Mid-twentieth century Los Angeles architect Pierre Koenig (1925–2004), was a skillful constructor of modernist homes. The most famous of these were two case study houses produced wholly of glass, wood, and steel and evocatively photographed by Julius Shulman. Yet despite these early successes, Koenig was largely forgotten by the 1980s.
Architectural historian Neil Jackson’s recent book Pierre Koenig: A View from the Archive utilizes the Getty Research Institute’s near-complete archive of Koenig’s papers and drawings to cement the legacy of this important LA figure. In this episode, Jackson discusses Koenig’s career and most notable works.
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Pierre Koenig: A View from the Archive publication
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
NEIL JACKSON: I think it was Time magazine who referred to him as having lived long enough to be cool twice.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with architectural historian Neil Jackson about his recent book on the work of the modernist Los Angeles architect Pierre Koenig.
Pierre Koenig was an exceptionally gifted architect of mid-20th century modernist houses, including two famous case study houses made of glass, wood, and steel. The Getty Research Institute is the repository of Koenig’s architectural archive, a virtually complete collection of his papers and architectural drawings. Recently, Getty Publications published Pierre Koenig: A View from the Archive, written by the notable architectural historian Neil Jackson.
I recently sat down with Neil to talk about his book and the architecture and legacy of Pierre Koenig.
Pierre Koenig was born in San Francisco in 1925, and his family moved to L.A. in 1939. Four years later, he enlisted into the Army. What did he do during the war?
NEIL JACKSON: Well, he joined the special program to train officers. But with the D-Day landings, that program got curtailed, and he was immediately sent out as a private, a GI, over to England. He was with a group called the 292nd Field Artillery Observation Battery, and he was a flash spotter.
CUNO: What does that mean?
JACKSON: It was a particularly dangerous job. There were four flash-spot teams in his unit, and they would arrange themselves across probably a ten-mile front of the battlefield. And then they would look for gun flashes from cannons. So he did this and followed the battalion through into Germany.
And he got injured at one point. I think his truck hit a mine or something, and he got hospitalized in Paris. And then the next thing is, he’s on his way home. So it was a fairly short time.
CUNO: Not long afterwards, he enters USC to study architecture. What attracted him to architecture?
JACKSON: He didn’t really know what to do when he came back. He’d always been interested in drawing. The story is, he was in a library in San Gabriel and thumbing through architectural magazines, and came across drawings by Paul Rudolph and thought, well, I can do that. And he signed up in Pasadena City College, to learn architecture.
But it was a terribly traditional course, and I don’t think it was really what he wanted to do. He did two years at Pasadena City College. And then he moved to USC, to enter the architecture program there.
CUNO: So he graduated from the University of Southern California in 1952. What was USC’s School of Architecture like back then?
JACKSON: I mean to my mind, it was a very good program, but it was a timber-based program. They were building wooden buildings, or designing wooden buildings. And you know, that’s absolutely suited to this part of the country, its earthquake zones and so on. But he felt this wasn’t the way that architecture should be going, and during his final year, he built a house for himself out of steel. He says that his grades had been really good, and the moment he handed in a steel project, they plummeted, because the tutors didn’t want a steel building. They wanted timber.
CUNO: Did he work with any particular architect teacher?
JACKSON: The person who I think was probably most important was Calvin Straub, who was a timber frame man. And I think there was probably some tension there.
CUNO: And by timber, then, do you just mean that he worked with wood?
JACKSON: There was a style of post-and-lintel construction, which was referred to as the Pasadena style. Whitney Smith is probably the best-known architect of that in Pasadena. And it’s very much what it says. You get a wooden post, a four-by-four post perhaps, and a couple of six-by-two beams, lap in the post on either side and you bolt it through. It’s a very simple, pragmatic, but very modern way of building.
CUNO: Yeah. You mentioned that he designed and built his own house in 1951, I think it was. The year before he started his last year at USC. I’m sort of struck by how he was drawn to houses— drawn to his own house, because of course, he needed a place to live, I suppose. But he quickly developed a specialty in doing houses. Was that something that USC was particularly interested in? Or how did that happen, that he got so drawn to houses, and pretty much stayed with houses the rest of his career?
JACKSON: I don’t know enough about the USC program to say that it didn’t teach the students to design other sorts of buildings. But a house is a very straightforward, at the same time very difficult problem, and it’s a very good learning vehicle. And Calvin Straub taught them house design. And there’s one project here in the collection, from that time, that shows how he’s working through the process of designing a timber house in the Pasadena style.
