Bette Cohen screens film, speaks in Chicago

Spirit in architecture videoThe Chicago Architecture Foundation screened Bette Cohen’s The Spirit in Architecture: John Lautner, on January 27, 2009. Cohen was there to speak to the enthusiastic audience and to answer questions. Bette has given us permission to reprint her remarks here:

It is great to be here in Chicago. Thank you for inviting me to screen my film, “The Spirit in Architecture: John Lautner”. John Lautner always loved Chicago. His grandmother lived here, so as a young man he visited often. He loved the buildings. He always wanted to see the newest structures being built. He loved the timeless nature and his home in Marquette, Michigan but he also got inspiration from cities. He worked in Los Angeles for over fifty years.

This film examines the life and work of John Lautner, one of our country’s most visionary and important architects of the 20th Century. Lautner is part of a century-long chain of American individualists. His work represents an aspect of organic design, the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the contributions of Southern California architecture that expands our understanding of the nature of modernism.

While making the film I was not only interested in John’s work but I was interested in John’s creative process as well. During the process of making the film I went through hours and hours of interview materials. He was great to interview. I loved talking to him about Intangibles: Integrity, Justice, Honor, Truth and Beauty. John lived by his philosophy and he had so much to share.

It has been over fourteen years since John Lautner’s death in 1994. As time passes John Lautner’s work becomes more and more important and mainstream. Lautner’s work is the subject of scholarly attention. Scholars, critics and historians have had time to put Lautner’s life and work into perspective. This film and my research materials not included in the film have formed part of the background for many scholarly works and exhibitions. It appears in virtually all the bibliographical notes as a major resource. This film and archival research material will help a new generation of scholars and architects study the work of John Lautner, his words, ideas and thoughts and the words ideas and thoughts of his contemporaries.

I started working on this film in 1988 while studying architecture at Southern California Institute of Architecture. At the time I made the film no books were written on Lautner. There were several newspaper and magazine articles but there had not been a book published on his work. He had written a book on his work but he had not gotten it published. No one would publish it the way he wanted it. He wanted a big coffee table book.

I usually let the film speak for itself but a lot has happened since I completed the film in 1991.

In July 2008 the first large scale museum exhibition of John Lautner’s work opened at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles; including over one hundred original drawings and models of John Lautner’s work. The exhibition will travel to the Lighthouse Center For Architecture in Glasgow, Scotland in March, The Wolfsonian-Museum in Miami, Florida in October, and the Palm Springs Art Museum in February 2010.

The Los Angeles Museum of Art has acquired the Goldstein Office (which was in jeopardy of being demolished.) It will be preserved and maintained and will be installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as Michael Govan, the Museum director’s office and open to the public by appointment. The J Paul Getty Trust has acquired the Lautner archives and has begun work on its preservation. The archives are now being fumigated and the Getty has begun to catalogue all the materials.

The film premiered in 1991 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles celebrating Lautner’s 80th birthday. John and I screened the film together here in Chicago at the Graham Foundation Center For Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. I would like to thank the Graham Foundation for their support and belief in this project. Carter Manny who was at the Graham Foundation had been an apprentice at Taliesin with John and he knew John’s work had been under recognized. Wes Peters was also at Taliesin with John and opened up Taliesin to me. I am also very grateful to everyone who allowed me to film in their homes and allowed me to interview them. While developing the project I interviewed the late critic, historian Ester McCoy, David Gebhard, and Bruno Zevi. I also Interviewed and filmed architectural photographer Julius Shulman, architectural historian Lionel March, architectural historian Ken Breisch and author, architect, critic Alan Hess. I am glad I was able to actually make this film in John Lautner’s lifetime! The film was a true collaboration. John was very open to me and to my crew.

More background:
Before I started architecture school in 1988 I had a background in photography and filmmaking. I was a film editor on commercials, documentaries and feature films but I became more and more interested in architecture. I was telling a friend what I was really interested in architecture. He had asked me if I had seen the work of John Lautner? I started to research Lautner’s work and I stumbled on the Garcia House (The Rainbow House). The owner invited me in and said there was going to be a Los Angeles Conservancy Tour on Lautner and he asked if I would like to be his guest. I went inside the Carling House for the first time, the living room was on a hinge and the pool was inside and outside the living room. I saw the Silvertop House, Lautner’s own house and a few other houses, which were on the tour. The owner of the Garcia House said to me, “… you seem so interested in Lautner’s work you should go to Lautner’s office; it’s right on Hollywood Boulevard”. I went to John Lautner’s office and I collected a bibliography of his work. Lautner was not there at the time. On the bibliography I noticed Marlene Laskey had interviewed Lautner for UCLA’s Oral History Program, she wrote “Responsibility, Infinity and Nature”. I went to UCLA and listened to the 1/4-inch tapes of the interviews. It was during that time I was able to visualize the film. It became clear that there were many ideas that Lautner was talking about and he wished he could show them visually. I thought film would be a wonderful format to portray these ideas and complex flowing spaces and describe the creative forces behind them. I had so many questions or him.

I started to write a National Endowment for the Arts grant. I told another friend of mine about the project and he said to me, “You are making a film on a man who you have never met and has not given you his permission? What are you crazy?” I called Lautner’s office the next day to make an appointment with John Lautner. I went into Lautner’s office with my proposal and introduced myself. I had never made a film before but I had had experience on films. He said, “Well it seems like a worthwhile project and you seem tall enough to do it!” That is how we started working together.

I started working with Evelyn Wendel, my co-producer. Bernard Saltzman was the first cinematographer I worked with. I was looking for a director and Bernard said to me, “Why don’t you direct it?” So I did.

In 1989 we filmed John Lautner for the first time at the Chemosphere, Sturges and Sheats house. We thought if something should happen to John we would still have a film. We got Paramount Studios involved in the film after our first shoot.

A lot has changed technically since I made the film. One of the biggest changes is digital technology. I shot the Lautner film in 16 mm and 35mm film; the interviews were recorded on 1/4-inch tape and cassettes, which were transferred to 16 mm magnetic stock. I edited the film on a 16mm Steenbeck. Today I edit my material on a computer and I shoot digitally.

These rare interviews are part of my archive on John Lautner. I am now digitizing and preserving all the interviews. I am planning on including additional material on the remastering of the DVD.

Take a look at Bette’s work on a film on Albert Frey as well as additional information on her film on Lautner on her website: Purchase VHS or PAL copies of the film from the Foundation shop:

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