PRINT October 1963

The Case Study Houses

SURPRISINGLY THE AMERICAN ARCHITECTURAL magazine most often found in the foreign architect’s office or School of Architecture is the California publication Arts & Architecture. In its pages the foreign archi­tect and student is exposed to an array of buildings of a remarkably high degree of quality. (He is also exposed to the writings of two of America’s most gifted critics, Peter Yates, in music, and Dore Ashton, in painting and sculpture). The wide acceptance and influence of Arts & Architecture abroad has cer­tainly been due to its view of architecture as an art, rather than as a vast business enterprise, the ap­proach which underlies a majority of America’s archi­tectural publications.

As its dominant personality John Entenza has guided Arts & Architecture from 1938 through early 1963. In thumbing through 25 years of this magazine one senses that its editor has early recognized and given encouragement to almost all of the major archi­tectural figures of the West Coast. It would not be an historical exaggeration to say that the present direc­tion of West Coast architecture is in no small part due to the continuous and intense support of Arts & Architecture.

One of the magazine’s most influential and far reaching programs has been its sponsorship of a series of Case Study Houses, where new concepts of form, material and structure could be tested out in residential architecture. The program was insti­tuted in 1945 and the first of these experimental houses was built the following year. Since this date, over 25 houses have been constructed and several are at present in the design stage or are in process of being built. Photographs and plans of these case study houses have recently been brought together by Esther McCoy in a single volume entitled Modern California Houses, Case Study Houses 1945–1962, (published by Reinhold Publishing Corp., New York, 1962, $15.00). Esther McCoy has long been associated with Arts & Architecture. As a critic and historian she has con­tributed immensely to our understanding of 20th century architecture in California. Her writing on the work of Irving Gill, Bernard Maybeck the brothers Charles and Henry Greene and R. M. Schindler has re­vealed to us an almost entirely unknown chapter in the history of modern architecture. As we should ex­pect, this book, its text, the quality of its plates and its design layout are as distinguished as the buildings which it discusses and illustrates.

To fully appraise the Case Study program one should first see it within the context of similar endeavors which have been tried from time to time in this country and abroad. Throughout the 20th century, nu­merous “Idea houses” or “Houses of the future” have appeared in exhibitions and others have been spon­sored by home and women’s magazines. In 1927–28 the internationally famous Weissonhof housing proj­ects featured designs by Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mart Stam, J. J. P. Oud and others. A similar project to encourage the acceptance of modern architecture was instituted before the Second World War by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in their first “Idea house,” and continued in a second “Idea house” con­structed in 1947 behind the Center. In 1948 The Museum of Modern Art commissioned Marcel Breuer to build an exhibition house in the Museum court­yard; a second house was commissioned in 1950 to the California architect Gregory Ain. In the 1950’s the Guggenheim Museum, as part of its exhibition of Frank Lloyd Wright, built one of his “Usonian” houses.

Few of these programs have been able to sustain themselves for any appreciable length of time and it is difficult to say whether they have actually pro­duced their desired result. Even the influential ex­hibition and publication program of the Museum of Modern Art in architecture and design, first under Phillip Johnson in the early 1930’s, and later in the 40’s and early 50’s under Edgar Kaufman has pretty well fallen into a respectable intellectual doldrum in the hands of Arthur Drexler.

The longevity and strong inner consistency of the Arts & Architecture program over the past quarter of a century has meant that it is affecting the archi­tecture of its own region and far beyond. A simple mention of such figures as William Wurster, Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood, Raphael Soriano, John Rex, J. R. Davidson, Charles Eames, Pierre Koenig, Frederick Emmons, Rodney Walker and the firm of Killingsworth, Brady and Smith will indicate the quality of the de­sign to be found in the Case Study Houses. Because of Entenza’s personality and the nature of the chal­lenge, there has developed a “Case Study House Style,” early identifiable in the McCoy book; this style has evoked an ideal which many contemporary American designers strive to emulate in their own work. As Thomas H. Creighton says in his foreword to Modern California Houses, “these houses reveal a strong in­tellectual discipline in their direct and simple plan,” their “modulated structure” and “classically ordered esthetic.” The classic discipline of the case study house contrasts dramatically with the superficial and flamboyant exhibitionism and expressionism encoun­tered in so much of the current architecture of the eastern United States. Looking at them historically it is apparent that the architects of these houses are a direct development out of the California version of the International style which developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s in the work of Gill, Neutra, and Schindler. Thus the typical Case Study House became a taut skimmed, volumetric cube or square which through its materials, structure and forms symbolic­ally expresses the ideal of the machine esthetic of our age. In their form these houses are an emphatic denial of the sculptural massiveness of the post World War II buildings of Le Corbusier or Tange or the expressionistic mannerism of Louis Kahn. As with any highly disciplined design, the architects of these houses have sought to maintain a precarious balance between what could easily become a dull and unim­aginative academicism on the one hand and an exces­sive involvement with pure form to the exclusion of utilitarian needs of the building on the other.

