The background to a life in work.
A visit to Eames House and Ennis House, Los Angeles CA.
You work with me not someone else
Words and photography by Sarah Feeney for T*S*P*T*R print magazine
An 8-minute read
Ray Eames outlived her husband Charles, exactly 10 years to the day, passing over to Modernist heaven in 1988. As a couple, they were married for 47 years. They spent 30 of them living in a home they had both designed – and built – in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles: Eames House, also known as Case Study No. 8.
When looking at its modernist construction, you have to pinch yourself a reminder that it was designed and constructed 70 years ago, in 1949. It has a progressive appearance and because of its enviable cliff-top location, a panoramic ocean view and, as soundtrack, rustling eucalyptus trees.
So atmospheric is Eames House that one can easily conjure up the ghosts of Charles and Ray Eames, sitting there in their modernist eucalyptus grove, watching the sunset over the Pacific whilst sipping on an ice-cold glass of Californian white. Bliss.
In 1949 Pacific Palisades, there were huge, whizzy kitchens and appliances, cars designed by the jet-age, modernist housing and “supermarkets” a-plenty.
By contrast, it was a lifestyle that couldn’t have been further away from the 1949 post-war world we Brits were living in, as seen on Pathe news clips: grimy, black-and-white footage showing us Brits trudging about a bomb-damaged, pot-holed vista, wearing Mackintoshes and flat caps, clutching shopping bags of rationing and playing out various social roles as depicted in Lowry paintings.
Britain was in black and white until the 1951 Festival of Britain ushered in the glorious “Technicolor Age” we now enjoy. Los Angeles, however, saw their technicolour age begin a whole 12 years earlier when Dorothy woke up in creepy Munchkinland with a bump on her head and a feeling she wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
(She wasn’t – she was only 15 minutes up the road in Culver City.)
With this technicolour age came great responsibility, it seems. Apparently, it took the production team a whole week to decide on nothing other than the exact shade of yellow for the brick road. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that it’s the same yellow Mondrian was experimenting with in his series of Composition abstract art from the same period, 1921 - ‘42.
Perhaps there was a photo of one of his works on the office mood board, amongst other pictures of yellow inspiration such as canaries (“Nah, too Walt Disney”); corn (“too Kansas still”); cheese (“a brick road made of cheese?!”); sunflowers (“that European Van Gogh fella with one ear”) and bowls of custard (“what in god’s name is custard”).
In this context, Mondrian is a relevant source to reference –indeed, design historian Pat Kirkham described Eames House as being “a Mondrian-style composition in a Los Angeles meadow.” Although Kirkham validates my Mondrian reference (although it’s a pretty obvious one that doesn’t really need much validation), I’d dispute the meadow bit…meadows on top of an ocean cliff? It’s a grove.
Just as Mondrian numbered his “Compositions”, so too were Charles and Ray’s housing designs. Their future studio and home were pragmatically called “Case Study House #8”.
I think they probably had a few of Mondrian’s postcards on their studio walls too.
Case study House #9 – rather excitingly – was designed by Charles and Ray Eames and their buddy Eero Saarinen. Known as Entenza House, both buildings were part of the “Case Study House Program” and also included studies #1-7 and #10-12. The two houses are neighbours and share a number of structural elements. Entenza House was completed in 1950, and Eames House a little earlier - with Charles and Ray moving in on Christmas Eve, 1949.
The Case Study House Program was devised by John Entanza, the publisher of Arts & Architecture magazine, and it continued into the early ‘60s. It was idealistically developed as a premium design solution to a looming housing crisis caused by returning WW2 soldiers looking to reintegrate themselves into post-war society. The brief was for inexpensive but efficient model homes.
Another hugely exciting post-war housing project - by the way - was the Interbau ‘57, which was underway in the then West Berlin. Back in the UK, the government was also tackling the housing crisis by chucking-up prefab housing, mostly built of corrugated iron and balsa wood - to be fair, they were only intended to be temporary structures. It was a program that provided 1.2 million homes and had a glorious ideology that housing should be for all, that there are housing solutions for everyone, and that homes should be for people to live in and not for profit. The 1946 Excalibur Estate is a good example. (Although being built mostly by Italian and German Prisoners of War less ideologically sound.)
The UK was commissioning architectural talent, too, but it wasn’t perhaps on the same ambitious scale as the Case Study House Program and Interbau ‘57. Their housing stock was designed by the likes of superstar talent: Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, Eero Saarinen, A. Quincy Jones (no relation) and Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, respectively.
All giants on the Mount Rushmore of Modernism.
As good as it gets.
Incidentally, Case Study House #22 is the achingly gorgeous and lusted-after Stahl House in Hollywood. It appeared in an episode of Columbo, which – without dispute – has always been the best place to enjoy mid-century Los Angeles interiors and architecture, right through to the late 1970s.
Eames House was built and furnished using industrial elements, materials and techniques, most of which were devised for and perfected during WW2. Off-the-shelf parts left unapologetically exposed: steel beams, columns, braces and wood panelling. The sort of materials that were available during the shortages after the war. Eames said of the design process:
"It's like a game, building something out of found objects, which is the nicest kind of exercise you can do."
Referencing Marcel Duchamp here, of course.
Their home has sliding walls, screens and windows through which to alter and change the journey around it and its interior and exterior views. The living space is built across two completely separate ‘box’ structures. The first rectangular-shaped structure has a double-height area overlooked by a mezzanine level. The space in this structure was used for the sleeping and living areas. The second, square-shaped structure is accessed by crossing an open courtyard between the two. This second structure is the small studio and kitchen.
