Soaring Space: John Lautner’s Silvertop

by Frank Escher

Photos by Cameron Carothers

In a booklet that client Kenneth Reiner and architect John Lautner published for tours conducted at an un-finished Silvertop in early 1960 (to raise funds for another collaboration of theirs, the Midtown School), one finds, among pages describing in great detail the many technical and structural innovations the visitors would encounter, this statement: a poetic agenda. It is a reminder that above all, this extraordinary house is a home, albeit one of great spatial, structural and technical experimentation.

Los Angeles itself, of course, has a tradition of experimentation and is seen internationally as a laboratory forTwentieth century residential architecture: it is here that Wright produced some of his most adventurous work; it is here that early modernists – Irving Gill, Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra – explored new ideas of space and structure; it is here that Case Study architects – Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, Craig Ellwood – examined how technological innovation could align with social change; it is here where an architect – Frank Gehry – took apart and re-assembled his own house, exploring new forms and reshaping our understanding of contemporary architecture. Lautner knew them all. He respected some more than others, and he was friends with a few. Further, Lautner’s place in Twentieth century American architecture can be best summed up by two observations: Frank Lloyd Wright considered his celebrated pupil to be the “Next-Best Architect on Earth” (Wright himself, naturally, being the Best); and Frank Gehry, as a student, considered John Lautner to be ‘a God’. Lautner is the missing link between the two.

Los Angeles was indeed quite literally a laboratory: fueled by the efforts during and after the war it was becoming a place of great technical innovation, a place of research and exploration. Various industries – in particular the aerospace industry – created a thriving economy, an economy that promised opportunity, work and a bright new world, an economy that brought tens of thousands of people, technical experts and specialists, to the city. One of them was inventor and industrialist Ken Reiner.

THE CLIENT

Reiner was born in NewYork in 1916, graduated from the Brooklyn Ethical Culture School in 1933 and began visiting California in 1936, one year before completing his degree in Electrical Engineering at Purdue University. He settled here in 1941, first worked at Lockheed and later, for about three months, Hughes Aircraft. In 1943 he and a fellow Purdue graduate started their own company: Kaynar, manufacturers of self-locking fasteners for aircraft construction.The end of the war and a corresponding reduction in warplane production decreased the demand for the Kaynar fasteners. In 1946 Reiner developed a completely different product, a product that represented the new post-war era: the Lady Ellen hair Klippies (by 1959,Time magazine reported, Klippies had captured 90% of market). In 1951, Reiner returned to the company’s first line of production when he developed the self-locking Kaylock aircraft nut, a fastener so light it reduced the weight of B-52 bombers by 600 pounds. It is still one of the main fasteners in airplane construction.

Between 1949 and 1959, Reiner and his family lived in Silver Lake in Schindler’s Guy Wilson house (1935-39) at 2090 Redcliff Street. Schindler did some work on the house, revising the kitchen and enclosing outdoor areas (the Schindler Archive, WV 448, lists ‘drawings and correspondence’ for a remodel for Reiner in 1949 and 1953). Schindler also produced, three years before he died in August 1953, drawings and specifications for a remodel of a factory building for “Kaynar Manufacturing Company”, then at 818 E 16th Street, Los Angeles (Schindler Archive WV 454, 1950).

While living there, Reiner purchased an extraordinary piece of land at the top of a nearby hill: views extended both to the east, across the Silver Lake to the San Gabriel Mountains, and to the west of the Hollywood Hills and the Griffith Park observatory. After a long and exhaustive search, (Lautner claimed forty architects were interviewed), Reiner remembered speaking to four (William S. Beckett, Craig Ellwood, Frederick Emmons & A. Quincy Jones, and Richard Neutra) and visiting their projects – Lautner was engaged. Reiner had seen Lautner’s first major house, the Harvey Residence, for the aluminum magnate Leo Harvey. Silvertop, though, would be even grander.

It was the first really ambitious commission in Lautner’s career and, alongside Chemosphere a few years later, it would mark a clear turning point in his work.

THE ARCHITECT

In the 1950s, Lautner’s office was housed in his converted garage behind the grand old two-story California bungalow where he then lived in Hollywood. Drafting tables were ’sheets of plywood on saw horses’ and ‘fluorescent lights hung on chains from the unfinished ceiling.There was no glass in the opening that had held the large doors,’ ‘the walls were unfinished,’ and ‘the floor was sometimes unswept’. Lautner ‘customarily dressed in jacket and tie for the day, in and out of the office’. Many of his assistants then had come out of Wright’s apprenticeship program at Taliesin West, including Louis Wiehle, who after working for Wright for a year, began working with Lautner in April 1951 ‘with the understanding that pay would be of uncertain amount and irregular in coming’. For all, though, there was a ‘heady feeling of being part of good architecture, exciting architecture, architecture that was in the forefront of its time yet was going to live on because of its integrity, quality, originality, and suitability.’ It was through Wiehle that Lautner, then 42, met, a 24-year old Swiss architect, Guy Zebert, in 1953.

