Raphael Zuber: I’m constantly thinking of buildings I like, and since a while John Lautner and Vilanova Artigas are very present in my thoughts. Thinking of a house I would like to live in, Sheats-Goldstein Residence is the first one that comes to my mind at this moment. It’s a very grand house, but it’s also nothing else than a platform covered by a tent-like roof and a space under the platform to sleep. This represents an elemental concept of human existence.
Is there any order at all, or is it rather a hierarchy of things that come together and create a certain tension between themselves?
Many houses designed and built by Lautner follow a similar principle: one enters the building through a rather long corridor-like path, leading directly to the fireplace in the main space. This main space is usually an outside space in character and one cannot see any other buildings from there. So, entering the house, one moves from outside space to outside space - which in fact is the same space – but by once being public and once being private, the quality of this space is radically changed.
This change of perception creates the amazing sensation of the whole world being the house, or, to put it even more dramatically, the house being everything.
This experience is strongly emphasized by the fact that all the other rooms are usually not present in the house. They are rather used to form this transition from public into private. This also means that these rooms are often oriented towards the street, which is the most vulnerable and exposed place. But accessing them from the dense interior of the house, even there one feels very private and protected.
In the case of Sheats-Goldstein Residence, one goes around the house and enters in its middle. The master bedroom is hidden under the platform. It is cantilevering and can be entirely opened on two sides towards the city. Contradictory qualities, like in this particular case feeling protected and exposed at the same time, I think are essential. They create an ambiguity which is not only intellectual, but also very directly experienced physically. This is thought-provoking and creative.
It doesn’t give you a clear idea of how the building looks like from outside. What quality do you see in conceiving and experiencing a building from the inside?
Sheats-Goldstein Residence is surrounded by dense vegetation and is hardly visible from the outside.
Also, it doesn`t have any façade. This is of course the consequence of the idea of the house being everything. If the house would be an object, it would be disconnected from its surroundings. What stays in ones memory is rather a secret spot to access a constructed, fantastic world.
This is good for a house, but is it possible for other types of buildings to have this quality?
I could imagine it for every building. For example, imagine a National Parliament Building without any external physical presence! An impressive appearance is the most direct way of representation and of producing an impact, but maybe not the one that lasts longest.
What fascinates us about this house is that the connection between interior and exterior is accidental and unexpected, how do you think this interplay happens?
Approaching the main space by the entrance path, it’s hard to tell where the house starts. Already there, the border between interior and exterior is blurred. After walking a bit, suddenly one feels protected and elegant, and this is exactly the moment of finally being in the house, even though still being in that same, infinite outside space.
There are many different factors making this happen. First of all, walls and glass don’t follow the geometry of the roof and walls do not always touch the roof. Then, there are openings in the roof where one cannot see any frame of the glass and there are mirroring surfaces, including water. In contrast to the very clear initial gestures of platform and freestanding roof, the climatic border is freely composed between these two elements and sometimes even natural elements like rocks. One could call that accidental or improvised, but in fact it’s of course intentional and controlled. I would rather call it unacademic. Often when I experience architecture that is thought through so called correctly, in an academic way, I don’t feel comfortable anymore. Lautner’s houses usually have a genuine looseness which even sharpens their basic idea.
Another aspect I like a lot about Sheats-Goldstein Residence is the fact that I think one would feel comfortable and great there both alone and with a crowd. This is very difficult to achieve!
How do you think this can happen?
I would say that such a place or space needs moments of exposure as well as moments of protection. In a rather big space with freedom to move, one might easily feel lost or have difficulties to find a place where to sit. Usually we like to sit where we feel save, close to a solid element like a column, a wall or a ceiling, and rather in the dark. In that way we might be less seen or surprised. And we like to have an open view towards a point of interest. The opposite is the stage, where we get attention and attack or seduce. In this aspect we are very much alike animals, for different actions we instinctively chose different spatial conditions.
Sheats-Goldstein Residence is one single space with an extremely well balanced variety of all possible spatial conditions. And still, it’s not just a collection or a collage of many different things. It’s a basic idea, which in its consequence and virtuosity creates a oneness containing all these qualities. I think that John Lautner as well as Frank Lloyd Wright were both masters in designing such spaces.
If you compare FLW with Lautner, what similarities and differences do you see?
An obvious difference is that Wright’s buildings usually are very carefully designed into the landscape. Lautner’s buildings often relate brutally to the landscape, do not have any façade and look ugly from outside. They are less objects in a landscape but rather create new worlds within another one.
But both Wright and Lautner were definitely extremely inventive and radical, and both of them built a lot. In Frank Lloyd Wrights work one can see a development from rather classical ideas of space towards more and more totally independent creations. Lautner, having learned from Wright, started at a different point of course. His work, already quite early in his career, was absolutely free of any conventions or references.
