Chemosphere – Octagonal modernist masterpiece with an always changing wide-screen view

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Petra Bjelica
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John Lautner’s famous Malin House or the Chemisphere is a modernist masterpiece that was one of the most modern buildings of its time that still amazes with it’s sophisticated and ingenious design. Built in 1960 in the San Fernando Valley side of the Hollywood hills, the Chemisphere is a great representation of Organic Modernism with a specific Southern Californian character. Even though its sleek, octagonal design looks more like a space ship than a family home, Lautner mastery can be traced in the fact that he made it a profoundly relaxing and harmonious house that calms and shelters you.

John Lautner’s Chemosphere, Author: evdropkick, CC BY 2.0

Leonard Malin was a young aerospace engineer who was given a dramatic sloped lot, angled at 45 degrees, from his father-in-law. At that time the problems presented by the site as a place to build a home seemed quite unsolvable. To build the conventionally required retaining walls was way too expensive for Malin’s budget of $30,000. But Malin approached John Lautner, having seen and liked a nearby house he had designed. Lautner’s mentor Frank Lloyd Wright regarded him as the second best architect in the world – highly influencing his style, primarily with the idea of a building as a total concept. In his manner as a brilliant and imperious man, Lautner offered a bold and astonishing solution – a vertical line, a cross and a curve above it. Malin insisted that it wasn’t an intention to make it look like a space craft, it was just a best structural application that suited the site and his needs. The Chemisphere also reflected the Los Angeles optimism of the time; it was freshly defined architecture, with new shapes that didn’t have to resemble a house. In the end, with the help of some sponsors, the house for Malin’s family with four children cost $140,000.

Chemosphere, Author: CDernbach, CC BY 3.0

The Chemisphere is a one-story octagon with 2200 square feet of living space that rests atop a 5 foot-wide concrete pole about 30 feet high. Below the ground, the stability of the post is provided with a 20-foot wide concrete pedestal which has been proven very successful against earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods.

Inside is a pillar-free open living space with a circular roof light at the peak, under which is a round sitting area. There are no solid external walls but only eight large wide-screen windows that give a staggering panoramic view over Los Angeles. It even has a window on the bottom part of the house that overlooks the car port. Since the terrain is pinched down, a funicular is used for entering the house. Lautner was highly aware of the dualism of the landscape, so he decided to place the public areas towards the panoramic view of the city, and the rest of the bedrooms and a bathroom facing the quiet nature of the hill. He managed to make a perfect harmony between the outside appearance and inside feeling – it looked like an enclosed and well protected U.F.O., but felt like a cozy, calming and floating place, providing an almost spiritual lulling experience.

Lautner’s Chemosphere, Author: ikkoskinen, CC BY 3.0

Unfortunately, such a house required expensive maintenance and since the aerospace industry was in remission, Malin were forced to sell the house in 1972. The second owner was killed by robbers in 1976. During the next 25 years, the house was constantly on the market, only occupied as a rental.

In 1984 it appeared in Bryan de Palma’s Body Double, and even in an episode of the Simpson’s which mocked it as a difficult sell. Since it was used for exclusive, high-class parties the interior was pretty altered and ruined. It wasn’t until 1998 Benedict Taschen, the owner of the famous publishing house, bought and completely restored it to live there with his family.

Chemosphere, Author: Bobak Ha’Eri, CC BY 3.0

The Taschen family was finally a suitable owner that highly appreciated Lautner’s work and with a keen taste in architecture and art. They hired Frank Escher, a preservation architect who wrote a monograph on Lautner and was responsible for overseeing Lautner’s archives, to completely restore the house in accordance with the original drawings and ideas. Some of them were not possible at the time due to restrictions of the day’s technology. The restoration received an award from the Los Angeles Conservancy and the house was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 2004. The perfect architectural language of the Chemosphere doesn’t get boring to its residents. On the contrary, Mr. Taschen says it is a warm, peaceful place with an expansive always changing view, like a wide-screen movie.