Friday, April 30, 2010


Anyone who loves Modernism knows Pierre Koenig's houses. They're rational, beautiful, glamorous statements of the free-wheeling California life. Touring a Koenig house, one can be forgiven for thinking that one has somehow walked into a marvelous Sixties movie. Equally inspiring to their stylish envelope is their engineering genius adaptation to the footprint they set on. Koenig (1925 – 2004) received his B.Arch from the University of Southern California, apprenticed under Raphael Soriano among others, and was in private practice beginning in 1952. He practiced mainly on the west coast and was most notable for the design of the Case Study Houses No. 21 and 22 in 1960 and other steel houses. Both 21 (the Bailey House) and 22 (the Stahl House) were constructed on dramatic, otherwise-unbuildable sites. They were the result of 'Arts and Architecture' magazine approaching Koenig to participate in the magazine's Case Study House program. His houses captured the spirit of the post-war boom like no others; their open plans, easy glamour, and ease of maintenance were exactly what Los Angeles wanted to chase the austerity of the war years. In 1989-90 MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), built a full-size, walk-through model of Case Study House 22 in their Temporary Contemporary Building for the major exhibition: "Blueprints for Modern Living, History and Legacy of the Case Study House program." Case Study House No.22 is also represented in the traveling exhibition "The End of the Century, One-Hundred Years of Architecture. Koenig's work is so fresh it is hard to remember that his practice goes back half-a-century, to a time just after World War II. While still a student at USC's School of Architecture, Koenig did something very few students get to do; he built himself a house. Not just any house, either; it was an elegant glass-and-steel pavilion that attracted nationwide attention. At one stroke, Koenig established himself as a force in Modernist architecture; the echoes and accolades have not died down since. Every Case Study house was innovative, exciting, and seemingly a direct window into the future, but Koenig gave even more to the program than the other architects did. His first five years of practice had given him tremendous experience with Los Angeles' hilly terrain and arid climate; he was already adept at setting houses so they took advantage of breezes and blocked out the worst of the sun. Case Study House 21, designed in 1957, was built to take advantage of what was then considered an unbuildable lot. Koenig's first decision was that the house would dispense completely with the traditional program of driveway, lawn, landscaping, and impressively set-back house. The site plan allowed for a few feet of driveway terminating immediately in a carport that also sheltered the entrance; the street facade was geared toward the privacy of occupants, not the gratification of status-seekers. Only those permitted inside the discreet front door got to see what Koenig had accomplished where no one else wanted to build; a world of shelter, comfort, and style. CSH 21 has known fame and acclaim since it was first built; it was followed by CSH 22, a house on an even more 'unbuildable' lot. Where CSH 21 offers a feeling of connection to the hillside on which it was built, CSH 22 is about exhilaration; it hangs off its crag in a manner that hints of danger, while being perfectly safe- indeed, more stable in earthquakes than many of its neighbors. In more recent years, Koenig became even more adventurous; his Schwartz House handles its problem lot with stunning simplicity. In designing this house, Koenig was faced with a lot that was squared with the street, but whose best view was to be seen thirty degrees to the southwest. The lot was too small to permit a house set at an angle on the property; the project had to be built nearly to the lot lines to get the square footage needed by the client. Koenig's solution was to build a steel frame squared with the lot lines, and then to place another steel frame inside the first, twisted thirty degrees toward the desired view. In the 'USC Chronicle', writer Carol Tucker has described the Schwartz house as looking something like a gigantic Rubik's Cube. As if Koenig's practice and teaching loads were not enough, he was a tireless lecturer and speaker, working with gusto to spread his views on what he terms 'sustainable architecture'. He told audiences at MoMA and Arizona State and Yale that is possible to give man great comfort without dependency on failure-prone, energy-intensive heating and cooling systems. Koenig did not advocate climate controls; his message was that the climate should be managed. So the next time you have the good fortune to see one of Koenig's houses or one of the timeless Julius Schulman photographs … you’ll now know their greatest secret. They have style in abundance, but they are really not about that at all. They're about Earth serving mankind, and mankind respecting Earth. That may be the most stylish notion Pierre Koenig ever had.

images: (click on images to enlarge)
Case Study House No. 22 – 1635/36 Woods Dr. Los Angeles (Hollywood Hills) CA 2600SF/1500SF(covered area) c1960 (top)
Case Study House No. 21 - 9038 Wonderland Park Ave., Los Angeles (Hollywood Hills) CA 1320SF/600SF(covered area) c1960 (2nd)
Schwartz House - 444 Sycamore Rd Santa Monica CA 2700SF c1996 (3rd)
Koenig House – 12221 Dorothy St. Los Angeles (Brentwood), CA 3000SF c1985 (4th)
Iwata House – 912 Summit Pl Monterey Park CA 12000SF incl. covered area & pool house c1963 (bottom)

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