There is a well-documented obsession with modernist architecture in contemporary art. In recent British work, Tacita Dean, Alex Hartley, Toby Paterson and Rachel Whiteread have regularly represented modern architecture in photography, film and installation, a phenomenon accompanied by growing interest in the movies of Andrei Tarkovsky. JG Ballard’s novels, and the art of Robert Smithson (the latter’s posthumous career now having eclipsed anything he did while still alive).
In all of this work, architectural modernism is understood as fantastical, but invariably ruined. Whatever social promise it once had has been long undermined by the decay of the buildings themselves. Images of their destruction (Whiteread), picturesque ruin (Dean) or their subversion (Hartley) have replaced images of their inhabitation. They no longer exist as spaces in which one might actually live, but as emblems of a project that is now definitively over. The pleasure these images produce is inevitably bound up with their ruination. Just as the motley trio at the heart of Tarkovsky’s Stalker explore a landscape of modern ruins, so contemporary artists in Britain envisage modernism as a landscape of inevitable decay. The French architect Bernard Tschumi once remarked of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye before restoration that the most architectural thing about it was its dereliction, its rotting woodwork and pervasive damp possession of an erotic dimension that new architecture inevitably lacked. So it is with art’s take on modernism.
It may seem odd initially to speak of these things in the context of John Lautner’s show at the Lighthouse in Glasgow, an exhibition of pristine, otherworldly buildings that look for the most part as if they have just arrived from another planet. But Lautner’s buildings have been obsessively documented by Alex Hartley—four of them appear in his book LA Climbs, 2003 —and they represent exactly the kind of fantastic modernism that appeals to artists.
The attraction of the exhibition’s is partly this, but at the same time its American curators are anxious to canonise Lautner. So the show is first and foremost a collection of serious documents: a collection of the architect’s robust, muscular drawings, photographs of heavily restored buildings in situ, and some models of key buildings. The intention throughout is to give Lautner’s work the serious attention the curators believe it has so far lacked, for apart from a brief period in the mid-1950s, Lautner seems to have been a curiously marginal figure despite his success.
Emerging from Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in the 1940s, he moved to Los Angeles and set up in business catering to clients in and around Hollywood. This meant a steady stream of clients with the wherewithal to experiment, but also a gimmicky quality in the buildings in which spectacle dominates. Modernism—with its concern for truth to materials, experimentation with form, and advocacy of new ways of living—facilitates these houses, but also the departure from it.
The houses are nevertheless amazing. The Pearlman Mountain Cabin, 1957, is a music lover’s fantasy of a glass music room surrounded entirely by trees: the circular pavilion contains a grand piano, a few easychairs and virtually nothing else. The iconic Chemosphere, 1960, is a cylindrical pod set on a central concrete pillar containing all the services. Located on an impossibly steep plot looking out over the San Fernando valley in LA, it can only be reached by funicular railway. The Elrod House, 1968, a concrete pavilion on a rocky outcrop above Palm Springs, is half mountain, half house with the main living area open to the elements overlooking the city. This sensational home, more a theatre set than a house, was the location of a memorable scene from the Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever, 1971, a fact that both made the house world famous, but also—in the view of the architect—detracted from its seriousness.
Lautner’s work extended briefly to a few public realm projects. Despite his longstanding antipathy to LA (‘junkland’), he saw it as a laboratory of new forms of living. In the 1940s he designed a number of drive-in restaurants for the Henry’s chain which show an imagination of the highway as a social space, a genuine compensation for the lack of traditional streets and squares in the city: spectacular, generously proportioned and sociable, they evidence a genuine attempt to find a new social architecture in a city that had none. Mostly, however, Lautner’s houses are nothing if not anti-social, built for clients with an unquestionable need for privacy; hidden in their landscapes, they’re hard to find; and they turn the surrounding city into a distant spectacle, a skyline of mountains or office towers safely removed. There is no sense of engagement with the urban except as a visual spectacle.
In social terms, a sense of order predominates—there are little voyeuristic jokes here and there, such as a swimming pool built with a transparent floor above
a master bedroom, but in general these are houses that suppose an ordered bourgeois life—you sleep here, you have cocktails with friends over there, you read there and over here you have dinner parties. The curators of the exhibition are anxious to reiterate this view, affirming the seriousness of the architect—this is, they argue in this exhibition, a serious designer, dealing with big ideas, imposing order on the world.
Yet the best part of the show, a clutch of films by Murray Grigor, foreground this anxiety: panning evenly through the perfect, sunlit interiors of these houses, they point up their inherent fantasies of control. As the camera alights momentarily on each individual element, we realise how unrealistic they are, how much they are stage sets, how their perfection really demands that no person inhabit them and ultimately how the vision of advanced sociability fails. That’s not to condemn these extraordinary houses—far from it—but to say that they belong in the realm of art. It is their existence as fantasy, not as living spaces, that is their real value.
Richard Williams is a writer and lecturer in history of art at the University of Edinburgh