The good life was never meant to last this long. Not, at any rate, the version enshrined in modern homes that dot Los Angeles’s premium hillsides and made Southern California a research center for domestic living. The home-as-lifestyle
-laboratory was a specialty of mid-century architects, who fussed over their creations, took risks on new technologies, and cared more about staying one step ahead of the present than about how their designs would fare in the future. I recently visited two of those houses, John Lautner’s Silvertop in Silver Lake and Charles and Ray Eames’s Case Study House No. 8 in Pacific Palisades, and came away excited and reassured that another generation is working to preserve those architectural experiments and at the same time keep their improvisational spirit alive. It’s not an easy trick.
The Eames House is celebrating its 70th birthday: Charles and Ray built it in 1949 on a shaded hillside that slides down to the ocean. It’s a two-story steel-framed shed, enclosed in double-height glass walls that are interrupted here and there by large, brightly colored panels that give the exterior the quality of a live-in Mondrian. They seem not to have thought much about what it would be like to grow old there: The upstairs sleeping quarters are reached by a spiral staircase, which looks like a work of Minimalist sculpture but was actually ordered from a boat-supply catalog.
Charles died in 1978, and the ground-floor rooms look exactly as they did when Ray died a decade later. Glass doors open onto the damp fogs and warm dry breezes of the coast. A stand of eucalyptus trees softens the light that flashes off the Pacific. Even so, sunshine streams into the high-ceilinged living room, leaching the reds and pinks out of the kilim carpets that the Eameses rolled out decades ago. A black Vitra bird of their design stands on the vinyl-tiled floor as if it had just stopped in for a moment. Tiny objects they collected all over the world crowd every surface, each one a character in the 70-year drama of the house. For Charles and Ray, the house was a studio, a showcase, and a set, to be populated by their employees and aesthetically correct friends. They used it to shoot short films like Toccata for Toy Trains and House: After Five Years of Living, an ode to their own design sensibility set to a score by Elmer Bernstein. Today, a visit can feel oddly furtive, as though it would be prudent to leave before the owners come back with their groceries or cigarettes.
California’s regular plagues can be hard on architecture, and the Eames House does not appear especially tough. One sharply aimed earthquake could twist its slender steel frame, and a fire might consume the woods and splinter the glass walls. The house is more resilient than it looks, however, and it’s withstood those threats before. Today it stands as an exquisite temple of frailty.
Keeping it intact is a never-ending project. In 2011, the Eames Foundation hired the preservation architects Frank Escher Ravi GuneWardena to find the balance between respect and rejuvenation. They replaced the roof — and had a crisis of conscience over the vinyl-and-asbestos floor tiles, which had practically disintegrated. The Eameses installed mass-produced panels in a warm off-white that was no longer available: The restorers could honor their allegiance to off-the-shelf materials or their precise eye for color, but not both. (They opted for a custom color match on the panels and replaced the floor tiles with an asbestos-free equivalent.)
“For centuries, we used the same materials, and everyone knows how to restore them,” says Escher. “In the 20th century, different materials get introduced, with no idea how well they would hold up. To Charles and Ray Eames, the ethos of experimentation was central, and when you experiment, there are things that work and others that don’t.”
More recently, the Eames Foundation has partnered with the Getty Conservation Institute to produce a 200-page long-term conservation plan, the kind of document that has a recommendation for almost every skylight and spigot. Its methodical dryness is exhilarating, because it’s evidence that conservators are serious about preserving the relaxed and casual atmosphere, even if that means allowing physical objects to degrade. They won’t install air conditioning or museum-quality vapor barriers; they will leave the cushions on the chairs instead of putting them in dark climate-controlled storage. (The trade-off is that the chance to see the interior is almost as much of a privilege now as it was when Charlie Chaplin and Isamu Noguchi came over for a tea ceremony in 1951: The foundation allows in a trickle of visitors, and a 90-minute tour costs $275 per couple.) Delicacy and decay are embedded in the experience. Chandler McCoy, a conservationist at the Getty, points out that as soon as you walk in, you can feel that the design violates a thousand different provisions of the building code: “You couldn’t build that house today, which makes it all the more precious but also makes it so delicate and precarious.”
