June 28, 2009

Midcentury Family Modernism, Ch. 2: The Stahls


Just in time for several busloads of design pilgrims to troop through it during the CABoom/Dwell on Design festivals, the LA Times has a great article about Buck Stahl and his family who still live in Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 22.

Unlike the Eliot Noyes family, who screened the Eameses' movies at home and who turned their friend Alexander Calder's sculpture into an ersatz jungle gym, the Stahls seem like regular, un-design-y folks, whose dad just happened to have a clear vision and appreciation for modernist architecture.

The story of the Stahl's kids growing up in a modernist landmark on a cliff is great, and the family photos--published exclusively at the LAT--are even better. But the best part of the story is Buck himself, a football player-turned-car salesman who bought the crazy lot in the Hollywood Hills, then spent two years of weekends hauling concrete to make it buildable. All that time, he was searching for a modern architect who could translate his glass dream home model into reality for his family. That's right, Koenig's most famous house, and the second-most famous CSH after the Eameses', was actually--and persuasively--a joint design effort.

Koenig's Case Study House No. 22 as home [lat]
The Stahl House website [stahlhouse.com]
images above: (L) Julius Shulman/J Paul Getty Trust; and the Stahl Trust, see the LAT for full-sized photos]


I took a tour while at SCI-Arc. I asked Mrs. Stahl if it was hard raising a family on the edge of a cliff. She was pretty nonchalant and didn't mention any of the items in this article such as the chain link.

Those boys also grew up to be bad-ass swimmers. They had a poster sized photo of one of thier sons in a speedo, yikes.

d'oh, Bruce Stahl is a former 50-free world record holder from UCSB.

That pool shot alone is worth going for a look. Just gorgeous!

Interesting article. Thanks for the link. Actually, when you're there, you see that the house is a lot less "cantilevered over the cliff" than you think when seeing the famous Shulman photos. In fact, Shulman reinforced that perception by adding so much shadow to the hillside under the living room that it looks like there isn't anything underneath it (pre-photoshop, of course). But we can relate, since we also live in a completely mid-century modern house (albeit, far more modest and less iconic, thank god) a bit cantilevered over a hillside, that others frequently qualify as anything from "not very kid-friendly" to "deathtrap". I suppose it depends on your perspective but it works great for us and our kid seems to enjoy it.

I know, right? When I first saw the picture of Buck and his model, I was all, "What does that have to do with Koenig's design? it's barely cantilevered!" But then you see Koenig doing exactly the same thing.

While I worship at the Shulman altar/bookshelf as much as the next mod guy, the modernist world needs a break from what amounts at this point to visual tyranny. It's the California residential equivalent of the Hugh Ferris Gotham Effect Koolhaas wrote about in Delirious New York, where an entire city is powerfully [mis]represented by one guy's dramatic imagery.

I also never understood some of the myths that get repeated everytime there's an article about this house in the general press, such as how "8 other architects turned down the job" and that the lot was considered "unbuildable". Who were these architects and why did they turn down the work? I mean, it's essentially a flat lot! Granted, access is a bit narrow, but still. Half the homes in the Hollywood Hills are on stilts teetering over the edge of a cliff...

As for the comment on Shulman's visual tyranny, that's a fair point that it promotes a certain kind of "high modern" orthodoxy. But as iconic and commonplace as his images have become, we sometimes forget that it's still only a tiny part of the population who has any idea what we're talking about - or cares. Most people still associate the 50s and 60s with Grease and American Graffiti than with Shulman, I think.

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