I would argue though that Wright’s houses are more elegant and cultivated than the ones designed by Lautner. At the same time, they are a bit more stubborn or formal. Even though I conceptually completely understand a hexagonal bed in a certain context, I once hardly managed to sleep in a house designed by him because I couldn’t figure out in which direction to lay myself down. I would have preferred a round bed, for example, with no direction. Lautner therefore was known for telling to his clients that he could deal with all of their requests, at least that is what I heard. One can read such an attitude in his buildings, and it seems that he really managed to strengthen the overall character and quality of his buildings by doing that, rather than compromising them. But both, Wright and Lautner, are definitely amongst the very best architects we have known.
From what you say, it doesn’t seem very intellectual, rather it’s a generous and playful response to the basic needs of a person.
Lautner’s buildings are not like a mathematical formula with only one correct result. His buildings are usually based on ideas - like for example the idea `the house is everything` - which causally determine some very clear criteria.
But at the same time they also leave space to and require personal imagination and virtuosity of the author. I think it’s mainly the basicness of ideas on which Lautner’s buildings are based that lead to this freedom of composition and ultimately to buildings of such enormous generosity. But of course without talent and joy one could very easily fail working in that way.
If you physically feel good, do you need to understand a house?
Anything without content is in the best case good craftsmanship. All the great things are based on a speculation or an idea. And both, speculation and idea, we can rationalize and discuss. If there isn`t anything challenging our minds, a building might get boring quite soon.
Do you think Lautner’s buildings work only in the context of rich private clients, or can they also deal with low budget situations?
The kind of architecture Lautner did is not dependent on budget or any other imposed restrictions. Rather the opposite, I think he was able to deal with any kind of circumstances. As far as I know he started out working with extremely low budgets. His first house he built for himself, and he didn’t have any money. He got a loan from a friend to buy the plot and another loan from another friend to build the house. So he went full risk. For quite a while he built houses with low budgets, sometimes on plots considered unbuildable. When potential clients didn’t have enough money to build he would recommend them to buy one of these problematic plots, for example on the rocks or by a steep slope, and invent a way of building there. These houses turned out to be quite spectacular sometimes and would attract richer clients over time. But I would argue that the quality of his architecture didn’t gain or lose by that, and I argue in general that the quality of a piece of Architecture is not related in any sense to money.
In the end his houses are also very pragmatic. If a client would have wanted a wall with windows instead of a huge glass in a specific case, do you think this is something he could have dealt with?
This is a very extreme scenario (laughing)! I am convinced he would have found a solution to almost every problem of this nature. And if not he would probably have changed the basic layout or even the idea of the house.
Still, you need to be open mentality to accept what he proposed. If we made a survey about Lautner’s work, probably 70% of the people would call it insane.
Today, I would say that 99% would not dare to build as much out of conventions as he did! At least not in Europe. Probably this is also partly due to the American spirit, where people are used to bet on a lot of things. I am not an expert, but American Modernism dealt a lot with the new cheap technologies of prefabrication: after WW1 they needed to build a lot and fast. This, together with the fact that the USA have a thin history and tradition, definitely helped to form a more experimental and pioneering general attitude. Today this mindset is probably moving ever closer to the European one of conserving and administrating.
Going back to his own house: he obviously built it with basically no money, risking everything he had including his future, and he built it as an example. It was not as extreme as later projects, but it was uncommon for the time. Lautner himself writes that after seeing the house built, people from the neighborhood would start to get interested in his work. We are usually afraid of the unconventional, we like what we know. With this I want to say that a certain effort and willingness to risk are required to possibly create or get something exceptional!
Does a Lautner style exist?
There are certain ideas and qualities being essential to his works, and he kept developing them during his entire career. I’m thinking now for example of the connection of interior and exterior, of the relationship between public and private or of the position of the fireplace. But in terms of taste he was totally free and didn’t follow any formal language or preferences. Seeing some of his buildings, without studying them deeper, one would think they were designed by different authors. By comparing for example Sheats-Goldstein Residence to Schaffer or Harpel Residence II more carefully though, it becomes obvious that these buildings are quite similar in essence, but extremely different in visual appearance and in lifestyle. In Lautner’s work, everything not being a crucial consequence of the basic idea could completely change.
Actually, the more I’m thinking about how I would like to live, the more a certain robustness, in every sense, becomes important to me. It’s nice and generous to know that your house doesn’t need much maintenance and you don’t need to clean it too often. Or that you could even simply clean it with a hose from time to time. It’s also nice to know that one could have a party with many people and that nothing could destroy the essential qualities of the house.
The generosity you are talking about is given mainly by the dimensions of space, right?
I’m rather thinking of a generosity as a consequence of robustness, both physically as well as intellectually. Telmo Porto House by Vilanova Artigas for example is not a big house in size. But the material concrete and the directness of construction gives it the same indestructible presence that also Sheats-Goldstein Residence has. And, both houses are based on the quite simple, but grand and powerful idea of creating an infinite, private space. They are both houses that can’t be destroyed by personal taste or a slightly inappropriate proportion.