- Permission to be Global: Latin American Art from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection
- Xaviera Simmons, Open
Better Homemaking: Los Angeles and Miami
A prominent feature of Los Angeles is what I’ll call its culture of progressive domestic architecture, loosely defined as the ongoing dialogue regarding the private house, its role in contemporary society, its representation of the individual and/or the family, and finally, its role as an avatar of larger issues in the world of architecture. In this regard, Miami does not compete well with Los Angeles’ incredible number of innovative private houses. While their sheer number is noteworthy, the longevity of Los Angeles’ fascination with the private house is equally important: generations of talented architects have contributed to its development. From the turn of the 20th century until today, the ongoing roster of architects designing private houses includes such luminaries as Greene and Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, and, more recently, Michael Maltzan—one of many younger architects practicing in Los Angeles today.
Miami also had a cadre of progressive architects and their work should be noted. Morris Lapidus, Marion Manley, Russell T. Pancoast, and Igor Polevitzky were all active in Miami surrounding World War II, designing modern hotels, university buildings, theaters, and commercial structures. Even so, compared to their Los Angeles contemporaries, they designed relatively few houses. Often, the best houses this generation of Miami architects designed were those they designed for themselves (ill. 1).
A bit of a colony of progressive private houses did, in fact, coalesce in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami in the 1950s and ‘60s, with a dozen or so notable examples within a short distance from each other. Alfred Browning Parker’s house for his mother and George Reed’s Eig House stand out as not only excellent designs but also, unfortunately, as examples of the few houses from that time that haven’t been demolished or altered beyond recognition. The notable houses that Rufus Nims, Robert Bradford Browne, Peter Augustus Jefferson, and Polevitzky designed for Coconut Grove clients during this period no longer exist.1
So why didn’t this culture take deeper root in Miami as opposed to Los Angeles? Does a higher concentration of wealth explain the proliferation of innovative private houses in the Los Angeles? Many of the clients who commissioned Los Angeles’ most famous houses were indeed wealthy, but their desire to live in a house that reflected their lives and values was shared by a wide segment of Los Angeles society. In fact, Neutra and many of his colleagues were as well known for designing middle-class houses—undergoing a boom market as millions of servicemen returned from war with GI-Bill money to build a house—as they were for houses for wealthier clients. An icon of post-war Los Angeles domestic architecture is Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House (ill. 2), with its rather daring and much photographed cantilevered living room. The house occupied only 2,200 square feet on one level, with two bedrooms, a swimming pool, and a great view, but definitely no servant quarters. Bruce Stahl, who grew up in the house, quipped that the Stahls were a “blue-collar family living in a white-collar house.”2
It is not an overstatement to say that the shelter magazines were instrumental in creating Los Angeles’ abundance of ambitious clients. The power of the media in this regard is more than amply demonstrated by the fact that more than 350,000 visitors came to see the first of six Case Study houses that had been built and published by 1948. Arts & Architecture and other shelter magazines ensured that the middle class “private” house was a matter of intense public interest and discussion.
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, long-time dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami, has often made the observation that Miami wasn’t “founded” in the sense that Boston was envisioned by the Puritans or the way Washington, D.C. was laid out by an act of Congress. Rather, Miami was from its earliest days developed by a great number of private individuals that didn’t necessarily share a common vision; many, in fact, were in heated competition with each other. By the 1920s, real-estate development was deeply engrained in the culture of the city and its mechanisms were recognized and endorsed by citizenry and government alike. Inasmuch, the real estate industry in Miami was exceptionally prepared to take advantage of a number of benefits made available at the end of World War II. The construction of housing had been slow during the Depression and the war, creating a huge demand once some 16 million Americans began coming home. Returning GI’s were guaranteed Veterans Administration low-interest mortgages without any down payment. In addition to the GI loans, the 1948 Housing Bill allowed any qualified buyer to buy a home with a 5% down payment on a 30-year mortgage. To further stimulate the construction of houses, the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed loans from banks to developers.3
Added to these factors, Miami-Dade County had an abundance of cheap land and relatively flat topography. As such, a perfect scenario existed for the postwar phenomenon known as tract developments. At the end of the war, there were 33,000 freestanding single-family houses in Miami-Dade County. By the end of the 1950s, the number had skyrocketed to 165,000. The greatest number of these had three bedrooms and cost between $12,500 and $15,000 at the end of the ‘50s.4 While there is little comprehensive documentation, it is safe to assume that great majority of these houses were some version of the increasingly ubiquitous “Ranch House”— the downstream version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of a middle-class American home: the Prairie House.
