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Demystifying Frank Lloyd Wright’s most eccentric LA homes

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Critic Christopher Hawthorne’s engaging new documentary digs into the backstory of the Ennis and Millard houses

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, a favorite of film and television producers, and a focus on a new television show on his work in Los Angeles.
Courtesy KCET

Frank Lloyd Wright’s career casts a long shadow on the world of architecture and architectural criticism. Last year’s celebration of his 150th birthday suggests the architect is perhaps more popular today than he was during his lifetime—an era when he was arguably the world’s most famous architect.

This makes it all the more exciting to watch a television show that shines new light on his Los Angeles architecture, designed during one of the darkest periods of Wright’s life. As part of the Artbound series by KCET, Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne has not only delivered a sprawling examination of the Ennis and Millard Houses, two of the architect’s eccentric, Mayan-inspired concrete block homes, but connects these ’20s oddities to Wright’s then-upended life and career.

That Far Corner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeleswhich premiered last night, will air regularly on KCET, and can be watched online—includes the kind of in-depth and on-site analysis that adds new dimensions to these under-appreciated designs.

Like a crime drama, Hawthorne’s exploration of these homes, and Wright sites across the country, follows the trail of evidence where it leads, pulling together threads with forensic detail.

There’s something both larger-than-life and mysterious about these homes. The Ennis Home, built in 1924, which towers like a temple over Los Feliz, has made numerous cameos in movies and televisions shows, while the lesser-known Millard House (1923) hides in a Pasadena ravine (Hawthorne’s interest was piqued, in part, by repeated visits, since his daughter takes piano lessons at the home). They’re not unknown, but they are under-explored and under-analyzed by Wright standards, Hawthorne says.

“They’re not invisible, but the buildings themselves are kind of inscrutable and off-putting, and don’t open themselves up to easy analysis,” he adds. “They’re so different from Wright’s career and what other LA architects were doing at the time.”

What makes Hawthorne’s exploration of these sites so engaging is the way he traces how Wright’s ideas and personal life came together to create such singular structures. At the time these homes were designed and built, Wright had relocated from the Midwest to Los Angeles, trying to reinvent himself after his affair with Mamah Borthwick and her tragic killing at Taliesin pushed him to flee to Europe.

“There’s a degree to which Wright was trying to escape,” says Hawthorne.

Courtesy KCET

Wright arrived in Southern California during a period in the early 20th century when Los Angeles’s debate about its identity was playing out in its architecture. The default setting for civic design was Spanish Colonial: the state’s missions were being rediscovered and restored at the time, and the 1915 Panama-California exhibition in San Diego prominently featured the style.

But Wright—in the midst of his own identity crisis, having pushed the Prairie concept about as far as he could go, and always looking to do something daring—saw a different route. Channeling Mayan and Aztec patterns, some of which also received exposure at the Panama-Californian exhibition, the architect saw a new form that would be more authentically American than a style imported from Europe.

Never mind that Wright, who never visited actual Pre-Columbian Central American architecture sites, was engaged in his own myth-making, says Hawthorne. These styles and patterns fit together with the new concrete block building system he wanted to experiment with, and the notoriously self-confident architect undertook the challenge of creating a contrarian building in a landscape he barely knew.

Hawthorne’s hour-long documentary shines when it connects Wright’s previous projects with these architectural outliers. Trips to both the Robie House in Chicago, an epitome of Wright’s Prairie Style period and his time in the Midwest, as well as a look at the A.D. German Warehouse, a odd project in southwest Wisconsin, and the first use of his Mayan block patterns, shows how Wright arrived at these unique projects.

“That project was key to me,” says Hawthorne. “He comes almost directly from the Expo in San Diego and designs a warehouse that’s so otherworldly and out of place, yet so connected to what he’ll later be experimenting with in Los Angeles.”

Courtesy KCET

Despite the striking look of these buildings, Wright was determined to do something authentic and of the landscape, a point Hawthorne underscores. The recipe for his concrete blocks even called for using the soil from site of each project; that’s why the Ennis House, which rises from the hillside, matches the tan color. The Millard House was situated in a ravine, a challenging placement that raised the degree of difficulty on an already demanding project. A new structural system, and an atypical, romantic, site, which complicates construction; Wright was “challenging himself in an interesting, and often, perverse way.”

The architect was proud of the homes, at one point writing of the Millard House that he “would have rather built this little house in Pasadena than St. Peter’s in Rome. Clearly an exaggeration, it spoke to pride of authorship in the quirky gem of a home.

Hawthorne feels the deep dive into both homes, while exposing Wright’s unique process and influences, also shows how the two projects have a lot to say about a long-lasting design dialogue. How can architecture be used to explain and expound on LA’s civic identity?

“The most interesting buildings in LA, for me, are the ones that try and grapple with that idea,” he says. “What does it mean to be an LA architect, and build a LA home?”