REVIEW: Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner


by Hugh Hart


For a guy who claimed to despise Los Angeles, architect John Lautner did more to realize a vision of southern California's love affair with sea, sky and killer vistas than just about any other designer that comes to mind.


Like his peers Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, Lautner confined his work almost entirely to private residences. Unlike those mid-century modernists, Lautner had little interest in rectilinear modules.  Instead, he embraced the shell, the cave, the stem, the wave and other organic forms to craft curvaceous dwellings that nested humans amid nature setting with uncanny grace.


Fourteen years after his death at age 83, the Hammer Museum's Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner exhibition (through October 12) honors the designer's legacy with an understated array of sketches, models, architectural renderings, photographs and film.


Leading into the space, a panoramic color photograph of the northern woods snapped by Lautner evokes his childhood in Michigan's upper peninsula, where built a log cabin by hand with his German immigrant father.  A yellowed color pencil sketch speaks to his apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright at the master architect's Taliesin colony, which prepared Lautner for the launch of his own Los Angeles-based practice in 1947.


Back-lit text blocks dispersed throughout Hammer's two-gallery layout spell out Lautner's design philosophy, centered on a desire to "sublimate the domestic, and domestic the sublime."


The core of the show, curated by historian Nicholas Olsberg and architect Frank Escher, draws from archival assortment  of drawings, architectural renderings, and simple cardboard study models that offer glimpses into Lautner's creative process. On a yellowed rectangle of paper is a hand-sketched floor plan for his 1968 Stevens Houses, on which Lautner impulsively scrawled "Dense, yet human living houses."  A 1946 design for the Mauer House (pictured) demonstrates how Lautner cleverly borrowed the idea of boomerang-shaped struts from aircraft hangar design to provide structural support for a model house aimed at capitalizing on the post-war housing boom.


Skipping over Lautner's early commercial work on roadside diners pioneering the so-called "Googie" style associated with fifties-era space-age kitsch, Olsberg and Escher focus attention on six Lautner houses with large cut-away models of the  Pearlman, Walstrom, Elrod, Turner, Marbrisa and iconic 1960 "Chemosphere" homes demonstrate Lautner's ability to sculpt free-flowing interiors oriented, invariably, to awe-inspiring exterior views.


The exhibition's secret weapon is neither paperwork nor models, but short movies. Beautifully shot by documentary filmmaker Murray Grigor, footage from each key residence is projected onto the walls of the dimly-lit gallery.  Taking the viewer through Lautner's ocean-front Marbrisa house in Mexico, the camera caresses serpentine walkways and sun-kissed interiors while a band of sun-kissed water undulates outside the living room like a silver ribbon.


Shots of Lautner's best known work, the hexagonal "Chemosphere," still dazzle 48 years after it first sprouted like a flying saucer-shaped mushroom from an embankment in the Hollywood Hills.  "Pearlman Cabin," built in Aspen, Colorado, demonstrates how adeptly Lautner adapted his central theme to suit the site.  Again, we get the glass walled enclosures that marked most of his work, but he matches the landscape with a multi-story vertical thrust of wood panels that mimmick the majestic mountain evergreens.  


Watching the silent movies flicker on the walls, it's easy to understand why these telegenic homes played supporting roles in movies like Body Double, Diamonds are Forever and The Big Lebowski.  It may be, as essayist Jean-Louis Cohen reports in the companion catalog, that the sometimes cranky architect found Los Angeles "so ugly it made me physically sick."  His own buildings, situated somewhere Between Earth and Heaven offer a spell-binding remedy.



Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner runs at Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, through October 12.


Information: call 310-443-7000 or visit


Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 11am – 7pm; Thursday, 11am – 9 pm; Sunday, 11am – 5 pm; closed Mondays, July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New YearŐs Day.


Admission: $7 for adults; $5 for seniors (65+) and UCLA Alumni Association members; free for Museum members, students with identification, UCLA faculty/staff and visitors 17 and under. Free admission on Thursdays.


Parking: Parking is available under the Museum. Rate is $3 for three hours with Museum validation.


copyright Hugh Hart / The Magazine 2008