Charles and Ray intended the space to be “a background to a life in work” and would often bring home furniture prototypes so that they could be trialled in a to-scale environment – the home - as opposed to a vast warehouse, factory or studio setting.
After moving in, Charles and Ray began to instantly fill their new home with almost Victorian-esque clutter, constantly collecting mementoes of their time together: a piece of tumbleweed from their honeymoon (now hanging from the ceiling); a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex playfully peering out from the pots in the courtyard; assorted gifts and bits and pieces from friends and family. Charles described his fruit bowl of a house as being “unselfconscious” - which is a great way of legitimizing knick-knacks when you’re a leading modernist. Their (probable) 40-a-day smoking habit even left its mark via nicotine stains on the lampshade, which actually makes for quite a pleasing patina.
The silence of those rustling Eucalyptus leaves and the distant sound of the ocean gives the place a sad, mournful – yet peaceful – atmosphere. Charles and Ray's small bits and pieces are still lying around as though they’ve just popped out for a pint of milk.
By complete contrast, yet only 18 miles away, is Ennis House by the god-father of architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright.
Ennis House was not part of a philanthropic, utopian project; it was a private commission for the extremely wealthy man it was named after, Charles Ennis. If you consider Eames House to be ahead of its time, Ennis House will blow your mind, having been designed and built a whole 22 years earlier, in 1924.
Sitting on top of a hill in the Los Feliz neighbourhood, it has an altogether different feel from Eames House - both idealistically, structurally, visually and atmospherically. Not for no reason did it end up being a popular location for mostly noir, horror and science fiction films and TV.
Where Eames House is filled with harmony, light and space and is homely and welcoming, Ennis House is closed, secretive, full of symbolism and shuts out its immediate surroundings. Being in the Mayan Revival Style, based on the ancient pyramids and temples of Mesoamerica, it appears to hardly have any windows at all. Eames House seems full of joy for the present and the future. In contrast, Ennis House seems dystopian.
That’s not necessarily a criticism, though; dystopia and noir might be right up your street, and it certainly wasn’t Wright's intention for its design to feel part of the occult. His grandson Eric said in 2009 of it:
“…the space becomes a creative force and uplifts when it is lived in every day”
–if you find the supernatural uplifting, then this house is for you - it’s unquestionable that Ennis House has a distinctly dark presence…
Ridley Scott noticed and was certainly influenced by its “creative force” choosing the interior as the apartment of Rick Deckard, the ‘hard-boiled’ protagonist of the 1982 vision of a dystopian future Los Angeles: Blade Runner.
Also inspired was David Lynch, who featured it in a few scenes of his surreal Twin Peaks show-within-a-show, Invitation to Love.
It was a movie producer's house in Day of the Locust, complete with a dead and bloated horse at the bottom of the pool (the pool is a later addition, too cheerful perhaps for the original design) and in the horror film House on Haunted Hill, Vincent Price’s disembodied head floats eerily in front of Ennis House as background.
There’s definitely a theme here. And as a real indicator of its cultural importance, it makes an appearance in an episode of South Park, no less, as the dark lair of a criminal gang.
Perhaps it’s all the Masonic motifs that Wright included in the design?
Apparently, it was Charles Ennis himself who was into Mayan Art and architecture. He was also part of the Masonic Order (which wasn’t around this time, it was all the rage and anyone who was anyone was involved), so Wright included the Masonic Greek Key motif throughout the textile block design - which was constructed primarily of interlocking, precast concrete blocks - 27,000 of them to be precise, inspired by the symmetrical reliefs of Puuc temples and architecture in Uxmal.
Incidentally, the masonic association with Frank Lloyd Wright continued; in 1949, he designed the North Hollywood Masonic Lodge in the Mayan Revival Style too.
The Masons loved a temple.
Ennis House has acknowledged status by the National Register of Historic Places, the National Trust for Historic Preservation list of Endangered Historic Places and is a designated California Historical Landmark and a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. Despite this, it’s still a commercial property, well noted for its time spent on the property market.
From 2011 – 2019 it was owned by billionaire Ronald Burkle – which is the guy I must have seen during my visit there, pottering around its front, in full gardening garb - complete with bucket hat - pulling up weeds.
I was too shy to shout Hello! and to ask if I could come in to have a look. But given its noir history and association, perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing should I have accidentally passed through some kind of porthole into a parallel dimension in which I assumed the role of femme fatale, never to return.
Although that would have been a lot of fun.
The interesting connection between the two houses – and the reason why I include them in the same piece, isn’t just because they are geographically close; it’s because Charles Eames was so loyal to the practices of Frank Lloyd Wright that in 1938 he was expelled from the architecture program at Washington University by his thoroughly frustrated and infuriated tutors. No doubt he and Ray often took the short trip from their house to Ennis House to pay homage to the work of the great man and their hero.
Also, just as Eames House is on top of a cliff, so is Ennis House on top of a hill.
Frank Lloyd Wright said of a house and its pinnacle location:
“No house should ever be on a hill … It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other.”
I would certainly say that both Eames House and its cliff and Ennis House and its hill are both happier for sharing the space, despite the two houses being completely different from each other
–the “Yin and Yan” of LA architecture.
As featured in T*S*P*T*R magazine, a seasonal 136-page magazine available from the TSPTR website.
An 8-page feature of words and original photos shot and written in California during the lockdown of Spring 2020.
Writing and photography by Sarah Feeney.
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