John Lautner’s Silvertop, built in 1965, is a different kind of lab, and it’s had a different kind of second life. Lautner had the dream client: Kenneth Reiner, a Brooklyn-born inventor who made a fortune on aeronautical nuts and bolts — and on Klippies, which kept 1960s bobs and beehives as secure as a B-52. Reiner kept his architect supplied with technical challenges and the money to tackle them. Where the Eameses assembled whatever parts and pieces America’s factories churned out, Lautner used his client’s industrial might to dream up custom solutions. He cantilevered a steep driveway, making it look so improbably airborne that city inspectors balked at approving it. (Reiner took the city to court and proved that it was solid.) He hid ventilation in the floor because Reiner liked fresh air but never wanted to feel a draft, gave the living room a great glass wall that pulled up like a garage door, and made the swimming pool appear to spill over the edge of the hill — the first infinity pool. “There’s not a single stock thing in the whole job,” Lautner boasted. Most important, he designed the structure as a curving concrete clamshell, making it look at once organic and futuristic.
Reiner went bankrupt before he could move in and lost the property before he could scrabble his way back to wealth. Eventually, Lautner finished the house for another owner. In 2014, Luke Wood, the president of Beats by Dre, bought Silvertop and hired the L.A. architect Barbara Bestor to renovate it, which is the architectural equivalent of being asked to carve the Thanksgiving turkey: It’s an honor, but everyone secretly thinks you’ll probably screw it up. Bestor did have some wiggle room, though, because there was no definitive original version.
“It was left abandoned and incomplete for seven years, and the people who moved in didn’t have money to do much more, so it’s not like you could leave all the furniture and decoration as an expression of one individual,” she says. “The heating didn’t really work and there was barely any light. Making it habitable meant adding an invisible layer of 21st-century technology.”
In the past 50 years, engineering has caught up to fantasy. Smoother motors, digital sensors, LED fixtures, and stronger materials have made it possible to realize Lautner’s ideas without what Bestor calls a “creaky and goofy” execution. “You can get closer to the modernist ideal of seamless movement in architecture.” The deluxe version of that whizbangery is reserved for the house’s most private recess: the bathroom, where the touch of a button causes the glass ceiling to retract and a 500-pound glass wall to drop into the floor, so you — well, ok, not you, but Luke Wood — can opt for an outdoor soak without even leaving the tub.
Silvertop is a private house, but it’s also a public trust, a crucial chapter in the story of West Coast modernism. Frank Escher, whose firm had renovated Lautner’s even more recognizable Chemosphere, wasn’t involved in the Silvertop renovation, but he and Bestor got into long, friendly debates about how to reconcile Lautner’s multiple drafts and revisions. She jokes that Escher is an architectural originalist: “He thinks that anything that ever happened in the house should be preserved as it was, even the scratches in the floor.” Bestor preferred to distinguish clearly between the original materials and her own interventions. Lautner had paneled much of the interior in six-inch planks of Monterey cypress; Bestor finished the kitchen in the same honey-toned wood, but set it in two-inch vertical strips that harmonize with the original but don’t try to pass for something they’re not. The point is to make the house not just livable but delightful, and at the same time keep the narrative of its versions clear. “The worst thing to do is to build a lot of ‘as-if’ stuff that’s not original but kind of looks like it and messes up the whole story,” Bestor says.
Architecture is a narrative form, and it’s important to tell it right. An old house bears traces of desires, ambitions, betrayals, and forgetfulness; it’s those human qualities, not just the authenticity of wood and stone, that get lost when a building is left to fall apart or is too vigorously fixed up. Different though they are, these two holdovers from an optimistic age offer reassurance: Even an unsentimental city can tend its past as passionately and idealistically as modernists once tinkered with the future.