California Design and the Case Study Houses

Southern California art, architecture, and design supposedly has a chip on its shoulder, and Pacific Standard Time, the months-long parade, from October 2011 to March 2012, of some 170 exhibitions at some 130 SoCal museums and galleries, was the result. As Adam Nagourney wrote in the New York Times, the festival was a “statement of self-affirmation by a region that, at times, appears to feel underappreciated as a serious culture center.”

The inferiority angle may make for compelling marketing but is overplayed. Southern California has contributed oodles of serious culture and knows it. And in perhaps no area is its strong influence felt more strongly than in modern home design.

The star of “California Design, 1930–1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way,’” one of PST’s major exhibitions, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was not the many varied items (couches and clothing and jewelry and suchlike) on display but the aggregate they formed: the distinct interior of the region’s modern, single-family homes. Architecture had pride of place: the exhibition’s curators went so far as to recreate the inside of the famous Eames House of 1949.

The Eames House, also known as Case Study House #8, was one of two dozen structures built between 1945 and 1964, mostly in Southern California, as part of the vaunted Case Study program.

These Case Study houses (most of the buildings were houses) exemplified California’s particular style of modernism: they shared with their European forebears many of modernism’s design shibboleths (flat roofs, no ornamentation, etc.) but not its ideology and austerity. The Case Study houses were lighter, happier, material-consumption-friendly. They were more welcoming than foreboding. More livable than theoretical.

The Case Study program, sponsored by a Los Angeles-based architecture magazine, was strikingly successful and, according to Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, later “helped drive a broader modernist revival in architecture and interior design.”

Hawthorne has a grievance with the Case Study program, however: that “implicitly but powerfully, it endorsed the low-density, car-dependent urbanism of postwar Southern California.” Rather than produce structures that would have led Los Angeles away from its tendency toward horizontal sprawl, in other words, the Case Study architects merely succumbed to it. In his dissent Hawthorne quoted the historian Kevin Starr, who wrote that the houses were disconnected from urban concerns and, as such, merely reflected the abiding spirit of L.A., a city Starr lamented as “enclavist in its sociology.”

There is truth here. But are such criticisms fair? After all, one of the pioneering characteristics of California modernism was its ease with materialism. Perhaps it’s a tad unjust to expect the Case Study architects to have designed apart from their milieu. They were inventing experimental structures, yes, but those structures were created and built in a specific environment.

In Southern California in the mid-20th century the single-family home was revered. For better or worse, L.A.’s postwar denizens saw individual houses on individual lots as endemic to their environment. Tall apartment buildings and narrow streets and mixed-use neighborhoods conjured in their minds scenes of graying urban decay. Their city, they avowed, would escape such supposed blights. Their trinity: sunshine, freeways, and single-family homes moated by carefully coiffed lawns.

Perhaps the Case Study designers could have created buildings that challenged these desires. How successful would they have been? And had they done so, would we still discuss their houses today?