During that time, in the late 1940s and 1950s, there was this project being run by the magazine Arts & Architecture, called the Case Study House Program. And the intention was to have architects design what could be regarded as model homes for the postwar years. The editor, John Entenza, had recognized that there would be a lot of people returning from the war, and with government support, they could use money either to further their education or to build themselves a new home.
So here was an opportunity in the architectural world to offer a good standard of design, and the magazine went out to publicize that. So I think there was a lot of interest at that time in the house as an object, as a design solution.
And then Pierre becomes very interested in the idea of mass producing houses, like Henry Ford mass produced cars. I guess the essence of a production home is that one has a kit of parts, and this is reproduced in various configurations. And he could just continue working in that vein, doing production homes or designing homes that could become models for production, you know, for years and years. It was an endless pathway, and he chose to follow that.
JACKSON: There are other buildings, he did bigger buildings, but they’re not particularly significant. It was really his house architecture that’s important.
CUNO: Yeah. So he worked on Soriano’s own Case Study House, 1950; did his own house 1951, which while not a Case Study House, it looks like it was influenced by Case Study Houses. And he did two Case Study Houses himself, Number 21 and number 22, the Bailey House in ’57, and the Stahl House in ’59. You’ve mentioned about the project itself. How did he get signed onto the project?
JACKSON: Well, he was invited by John Entenza, the editor. And you know, I was talking to Pierre and he sort of takes on the persona of John Entenza and he says, “Well, Pierre, when you have a good project, a good client, bring it to me and we’ll make it a Case Study house.” And that’s how it happened. And this was Case Study House 21. The idea behind the Case Study House Program was that architects would, in a sense, take their designs to the magazine, who would then promote them.
And the magazine didn’t commission these itself; they used them as a vehicle for promoting architecture and promoting architectural materials. So Pierre had worked with Soriano on the Case Study House for 1950. That’s what it’s called; it doesn’t have a number. He’d done the perspective drawings, which were published in Arts & Architecture, in the magazine.
CUNO: What is the basis of a Case Study House, other than a kit of parts?
JACKSON: Well, it was something that offered a standard of living that I think the postwar generation would aspire towards. It tended to be fairly simple, tended to be fairly small, maybe two-children family, that sort of thing. It needed to be something that could be fairly easily built. And in terms of the basic idea of the program, it needed to be something that could reproduced in a variety of situations. So this again is, I think, something that really appealed to Pierre, the reproductability of the house as a— as a building type.
CUNO: How did somebody commission a Case Study House. In other words, so a man named Bailey wants a house. He goes to Koenig and asked for a design, to ask him to design a house. Does he say, I want a Case Study House?
JACKSON: Well, as far as Walter Bailey was concerned, he just wanted a house. And in 1955, Pierre started working on this house for him, but it was too big and the project got shelved.
CUNO: It got shelved because it was too expensive?
JACKSON: Yes, it was too expensive.
JACKSON: Yeah. And then I guess the Baileys decided they’d try again, and Pierre was asked to reduce the size of the building, and this he did. And this is at the point when he took the design to John Entenza and said, “You know, I’ve got this potential Case Study House, if you’d like to publish it.”
And the houses, when they were published, they were published over a number of months. The first publication would be a site plan and some sketches perhaps, and a perspective drawing. And then over the months, you got photographs published showing the building under construction, and then the completed building. And then the building was open to the public for maybe two weekends or three weekends, and the public were invited to come round and have a look.
And everybody, in a way, benefitted. The architect got a lot of publicity, the clients got a cheaper building because the suppliers of building materials would supply them at cost. The suppliers got a lot of advertising, because it was their profiled metal roofing that was being used in Case Study House whatever number. And everybody went away happy, except possibly for the person who had to clean the house after 400 people walked around it one weekend.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, the Bailey House was, I think, 1200 to 1300 square feet. That’s like the size of a small apartment now, right? So how many bedrooms was it? How many people lived there?
JACKSON: There were two bedrooms, or one was a study. Depends how it was configured. That’s the second version of the house. The first version, it was more extensive. And what Pierre did in redesigning the house was really chop of the tail with all the bedrooms in it and concentrate the functions around the main body of the house.
