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Case Study House #21

CSH #21 Still Breathes Informal Lifestyle

by Claudia Dias on July 17, 2009

Julius Shulman‘s world-famous photographs of the Case Study House #21 (1959) try to convince us that nothing must change, that perfection is here to stay.
Shulman (1910-2009) captured this special area of post-war progressive American architecture with his own seductive lens-eye view, and these images will linger with us forever. In a way, his  iconic moments of flawlessness are intimidating.

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The Bailey House (CSH #21) has seen several new owners since it was commissioned to Pierre Koenig in 1957 as a single-family house by Walter and Maria Bailey. It is extremely compact (30′ x 40′), designed with an open-plan layout. Flexibility through sliding doors, the CSH #21 reminds me of a traditional Japanese house, where exterior merges with the interior with help of large movable glass-wall panels and a center courtyard that radiates pioneering intelligence and detailed finesse in all its complexity.

Even technical aspects were integrated into style. Originally there was no air conditioning installed. The average temperature was much lower at the time of construction. The cooling system of the house then are surrounding reflective (shallow) pools, a center courtyard with a water fountain and cold water cooling tubes which are run across the roof, emptying from water spouts into the pool and then are pumped-up again as part of a recirculation system. In the late afternoon the Santa Ana winds pick up in the Hollywood Hills, which enables cross- ventilation, blowing the cooler courtyard air into the house through the wide window openings. There are mosquito-screens in front of the window elements. The wall-sized sliding screen panels both protect from insects and sun, adding to the facade a shoji-esque layered light-play.

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CSH #21 was constructed as part of introducing the International Style with steel, large glass elements and the newest appliances into domestic architecture after WWII. Unfortunately it did not catch on beyond the kitchen. Reyner Banham called it ‘the style that nearly‘ was: despite its (and CSH #22‘s) fame, it only proved that ‘the ingrained prejudices of the construction industry were difficult to dislodge.’
What makes the house so special are its intelligent solutions from sliding doors for closing-off the private areas; the inner courtyard to which the bathroom door-panels open up and where you can take a shower being hidden and outdoors; the kitchen that offers 3 refrigerators/freezers, but installed on eye level, meaning you never have to bend down to look for your groceries. The integrated pharmacy drawer and hidden closet door behind the kitchen (in Shulman’s photograph just across from where Pierre Koenig is standing at the music credenza) are some examples that contribute to this masterstroke.

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Meanwhile, the house outlived its designer. Shulman’s pictures however remain frozen time capsules: just as we have difficulties watching actors age in real life we want to see this iconic house preserved in its pristine condition forever. 1998 the house got a final facelift by Pierre Koenig, who actually made changes to kitchen appliances and the kitchen color (it is now stainless steel, no longer yellow) and added air-conditioning and Cable TV. Koenig always perceived the kitchen as a place where technology will surpass one day his choices, and designed it for this purpose adjustable for ‘up-grades’.

The original living room furniture where designed by Pierre Koenig and McCabe, was referred to by some as lower-quality furniture (vinyl covered foam sofa, office chair, plastic laminated plywood bureau, i.e.) since the money had been spent on the building’s shell. I found a copy of the original music credenza (see Shulman’s picture again) and also a model of the vinyl sofa for an astronomical price. As much as Shulman’s images tempt to recreate that one perfect moment, I believe the house has to live with its new owners and their personal style, and living habits. When refurnishing the CSH for its new owner I realized that as long as I kept alive the concept of the house – respecting the ‘free flow of space‘, the play with inside-outside, lightness and openness, and its unconventionality of the moment then, – it will keep breathing. Aging with grace is here the challenge.

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I will never forget the moments I spent in this house. When the gaze of a beautiful wild Coyote (coming down from the mountains in search for water) woke me up at sunrise with only the window between us, was proof enough that the concept of this house is still alive and still valid. This was not a Shulman moment. This was unexpected!

Julius Shulman died  July 15, 2009.

Contemporary photographs are courtesy of the author. For Julius Shulman photographs please contact R Gallery.

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