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How Lautner's UFO Was Saved From "Unspeakable" Alterations

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Even for a giant like organic modernist John Lautner, an architectural legacy is a fluid thing. This was made keenly apparent earlier this month, when a forgotten Lautner house was "rediscovered" and added to his long list of sought-after SoCal designs, but the more workaday efforts of shoring up an oeuvre often fall to preservation-focused architecture firms like Silver Lake-based Escher GuneWardena Architecture. In an article first published by the AIA, founding principal Frank Escher gave some insight into the steps involved in bringing Lautner's flying saucer-like Chemosphere house back from looking "like a rundown motel room," thanks to years of "unspeakable" alterations that left it in a "very sad shape." But some of this octagonal oddity's worst features were there from the start, cost-cutting measures and aesthetic deviations that Lautner never approved of in the first place.

In many ways, Escher was the perfect man for the job. He worked directly with Lautner on the book John Lautner, Architect, and also kept the Lautner archives before they were donated to the Getty Research Institute. German publisher Benedikt Taschen, who showed him the home in 1988 after buying it for nearly $1 million, seemed to know as much. After Escher pointed out the "layer of visual noise" covering the interior, Taschen gave him total leeway over the project, saying "Mr. Escher, why don't you do what you think is right?"

For Escher, finding out what was right involved going back to Lautner's original drawings, plus consulting with the project architect. Another source was Leonard Malin, the aerospace engineer who originally commissioned the house back in 1960, after securing funding from sponsorships by companies like Chem Seal, which provided "experimental coatings" and was given the building's name in return. Apparently these sponsorships weren't totally sufficient, as the worst offender was a cost-cutting "dirty yellow tile" applied in place of the broken slate floor Lautner had planned. "It sort of looked like a public men's room," says Escher, which (quite understandably) Lautner "never really liked." To address that, Escher brought in "a pattern of very thin cut slate," to give Lautner's original idea a "more contemporary manifestation."

Another retroactive application of a Lautner idea that never made it to construction was the wood paneling that connected the kitchen to the living room, which had been constructed with drywall instead. Showing the occasional twists and turns of interpretation that go into a project like this, Escher also opted to use frameless glass for the windows, which Lautner only started doing later in his career upon revisiting his houses. For a look at channeling Rudolph Schindler in Inglewood and a "forensic restoration" of Charles and Ray Eames's own studio, read the whole thing over at Arch Daily.


—Spencer Peterson
· Pacific Coast Sun Rises on Modernist House Restorations [AIA via Arch Daily]
· John Lautner [Curbed LA]
· Chemosphere [Curbed LA]

Chemosphere

7776 Torreyson Dr., Los Angeles, CA