003 Ten Most Experimental LA Houses

William Hall
May 31, 2022

Los Angeles has always been a place of renewal where the usual rules don’t apply, so it’s not surprising that quite a few LA houses are boldly innovative in style, technology, building materials, and sheer chutzpah. Here's our top Ten Most Experimental LA Houses.

1 Chemosphere (Malin Residence), 1960, John Lautner

2 Gehry Residence, 1978, Frank Gehry

3 Dodge House (destroyed), 1916, Irving Gill

4 Eames House (Case Study House #8), 1949, Charles and Ray Eames

5 Stahl House (Case Study House #22), 1960, Pierre Koenig

6 Schindler House, 1922, Rudolph Schindler

7 Schulitz House, 1977, Helmut Schulitz

8 Millard House, 1923, Frank Lloyd Wright

9 708 House, 1982, Eric Owen Moss

10 Lovell Health House, 1929, Richard Neutra

1. Chemosphere (Malin Residence), 1960, John Lautner

If anyone personifies innovation in modern architecture it must be John Lautner. Endlessly testing the parameters of timber, plastics, steel and especially concrete, his houses were rarely without space age gadgetry like remote control windows and walls – and he even invented the infinity pool. That none of these features on his most iconic work is testament to his ingenuity.

The site of the Chemosphere was considered unbuildable. Lautner’s unprecedented solution was a flying saucer hovering above the Hollywood Hills. Its hollow concrete supporting column houses services, and everything else comes up via the accompanying funicular.

Critic Reyner Banham dismissed Lautner as nothing but an architect of ‘one-off dream houses’, as if that was a bad thing. Regardless, his intellectual audacity continues to thrill.

2. Gehry Residence, 1978, Frank Gehry

Gehry used his own unremarkable 1920s suburban bungalow as a testing ground for his nascent style. The building appears to have been ripped apart and rebuilt in a fragmentary way that made the rigorous modernist movement look banal.

He began by stripping away drywall to reveal the original timber structure. Then introduced familiar low cost materials – like chain link fencing, corrugated steel, plywood, and even asphalt – in unconventional ways, bringing them into and folding them around the domestic spaces.

Initially completed in 1978, the project continued to be adapted until 1994. It was a pivotal project for Gehry’s career, and represents the prototype for deconstructivism to come.

3. Dodge House (destroyed), 1916, Irving Gill 

At first sight Irving Gill’s work has much in common with early European Modernism – the white boxes of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier, but his motivations came from different sources.

First, he was interested in the simple adobe pueblos and Mission Revival houses he found when he moved to San Diego from Chicago for health reasons. He enjoyed their smooth white stucco walls and arches, and their sense of place. Second, his father was a building contractor who put a high value on simplicity of construction. 

Gill was compelled to promote sanitary, healthy homes, so his buildings were filled with early technological innovations. Dodge House had a vacuum cleaning system, kitchen sink garbage disposal, and an automatic car wash.

4. Eames House (Case Study House #8), 1949, Charles and Ray Eames

One of the most influential houses in America, the Eames’s own home and studio – perched above Santa Monica beach – uses standardized industrial elements. Its steel structure was erected by five men in a day and a half, proving its structural efficiency, and heralding a new dawn for domestic modernism.

Split into a box for living and a box for working, the form of the house owes a little to Mies van der Rohe – who was building Farnsworth House at the same time.

But the Eames’s House feels friendlier and more playful than their mid-century contemporaries ever achieved. Industrial austerity is downplayed with a lively and fluctuating facade of color and pattern, and by carefully arranged objects and furniture inside.

5. Stahl House (Case Study House #22), 1960, Pierre Koenig

This house was commissioned by John Entenza, editor of California Arts & Architecture magazine, who conceived the Case Study House program. His intention was to meaningfully explore new models of architecture to address the residential housing boom at the end of WW2.

Between 1945 and 1962, 36 innovative buildings were designed and 24 were built (the Eames House was another), all embracing industrial materials and futuristic translucency.

Photographer Julius Shulman was as responsible as Koenig for making this house the quintessential icon of postwar Californian modernism. His famous nighttime view of a daring cantilever shooting out into Los Angeles cityscape had all the appeal of a spaceship touring Earth. Its impact was almost equivalent – the image represented an updated American Dream.

6. Schindler House, 1922, Rudolph Schindler

Built for himself, his wife and another young couple, this was Schindler’s first building. The house aimed to provide private and communal spaces for each of its inhabitants.

Despite a vanishingly small budget, Schindler managed to conjure a sophisticated sequence of domestic spaces. There is a clear debt to traditional Japanese wood-frame architecture, but also an enthusiasm for new ways of thinking and building, not least in the form of tilt-slab concrete walls, which are cast horizontally on the ground and then raised into place.

The construction of fireplaces externally in the courtyard areas, and wide openings (enclosed by lightweight canvas doors), intentionally blur conventional delineations of interior and exterior spaces.

7. Schulitz House, 1977, Helmut Schulitz

High Tech was a movement that not only exploited, but celebrated the efficacy of modern industrial materials. On a 40 degree cliff site, twelve concrete columns support the steel box and deep cantilevered terraces.

Using components available directly from ‘the catalog’, Schulitz built this house for himself and his young family. The property is entered at the top, via a kitchen and dining space adjacent to the garage. Bedrooms and living space are on the intermediate floor, with a studio and playroom on the lower level.

As well as having a distinctive aesthetic, this way of building also has exceptional utility: specifically column free rooms and easy adaptability – walls and stairways can be moved significantly more easily than in a conventional concrete or masonry house.

8. Millard House, 1923, Frank Lloyd Wright

Millard House was the first of four concrete block houses built by Wright in Los Angeles between 1923 and 1924.

Wright’s intention was for an economical building system that incorporated ornamentation. He wrote: “The concrete block? The cheapest (and ugliest) thing in the building world … Why not see what could be done with that gutter-rat?”. Concrete was poured into wooden molds, the resulting bricks then mortared and reinforced with steel rods.

The influence of Mesoamerican architecture – also evident at the earlier Hollyhock House – can be seen in the modernized pre-Columbian cross design of the blocks, and with the austere quasi ritualistic aesthetic.

9. 708 House, 1982, Eric Owen Moss

Moss remodeled and expanded a 1940s single storey house to become his family home.

Incorporating a series of wry architectural puns – such as a grossly oversized green flying buttress and a false gable end – Moss poked fun at po faced modernists and polite local vernacular building alike.

Huge painted house numbers relate to small street side windows in “an insight sure to be applauded by the local mailman”, claimed Owen.

Exaggeration, vivid color, massive numerals, and a gangplank all contribute to an exuberantly playful presence. This is building as collage. A perplexing, engaging, but ultimately awkward glimpse of Post Modernism to come.

10. Lovell Health House, 1929, Richard Neutra

Philip M. Lovell dealt in alternative medicine, successfully promoting hydrotherapy, homeopathy and sunbathing. He had already commissioned Rudolph Schindler to design his beach house in Newport Beach in 1926, when he decided to build another property in Los Feliz. Schindler’s housemate, Richard Neutra, had done the landscaping for the beach house, and the Lovell’s turned to him for this new project.

The first steel frame residential building in America, the Lovell Health House brought fully fledged International Style modernism to America, a full three years before the era defining 1932 MoMA exhibition.

Suspended on the side of a steep cliff, and supported by thin columns, the many terraces, sun decks, pool and open plan were intended to confer health benefits on the Lovell’s and their guests.