Built on a surge of adrenaline in modern architecture, the Case Study program houses constructed in the Los Angeles area from the 1940s to the 1960s were a unique experiment in postwar America.
Conceived by John Entenza, the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, these flat-roofed, post-and-beam structures explored the advantages of modern residential living but also promoted the economical concepts of mass production. Assembled on slabs of concrete and often using prefab components to reduce costs, they challenged preconceived notions of residential building design and engineering. Despite their relatively low cost and seductive appeal, however, only 25 were actually built — they never really resonated with the general public.
In retrospect, the Case Study program represents not only a high point in modern architecture but also a utopic vision of America, where people of even modest means could afford to live in houses that were essentially artistic creations.
The Stahl House epitomized this vision. Designed by architect Pierre Koenig in 1959, C.H.S. No. 22 is a masterpiece of modernism, one that has become so iconic it’s easy to overlook the fact that it was built for a family of four with limited resources. (CH “Buck” Stahl, the original owner, was a graphic designer and sign painter who at times struggled to keep up with the bank payments.) The idea that a middle class family could even imagine living in such a work of art, and continue to own and preserve it today, is a great defense of the American Dream, such that it exists.
I recently had the opportunity to tour the Stahl House on a trip to Los Angeles. More than any other house I’ve visited, it left me in a state of wonder that lingered long after I set foot on the property. Of course much of this has to do with the magnificent views, which sweep from the ocean to the mountains, but also the elegant way in which Keonig’s design melds with the grid-like pattern of the cityscape below. It fits the picture. The huge glass windows bring this copper-toned spectacle into full view by day; by night the lights of L.A. itself become a sparkling Tiffany window.
There is something truly transcendent about being in this space, floating above the city. It’s powerful, sexy. Though I wonder if that joy might fade after a while, and the spectacular views become taken for granted. It happens. And the house itself is not without issues. By today’s standards the kitchen and bathrooms are tiny, the living room lacks privacy, and the house is after all perched on the edge of a steep cliff in an earthquake-prone city. No house is perfect, right? Nah, I must be having a nightmare. Because the thought of living in this house, even nightmares would be the stuff of dreams.
If you plan to visit L.A., the Stahl House is available for touring through their website. Highly recommended!