John Lautner and How To Design the Client

Reach for the Sky!

Some artists create a new physical language. That’s what Los Angeles architect John Lautner did every time he designed a new house. Each project was a unique  exploration of structure, form, and material. The marvelous 2009 documentary Infinite Space by director Murray Grigor and editor/producer Sara Sackner deftly captures this remarkable restless spirit of invention. One of the film’s most powerful sequences  is the presentation of Lautner’s Mar Brisas house in Acapulco,

with its extraordinary sweeping swirl of suspended moat-as-railing beside a vast shoreline view (here are stills). This is where the film gets its title.

The heavy concrete structure appears weightless here, framing the wide vista, floating between earth and sky.The camera allows the viewer to float through the space as well.

Yes it’s an unusual design. When I interviewed the maverick Mr. Lautner many years ago he said something I have always remembered: “You not only need to design the house; you also have to design the site — and you have to design the client!” Many of Lautner’s clients were innovators themselves, enthusiastically embarking on journeys of discovery with their architect. Though such an approach might seem rarified, it really isn’t. In other words, the client and architect — or plan –  need to complement each other (and the site needs to be part of the house plan) in order for the project to be successful. That means doing your homework before you settle on a plan — knowing what exactly you are looking for and using the search process to establish your true  needs, wants, and taste — all  filtered through what you can afford. The plan purchaser (or client) needs to use the drawings (including layouts, sections, 3-D elevations, and photographs) to envision the completed house.

It’s both simple and complicated because you need to walk through each plan in your mind. In a sense you become the director of your own architectural documentary.

Here’s an image of the director Murray Grigor, far left; director of photography Hamid Shams, (middle); and Jack Hodges, operating the crane. According to editor/producer Sara Sackner: “That is how we made the movie — it’s called a Jimmy Jib and it’s a portable crane that is moved by the crane operator and has preset computerized moves for the camera, as well. It’s how we floated through the homes giving the viewer that feeling of moving through the space.”

I think we all need a Jimmy Jib — but until that happens it’s possible to use Houseplans.com in a similar way, to fly over and through a great many plans all at once. The best clients have explored all possibilities and systematically narrowed a project down to key design elements. We can’t all be artists or artist clients but we can all use the available resources to educate ourselves as to what is possible. Of course not everyone can visualize 3-dimensional space from a set of drawings so if the movie metaphor doesn’t work for you try staking out a few rooms on your empty lot in order to get a better sense of a particular plan. In any case, before hiring the architect — I mean stock plan — you need to design the client that is you. Lights, camera, action! (Images courtesy Sara Sackner.)

One response to “John Lautner and How To Design the Client

  1. I loved that movie, too, Dan! John Lautner is one of my all-time favorites.

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