also a fantastic space. This photo shows one of the beautiful pergolas where you can sit outside and have lunch or coffee -- though I'm spending most of my time inside the Research Institute (which is also lovely; hopefully I will follow up with a blog entry about that soon). But that's not all I've been up to; here are a few other things I've experienced over the past week:

On Sunday we were driving past Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall (downtown – on our way home from dim sum in Chinatown) – and my friend’s 10-year-old son said “it looks like an extreme skatepark.”

The UCLA campus is one of the most beautiful spots in Los Angeles – it has lots of very old plants and trees, lots of outdoor sculpture, and a nice, somewhat unified architectural ensemble. (Why didn’t I go to school here??) I spent the day here yesterday, in the Arts Library, and visited the relatively new Broad Art Center; in the space that *used* to be the Arts Library, there's now a cafe.


The Getty Research Institute mounted a small exhibition on the work of Viennese architect and writer Bernard Rudofsky, whose 1964 book Architecture without Architects fueled an interest in vernacular architecture on the part of architects in the 1960s and '70s. Following in the tradition of fellow Viennese architect Adolf Loos, Rudofsky took a strong interest in fashion, dress, and ornamentation, with an eye to critiquing contemporary Euro-American trends and tastes; he even designed a line of women’s shoes.

I missed the exhibit on Bob Dylan at the Skirball Center, which ended on June 8; but I am planning to take my son to the Skirball to see the Noah’s Ark exhibition when he comes in July.

The Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood is mounting an exhibit on the Southern California architect John Lautner, it opens July 13. (5 days after I leave! bummer!) You may know his work if you saw the 1984 Brian de Palma film “Body Double;” his 1960 house called the Chemosphere, in Hollywood, is featured (it’s where the murdered woman lives). Another one of his houses was used in the James Bond film “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971), and another one in “Twilight” (1998).

On Sunday night I got to catch a film at the new and improved Aero Theater on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. For most of the time I lived in Santa Monica (1988-2002) this was an independent theater showing nightly double features for $5 -- the best deal around. Then it fell on hard times and was losing money, the quality of programming suffered, and everyone was afraid it would have to close its doors. It was finally acquired by the American Cinematheque and reopened in January 2005 after being beautifully restored and given state-of-the art equipment. Now it has a very exciting schedule of rare, recently restored, and special interest films, which we used to drive to Hollywood to see (at the American Cinematheque's original venue, the Egyptian Theater). On Sunday we saw "Breezy," a 1973 film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring William Holden and Kay Lenz; it was a real period piece, and gave me a new appreciation for Holden as an actor.

Last Friday at Highways Performance Space and Gallery in Santa Monica, I attended a moving event called "Action Conversations," directed by choreographer Victoria Marks. The performance was created by artists, activists, and veterans recovering from PTSD; they worked together in a 15-week workshop, creating a performance that deals with the experiences of veterans trying to reenter civilian life and the encounters between veterans and civilians. The event was important in creating dialogue between vets and civilians, and bridging the gap that usually prevents us from understanding one another. There was one moment that required audience participation in a call-and-response format, with these words: "We risked our lives in Troy/Iraq, and the Peloponnese/Afghanistan and in Ionia/Kuwait." Having recently taught The Iliad, I thought a lot about the parallels they were trying to draw here, in a way I'd never thought about them before. The concept of a "hero" in the ancient world is so different from today's Christian-influenced concept; Achilles was no moral paragon, but a "hero" nonetheless. Food for thought.


Speaking of food, I was walking along Westwood Boulevard yesterday and passed a restaurant called India’s Oven, I knew that I knew it, but not in Westwood. I picked up the menu and it said “originally located at Pico and Fairfax,” and I realized this was the awesome Indian restaurant I used to go to, back in the late 1980s (when they used to serve everything on Styrofoam!). During the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (which some people call the L.A. Uprising) I was watching the live news coverage on TV (like everyone else in L.A.) and at one point saw it – India’s Oven, on Pico Blvd., one of my favorite restaurants at the time – with flames shooting out of its windows. After that it appeared in West L.A. – no more Styrofoam – and I don’t know how it ended up in Westwood. I see they still have Ras Malai on the menu, my favorite dessert, so I’m going to have to eat here!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

MAK Buys Schindler House

This was in the New York Times yesterday:

"The nonprofit MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles has acquired R. M. Schindler’s renowned Modernist Fitzpatrick-Leland House, shown above when it was built in 1936, perched on a cliff near the intersection of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Mulholland Drive, the center said. The three-level L-shaped house, with its interlocking volumes, was a gift from Russ Leland, who bought it in 1990 and spent years restoring it to its original design. The MAK Center said the house would be used for its new Urban Future Initiative program, which grants two-month residencies to researchers from around the world exploring urban issues like sustainability, immigration and social justice."

(In the "Arts, Briefly" column, compiled by Felicia R. Lee, June 4, 2008)

The MAK Center in Los Angeles is an offshoot of the MAK (Museum fur Angewandte Kunst) in Vienna, Austria. Since Schindler was an Austrian architect, who relocated to Los Angeles in the 1910s, the MAK has taken a particular interest in his work.

Two-month residencies in the Fitzpatrick-Leland House? The chance to live in a modern masterpiece? I have a new life goal...