Visit the Homes That Great Architects Designed for Themselves: Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius & Frank Gehry

How­ev­er impres­sive the build­ings they design in the emi­nence of mid­dle- and old age, most archi­tects start their careers with pri­vate hous­es. Some archi­tects, if they come into mon­ey ear­ly in life or sim­ply can’t sell them­selves to any oth­er clients, start with their own pri­vate house. But most have to put in a few years’ or even decades’ work before they pos­sess the wealth, the sta­bil­i­ty, or the aes­thet­ic assur­ance need­ed to quite lit­er­al­ly make a home for them­selves. No such hes­i­tance, how­ev­er, for Frank Lloyd Wright, who when still in his ear­ly twen­ties built a home for his young fam­i­ly in Oak Park, Illi­nois, which became his stu­dio and lat­er an Amer­i­can Nation­al His­toric Land­mark.

You can get a win­ter­time tour of Wright’s Oak Park home and stu­dio — com­plete with snow falling out­side and a tall Christ­mas tree inside — in the video above. A ver­i­ta­ble cat­a­log of all the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry move­ments that influ­enced the young archi­tect, from the Tran­scen­den­tal­ism of Ralph Wal­do Emer­son and Hen­ry David Thore­au to the Eng­lish Arts and Crafts move­ment to philoso­phies that held inte­ri­or dec­o­ra­tion to be a tool of moral improve­ment, the house still stands in bold con­trast to all those around it. Wright lived and worked in the Oak Park house for twen­ty years, designed more than 150 projects in the stu­dio, giv­ing it a fair claim to be the birth­place of his still-influ­en­tial ear­ly con­cep­tion of a tru­ly Amer­i­can archi­tec­ture.

Just a few decades into the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, it start­ed to seem that the most inspir­ing Amer­i­can archi­tec­ture would come drawn up by Euro­pean hands. The Aus­tri­an archi­tect Richard Neu­tra moved to the Unit­ed States in 1923, and after briefly work­ing for Wright head­ed out to Los Ange­les at the invi­ta­tion of his com­pa­tri­ot Rudolf Schindler. There he worked on projects whose com­bi­na­tion of rig­or­ous geom­e­try and open­ness to their sur­round­ings would define what we still think of as mid-cen­tu­ry mod­ern res­i­den­tial archi­tec­ture. A few years after design­ing the famous Lovell Health House, com­plet­ed in 1929, he took a loan from archi­tec­ture-lov­ing Dutch indus­tri­al­ist Cees H. Van der Leeuw and got to work on his own home, dubbed the VDL Research House.

Even with­out a wealthy client like the eccen­tric health guru Philip Lovell, Neu­tra built a house that would nev­er­the­less keep its res­i­dents — he and his fam­i­ly — in con­tact with air, light, and nature. The result, as explained in the Dwell video on the VDL Research House above, is a ver­sion of Euro­pean-style inter­na­tion­al Mod­ernism “adapt­ed to the Cal­i­for­nia cli­mate, adapt­ed to the Cal­i­for­nia lifestyle,” whose twelve exte­ri­or doors ensure that “no mat­ter where you are, you can walk out­side,” and none of whose aes­thet­ic fea­tures try to com­pete with its nat­ur­al sur­round­ings. Neu­tra, who lived in the house until his death in 1932 (with a peri­od away after its destruc­tion by fire in 1963 and sub­se­quent recon­struc­tion) wrote that he “want­ed to demon­strate that human beings, brought togeth­er in close prox­im­i­ty, can be accom­mo­dat­ed in very sat­is­fy­ing cir­cum­stances, tak­ing in that pre­cious ameni­ty called pri­va­cy.”

While Neu­tra was enjoy­ing his real­ized vision of a new domes­tic life in Cal­i­for­nia, Le Cor­busier was hard at work real­iz­ing his own back in Europe. Design­ing an apart­ment block for a pri­vate devel­op­er in Paris’ 16th arrondisse­ment, the Swiss-French archi­tect nego­ti­at­ed the sev­enth and eighth floors for him­self. His home in the build­ing, named Immeu­ble Moli­torat when com­plet­ed in 1934, includes an art stu­dio, a rooftop gar­den, plen­ty of sky­lights and glass bricks to let in light, and a bed­room mod­eled after an ocean lin­er cab­in with a bed raised high enough to take in the view of Boulogne over the bal­cony. Named a UNESCO World Her­itage site in 2016, Immeu­ble Moli­torat also under­went a thor­ough restora­tion project begin­ning that year, chron­i­cled in the doc­u­men­tary Chez Le Cor­busier above.

Le Cour­busier did­n’t get quite as much trac­tion in the New World as he did in the Old, unlike some Euro­pean archi­tects of his gen­er­a­tion whose work attained full bloom only after cross­ing the ocean. Bauhaus school founder Wal­ter Gropius sure­ly falls into the lat­ter group, and it did­n’t take him long to estab­lish him­self in Amer­i­ca, where he’d arrived with his wife Ise in 1937, with a house of his own that looked like noth­ing most Amer­i­cans had ever seen before. Nor, as Gropius lat­er wrote, had Euro­peans:  “I made it a point to absorb into my own con­cep­tion those fea­tures of the New Eng­land archi­tec­tur­al tra­di­tion that I found still alive and ade­quate. This fusion of the region­al spir­it with a con­tem­po­rary approach to design pro­duced a house that I would nev­er have built in Europe.”

