Southern California boasted a similarly inviting, domestically oriented modernist architecture that sought to minimize the distinction between building and site (in contrast to the International Style architects, already establishing their hegemony on the East Coast, who wanted to draw the sharpest line possible between nature and their dwellings). Indeed, that region nurtured a distinctly American but consciously modernist architecture, with Wright’s former student Richard Neutra its most prominent exponent. And later, Los Angeles’s postwar kicky, family-friendly Case Study houses emerged as the best examples of homegrown American modernism.
Why was it such fertile ground? I think because Los Angeles—then the most bourgeois large American city—already had the country’s most architecturally impressive middle-class housing stock, a domestic architecture that flowered from the 1880s through the 1920s, shaped by women’s concerns that could be described as proto-modernist. Los Angeles’s ubiquitous California bungalows— stylish, airy, inexpensive, praised for their indoor-outdoor arrangements, many built from precut, mail-order lumber—housed servantless families (also the most Anglo-Saxon major city, Los Angeles had an unusually small population of immigrants to draw on for domestic work) and not a few invalids (Southern California was famously a tubercular’s paradise). The dictates of the popular domestic-reform and public-health movements were unusually convincing there, especially because they comported with the aesthetic tenets of the bungalows’ creators.
The result was a house of built-in conveniences and furniture, uncluttered space, unvarnished oak, uncarpeted floors, whitewashed walls, uncurtained windows, and an open plan (to allow for the circulation of healthy air) in which clean, straight lines and smooth surfaces predominated. (In 1912, Gustav Stickley issued the prophetically Miesian pronouncement that the bungalow was the result “not of elaboration, but of elimination.”) Cleanliness, functionality, and convenience—the concerns, largely, of the women of middle-class households—were aestheticized. In the end, the ubiquitous bungalow may have been, as the architectural historians David Gebhard and Robert Winter assert, “the closest thing to a democratic art form that has ever been produced.”
The 20-odd-year jump from the bungalow to the breezy, crisp Case Study houses isn’t perhaps so radical. Yes, the houses were largely glass framed in steel, but they too were marked by a fluidity of indoor and outdoor space, designed for a middle-class budget, and (unlike Philip Johnson’s and Mies’s antiseptic glass boxes back East) jaunty and remarkably livable. And they too engendered, like the Eichler houses, their mass-market counterparts, a California good life, “informal but not necessarily bohemian” (as one promoter of the bungalows nicely put it). One important difference made the Case Study houses even more agreeable to women and families than bungalows: Following Wright (and Beecher and Beecher Stowe), the kitchen is at the center, an integral part of the elegantly designed indoor/outdoor living space. This not only knit the family together but bestowed a sunny exuberance, even a measure of offhand glamour, on quotidian life. It’s obvious, for instance, from the plans in Davies’s book that anyone in the kitchen of Pierre Koenig’s L-shaped Case Study House #22 would have shared in the beguiling scene in the iconic photo of two seated women in cocktail dresses, the house seemingly suspended over the night lights of West Hollywood (see “The Iconographer,” November 2006). Davies, nailing it as ever, sums up that house: “In the late 1950s, life was sweet for middle-class Angelenos.”