Many of the more innovative architects working in Miami tried to participate in this boom and to enhance the architectural significance of postwar real-estate developments. The American Institute of Architects sponsored a design competition for a “$5,000 GI House” in 1946, drawing notable submissions from Parker, Polevitzky, Nims, and many others. These houses were not designed as private houses for individuals but were prototypes that were meant to be suitable for a great number of people and were to be built en masse. While the competition specifically addressed the needs of GI’s, they reflected the aspirations of other Florida newcomers, both young families and retirees, as well. They were conspicuously modern in design, economical to build, and boldly innovative when it came to dealing with Florida’s tropical climate before conditioned air was widely available. Large screened rooms, sliding and pivoting louvered doors, and rooms arranged around open courtyards were all innovations that found their way into Florida’s post-war housing stock, even as the architects’ prototype designs for mass housing mostly languished.5
The intended clients for these prototype houses were real estate developers, but there seems to have been little rapport between the best postwar architects and the large-scale developers that were changing the face of Miami. Rather, developers turned increasingly to the now familiar practice of “branding” their developments rather than using modern design itself, as in the Case Study Houses program. The Mackle Brothers Company used Space Age imagery, including a fanciful rocket built at the entrance to one of their model home shows, to make their rather standard issue houses seem more alluring (ill. 5).
In 1926, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss founded Opa-locka, an even more fanciful development “inspired” by the Arabian Nights. Until halted by the 1926 hurricane and the Depression, Curtiss built houses and civic buildings with Moorish Revival details—minarets, onion-shaped domes, elaborate tile work, etc.—on thoroughfares such as Sultan Avenue, Ali Baba Avenue, and Aladdin Street.
Frank Gehry once asked, “Why would you hire an architect and then tell him what to do?” But that is exactly how Miami developers realized their ambitious projects. Today, Frank M. Button and George Fink, the architects who designed Mediterranean houses for Coral Gables, and Bernhardt E. Muller, who designed 86 buildings for Opa-locka, are certainly less well known than the developers that employed them. In addition to Merrick Way and Curtiss Street, the Tuttle Causeway, Brickell Avenue, and Collins Avenue are all examples of thoroughfares honoring Miami’s developers.
There is no question that the real estate industry also made a deep imprint on the architecture of Los Angeles. Virtually all of the factors that created a postwar housing boom in Miami applied to Los Angeles as well. It should also be noted that for every innovative and individualized private house in Los Angeles, there are dozens of nondescript tract houses that were indistinguishable from their counterparts in Miami or elsewhere.
Even so, it seems that Los Angeles has had a different attitude towards architects and architecture from early on. In the first two decades of the 20th century, Chicago-based Wright was commissioned by five different clients for private houses in Los Angeles, despite the challenge of long-distance travel and communication in those days. What kind of people commissioned these houses, not just Wright’s, but all of Los Angeles’ early domestic achievements? As a group they are hard to define other than saying that they shared a common belief that they needed to live in a house that was designed for them, that reflected their values and aspirations. Consider Philip Lovell, a physician and early practitioner of alternative medicine. He commissioned two houses in the late 1920s: a beach house by Rudolph Schindler and a principal hillside residence by Neutra that became known as the Lovell Health House (ill. 6). He wanted his houses to reflect his beliefs: “Design me a house that will enhance by its design the HEALTH of the inhabitants!” In both Schindler’s and Neutra’s designs, that meant lots of outdoors spaces for sunbathing and calisthenics, as well as outdoor sleeping porches. The Health House also included a laboratory-like kitchen with an oversized cooler to keep his vegetarian clients’ produce fresh.