Zebert, Lautner and their wives became friends.The Zeberts moved into the Lautner house, and while Zebert worked during the day with Welton Beckett (the architect of the Capitol Records Building, 1956), he began helping Lautner in the evenings and weekends, assisting on projects like the Bergren reconstruction, the Beachwood Market, the Harpel House, as well as experimental construction projects – such as pivoting concrete walls – around Lautner’s own house and garden. In April 1956, when Silvertop became a project, Lautner engaged Zebert full time.

THE DESIGN

Lautner prepared sketches for various schemes to capture the panoramic views: early sketches show that a large circular glass building, with smaller circular spaces enclosed within, and a glass box angled along the east-west axis were briefly examined. Soon, ideas of solid walls funneling and framing the eastern and western views and screening the private rooms from the central space developed.The concept of the house, a space bracketed between two solid walls curving in from the landscape and back out with a gigantic roof arcing over them, quickly emerged.

April 29, 1956 can be regarded as the start for Silvertop. On this day, Lautner and Zebert staked out the curved walls on the site to examine and verify the views these would frame. By December 1956, engineering drawings and calculations for the house were produced by structural engineer Barney Cardan (who worked with Lautner between April 1953 and June 1959 on, among other projects, the Harpel House, the unbuilt Harpel guest house, the Zahn and Hatherall houses, the Ernest Lautner house in Florida, the unbuilt Pearlman residence in Santa Ana, as well as the Chemosphere).

Following the development of the design for the main house – the curved brick walls, the roof, the basement – the Round House, a guest house supporting the driveway ramp, was begun (early in the design process, two additional lots were purchased, which allowed Reiner and Lautner first to add the pool and later to add the driveway to Redcliff Street).

Originally, the roof of Silvertop itself was to be built and engineered in wood. By March of 1957, the engineering for the Round House with the cantilevered driveway began, and by May 1957 Lautner decided to rethink the wooden structure of the roof as a vast concrete shell. First a conventional concrete construction was proposed, later a post-tensioned concrete shell. For this work, Tung-Yen Lin, one of the world’s foremost experts on pre-stressing and post-tensioning concrete technologies, was brought in to the project as the engineer. Lin, born in China in 1912, trained there as a civil engineer and, after 1931, at Berkeley, where he later taught.

In reinforced concrete construction, the steel absorbs the ten- sion, the concrete the compression on the structure. By either pre- stressing the steel before the concrete is poured, or post-tensioning it after (with the steel encased in a sleeve allowing movement within the concrete slab) the structural performance of the steel members is increased greatly, allowing a more economical and, ultimately, more elegant use of the materials. Research into pre-stressing methods began in the late 19th century, and it was the work of French engineer Eugene Freyssinet (1879 – 1962), who developed in 1928 a system of anchorage or connectors between the steel tendons and the concrete, and other technical advances, that allowed a widespread use of these methods in Europe. It was Lin’s further refinements of Freyssinet’s methods and his continued promotion of them that effectively introduced pre-stressing and post-tensioning methods widely in the United States.

T.Y. Lin was introduced to Reiner by the Bay-area architect Jack Hillmer, who had briefly worked on a design for Reiner’s Kaynar factory.There are in the Lautner Archive structural drawings for aT.Y. Lin Kaynar project of June 1956, though it is unclear who the architect was. Reiner later, in 1957-58, continued work with John Lautner and Lin on the Kaynar factory, completing it in 1959 as a two-acre post-tensioned roof construction is covered by a shallow lake to maintain a constant temperature.

THE CONSTRUCTION

Construction on Silvertop began in the summer of 1957 and moved forward swiftly – by 1958, all major structural portions would be completed. Wally Niewiadomski, who had earlier built some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s projects, was brought in as the general contractor, and Hector Mecka as a concrete sub-contractor. Mecka oversaw the construction of the foundations, basement, brick walls, columns, and the concrete roof. The pool was excavated and sprayed with gunite early on but remained otherwise unfinished and empty. Weekly meetings took place at Reiner’s house – sometimes apparently in his pool. Reiner, an amateur filmmaker, would review the week’s footage with his team of architect and consultants. In 1958, Jim Warner replaced Mecka for the second phase of concrete work: the construction of the Round House, the cantilevered driveway ramp and the completion of the tennis court and pool.

The roof is a five-inch post-tensioned concrete structural slab, with a span of 80 feet.This is suspended from two curved beams above the roof that are connected at mid-point and which in turn rest on four 30” diameter columns extending as caissons into the ground. The shell is rigidly fixed on the columns at the northern end, while it is supported on the southern end on flexible bearings, allowing a minimal amount of movement.The roof is then further cantilevered towards the pool. During construction, Lin, a small-built man, would be observed bouncing on the outer edge of this roof to test its structural performance.To maintain structural integrity, the shell – even of this titanic size – had to be constructed in one continuous pour. Since concrete trucks could not ascend the steep drive to the construction site, a 160’ crane was erected on Micheltorena Street to convey – bucket by bucket – the 162 tons of concrete that were brought to the site in an endless row of concrete trucks. At one point during the pour, the intrepid Zebert was hoisted in the bucket 160’ into the air to film the construction site from above,. Between the movement of the crane and Zebert’s handling of the camera, the resulting film – as Reiner premiered, at their next meeting – induced general motion sickness.

The driveway, a helical bridge which tapers from twelve inches at its inner edge to three inches at its outer edge, is a horizontal post-tensioned construction, supported by the wall of the Round House, a vertical post-tensioned concrete block construction. Last, the tennis court is a 60’ by 120’ slab of post-tensioned concrete, 6” thick at its outer edge and cantilevering an astonishing 16 – feet from its supporting wall.

THE FIGHT FOR BETTER BUILDING

All in all, 26 different building permits were needed for the project – most of which were processed, as Zebert remembered, by plan checkerTom Brown, who would later become the head of the Los Angeles Building Department.The driveway, though, created a problem. The Los Angeles Building Department, unfamiliar with this type of structure, would not accept the engineering. Reiner took legal action against the building department. After subpoenas were issued to every department commissioner, the department agreed to accept a load-test of the structure. When the test was conducted, the load of the sandbags caused less deflection to the ramp than the sun rising and setting.

As a result of this episode, Reiner started his ‘Council for Better Buildings’, which met monthly for a couple of years and included, besides Lautner and Reiner, engineers Ed Rice, Richard Bradshaw, and others.The goal was to broaden the perspective of the building department engineers, rather than inhibiting the architects’ creative designs to what the building department may be familiar with.The architects, ultimately, were to have sole responsibility over their work.

Another result of Reiner’s victory over the building department was that he was approached to help save Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers – the Building Department was questioning their structural stability and ordered their demolition. A benefit for the towers was organized at Silvertop. Lautner, with John Entenza, Garrett Eckbo and others, was a panelist discussing the significance of the towers at a Pasadena Art Museum event. Reiner again got the building department to accept a load test (that he paid for) which proved, on October 10, 1959, the structural stability of the towers.They remained standing.

PLAN AND SYSTEMS

Some of the house’s innovations were in its planning. An entire system of underground passages was devised, allowing below-ground access to most of the spaces of the house above. The main entry to this system was through a hinged hatch outside of the house opening directly into a utility room in the basement, with other discreet entry points.The idea was to allow access to all mechanical and electrical systems, and water and gas lines, for maintenance, service and future replacement, without disturbing the house above.

The house originally contained four separate water distribution systems: cold, non-potable water; separate, insulated and recirculating loops of cold drinking water (drawn from a cool underground storage tank); tempered water (approx. 110F); and hot water (approx. 180F).The house was to be heated and cooled via an ‘air-floor’: a system of shallow, 12” square domed metal elements placed between the structural slab and a concrete subfloor, that allowed conditioned air to move freely through this floor labyrinth, heating and cooling the floor slab, and venting at the perimeters of each space into the rooms.

During the design and construction process, the idea was born to use the house as a laboratory to develop innovative construction components. Kaynar would research and develop the building products, fund the expenses (an arrangement that Reiner successfully defended against the IRS), produce promising innovations for the construction industry, and thus would diversify its line of products.

A machine shop was set up for development on Apex Street, close to Fargo Street, where Reiner now lived (at the ‘Bella Vista’ estate at 1952 Rockford Road – across the lake from Silvertop). Many products were researched and developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s: hinged baseboards covered electrical outlets, and central vacuum inlets; a low voltage system with sweep controls (a product that was marketed commercially) was installed in the Formica door jambs; lights pivoted, like car lights, back into the walls when switched off. In the bathrooms, optic eye controls were used for water faucets (the norm years later); a bathtub was heated by coils of hot water circulating through the tub’s sides; sinks were developed with the water supplied through the drain; a sink was made from ‘lignum vitae’, a wood used in ship building. In the kitchen, a stove and refrigerators on wheels would allow cooking in different places inside and outside the house.