CUNO: Well, I’m looking at the picture of the house in your book. And it’s sited on this kind of bluff overlooking a valley, quite exposed. It might be because the landscaping hadn’t been put in by the time this photograph was taken, so it looks more exposed than it might’ve otherwise been when they lived there; but maybe not. Tell us about the house and the setting in which it was built.
JACKSON: Well, nowadays of course, it has a lot of greenery around it. But that site was on a little escarpment on the east side of a road in the Hollywood Hills. There’s a level platform. To the west, the ground rises up, and the subsoil, the substrata on the west side is quite stable. On the east side, above the road, it’s not so good. They had to put deeper foundations into that side because it was mostly loose fill that made up the site at that point.
The building runs north-south. It’s essentially just a rectangle. The south end looks out across the valley; the north end looks up into the next property, and it’s at the north end where you drive in with your car. So it’s a linear building, and the car drives in at the north end. The entrance to the living accommodation is right in the center of the building, either accessed from the carport or from a doorway down the east side of the building.
And then the living rooms all look out towards the south, with the exception of the study, which has a north aspect. The building is surrounded by shallow pools for lilies or birds or whatever want to take refuge there.
CUNO: All the way around the house is water, or just on one side?
JACKSON: No, all the way— all the way around, except for where you bring your car in. And there are a couple of platforms that stretch out over there, like decks that stretch over the water. But the idea is, I think, to provide natural cooling. And there is a water pumping system that takes water from these shallow ponds up to the roof, and then spews it out as a series of spouts along the side of the building, down into…
CUNO: Oh, right.
JACKSON: …the water ponds again. So there’s a lot of evaporation going on.
CUNO: But it cools the house, as well, I suppose.
JACKSON: It cools the house, yes. The air would have moisture in it, which has a cooling effect.
CUNO: I see.
JACKSON: The only windows that there are in the building are on the south side, looking out over the view, and there’s water outside those windows. And on the north side, to the side of the carport, there’s the windows to the study area. And these are all floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors. So you just pull them back and get through ventilation very easily. The through ventilation then will be slightly moist, and that will help cool the space.
Pierre never did air conditioning. Didn’t believe in it at all. And even in his own last house, he had his sort of air ventilation door that he would open and he would reckon the cool breezes would come in off the ocean, which was at some distance away because he was living in Brentwood. But natural ventilation was what he wanted to do and was quite possible.
CUNO: Now, from the vantage point of the photograph that I’m looking at, the walls are not glass walls. They’re opaque, they’re within a dark frame that makes it look very much like a Japanese house. And I know that you’re working on a book about the relationship between Japan and Los Angeles architectures. Was there a stated influence from Japan for him?
JACKSON: Well, he was certainly aware of it. He’d never been to Japan, and I don’t think he ever got there. I actually haven’t found much evidence of him traveling abroad after the war. Maybe he felt he’d done it all then. His passport, which is in the collection, has almost no stamps in it. And I think he was pretty much, you know, a stay-at-home boy.
But the frame architecture that we get in this part of California, is essentially the same as they need to build in Japan, because of the risk of earthquakes. He was doing a building which had a frame that was expressed as a dark-painted steel object. And then the light-colored panels that went between could be seen as a California version of shoji, the walls that make up the traditional Japanese house.
The influence of Japanese architecture on the West Coast of America was considerable, and probably is most noticeable further north, in Seattle and in— maybe in Portland, because of the large Japanese communities that are in these places.
CUNO: So when you were in the house, in the Bailey House, was it just a series of open volumes, or where there interior walls that broke up a single volume? Or was it expressed by individual volumes of rooms?
JACKSON: Well, the interior space of the Bailey House was divided into two main volumes, one on the west side, one on the east side. There’s a, as it were, a wall, at least a series of columns, down the middle. The one on the west side is made of two bedrooms. And then in the middle, between the east and the west volume, there’s a little courtyard, which has a shower at one end of it and a bathroom at the other end of it, and a boiler house in the middle. And there’s a fountain in there, as well. This is an open-air courtyard. And that links the living space with the bedroom spaces.
And then the living space on the east side of the building has a kitchen, separated by an L-shaped wall that doesn’t go all the way to the ceiling, an open counter. So it’s an enclosure around the kitchen, but it’s not a separate room. And there’s a little dining area in there. And then beyond that is all the seating area that looks out over the view to the south.
