I first heard of John Lautner when I was reading the liner notes to Larry Norman’s Only Visiting This Planet album. The liner notes talked about an Architect who had his office in the same building as Larry Norman’s studio in Hollywood. The description was of someone who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and was working at the Artistic and technological edge of Architecture and Art. It didn’t list John’s name, but I longed as a sixteen year old to know that Architect.
As a young man, some three years later, I began a career restoring homes by significant Architects while restoring Greene & Greene’s Bolton-Bush house for Ken Ross. I immersed myself in the whole Architectural world. I worked on many Greene & Greenes and loved them as art, but always found the floorplans a point of consternation. I came to know Harwell Harris as a friend, and to work on buildings by him, Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lloyd Wright and many others. As I was studying I came across John Lautner’s work. It was just breathtaking. I asked many of my older Architect friends if they knew John and if he was still alive. They said he was alive, but that they would not introduce me, he was a very difficult person.
For about four years I would drive out to Hollywood, park and stand outside of John’s office trying to get my courage up to meet him. One day I figured “Well the worst that can happen is he can kick me out and that will make a great story for my Grandchildren.” I walked into a small antechamber that had John’s signature in gold on glass, through a door and was faced with a receptionist who coldly asked if I had a appointment and why I was there. I told her I had no appointment, that I desired to apprentice to Mr. Lautner and that I considered him to be the greatest living Architect. She dismissively told me Mr. Lautner would not meet me. I was so stunned at neither being received ,nor thrown out violently by John that I stood frozen and stunned. Suddenly behind me, I heard the flushing of a toilet and a man washing his hands while whistling a jazzy tune. [Steve later remembered this was about 1985-88]
John Lautner emerged, looked down and said “Well, what have we here?” I introduced myself and told John I wished to apprentice to him because he was the greatest living Architect. John said “Follow me” as his receptionist thrust icy daggers towards me with her eyes. John took me into his office and we spoke for several hours about Architecture as a practice, as a philosophy, as a way of life and enlightenment. He asked about my experience and upon discovering I was a restoration contractor, let me know that virtually all contractors, probably including me, were unworthy, He spoke of his experience building FLLW’s Johnson house with old proud German Craftsmen, the best in the world and certainly better than me. He was delighted when I failed to object. It was well past dark and the office empty when I left. I never did manage to apprentice to John. I did keep trying.
I visited John several more times over the years and attempted to get the County of Los Angeles to allow him to design the redevelopment district in Altadena. In fact I went with many a local City Department Head to meet with John every time I heard there may be a Public Works project. They were always delighted and charmed, but they never did hire him. The public is much the poorer for that.
When I went back to school and was taking basic drafting at Pasadena City College, I was President of the School Architecture Club and got John to speak for us. He wore a cream colored suit, white shirt and iridescent parrot green tie. John spoke about his work and philosophy in very plain spare terms while showing his slides. The students were silent at the end of the presentation. Meeting afterwords, across the street at a diner, many were dismayed. They had seen REAL ARCHITECTURE. [approximately 1990]
The next Monday as I arrived at class, my teacher Richard Rose, said the Department Head wanted to see me right away. I figured he was going to thank me for arranging to have John come speak. Instead he was very very angry with me. It turned out that about twenty five students saw John’s presentation and figured they would never measure up and they quit. A different bunch of students were also in class and refusing to do anymore of these neo Colonial drawings. It was said that I was ruining the program and there would be an end to the lecture series. The Department head then cancelled the lecture David Gebhard was to give the next month. I called John and told him what happened. That he had single handedly saved the world from twenty five bad Architects and acres of hardiboard and plastic bricks. John laughed long and hard over that, it really tickled him.
I don’t know how or where John got the reputation for being very difficult. In all the years I knew him, he was always gracious and kind to me and to my friends.
I was the Chair of Altadena’s Land Use Committee in the mid 1990’s. One of my mentors in Preservation and Land Use was also a Lautner client, Astrid Ellersieck. Before our meeting I said to her ” Astrid you have that house John did the preliminaries on, that you never built. I”ll tell you what lets go down and see him and I’ll propose to do the working drawings and supervise it if he will allow that.?(Still ,of course, trying to worm into apprenticeship) She turned to me and said ” Steve, John died last week”. I was stunned and devastated. I never thought anybody as big and brilliant, as creative, as humanely human, as John could die.
Frank Lloyd Wright was correct when he said “when a man builds, then you have him”. Today when I go see one of John’s buildings, I can see the twinkle in his eye as he is about to tell you a small joke, I can see his intellect in the even now daring and new methods he has used, I can see his grace and love for his clients in his spaces. You can almost hear his deep joyful voice greeting you as you walk towards an entrance.