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On Exhibit: From Spacey to Serious

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By Alison Hewitt

Published Jul 1, 2008 8:00 AM


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Copyright © Photos Courtesy of the Hammer Museum


You may not know architect John Lautner's name, but you know his work. Now, an exhibit at the Hammer Museum seeks to make sure you know it for the right reason.

Lautner created homes that most people consider space-agey and showy, and designed the coffee shop that started the futuristic Googie style in 1949. His circular Chemosphere in the Los Angeles hills perches on a lone column like something George Jetson would call home. Lautner's Turner Residence in Colorado curves out of the ground as though half-buried, and James Bond fought around the indoor boulders of the soaring Elrod Residence in Diamonds Are Forever.

But Lautner hated that people thought he built futuristic Hollywood houses, said historian Nicholas Olsberg, co-curator of the exhibit.

"People looked at the drama of the form instead of the way the form interacted with the environment," Olsberg says. From the outside, his swooping, glass-walled buildings have a spacey edge. Inside, it's clear he sought to eliminate unnatural borders and angles created by walls in order to open up the view and connect the home to its surroundings, Olsberg explains.

"Very often his houses are observatories, a place from which you look out of your shelter and into the world," says co-curator Frank Escher, an architect who restored Chemosphere. The exhibit seeks to reinterpret Lautner's work for the uninitiated. The re-education transforms the Chemosphere's spaceship look to that of a panoramic viewing platform. The half-buried look of the Turner residence suggests the tip of a massive hidden formation, and the Elrod residence's open structure and interior boulders bring nature inside.

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The show includes new and archival scale models of Lautner's work, as well as architectural drawings and several landscape sketches.

Though Lautner's work was considered flighty at first, peers like architect Frank Gehry considered him a genius.

"I don't think you could look at [Gehry's] Disney Hall without realizing how much Frank Gehry owes to Lautner," Olsberg says, referring to the wave-like metal skin of Los Angeles' already iconic silver concert building.

New and archival scale models of Lautner's work will appear at the Hammer alongside his architectural drawings and his landscape sketches, from which he drew inspiration for his giant curving forms, Escher says.

"If you want to see what architecture might be like, what a really ambitious thing architecture can be," Olsberg notes, "you've got to see this."

Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner. July 13-Oct. 12. Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. For more information, call (310) 443-7000 or go to www.hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/139. Tickets: $5 adults, $3 seniors 65+ or with UCLA Alumni Association ID, free for UCLA staff, faculty and students, for museum members and visitors under 18. Free Thursdays. Closed Mondays.

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