CUNO: Yeah. So then two years later, he has a second Case Study House. This one the Stahl House, 1959. How large is this house? It’s certainly much more glamorous. At least in photographs, it has a much more glamorous structure. Was that because the materials were a different kind or the scale was greater, or what was it like?
JACKSON: No, it was really just more of the same. But as he progressed through, these early years, he understood better how to make the buildings. The building industry was changing. Larger window sections were available, deeper beam sections were available, and you know, everything was, in a sense, moving forward together. So what we get at the Stahl house is an L-shaped building that is glazed on almost three sides, if you can have three sides to an L.
But there’s one side to the— to the north that is solid, and that’s, again, a sheet metal side. But the Stahl house is essentially a skeleton of steel with glass wrapped around it. And the door sizes are bigger than they had been in the previous building. He’s now using twenty-foot bays, with two sliders within them. And there’s a different sort of ethos to it.
It’s not a building that could be reproduced. That wasn’t the intention of it, I think. It’s much more of a one-off. Having said that, it’s the only one of his houses that he did reproduce, because somebody said, “I want one like that.” So Mr. Johnson got a house up in Carmel Valley that is a reproduction of Case Study House 22. But Case Study House 22 doesn’t really lend itself to reproduction because it’s on such a peculiar and special site.
CUNO: Yeah. Describe the site. Because I’m looking of the photograph of it, the famous one, the Julius Shulman photograph, which looks out over the valley.
JACKSON: No, that’s Hollywood.
CUNO: Oh, it’s Hollywood, with all the streetlights dividing up the landscape and all these sections of light, it looks as if it’s almost on fire. But there was something about the site that was peculiar and complicated and difficult, that others who were offered a commission, if I understand it, before him turned it down as a result, in part because of the site. What was that like?
JACKSON: Well, Buck Stahl, who had bought the site, had spent quite a few years, three or four years, trying to stabilize it, collecting lots of building waste—concrete, bricks, blocks, whatever—from sites all around the city, and taking them up to his hilltop site there and trying to level out the bit of ground by building retaining walls and so on. The result was that there was this platform that was fairly solid in the middle, gave some strength; but around the outside, was insubstantial.
And I think most architects looked at it and thought, well, this is a crazy place to put a house; it’s going to slide down the hillside. The Chateau Marmont is straight down below.
CUNO: Oh, really? Oh, right.
JACKSON: Would end up in the back yard. So Pierre said, “Well, you know, yes, we could have go.” This is where it becomes more contentious. There’s a photograph of a model, that Buck Stahl had made, which shows essentially the same configuration of plan that Pierre decided to use. Yet it’s a very different type of building and it’s not so much an L, but it’s more of a U, which wraps around the same part of the site.
And to that, I would say that even if it was Buck Stahl’s idea to put the house there, it was only Pierre who could really realize it and achieve it. So he put the house round the extremity of the site, on what was the insubstantial ground, and put deep, deep foundations into the earth. And the bit of ground in the middle, which was solid, is where he put the swimming pool, because you don’t want that going down the hillside either.
CUNO: The walls are, for half of the house, if not more than half of the house, are glass sheets. They’ve got a overhang of the roof that is substantial; I suppose to keep the light from coming into the house. How was it cooled, with so much glass?
JACKSON: You open the windows.
CUNO: Slide them open.
JACKSON: Slide them open and you get the wind going through. The house, as I’ve said, is set around an L shape, around the swimming pool. So there’s evaporation. It’s the same process as in Case Study House 21.
The swimming pool is on the west side; the house is on the north and the east of the pool. The overhanging roof is on the west side, so where the setting sun is low in the sky, the roof provides shelter and the sun doesn’t penetrate so far into the building. And one could open the sliders and the evaporated water will fill the air and pass through the room.
The roof on the east side has got a very shallow overhang. But then you’re not trying to stop the east sun coming into the building, because you need that to warm up in the morning. What you don’t want is the west sun. The building is designed very much along that principle.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, the sites, as you pointed out, were particularly of interest to him. Not only because of the challenge they faced, but because they offered this kind of view. How important is the site to the—our experience of the house, to our memory of house, our regard for its beauty? And how much of that is to be credited to the photographer, Julius Shulman, who I already mentioned?
