Back to School: Modern Architects on Film

Lights, Camera, Buildings!

You can learn a lot about how great architects shape space from the range of design documentaries now available.  For example, Checkerboard Films has just released Ray Kappe, California Modern Master: 40 Years of Modular Evolution, which explores the career of one of America’s most innovative and influential architects.

kappe film cover

From the cover alone you get the sense that this designer is interested not just in thinking but leaping outside the box. See how roof planes, floor planes, and wall planes extend outward and upward as if reaching to infinity.  Stretching the mind is definitely part of Kappe’s approach — he was the founder of SCI-ARC (the Southern California Institute of Architecture), which has taught generations of talented architects  —  many of whom I covered for Sunset. Ray went to U. C. Berkeley and worked briefly for the Bay Area firm of Anshen & Allen, designers of many mid-century modern houses for developer Joe Eichler, before settling in Los Angeles.

The film explores in depth (or height!) the house he designed for his wife Shelly and their family in 1967: a series of seven interpenetrating trays suspended over a steep upslope. It’s wonderful to experience the house cinematically because, to my mind anyway, that’s how it was designed: as a kind of three dimensional film strip.

KAPPE HOME EXTERIOR small from Kappe + DU

The warm wood-and-glass framed levels are supported on four 8- by 12-foot concrete, skylit towers that form the bathrooms and the kitchen. Cantilevers allowed him to get an expansive, multi-layered house on a very tight site. In the film Ray mentions his interest in the work of Paul Rudolph — whose Art & Architecture Building at Yale is a sculptural extravaganza of interpenetrating layers — and you can see Rudolph’s almost Baroque spatial sensibility resonating throughout Kappe’s design.

When Ray and Shelly kindly gave me a tour some years ago I marveled at how everything overlapped. Here’s an image of the living room,

Kappe_LR_09_09_09 from Ron kappe site

(both photos courtesy of Kappe+ DU Architects) showing how the space overlooks a study and is in turn overlooked by the bedroom level. I asked Shelly how they brought up children in such an open interior where railings are either glass or just not there, and she said: “Oh they simply learned where the edges were.” There are no handrails in the stairway either, which, as Ray explains in the film, is a way to make people more aware of what they’re seeing. I might call it the power of the double take…or just plain fear of flying. Also the Kappe children always helped hand the groceries up. Living in the house must have had an effect: their son Ron Kappe is a distinguished architect in his own right.

Ray Kappe’s recent modular, LEED platinum-rated “Living Home” for prefab entrepreneur Steve Glenn is also shown in the film. The Checkerboard series includes documentaries on Yoshio Taniguchi (designer of New York’s Museum of Modern Art),  Philip Johnson, Sir John Soane and others.

Other design films for your Netflicks cue should include the following two. Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner,

poster for John Lautner film Infinite Space

presents the work of another towering LA innovator. Lautner used concrete and glass in radically sculptural ways and his houses — no two alike — often became stage sets for Holywood movies, especially James Bond films. I met Lautner long ago when I was writing about one of his houses and he told me: “When you design a house you’ve not only got to design the house, you’ve got to design the site, and you’ve got to design the client.” Now that’s a custom house!

The other must-see is My Architect: A Son’s Journey,

homeimage1 My architect Kahn film

the extremely moving exploration of Louis Kahn’s career and life by his son Nathaniel Kahn.  The Salk Institute in La Jolla, California is perhaps his most famous building, but he also worked outside the US. I saw this film with my recent college graduate daughter. At the end, when a man tells Nathaniel that Kahn’s Parliament Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh “gave us democracy,”  I couldn’t help dissolving into tears. My daughter recoiled at my emotional response: “Get a grip, Dad!” Well, what can I say? Good design can be affecting on the big screen.

One response to “Back to School: Modern Architects on Film

  1. Yes, that house by Kappe is fantastic! Where it’s situated isn’t bad, either. Great blog!

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