Hollywood’s first fling with modern architecture came around the time Lovell was building the Health House. In 1929, Paul Nelson, an American-born architect living in Paris, designed the first film sets featuring European modern design for “What A Widow,” one of the first talkies. The film sets helped develop the character of movie’s star, Gloria Swanson, whose screen persona was a Chanel-wearing, sports car-driving, modern sophisticate. Nelson also designed a private movie theater for Joseph Kennedy, who owned RKO Studios and was having an affair with Swanson.
Hollywood continued and continues to treat architecture as one of the principal “actors” in the movies. In many cases, directors have chosen private houses of distinction, many of them located right in Los Angeles, as sets for the screen action. Wright’s Ennis House has appeared in several major films including “Blade Runner” and “The Day of the Locust.” Neutra’s Lovell Health House appeared in “L.A. Confidential” and “Beginners.” In two different television movies, the relatively modest Stahl House was cast as Elizabeth Taylor’s home and later as that of diet doctor Robert Atkins.
Hollywood has also repeatedly produced movies with architects as protagonists. Gary Cooper in “The Fountainhead,” Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men,” and Paul Newman in “The Towering Inferno” were all treated as heroic figures. (In 1953, after appearing in “The Fountainhead,” Cooper hired A. Quincy Jones to design a modern house for his family.) Liam Neeson, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, and a host of other stars have portrayed architects in a fashion that, if not heroic, was positive and sympathetic. An animated Frank Gehry has even appeared on an episode of The Simpsons.
Hollywood’s affection for architecture is as evident in the commissioning of private houses as it is in the movies. The director Josef von Sternberg commissioned Neutra to design him a house that was built in 1945. In 1985 the producer Joel Silver bought Wright’s Storer House, which had fallen into disrepair, and proceeded with a thorough and costly renovation. Michael Ovitz, the founder of Creative Artists Agency and the former president of Disney Studios, hired Michael Maltzan to design a hillside house for his family and extensive art collection, which was completed four years ago (ill. 7). Each of these industry titans underscored the importance of the private house not only as a means of personal expression but as the mise-en-scene of the development of their own mythologies within the cultural and physical landscape of Los Angeles.
There is no real conclusion to this narrative, only potential scenarios for the future. In the case of Miami, it is optimistic, though not impossible, to imagine a leap to a higher level with regards to innovative domestic architecture. The recent architectural successes of Herzog & de Meuron (Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1111 Lincoln Road) and Frank Gehry (New World Symphony and, in design, the YoungArts campus) may have a transformative affect on how architects are perceived in Miami. The cadre of talented local architects designing innovative houses—Allan Schulman, Rene Gonzalez, K|Z Architecture, and many others—could well benefit from such a change in perception.
The commissioning (again, recent) of more high-profile designers such as Zaha Hadid, Richard Meier, and Bjarke Ingels for condominium towers is also notable in that it reflects the emergence of a new level of architectural ambition amongst some real estate developers. As it has in the past, changes in the real estate industry could influence broader changes in Miami’s culture.
It is also interesting to note a process that is already underway. A great many of the 130,000 houses built in the postwar boom still exist. Many of these have little merit other than the fact that they were the first rung on the ladder of home ownership. However, a good number of these houses have been affectionately and deservedly reconceived as icons of “Mid-century Modernism.” As can be seen throughout Miami-Dade County, each of these home sites is now a potential laboratory for architectural innovation involving the replacement, expansion, or renewal of the existing structures. Miami has, after all, always offered chances to start over.