JACKSON: Well, Julius was a very good photographer. And I think his black and white pictures are excellent. He could turn something that was unremarkable into something that looked fairly remarkable. The very famous photograph of two young women sitting in Case Study House 22, the nighttime shot with the street lights of Hollywood reaching out below, is actually a complete artificial construct. It wasn’t like that.
CUNO: What do you mean?
JACKSON: The house wasn’t finished. It was full of building dust. The furniture was all borrowed for the event. The planting in the foreground was being held in place by metal clamps. And there was a bit of furniture right in the foreground, a chaise lounge, that was hiding the raw concrete base of the building that was showing up rather well. The two young women were not in the picture to begin with. It was something like a seven minute exposure to get the lights of city and everything to come up on the film.
And then the two women went in, in their white dresses, and Julius Shulman popped the flashgun bulb, and the two women were then recorded in the house. But if you look carefully at the picture, you’ll see that the street lights of Hollywood go straight through their bodies, because that was already on the celluloid.
And there’s another photograph showing a man looking out over the landscape. His back is to the camera. He’s also in a white jacket, which I am sure is for the same reason, so he would catch the bright light of the flash bulb. He, incidentally, worked for the furniture company and wasn’t allowed to show his face. He was not contracted to be in the photograph.
CUNO: But was Shulman his preferred photographer for his career?
JACKSON: Not always. I think there’s quite a lot of Shulman work, but he used other photographers, as well. No, there was a degree of tension that developed because Pierre felt—and I think rightly so—that his house had become famous; but not because of him, but because somebody had taken a photograph of it.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah.
JACKSON: And every time the photograph was reproduced, he didn’t actually get anything for it, and Julius did. And he became a little bit sore about that.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, you call his basic plan for his houses, the pavilion plan. And you credit Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House of 1951 as the common source for Koenig’s use of the pavilion plan. Describe to us what the pavilion plan is. And how did he know of the Farnsworth House?
JACKSON: The Farnsworth House was published. There was an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; there was a book by Philip Johnson on Mies. And although, you know, back in the 1950s, people didn’t get to travel around the continent like they do now, there was a certain amount of material out there that was available through journals and through books. And the Farnsworth House would’ve been one of those.
The pavilion plan, the pavilion house, I would argue, is a discrete, probably symmetrical, probably rectangular box that sits on the ground, or maybe just a little bit above the ground. And it is sort of perfect in its form and can’t very well be changed or altered. And this is why some of Koenig’s buildings certainly fit into that category. They might have an axis of symmetry down the middle, with a bedroom on either side at one end and the kitchen at the other end, and the living room in the middle.
It’s a fairly standard plan, once one has mastered it. And other architects, such as Craig Ellwood, were using this, as well.
CUNO: Yeah. There were examples of houses he might’ve been attracted to in Los Angeles. Now, I know they’re quite different, like the Schindler House, let’s say, or even some of the Neutra houses. But what was he looking at? What was he seeing in Los Angeles that may have been of interest to him?
JACKSON: I think again, this comes back to what he learnt at USC. It was the post-and-beam construction. What he was doing with steel was essentially a post-and-beam construction process, although because the steel beam is much stronger than the timber beam, he could really expand the distances and stretch the building. So that process of assembling was, I think, what was what was guiding him, really. Schindler didn’t work that way. Schindler’s houses are pretty idiosyncratic and they’re very odd shapes sometimes.
Neutra’s houses were, I think, very European in their way, mostly. And again, that wasn’t what Pierre was doing. He had this almost, as you mentioned earlier, this sort of Japanese approach to building, the simple frame.
And he would extend his buildings. The house on Mandeville Canyon, which was built as a speculative development, became a private house, and then got extended about three or four times. And the current owners have extended it twice, by building a new house on top, using Pierre to do this. So one building, with its own frame, sits on top of the other building with its own frame.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah.
JACKSON: And it is a type of architecture which I think the steel frame allows. And I guess this is what he was really looking at, how one can make an architecture that is material-based, as opposed to style-based or other things.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. I’m sort of inclined by nature to think about influences and connections between one building and another, one architect and another. And it’s clear that Neutra and Schindler are different. There is a Paul Rudolph house in Los Angeles that’s later. Was Rudolph at all of interest to him?
