Hollywood Architect Drew Nature Into Designs An artist with an idyllic childhood might be as rare as a house with walls made of air, but both play a part in the story of architect John Lautner. Aesthetically influenced by his Northern Michigan upbringing, Lautner's designs have been featured in several films, including The Big Lebowski.

Nature And Design Meet In Lautner's Modern Homes

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The collection of architect John Lautner is attracting attention these days, too. You may have seen some of the homes that he designed in Hollywood movies. Mr. Lautner was not nationally well-known when he died in 1994, but his hometown of Marquette, Michigan, has honored him with two exhibitions in this, the centennial year of his birth.

Edward Lifson reports.

EDWARD LIFSON, BYLINE: John Lautner spent his adult life in Los Angeles. But coming from the north woods and then working with Frank Lloyd Wright, L.A. was an adjustment.


LIFSON: That's Lautner in the 2009 documentary "Infinite Space."

He always tried to encourage deep respect for nature in everything he designed, from his influential 1949 Googie's Coffee Shop, to the family houses Hollywood now uses as super cool bachelor pads in "Diamonds are Forever," "A Single Man," and "The Big Lebowski."


LIFSON: The villain pornographer in the cult classic lives in a Lautner. He and the Dude negotiate under the huge angled-up triangulated slab of concrete that serves as a roof.


LIFSON: Lebowski chills on a Lautner-designed sofa. Rays of light dapple the living room through 750 drinking glasses that John Lautner embedded in the concrete roof. His desire was to recreate the rays of light that pierce through tree canopies in old growth forests, like the one he spent time in as a boy. Those experiences were central to his architecture.


LIFSON: Lautner's houses have cave-like areas to provide a sense of security; you feel grounded, and then, with your back to the shelter, he gives you hypnotic views of heaven, city, forest, ocean, any entity larger and more meaningful than a single family home. Case in point, the Elrod House in Palm Springs, which Lautner built around existing boulders on a hillside. Wim de Wit heads the department of architecture and contemporary art at the Getty Research Institute, which holds Lautner's archives.

WIM DE WIT: The first time I walk in there, you stand in the house, you see that huge structure around you, with this concrete vault above you and rocks coming out of the mountain, into the house, and you stand there and then all of a sudden somebody push the button and the glass wall opened up. That is just an experience that I think everybody should have once in their life.

LIFSON: In Lautner houses, redwood walls swing open on hinges, skylights open to the heavens, so-called infinity pools start in the house, flow under glass walls, outdoors, and then seem to drop off the side of the earth. His most famous house might be the Chemosphere in the Hollywood Hills, an eight-sided capsule on a pole that looks like the Jetsons would live there. It was really just a low-cost way to build on a bad site, without ruining the natural landscape, and, of course, to provide views. The materials had to be hauled up the side of the hill, partly by the client himself, directly recalling John Lautner's experience as a boy back in Michigan, when he helped his parents build a house on a rock shelf overlooking Lake Superior. His mother, an artist, named it Midgaard, Norse for between heaven and Earth.

MELISSA MATUSCAK: To be at Midgaard, it's a little bit like you've been taken back in time.

LIFSON: Melissa Matuscak is the director and curator of the DeVos Art Museum at Northern Michigan University, in Marquette, which helped organize two exhibitions for Lautner's centennial.

WIT: When you stand out on the rock in front of Midgaard, and you look over Lake Superior, you literally feel as if you're floating over the water. It's very quiet, it's very serene. I think you get very close to this idea of sublime. I really do. I can't think of a whole lot of other places that I felt such a powerful force of nature.

LIFSON: Matuscak wants the locals to appreciate John Lautner, and, as he did, the beauty around them. And maybe even to feel Lautner's longing to be home.

MATUSCAK: I like to think that when Lautner was designing these houses and he's out in L.A., and he's so far away from where he absolutely loved to be, I think that some of these houses, he was hoping to sort of recapture this boyhood wonder and feeling, and gazing out into the landscape, and sort of feeling like you were really joined between yourself and the landscape that you see.

LIFSON: Many owners of Lautner houses in Southern California say they've never felt as comfortable anywhere else. Michael LaFetra has lived in a Lautner in Malibu for years.

MICHAEL LAFETRA: I would be lying if I said that I giggle every morning, but the truth is, when you see the play of the wood and the concrete inevitably by the time that I've walked down to have my first espresso I've at the very least smiled, if not giggled out loud.

LIFSON: If a house can do that, I want what he's having. For NPR News, I'm Edward Lifson.

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