It’s a strange feeling when you finally get to see, in person, a building that you’ve been thinking and reading about for years. That happened recently for me with the house of Charles and Ray Eames, in Los Angeles.
It’s such an important building in the history of postwar American housing, so significant as (quite literally) a case study house embodying the Californian modern ideal. It’s the “kit of parts” house par excellence: exemplary in the use of standard, modular industrial components in domestic architecture. All of its parts were ordered from a catalogue, off the shelf, then assembled on site with a direct lack of fussiness. Completed in 1949, it appears totally contemporary now – completely in tune with how we now live, or would like to live; a remarkable achievement for a nearly 70-year-old house.
But it’s one thing to know these facts in the abstract, and quite another to visit the actual artefact. For one thing, it’s a slog to get there: LA is a great big freeway, as the song goes, and by the time you’ve hired a car, argued with the satellite navigation lady, suppressed panic as you careen across four lanes to not-miss your exit, it already feels momentous to finally arrive, alive, at your destination.
Then, as you walk up the long driveway, you feel a strange sense of dissociation and suppressed hilarity, as though you had entered into the pages of one of your books, or been sucked into the screen of one of your own lectures.
Somehow it manages to feel absurd and momentous at the same time: it feels abstract but you know it’s real from the sound of helicopters overhead, the warmth of the Spring sun, someone sorting recycling down the hill, smashing bottles with apparent glee.
The house itself comes into view, its façade a grid of glass and solid coloured panels, its two pavilions (house on one side, studio and working space on the other) separated by a courtyard. The whole sits quietly on a ledge tucked into a hill in a tawny landscape, integrated with a garden which includes a row of mature eucalyptus along the front of the house, giving it an oddly Australian feel.
The form of the building – a simple, two storey box – belies the sophistication of the planning within, with its double height living room, mezzanine bedrooms, and flexible-use spaces flowing one into another. These days such planning ideas are commonplace, but they had their origin in projects like this, which were, at the time, strikingly avant garde.
So in person it turns out that, as well as being a crucially important house, it is also quite lovely – spatially rich, modest and comfortable, cosy despite its industrial origins, rational in design but highly idiosyncratic and enjoyable in its furnishing and decoration.
The house has the sense of having been richly inhabited: unlike many house museums, it holds the character of its long-term inhabitants. Perhaps it’s the lush indoor plants, perhaps it’s the colour and life of the (multitudinous) objects arranged inside, but it feels as though the Eames are just in the next room.
It’s hard not to love them – this larrikin couple who designed toys and textiles as well as buildings, who made films, exhibitions and a “solar do-nothing machine” as well as designing some of the most canonical furniture of the mid-century period.
As wife and husband, the pair were also partners in every aspect of their kaleidoscopic creative endeavour. They lived together in the house from when it was completed in 1949 until Charles died in 1978. Ray died ten years later to the day, and the house has been preserved by their children since then. These days it houses the Eames Foundation.
Every architectural “site” has different rules of engagement, and the Eames House is no different: you can’t go inside, but you can look through the myriad windows and the open doors; you can take photographs for your own use, but not for publication; please don’t ring the doorbell, or sit on the outdoor furniture, or sit on the swing hung from a tree in the meadow – they’re all fragile.
The guide tells us that her favourite day is Wednesdays, when the house is closed to visitors, and she wanders all over the interior, cleaning and hunting for intruding insects.
As one of my travelling companions and I peered intently through the window, she said dreamily, “oh, they have Eames chairs…” then caught herself, laughing. They are the Eames. They have their own chairs… It’s the chairs for which they are perhaps most famous now. But it’s ironic, in many ways, that these became “designer” status symbols they did, since the Eames’ ethos was about making good design accessible by fitting it to contemporary industrial fabrication methods.
In Australia, being on the margins as we are, we have always received the European and North American architectural canon through images and representations. In the past these were printed in books and magazines, these days they are digital, but images they still are. Nevertheless an architectural photograph, no matter how beautiful or technically proficient, will only ever be a still life.
Visiting a long-familiar building is invariably both more and less than you expected.
It’s not that first hand experience is the only way to apprehend a building, nor that it’s somehow metaphysically “true” or approaches some “essence” of what architecture is about. It’s easy to fetishise unmediated experience, and there is a powerful ideology in architecture which does just that. But for me, abstractions and representations are just as important, and revealing, and rich, as the concrete experience of the thing.
I like the partiality of these accounts, the sense of looking through someone else’s eyes, with all of the squinted, subjective bias and idealisation of that. I like the sense of an image as artifice, as a fragment, an edited version, a story.
Nevertheless, being there, and seeing it, and taking in the detail and the contingency and incident and accident and performance of the thing? Well that is special.
In fact it’s like seeing, for the first time, the performance of a play whose script you know intimately. It’s as though, having studied the script of Macbeth, having read it many times, read commentaries about it, analysed and interpreted and thought about and imagined it, you finally get to see it performed live.
Because architecture is, in the end, a performed art. Architects don’t produce buildings, they produce an elaborate set of instructions for someone else to make a building, to their design. An architect prepares a score or script in the form of drawings, which is then “performed” first by the builders, later by the people who live or work in the building, by all of those individuals who visit it, and by time itself.
And the Eames House turned out to be a pretty great show.