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There were good why reasons early US Modernism first evolved in California– wide open sites with no constraints (physical or zoning), and effectively no climate to be concerned with. The only real envelope concerns were sun/wind control and keeping the rain out.
As such, the early icons by Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler and the Case Study Houses (1948-64) were of extremely light construction – steel posts, panels and single glazing were enough to moderate the climate for habitation. There were hardly any mechanical systems and heating oil still cost less than $3.00 a barrel (10 cents a gallon) at the end of the 1940s.
These early years of Modernism offered a freedom of lifestyle in the car-frontier of California and its endless spaces – a flat roof, a few sticks and big glass for the big views. Soon, the postwar marketing of that light-filled sophisticated Modern lifestyle and aesthetic extended far beyond the most benign climate zones in North America.
This abstract illustrates the enormous design effort needed to produce a large 21st-Century planar Modernist house in a composition of volumes expressing only 4 materials – glass, stone, plaster and aluminum - in an environment which varies from -30°F to 95°F, - where energy costs about twice that of the US.
The project site is about 90 miles northwest of Toronto, with none of the moderating effects of Lake Ontario and 60-pound snow loads, courtesy of Lake Huron. It is in Climate Zone 6, (where Climate Zone 8 covers the Arctic).
The paper is focused on the construction complexity of achieving Modernist simplicity - thin planes, frameless glass boxes and the horizontal and vertical shearing of building volumes. It covers 5,000-pound IGUs with complex levelling calibrations, multiple heating systems, limestone and aluminum cladding and a concrete structure with quarter-inch tolerances. The roof has more steel than all of Neutra’s 1927 Lovell Health House structure.
The evolution of this envelope is documented as a Swiss watch, built with hammers, saws and infinite patience, often in bad weather.
There are good reasons why US Modernism evolved in post-war California, a land of wide-open sites with practically no constraints (physical or municipal), and effectively no climate to be concerned with. The only real envelope concerns were sun and wind control and keeping the rain out. The late 1920s icons by Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler – The Lovell Beach House (1926, by Schindler) and the Lovell Health House (1927, by Neutra) had few environmental systems beyond water and electricity. Schindler continued to build California coast houses until 1952 and Neutra’s works span from the 1920s to 1969. Entire generations of California Architects followed them, flourishing from the 1940s onward.
The Case Study Houses program was launched by John Etenza, the Los Angeles-based editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, in its January 1945 issue; by 1966, twenty-five of the 37 commissioned designs were built, mostly in the Los Angeles area. They were of extremely light construction – steel posts and beams, decking, wall panels and single glazing were enough to moderate the climate for habitation. This pure expression of material minimalism was further eased by heating oil costs of less than 10 cents a gallon at the time. ‘Energy’ had not yet been invented as a criterion in design.
These mid-century years offered a freedom of lifestyle in the car-frontier of California, which had only 10 million residents at the time. Low gasoline prices - which only increased from 26 to 31 cents a gallon during the entire Case Study House tenure, 1948 to 1966 - and its open spaces. A flat roof, a few posts and big glass for the big views were all that were needed. Soon, the postwar marketing of that light-filled, sophisticated Modern lifestyle and aesthetic attracted the public’s interest far beyond the most benign climate zones in North America.
This paper illustrates the enormous five-year construction effort needed to realise a large 21st-Century planar Modernist residence, the Escarpment House. In a composition of volumes expressing only 4 materials – glass, stone, aluminum and some plaster, it sits in an environment which varies from -30°F to 95°F, and where energy costs are currently about twice that of the US. The project site is about 90 miles northwest of Toronto, with 60-pound snow loads, courtesy of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. It is in Climate Zone 6 - where Climate Zone 8 covers the Arctic. The envelope of this house is a Swiss watch, built with hammers, saws and infinite patience, frequently in terrible weather. Mid-century Modernism is re-examined when the project meets a 2020s site and building standards, 2100 miles northeast of the original California sites and seventy-five years later, from these four viewpoints:
The View from Above
Simplicity of Composition
A Concise Material Palette
The Hard Work of a Pure Façade
As a built volume in its landscape, the new house reads as a long, single-floor box, set parallel to the hillside. It faces south across a valley, with a pool
For all the structural heroics asked of the building, almost no concrete is visible except the floors (even the garage), which are polished to a gloss level that required 1
The Roof Design Intent: Roof=Wall=Floor
From everywhere in the 50-acre site, the flat, thin plane of the roof predominates, and the effort to make such a form has commensurate challenges
architectsAlliance (aA) Toronto, for construction protographs, presentation and detail drawings, the project Site Supervisor - for creativity, construction photos and 5 years of positive collaboration, the two structural and mechanical engineering consultants, the glass and stone consultants, the glass suppliers
Lamprecht, Barbara Mac, Neutra Complete Works. Taschen Gmbh, Cologne, 2015
Smith, Elizabeth A.T., Case Study Houses. Taschen Gmbh, Cologne, 2013
Gronwald, Shari Stahl, and Stahl, Bruce, The Stahl House: Case Study House #22, the making of a Modernist Icon. Chonicle Books, Los Angeles, 2021
Article: “CHH21”, Metalocus Magazine, August 2016. http://www.metalocus.es
Article: Martino, Alison. “We grew up in case Study House #22” , Los Angeles Magazine, May 18, 2015