JACKSON: I would say very little. It was the Rudolph houses in Sarasota, in Florida, that he saw in these magazines back in 1946 or ’47 or ’48. And that was where the influence was. And the realization that he could draw houses like this. With a bit of work, but he could do it. Rudolph’s houses—and I’ve seen quite a few of them; not just in the United States, but in Southeast Asia, in Hong Kong and so on, and in Singapore—are very extraordinary. And they almost are like their drawings.
You can see they’re buildings that are made out of a whole lot of straight lines, in the way that the drawings are made out of a lot of straight lines. And Pierre’s are like that. And his perspective drawings are so crisp and clear that they really explain what is going on. And if there is an influence from Rudolph, I think it’s in that basic way of transferring a drawn image into a built form.
CUNO: Yeah. So I’ll contradict myself here and say that by looking at his houses—that is, at Koenig’s houses—they look as if they were born fully developed. And for the rest of his career, they got more refined, depending on the person who wanted the house built. But he seemed to have emerged as the architect he was for the rest of his life.
JACKSON: Oh, that’s very true. That’s a real problem. One’s got to keep developing if one’s going to stay at the forefront. And you know, he hit the big time very, very early on, and didn’t develop much beyond that. So much so, by the 1980s, he was pretty much forgotten. He was working as a professor at USC, so you know, he had a salary. But it must’ve been pretty galling not to be recognized by any other architects. You know, young lads, young women. Like, who’s this Pierre Koenig? We don’t know about him.
CUNO: Was that true of his generation, or more particularly true of him?
JACKSON: I think true of him. When Fred Riebe, who bought the Johnson house in about 1995, when Fred Riebe eventually tracked down Pierre and said, you know, “Are you Pierre Koenig?,” Pierre’s response was, “Everybody thinks I’m dead.” So— And he came back and restored that house, and did a remarkable job on it.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, in 1989, there’s an exhibition at MoCA, Museum of Contemporary Art, in Los Angeles, called Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses. That had some big effect on his career and his sense of recognition that you were just talking about; how he seemed not to have been recognized, eclipsed by a younger generation. But this exhibition changed the course, for a little bit at least.
JACKSON: Oh, absolutely. It gave him a second life. The exhibition had two of the Case Study Houses built within the exhibition hall. And one was of a house that had never actually been built at all, so it only existed in drawings in Arts & Architecture magazine; and the other was Case Study House 22. And it was built to full scale, although not the whole of the house, but the living room and the pool and one could get a good feel for it.
And you know, there it was, raised up quite a way above the floor of the exhibition hall. And it caused quite a sensation. So his house that was not built for reproduction, ironically, was reproduced as the Johnson House, and then reproduced again as itself, inside this great big hall here in Los Angeles. And Pierre started to then become famous again, and he was given all sorts of awards—you know, life service, all these sort of things—and invited to give lots of lectures.
I think it was Time magazine who referred to him as having lived long enough to be cool twice.
CUNO: There is a house called the Schwartz House that is designed around 1990, built, I suppose, a couple years after that. It’s quite dramatic. And could you explain why— the source of its drama? I don’t want to give it away. You tell us about it.
JACKSON: Okay. The Schwartz House is on a narrow winding road that comes in from the PCH, just where Chautauqua comes down the hill to the coast. And although it’s maybe half a mile inland, there’s a lot of sea breeze that comes through. And remembering that Pierre didn’t do air conditioning or anything like that, he wanted a house that could be naturally ventilated. So his solution was to build a large exposed steel frame lined up with the street, that was at right angles to the coastline, and then put the house within the steel frame, and turn it through twenty-five degrees or whatever to catch the winds that were coming up the whole canyon there.
So this was a naturally-cooled house. It does look slightly strange, I have to admit. I reviewed it for a British architectural journal soon after it was finished. And it’s always sort of remained in my mind as being idiosyncratic. But it sits there, a white box within a big black steel frame, over about three stories. And it worked. And then of course, a neighbor comes and builds a large house just to the west of it and blocks the airflow coming up the canyon.
JACKSON: Which is a pity. Architecture, by the mid-1990s, when this was designed, had gone off in all sorts of strange directions. And I can’t help but think that he was a little bit conscious that another pavilion-type house really wouldn’t make the grade. And I think he’s trying to do something that’s perhaps new or something that looks a little bit different. The interest in the late eighties, 1980s, was in deconstruction. Is there something of that in this building, a frame doing one thing, the building doing the other thing? I don’t know.
