For a man who despised Los Angeles, John Lautner created some of the grandest versions of modernist architecture in the city, buildings and private homes that bring back the space-age future of the ’50s, yet also were all specifically built to fit into their surroundings, not stick out from it. In this recent documentary, “Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner,” that closes off UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Art Architecture series, Mr. Lautner’s life is traced through loving explorations of his surviving work.
Mr. Lautner’s own voice drops in here and there to occasionally elucidate the history of a home, and his accent and tone is classic Midwestern, clipped, efficient, nasal. It’s the voice of a man who devoted his life to work, and we hear anecdotes of hours, sometimes days spent looking at a topographical property map before a sudden flurry of sketching and creation.
He apprenticed under Frank Lloyd Wright, and was in awe of the man. Mr. Lautner contributed a lot to Taliesin West (he was one of the students), Wingspread in Wisconsin, and others. But when he came to Los Angeles to start his own firm, he disliked the area immediately, and never really got over it. (He’d like it even less now, one supposes.)
But that actually helped Mr. Lautner. It helped in taking what he learned from the Wright work and bringing those ideas into a rapidly modernizing urban sprawl. Mr. Lautner used the surroundings as something to be incorporated into the design, not ignored or obliterated. The houses disappear into the cliff face, or into the surrounding forest. These are residences that are in Los Angeles, but they’re not in “L.A.”
However, his business design is very much “L.A.” His design for Googie’s restaurant, with its space-age wings and sharp angles, was so distinctive that the business name became synonymous with the style. Mr. Lautner hated this, but retro fans love this style, and when the set designers on “Pulp Fiction” created Jack Rabbit Slim’s, they were quoting directly from the Lautner book.
The architect rarely worked on public buildings, due to the inevitable watering down of ideas by committee. One school in Los Feliz still exists, its umbrella-like ceilings similar to his famous Chemosphere building in the Hollywood Hills. But mostly he worked on private residences for clients with enough money to make it happen and enough sense to let the artist do his thing.
His last major work, the “Marbrisa” house in Acapulco, shows exactly what Mr. Lautner could achieve unfettered. High on a hill overlooking the bay, it has a moat circling the residence. At certain angles it looks like the seat of heaven, nothing but sky and water.
As a documentary, “Infinite Space” feels like a patchwork sometimes. The hagiography is solid, with great archival footage of the building process, and sweeping, wide angle tours of the interiors. But it doesn’t do well on the personal side, affording his divorced wife, who was left to raise four children, only a quick side note, seemingly just to get it in the film. There’s also a group of Dutch architecture fans who used Google maps to track down all of Mr. Lautner’s remaining works, and who get to hang out in the famous Elrod House (“Diamonds Are Forever”) and party. They seem fun, and pop in and out of the film, but this often feels like a distraction. Still the film is important for any architecture fan.
‘Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner’
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Length: 90 minutes
When: 3 p.m. Sun.
Where: Pollock Theater, UCSB
Cost: $10/$5 students 893-4637, www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu