CALIFORNIA CASE STUDY HOUSES
CALIFORNIA CASE STUDY HOUSES
by Nate Eudaly
The Case Study Houses Program (1945-1966) was an innovative and unique development in the history of American architecture and it remains so to this day. The program, focused in the greater Los Angeles area, created designs for thirty-six prototype houses. It also sought to make those house plans available so they could be easily constructed during the building boom that followed World War II. The programs main driving force was John Entenza, editor of the cutting-edge magazine, Arts & Architecture. Entenza, a champion of modernism, had the connections to attract architects such as Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen to participate in the program. Their highly experimental designs, both built and unbuilt, redefined the modern home and continue to influence architects both in America and internationally. Entenzas vision for the program was to offer the public and the building industry models for low-cost housing in a modern architectural language. They foresaw an inevitable building boom in the wake of drastic housing shortages created during the depression and ensuing war years.
Using the magazine to reach potential clients, and using donated materials whenever possible, Entenza promoted the program in his monthly magazine. Prior to the programs official beginning in 1945, Entenza had sponsored competitions in the magazine for small house designs, providing a greater awareness for such designs. His focused and consistent emphasis on modernism, in architecture as well as in design and literature, made Arts & Architecture a well-suited forum for the promotion of what became the Case Study Houses Program. Entenza capitalized on this era in which social and artistic concerns combined to create a new and innovative body of work of historical importance. Elizabeth Smith, in her definitive book, Case Study Houses:
The Complete CSH Program, 1945-1966, documented that participants in the program included well established architects with international reputations as well as those previously known only in the Los Angeles area.
Her extensive research for that book provided much of the source material for this article. Well known architects participating in the program included the previously referenced Neutra, Eames, and Saarinen, as well as others including Craig Elwood and Pierre Koenig.
Those primarily known only in L.A. until catapulted to greater recognition by their Case Study designs included Whitney Smith, Thornton Abell, and Rodney Walker. Entenza personally invited all participants, based on his judgment of their ability to make key, innovative contributions to the program. Thus, the program is in many regards a subjective roster of Entenzas choices rather than a comprehensive overview of architects in practice during the time period. Architects including R. M. Schindler, Harwell Harris, and John Lautner did not participate in the program as Entenza did not include them in his selected roster of architects for the CSH Program. Many of the early conceptual projects, such as Neutra’s Alpha and Omega houses were never built due to lack of actual clients and sites. Many of the built projects had major differences in final design and materials due to building material shortages in the post-war years. At times, to continue the progression of the Case Study Houses, Entenza and architects such as Charles and Ray Eames also became clients of the program. As the program evolved, materials used in construction became more experimental due to advances in technology and availability. Due to these advances, as well as economic prosperity in the 1950s, more projects were actually realized in an expanding geography including Long Beach, Thousand Oaks, and La Jolla for affluent clients. Toward the end of the program, fewer designs were unbuilt and the program was expanded to include some tract housing and apartments.
Today, the term case study houses almost has a generic implication of modestly designed and constructed modern architecture. However, the actual program covered a wide range of design sensibilities in cost, scope, and materials. Some of the programs best known homes by Eames, Ellwood, and Koenig are similar in many regards to the spirit of International Style modernism, using industrial construction methods and materials for residential projects. However, a substantial portion of the case study houses involved more traditional, though still modern, residential construction. Architects designing in this style included Thornton Abell, Julius Ralph Davidson, Richard Neutra, Rodney Walker, and the firms of Bluff, Straub & Hensman, and Killingsworth, Brady & Smith. The Case Study Houses Program ended in 1966 when Arts & Architecture ceased publication.
The program had become almost iconic for many architects by this time. Reyner Banham, in his article for the Blueprints for Modern Living publication, credits the CSH program as being a driving factor in the development of the HighTech style. A great number of architects in practice today continue to draw inspiration from the spirit of the CSH program. This innovative program, and the designs it produced, both built and unbuilt, serve as key building blocks for the design of many of the most highly-acclaimed contemporary residences being constructed today.
For that, we will continue to owe the Case Study Houses Program a debt of gratitude.
Nate Eudaly is executive director of the Dallas Architecture Forum.
Elizabeth Smith, author of the Case Study Houses: The Complete CSH
Program, lectured in Dallas on February 19, 2009.