The client, Martin Schwartz and his wife Mel, were enormously supportive of Pierre. It was a really difficult job. Martin was, I think, quite involved. Not quite as a site manager, but you know, he had the checkbook and he had to try and keep things under control. And there were all sorts of problems, which are described in my book here. I’m lucky because the correspondence is all in the archives here, and you can follow it through.
I get the feeling that at this stage, Pierre wasn’t quite in control of what was going on. He was working on his own. He usually didn’t have an assistant; or if he did, it was a young person who would, you know, do the drawings for him and— It wasn’t the tight operation that it should’ve been.
CUNO: Did it lead to other such experiments in his career?
JACKSON: No, this was pretty much the last thing. This is the last complete house he built.
CUNO: Well, through those decades, or at least years, in which he wasn’t making influential architecture, or he wasn’t making architecture that attracted attention to him, his career as an architect, he was teaching at USC. What kind of a teacher was he?
JACKSON: I think a very dedicated teacher. The evidence of that is in the program for the Chemehuevi Indian tribe, their reservation, on the banks of the Colorado River at Havasu Lake.
CUNO: And describe that to us, because it reproduces beautifully in your book.
JACKSON: This was a project that lasted for about five years. And it was a project that he ran through his design studio at USC, and the students, every year, would take the project on as a learning experiment, as well as providing something for the Indian reservation there. It was a project that was meant to be financed by the government and there were all sorts of difficulties. And eventually, it just collapsed. Pierre was not going to compromise on his ideas, and the government were not going to let his ideas go through. So it was a— it was a stalemate. And it was sort of very sad.
But I think any architecture professor working in a school of architecture who can get his students that involved in a real-life program—not just one that lasts for ten weeks, but one that lasts for five years—is quite an achievement. And he was, I think, very much appreciated. There’s a lecture room now at USC, Pierre Koenig Lecture Hall.
CUNO: So your book, Pierre Koenig: A View From the Archive, references the Getty’s holdings of Koenig’s work. How is it that you got to Koenig? Was it by way of working in the archive here or had you known of Koenig’s work before?
JACKSON: Oh, no, I was very aware of Pierre, and I knew him and I knew Gloria, his wife. I’d been a professor at Cal Poly Pomona, here in Los Angeles, from 1985 to 1990, and I’d got to know Pierre. I’d got to know Craig Ellwood, I’d got to know Rafael Soriano, people who’d been building steel houses, Case Study Houses. And I did a small book on Pierre for Taschen in 2007.
And then when the opportunity to become a guest scholar here at the Getty Conservation Institute came up, this was too good a thing to miss. And I had three wonderful months here. And the result of that initially was an article in the Getty Research Journal.. And then this book contract came along, so it was an opportunity to continue working in this area.
CUNO: Now, your book draws from his archive that’s at the Getty Center. It’s a large archive, huge number of things. A hundred boxes of files of correspondence, documents, drawings, and photographs, and more than 250 flat files of drawings. How important is that archive? And for what reasons is it important?
JACKSON: I think it’s important because it is an almost complete set of work from an architect who was very single-minded in what he did and very conscientious about how he did it. There are gaps, there’s a few teeth missing; but that happens with age. The design for the first Bailey House is something that Pierre actually forgot about. I won’t say I discovered it in there, but anyway, it was in there. It took me quite a while to work out what it was, because it looked like the Bailey House, but it wasn’t the Bailey House. But it was this earlier version.
He was very good at recording things. There’s a lot of letters initially, and then they become faxes. And you know, there’re lots of complete sets of material. The opportunity to look at a complete body of work like that is something that anyone interested in a type of architecture or a particular architect would really relish. And I think I was really fortunate, in being able to use this collection to produce this book.
The book is called A View From the Archive. And I use the word “view” in two senses. One, as an aspect—what you might see; and the other as an opinion. And I do say in the book, this is my opinion, and other people can have their own opinions. And they can go through the same material and come up with, presumably, different conclusions. Though, we might have an argument, of course.
CUNO: Yeah, well, it’s a great book and beautifully designed, beautifully executed, filled with information and interpretation of Koenig’s career. So congratulations. We’re grateful that you gave us the chance to talk about the book on this podcast; but also gave the Getty the chance to publish the book.
JACKSON: Well, thank you very much, Jim. It was a great thrill to do it.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
NEIL JACKSON: I think it was Time magazine who referred to him as having lived long enough to be c...
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