That this path is a precarious one is well illustrated by several of the most recent Case Study Houses, especially the Towri House on the Rivo Alto Canal, near Long Beach, and the Triad Development of houses at La Jolla, all by the firm of Killingsworth, Brady and Smith. In each of these houses there is a decided tinge of what has so aptly been labeled “Hollywood Regency.” Not that their forms are in any way eclectic––there is no evidence whatsoever of “French Provincial” or “English Regency” which is the normal mode of the Beverly Hills version of “Holly­wood Regency.” Yet their own involvement with formalism, with forced symmetry and their self-con­scious concern for uncluttered forms and surfaces has created a preciousness which compromises their total architectural statement. Man’s physical frame may well be symmetrical, but this does not mean that he necessarily lives or operates in this way. There is something dramatic about entering a house over a bridge, or via a series of stepping stones over a pool of water, but in the end is this architecture or simply a stage setting? In their house “A” at La Jolla, Kil­lingsworth, Brady and Smith provide this stagey, im­pressive entrance for guests and visitors and then they furnish an entrance for the family directly off the garage area which frankly conveys the informality of the contemporary California scene.

The view of architecture as an intellectual exercise in the realm of pristine sharp-edged forms and pre­cise proportions has long been a dominant theme in the Case Study program (as it has continually cropped up throughout the history of architecture), but in the earlier Case Study Houses by Craig Ellwood and Pierre Koenig the esthetic articulation of planes and volumes defined by precise rectangular shapes had been dominated by the structural form of the building. In Killingsworth, Brady and Smith there is a tendency to play down the structure as the salient motif and in its place to substitute an involvement with form.

The most recent of the Case Study Houses reveals as well a marked shift in the use of materials and the way in which they are exposed. The employment of steel as a relatively new building material in do­mestic architecture was initiated in the Case Study House program by Charles Eames for his own house and studio, built in 1949. The Eames house was the most successful of all the Case Study Houses in that it illustrated how the mass-produced product might be used in domestic architecture. The Eames house used materials, primarily steel and glass, in such a way that their quality of regularity and order never dominated the total form. In the later Case Study Houses of Ellwood and Koenig the steel frame did become the controlling element in the design, forci­bly establishing the surface, the proportion and the volume of the building. In several of the most recent examples of the Case Study Houses this directness of approach to materials and structure has been par­tially abandoned. The materials and structure no longer are an organic part of the design. As Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and even Frank Lloyd Wright have pointed out, good design, especially in our century and here in America, is as much a result of negative self-restraint as it is positive affirmation. Certainly the success of the Eames house was the result of his adherence to the principle of self-re­straint.

Originally the Case Study House program had an­other dominating characteristic and that was its interest in the direct solution of the problems of the mass-produced project house. The first Case Study House by J. R. Davidson was an admirable and highly influential minimal house (of 1100 sq. ft.) and was reproduced as a mass-produced house. The same was true of Summer Spaulding’s and John Rex’s 1947 Case Study House, where a strict modular system was ad­hered to.

By the 1950’s Arts & Architecture had pretty well abandoned any direct concern for mass housing. The houses of the last 12 to 13 years seemed to be based upon the premise of influencing design through osmosis––by creating visual and structural “master­pieces” which will serve as a source of inspiration in the area of project and mass-produced housing. That the Case Study House Project has created significant monuments of the “modern movement” is undeniable and it is hoped that it will continue to do so, but whether this approach, as opposed to its direct in­volvement, can or will affect mass housing (which constitutes well over 90% of all houses built in the U.S.) is open to serious doubt.

––David Gebhard