“My hus­band was always charmed by the nat­ur­al curios­i­ty of Amer­i­cans,” says Ise in her nar­ra­tion of Wal­ter Gropius: His New World Home, the short film above made the year after the archi­tec­t’s death. Locat­ed in Lin­coln, Mass­a­chu­setts, which Ise describes as “very near Walden Pond” in the “heart of the Puri­tan New Eng­land coun­try­side,” both the house and the land­scape around it were planned with a Bauhaus inter­est in max­i­mum effi­cien­cy and sim­plic­i­ty. Filled with fur­ni­ture made in Bauhaus work­shops in the 1920s, the house also became a par­ty space twice a year for Gropius grad­u­ate stu­dents at Har­vard, “to give them a chance to see a mod­ern house in oper­a­tion, because they could­n’t see it any place else except in the Mid­dle West, where hous­es by Frank Lloyd Wright had been built, or in Cal­i­for­nia, where hous­es by Mr. Neu­tra had been built.”

After the Sec­ond World War, indus­tri­al design­ers Charles and Ray Eames brought into the world a new kind of Cal­i­forn­ian indoor-out­door Mod­ernism with their 1949 Eames House, a kind of Mon­dri­an paint­ing made into a liv­able box filled with an idio­syn­crat­ic arrange­ments of arti­facts from all over the world. In 1955 the Eam­ses made the film above, House: After Five Years of Liv­ing, a word­less col­lec­tion set to music of views of and from the house. By then the Eames House had already become the most famous of the “Case Study Hous­es,” all com­mis­sioned by Arts & Archi­tec­ture mag­a­zine in a chal­lenge to well-known archi­tects (Neu­tra was anoth­er par­tic­i­pant) to “cre­ate ‘good’ liv­ing con­di­tions” for post­war Amer­i­can fam­i­lies, all of which“must be capa­ble of dupli­ca­tion and in no sense be an indi­vid­ual ‘per­for­mance.’”

But unless you count recre­ations in rev­er­en­tial muse­um exhibits, none of the 25 Case Study Hous­es were ever repli­cat­ed, and the Eames House strikes mod­ern observers as an indi­vid­ual per­for­mance as much as does Philip John­son’s also-box­like Glass House, built the same year in New Canaan, Con­necti­cut. With its every wall, win­dow, and door made out of the mate­r­i­al in its name, the house pro­vid­ed the archi­tect a liv­ing expe­ri­ence, until his death in 2005, that he described as “a per­ma­nent camp­ing trip.” Built with indus­tri­al mate­ri­als and Ger­man ideas — ideas a bit too sim­i­lar, some say, to those of Ger­man archi­tect Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illi­nois — the Glass House­’s fame, as New York Times archi­tec­ture crit­ic Nico­lai Ourous­soff puts it, “may have done more to make Mod­ernism palat­able to the coun­try’s social elites than any oth­er struc­ture of the 20th cen­tu­ry.”

The 90-year-old Frank Gehry, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with his archi­tect son Sam, recent­ly fin­ished a new house in San­ta Mon­i­ca for him­self and his fam­i­ly. But the old house he’d designed for him­self and his fam­i­ly in San­ta Mon­i­ca must have served him well, since he’d occu­pied it for more than 40 years. It began as an exist­ing, unre­mark­able Dutch Colo­nial struc­ture, yet when Gehry real­ized he need­ed more space, he sim­ply designed anoth­er house to build not over but around it. He drew inspi­ra­tion from the indus­tri­al mate­ri­als he saw around him, delib­er­ate­ly incor­po­rat­ing great quan­ti­ties of glass, ply­wood, cor­ru­gat­ed met­al, and chain-link fenc­ing. “I had just been through a study of chain-link fenc­ing,” Gehry recalls in the video above, pro­duced for the Gehry Res­i­dence’s recep­tion of an award from the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Archi­tects.

Because chain-link fenc­ing was so ubiq­ui­tous, he says, “and because it was so uni­ver­sal­ly hat­ed, the denial thing inter­est­ed me.” Though his mix­ture of “frag­ment and whole, raw and refined, new and old” angered his neigh­bors at first, it has come to stand as a state­ment not just of Gehry’s aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty — the one that has shaped the likes of the Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall and the Guggen­heim Bil­bao — but of anoth­er strong pos­si­bil­i­ty for what Amer­i­can archi­tec­ture can be. “I was respond­ing to time and place and bud­get, and char­ac­ter of the neigh­bor­hood and con­text and what was going on in the world at that time,” Gehry says. “That’s the best thing to do when you’re a stu­dent, is not to try to be some­body else. Don’t try to be Frank Gehry. Don’t try to be Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch 50+ Doc­u­men­taries on Famous Archi­tects & Build­ings: Bauhaus, Le Cor­busier, Hadid & Many More

Take 360° Vir­tu­al Tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Archi­tec­tur­al Mas­ter­pieces, Tal­iesin & Tal­iesin West

1,300 Pho­tos of Famous Mod­ern Amer­i­can Homes Now Online, Cour­tesy of USC

A Quick Ani­mat­ed Tour of Icon­ic Mod­ernist Hous­es

Watch Bauhaus World, a Free Doc­u­men­tary That Cel­e­brates the 100th Anniver­sary of Germany’s Leg­endary Art, Archi­tec­ture & Design School

On the Impor­tance of the Cre­ative Brief: Frank Gehry, Maira Kalman & Oth­ers Explain its Essen­tial Role

The Mod­ernist Gas Sta­tions of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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