Among other devices were window hardware allowing the various hinged windows to rotate 270 degrees. The glass was hung from the roof with hangers developed by the glass manufacturer (free-standing glass needs to be 1⁄2” – 3⁄4” or thicker to prevent it from buckling, while hanging glass could be thinner and less expensive); pre-cast concrete scallops at the top edge of the glass cover the hardware.The original design for the large round skylight in the master bedroom (which had a skylight cover that could be raised and pivot out) later seemed impractical and was changed to the existing design with motorized, folding cork ceiling panels.

Various solutions for the moving glass of the living room wall were examined, from lowering the glass into the ground to gathering it, like a sculpture, inside the room. In the end, an operating mechanism for a sliding curved section of the glass wall was developed. Last, all wood siding materials on the house, both inside and out, were a Louisiana Cypress with a modified shiplap detail .The siding is installed with screws for rigidity and removability, with specially designed clips concealed in the lapped portion.The clips allowed the wood to be pre-finished and the siding to expand and move.

STRUCTURE AND EMOTION

In the late 1950s Lautner and Reiner traveled together to Mexico. There they met the German émigré artist Matthias Goeritz, a frequent collaborator of Luís Barragán and the leading proponent of the idea that architecture should carry emotional force. Arango would work with Lautner later on the gate to the Arango residence in Acapulco.The two travelers also met Felix Candela and visited several of his projects. Reiner had been introduced to Candela’s work through a William Beckett design for the Kaynar factory with a hyperbolic paraboloid structure, and Lautner would have known of his work as early as May 1957, when a major exhibition of his work was held in Los Angeles. Candela had trained in Madrid, where, as a student, he observed the construction of Eduardo Torroja’s roof for the Zarzuela race course – a series of thin vaulted shells cantilevering deeply over the stands. Candela, after the Spanish Civil War, emigrated in 1939 to Mexico, where he spent the first part of his career. His 1951 Cosmic Ray Building at the University of Mexico City, where he reduced the thickness of the concrete shell to a hitherto unimaginable 5/8 inch (15 mm), brought international attention to his work.

His ongoing research into thin shell and hyperbolic paraboloid concrete structures – where the concrete formwork of complex curvatures is built entirely from flat boards, thus achieving fluent forms through relatively simple and inexpensive formwork – was widely noted. Similarly, Candela’s work on concrete mushrooms, tilting the slabs and bending the symmetrical structures to their limits, opened entirely new worlds of formal explorations in concrete structure.Years later, Candela would collaborate with Lautner on the first (and unbuilt) version of the Bob Hope house in Palm Springs.

A second trip was made in the spring of 1960. Lautner and Reiner traveled to Europe researching new construction materials and methods. Stops were made in Portugal, Helsinki (where they visited Alvar Aalto’s curved wall projects), Leningrad, Moscow, Vienna, Venice and Rome, where Lautner studied and photographed Pier Luigi Nervi’s concrete structures for the Olympic Games later that summer.

Before their trip to Europe, Reiner and Lautner began a new project – the Midtown School, an independent non-profit day school for children aged three to thirteen. Established in 1958, it served ‘families of diverse religious, racial, and economic back- grounds’ residing in the Silver Lake and Los Feliz areas. Lautner helped to further refine the school’s educational concept – learning by exploring – based on and closely tied to Reiner’s old school in NewYork, as well as the school’s environment, proposing a series of pre-fabricated wooden roof structures (manufactured by the same company that built the Chemosphere roof structure) that sat on foundation slabs ‘floating’ on the unstable site. Located initially at 2800 Rowena Avenue, the school was to occupy its new quarters in September 1960. (The campus is now the Alliance Française.)

THE HIATUS

It is often said that the construction of Silvertop bankrupted Ken Reiner.This is not correct. Reiner, an astute businessman, knew his financial limitations.There were two events out of Reiner’s control that brought an end to the project. On August 7, 1961, Reiner and his business partner separated. For years they had run Kaynar carefully avoiding each other, entering the building from different doors, occupying offices at opposite ends of the sprawling factory, and meeting only once a week for dinner. Reiner was to keep Kaynar’s hair clip production, the development and production of construction industry products, as well as Silvertop (technically owned by Kaynar); Reiner’s partner was to keep the aircraft fastener business. Reiner’s partner later, though, reneged on the royalty payments to Reiner.The second event was a costly divorce. By then, the shell and major part of the construction at Silvertop had been completed, and the Midtown School already built.

