Case Study HousesRedefining Californian residential architecture
Approximate to the Bauhaus mantra, this was to be architecture for the people, manufactured en masse, efficiently, with a central focus of creating ‘good living conditions’ for American families.
In 1918, the collapse of the German war effort and the resultant abolition of censorship under the new Weimar Republic galvanised a group of young German architects to change the face of design forever, with the creation of the Bauhaus. Two decades later, and west across ocean, field, mountain, and desert, the editor of a small, independent magazine based in Southern California, challenged his own country’s architects to do the same. The United States of America at the time was pregnant; as the Second World War finally ground to a halt following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the prosperity generated by the large-scale production of munitions proliferated with the return of the armed forces. Industry and agriculture began to swell, automobile manufacture quadrupled in a decade, corporations grew, and then ballooned into vast conglomerates, fast food outlets sprouted up around towns, and cities themselves germinated following the emergence of Levitt’s suburbia. Alongside the economic boom, the USA’s population was increasing exponentially. Young families, free from the shackles of Great Depression and Dust Ball neuroses bred in droves, and by the end of the 1940s, live births had surged to 32 million, a third more than in the previous decade. Suddenly, there was a middle class of white-collar corporate managers, teachers, salespeople and office employees looking to start families and build homes. During the fighting, the USA had been in a state of ‘total war’, thus forcing the ruling powers to pour the majority of the country’s economic, industrial, and scientific resources into the conflict, eradicating the distinction between civilian and military wealth.
John Entenza’s three-page letter, published in the January 1945 issue of Art and Architecture, emphasized the need for the country’s architects to capitalise on the opportunities afforded by new government sanctions that opened up access to basic building products. While the lead up to the post-war boom had been a particularly barren one for the USA’s architectural community, the 1930s, in fact, had fostered the theoretical foundations of the Case Study Program by forcing the development and formation of ideas rather than buildings. Entenza was an extraordinary writer with a broad knowledge of modernism, and design skills of his own, but perhaps more significantly, he was a curator of great minds, and acted as a bridge between the creative person and the act. Due to Art and Architecture’s positive reception to modernism, and the work of young, local architects, it became a rallying point for those looking to the future of architecture post-war.
There is a certain romance to the image of a group of young, nattily dressed architects, sitting in a smoky room in the shabby editorial offices of A&A, soft Californian light streaming through the shutters, arguing and theorising over the future of design. However, while these men where combustible with the desire to get their hands on plaster, steel and granite, they were not filled with Rooseveltian idealism, but rather a clear, steely pragmatism, instilled from years of sketching, waiting and thinking. Case Study critic-in-chief Esther McCoy describes this epoch as “a cleansing decade; [one that] reaffirmed discipline and imposed responsibility,” and these traits can be seen directly in the minimalist, low-cost and remarkably proficient designs that would eventually make up the central tenets of the Case Study style.
Entenza’s vision for the project was to encapsulate the aspirations of this new, thinking generation of architects, and in the process, transform the art into a social process. Approximate to the Bauhaus mantra, this was to be architecture for the people, manufactured en masse, efficiently, with a central focus of creating ‘good living conditions’ for American families. Entenza’s initial plan was to have eight nationally known architects draw up blueprints for houses that would express life in the modern era. Over a short space of time, thanks largely to the popularity of the venture, the programme expanded, and soon played host to some of the great innovators of the age: Neutra, R.M. Schindler, Harwell Harris, Gregory Ain, Charles Eames, Lloyd Wright, John Lautner, Ed Killingsworth, the carpenters in steel, Raphael Soriano, Craig Ellwood, Pierre Koenig, and in the north, Campbell & Wong and William Wurster, all united by the fundamental concept of utilising new materials and new techniques to create houses that were capable of being duplicated in large scale production. This was not a stage for individualism, but about “capturing the spirit of our time” (Entenza), feeding off the USA’s revitalised industries and then returning sound, reliable products to the public.
There are numerous examples of Case Study houses that deserve special attention; Julius Ralph Davidson’s CSH#1, and Soriano’s CSH 1950, to name two, but of all the buildings that exemplify the movement’s humanised process of study, planning, design and construction, Charles and Ray Eames’s eponymous home stands out. Missouri born Charles and native Californian Ray are now as synonymous with the program as Entenza. An orthodox modernist, Charles plied his trade as a furniture designer to great acclaim, receiving first recognition at The Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design Show for his molded plywood chair, the prototype of the most famous chair of the century. His wife, short, assertive, and with a close crop of inky black curls, was an interior designer and film-maker, and although she didn’t receive the plaudits that so lavishly adorned her husband, she was, according to McCoy, as pivotal in assembling their house as the great architect himself:
“The Eames house … is too well conceived as exhibition space as well as house to be the work of Charles alone. The chasteness (frame) and richness (interiors) interact in the same way as do structure and content of films and exhibitions.”
The home itself is located in the Palisades area of Los Angeles, and is composed of a residence and a studio situated on a rise overlooking the ocean. Heavy, cotton wool clouds in a cobalt blue sky shroud the northern edge of the Santa Monica canyon where the property sits. The first plan for the home, known as the Bridge House, was put together by Charles Eames and Earo Saarinen (the former’s long term working partner) in late 1945. However, the war driven shortage of steel curtailed the building process, and it was not until three years later that the materials, ordered from catalogues, were ready to be assembled. By this time, the Eameses had become enamoured with the natural surroundings of the building site, particularly the shaded thicket known as ‘the meadow’; a quiet place, filled with overhanging eucalyptus trees where the family enjoyed picnics on cool, Pacific evenings. With this appreciation of their natural environment in mind, they set themselves the task of retaining the precise cadences of the original plan, whilst preserving the land around them. The site is predominantly flat, with a steep upward slope at its western edge, to which the house lies parallel, thus allowing the primary focus of the exterior to be the east façade, which overlooks the Eameses’ beloved meadow. In its proud display of Neo-Plasticism, this fascia not only offers a salute to nature, but to Mondrian, the great oligarch of stripped back abstraction.
Structural rhythm courses through the interior of the house, from the steel frame, to the expansive double height windows, and into the mass of planes made up of plaster, plywood, asbestos, pylon and enamel, all depicted synergistically by John Rich’s hard, angular illustrations (pictured). In almost direct juxtaposition to this undeviating, linear steel and glass cage, the house is personalized by Ray’s vast, varied collection of art, toys and crafts. This feature makes the Eameses’ contribution to modernism truly unique and original. Ray’s decoration, despite being antithetical to the modernist stance against ornamentation, in fact functions according to Entenza’s Case Study doctrine: of increasing the pleasure of residing in a home. The Eames House is arguably the exemplification of the movement, as it allows spare, machine made functionality to coexist directly with human well-being and enjoyment.
Case Study homes were to become a new swell in the great wave that was 20th century modernism, and despite waning interest in the programme by the 1960s, it would go on to define the building of houses in the USA for decades to come. David Travers, who took over editing of A&A for five years between 1962 and 1967, described the magazine as provider of ‘sunshine to the West Coast architects who grew and flourished under its rays’. It is indeed fascinating that a small, independent magazine, with little or no advertising, catalysed such significant changes in design and aesthetics, providing the seeds for perhaps the country’s richest vein of architecture.