John Lautner  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

John Lautner (16 July, 1911 - 24 October, 1994) was an influential American architect whose work in Southern California combined progressive engineering with humane design and dramatic space-age flair.


Lautner was born in Marquette, Michigan and attended Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Fellowship for six years in the 1930s as architectural training, with great artists and architects like E. Fay Jones, Paolo Soleri and Santiago Martinez Delgado, serving as construction manager on Wright's Johnson residence "Wingspread" and on two projects in Los Angeles (including the Sturges House). He stands among the most successful of Taliesin graduates.

The Chemosphere house has become a Los Angeles landmark that conveys both hope and folly. It was used in Brian De Palma's film Body Double, and also appears in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In 2000 German publisher Benedikt Taschen purchased and restored the house with architects Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena. A Chemosphere copy is used as the set for Current TV.

Although mostly known for residences, Lautner also contributed to the commercial genre of Googie. Googie was named in derogatory reference to Lautner's 1949 design for Googie's Coffee Shop (at the corner of Sunset Strip and Crescent Heights) in a 1952 magazine article by Yale University professor Douglas Haskell. The coffee shop itself was distinctive for its expansive glass walls, arresting form, and exuberant signage oriented to car traffic: an advertisement for itself. Other chains such as Tiny Naylor's, Ship's, Norm's and Clock's quickly imitated the look, which proves its commercial value.

Googie became part of the American postwar Zeitgeist, but was ridiculed by the architectural community of the 1950s as superficial and vulgar. Not until Robert Venturi's 1972 book "Learning from Las Vegas" did the architectural mainstream even come close to validating Lautner's logic. Lautner's reputation suffered as a result. Following some lean years in the 1950s and 1960s, he enjoyed something of a resurgence with his poured-concrete houses in the 1970s, notably the Bob Hope Residence and other houses in Palm Springs.

Among Lautner's other works include the Arango Residence in Acapulco, Mexico with its concrete sky-moat, and the landmark Desert Hot Springs Motel in Palm Springs. His dramatic and photogenic spaces are frequently exploited in films, notably the Palm Springs Elrod Residence used to good effect in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Lautner also designed a home on Malibu's Carbon Beach which was owned by Courtney Cox. The home sold for $33.5 million.

One of the few Lautner buildings regularly open to the general public is the Desert Hot Springs Motel, restored in 2001.

Cultural impact and legacy

Several of Lautner's houses are now designated as Los Angeles Cultural-Historical Monuments. His dramatic and photogenic spaces have been frequently used as film, TV and photography locations, and they have also influenced film production and set design:

  • the Elrod Residence was the location for the sequence in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever in which Bond battles female assassins "Bambi" and "Thumper";
  • the Chemosphere has been used several times as a film or TV location, including The Outer Limits (1964) and Brian De Palma's Body Double (1984). The design is also directly referenced in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the film Charlie's Angels and it was parodied (as Troy McClure's house) in an episode of The Simpsons. It also has influenced the design of the space-age stilt houses in the animated sitcom The Jetsons, which premiered two years after the house was built, and it closely resembles the design of the "Jupiter II" spacecraft in the sci-fi series Lost In Space. An exact copy of the Chemosphere interior is used as the set for Current TV;
  • the "car cafe" set created for the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction was explicitly modelled on well-known examples of the Googie style, including Lautner's Googie diner (which was boarded up but still standing when the film as made) and Henry's Restaurant in Glendale.
  • for the Iron Man films, production designer Michael Riva and concept artist Phil Saunders based the design of Tony Stark's mansion on Lautner's architecture. The exteriors of the building (a series of computer-generated images which were digitally composited into location photos of Point Dume State Preserve in Malibu) are strongly reminiscent of Silvertop and Marbrisa, fancifully blending many of Lautner's "signature" elements including the dramatic cliff-side location, large expanses of glass, classic "California split-level" layout and sinuous, organic lines.

Lautner also designed a home on Malibu's Carbon Beach, at one time owned by David Arquette and Courteney Cox, which sold for US$33.5 million.

One of the few Lautner buildings regularly open to the general public is the Desert Hot Springs Motel, which was restored in 2001. The Bob Hope residence was made available for limited museum-sponsored public visits during 2008-2009.

In 2008 Lautner's life and work was the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Reviewing the exhibition, author and critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp lauded Lautner's work:

If ever there was an architect who deserved a show in an art museum, it is John Lautner. With the sweeping curves in space and the rhythm of repeated forms, his buildings stand as functional sculpture. They are unique entities unlike those of any other architect.

In 1990 "the Spirit in Architecture" by director Bette Jane Cohen was produced by Aluminum Films. It featured interviews with Lautner filmed for the production.

In 2009 the Googie Company released the documentary feature film Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner, directed by Murray Grigor. It features extensive contemporary and archival images of many of Lautner's key buildings (most of which are not open to the public), excerpts from Lautner's 1986 oral history recordings, interviews with Lautner's family, colleagues and clients, Lautner archivist Frank Escher and longtime Lautner fan Frank Gehry, as well as a moving on-site reunion of the three surviving principals who built the Chemosphere — Lautner's assistant Guy Zebert, original owner Leonard Malin, and builder John de la Vaux (who was 95 years old at the time of filming).

Lautner's legacy is now curated and perpetuated by the non-profit John Lautner Foundation. In 2007 the Foundation donated its archive of drawings, models, photographs, and other materials that belonged to John Lautner to the Getty Research Institute Special Collections.

Selected works

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "John Lautner" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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