Construction on Silvertop continued until 1964, with builder Wally Niewiadomski installing interior finishes and the glass. But by 1964, Reiner started to experience financial difficulties. Work at Silvertop stopped. Landscape plans drawn up by Garrett Eckbo were abandoned. Zebert, who worked on some of Lautner’s most important projects and who had managed the business side of the office in the last few years, left Lautner’s office in mid-1964. At the time, the Sheats (now Sheats-Goldstein) House was complete, and the ambitious Alto Capistrano project – a utopian and car-less city for ten thousand people, where inhabitants would move by funicular from the commercial zones below to the dwellings sprouting like trees on the hills above, and on which Lautner had worked for a decade – was abandoned.

By the early 1970s, the aerospace industry and the California economy in general had further declined. It was then that aerospace engineer Leonard Malin was forced to sell his house, the Chemosphere. The Midtown School was operated until the early 1970s. In September 1973, Reiner’s company went bankrupt.The courts sold Silvertop. But Lautner’s office had entered a new phase. Following Silvertop, where he explored the possibilities of rein- forced concrete to shape space and structure – its malleability and strength, its weight and its lightness – major and highly innovative new projects came: the Elrod House in Palm Springs, the Stevens House in Malibu, and, in particular, the Arango House in Acapulco and the first version of the Hope House, which was originally conceived with structural engineer Felix Candela as a great mound of concrete, a structure that was changed to a less elegant steel structure. Other larger projects – the Newport Research Center, or the Griffith Park Nature Center Building – remained unbuilt. In 1971, Lautner was named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. (F.A.I.A.)

THE HOUSE COMES TO LIFE

In the years that Silvertop sat empty it was a local draw: people crawled up the hill to explore the unfinished carapace. Not only was the house unfinished – it was vandalized. When Philip and Jacklyn Burchill saw the house for the first time, much of the electrical infrastructure had been stolen, the glass in the living room was shattered, the unfinished pool was filled with old furniture. Seeing past the layers of debris and the daunting task of completing the project, recognizing the majesty and importance of the building, the Burchills decided to become the stewards of the house.

The Burchills, too, came to Los Angeles from other places. Jacklyn Burchill, a Stanford-educated child-psychologist, came from San Francisco. Dr. Philip Burchill, a Navy man, physician, a passionate astronomer and botanist, grew up in Wisconsin – Frank Lloyd Wright country and a four-hour drive from Lautner’s native Marquette. And like Reiner before them, the Burchills had lived a few blocks away from Silvertop. By the early 1970s, Dr. Burchill was a successful physician and might be expected to move to a more conventionally smart neighborhood of Los Angeles. Instead, not wanting to leave behind the view of Silver Lake, the Burchills moved up the hill.

An extraordinary amount of work was needed to turn the shell into a house. Lautner and his office returned to complete the project. Glass walls were re-installed, as were electrical and mechanical systems. Some changes were made to the floorplan to better accommodate the new owners’ needs. A kitchen was installed where an incinerator had been planned (with preliminary plans drawn up by Judith Lautner, working at the time with her father) and a handsome library, an intimate space beside the cavernous living room, built where the kitchen had been planned.

The house became a home, a graceful residence filled with books, art and music. For years the Burchills hosted chamber music concerts there. From the entrance, a space leads towards the house’s center. Light enters on the left through a small enclosed atrium.To the right is the bedroom wing: two bedrooms, the chil- dren’s rooms, with a bathroom of terrazzo and wood and cork; the extraordinary master bedroom, where motorized louvers and cork ceiling panels pivot and slide and move to turn the sheltered sleeping cave into a glass pavilion open to views; a dressing room with the most ingenious closets and niches and drawers; and bathroom of green terrazzo and marble beneath motorized sliding glass panels, all of these spaces aligned behind a curved wall of brown brick. At the opposite end of the house a second wall screens off a music room and other spaces. Between the two curved walls and under the concrete vault, atop its hill and beneath the sky, exists one of the most exciting moments of Twentieth Century architecture: a magnificent soaring space with glass walls facing to the east – the lake, the mountains, downtown – and glass walls facing to the west – Hollywood, the ocean, the setting sun. During a panel discussion for the John Lautner Foundation in 1995, Dr. Burchill was asked what living at Silvertop had meant to him. ‘It was good’, he said after some thought, ‘for my ego’.

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