Silver Lake

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You may know Silver Lake for its natural habitat, its sordid past as scene to the Manson murders or for its thriving Indie music and arts scene. Situated five miles North West of downtown LA, Silver Lake is often referred to as “the other LA” , LA hipster’s creative ghetto, but more importantly for us it is an architecture-lovers dream with its proliferation of Modernist gems.

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Our introduction to Silver Lake came during a trip to New York some time ago, where we bought a copy of the book ‘Bohemian Modern – Living in Silver Lake’ by Barbara Bestor. Blown away by the mid-century architecture and the inspiring interiors featured in the book, we fantasised about the day when we would finally get to witness the neighbourhood first hand. When the opportunity eventually arises to visit the west coast, our travel companions, Michael and Andrew, research and book the four of us onto one of Laura Massino Smith’s architectural tours of Silver Lake.

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Picking up a cab outside the TCL Chinese Theatre, we drive to Silver Lake and are dropped off outside design store Yolk. After a bit of retail research we suddenly realize we had dramatically misjudged the distance to our rendezvous with Laura at Gelsons Market, where the original Walt Disney studios once stood. In her book she comments: “LA is a driving city and best seen from the car”. We now wished we had followed  guidebook advice before embarking on the trip. We start walking – fast.

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We find ourselves walking for what seems like forever. It is a blisteringly hot day and we are the epitome of ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’. Thankfully a kind Silver Lake resident spots us and after some gesturing and our hasty explanation, he bundles us into the back of his car and, proud of the area’s mid-century heritage, proceeds to drive us in the opposite direction, to give us a tour of his own favourite buildings around the reservoir. Luckily we reach our destination on time ready to embark on a feast of mid-century classic houses presented by our host in great detail and with infectious enthusiasm.  The tour is pretty extensive, with many classics to see, we can only give you a general flavour and touch on some highlights. If you do get chance to visit LA, make sure Laura Massino’s tour is on your list of things to do. If not, she has produced a very detailed guidebook of the area.

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Our first highlight is the Avenel housing (above), designed in 1948 by Gregory Ain with a total of ten dwellings that rise up along the incline of the road, their flat rooves and walls of glass typifying the International style. The close proximity of these houses to the Disney studios is not by chance. Many of the original owners were members of the cartoonist union, who, having spotted modernist architecture in magazines, formed a collective and hunted out Ain for the project who apprenticed for Schindler and Neutra and worked with Charles and Ray Eames on his plywood furniture for Herman Miller. The units are organised in two rows of five attached properties, stepping back from the street in a carefully considered zig-zag. Best known for the 52 Mar-Vista Modernique housing in LA from 1946 – 48 Ain won many awards for his modern affordable housing and was Dean of architecture at Penn State University before his death in 1988.

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A short drive from Avenel is the Astro coffee shop, which started life as Conrad’s Drive-In. Designed by renowned coffee shop architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis in 1958, the building’s space age styling is a prime example of ‘people’s moderne’ or Googie style. The latter term comes from a long-gone West Hollywood café of the same name, designed by John Lautner in 1949. Though often derided as a trend in architecture, Googie, with its upswept roofs, curvaceous geometry, futuristic boomerang-style shapes and bold use of glass and steel, still has its fans. Its fun ‘Jetsons’ styling influenced structures like the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, 1961, and Seattle’s Space needle, icon of the 1964 Worlds Fair. The Astro is no exception. Its perforated metal I beams and cinder block box with huge wings make it look like a spaceship just landed and all that we pathetic earthlings could think of doing with it was open a café. Find out more in Smithsonian Mag about Googie style.

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We next visit the McAlmon residence (above), a 1930s super-sculptural set of two private houses by R.M. Schindler. The first, at street level, was formed from an existing small bungalow, which was renovated by the architect. The second, a stucco and wood framed building on the hillside, is designed around an outdoor breakfast room. This Silver Lake classic is owned by Larry Schaffer, who established one of our favourite LA design stores – OK, which has an outlet in Silver Lake. Details of the move into the house are shown on the OK LA blog

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Back on the road again, and up to Cove Avenue on East Silver Lake Boulevard, where you will be presented with the clearest, if somewhat distant view of Silver Lake’s Lautner jewel, Silvertop, or the Reiner-Burchill residence (above). Thanks to our friend Andrew’s amazing camera lens and steady hand, we were able to get this shot. With its structural curves and an emphasis on maximising the vista, Silvertop shares a number of architectural traits with another of John Lautner’s masterpieces, the iconic octagonal Chemosphere in the Hollywood Hills. Completed in 1963, after nearly seven years of construction, it was Lautner’s first major use of concrete for both structure and sculpture. Described as ‘Organic Modern’, the movement started by his teacher Frank Lloyd Wright, the house hosts an impressive concrete arched roof with a full glass wall giving an all round view and also features a cantilevered swimming pool. The concrete drive to approach the house is also dramatically cantilevered from the base of the house, with no supporting columns. Plans and early images of Silvertop can be seen here on the John Lautner website.

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Next on our journey is The Neutra Colony – ten Richard Neutra houses in and around Neutra Place, renamed in his honour in the 90s. This grouping of houses on Silver Lake Blvd and Neutra Place are archetypal of  mid-century modern style with their rectilinear forms and flat roofs. They demonstrate Neutra’s interest in the indoor/outdoor aspect of architecture, which he could explore to the maximum in the mild southern California climate, using sliding glass walls to open up indoor spaces which lead on to generous roof top decks. Neutra was born in Vienna, where he studied under Adolph Loos. He emigrated to the US in 1923, working with Frank Lloyd Wright before arriving in LA in 1925, where his first commissions were as a landscape architect. He formed a working partnership with his university companion, Rudolph Schindler, moving in to Schindler’s Kings Road House to live and work communally. On Silver lake Blvd you’ll find Yew House at 2226 E. Silver Lake Blvd (above), Kambara House, Inadomi house, Sokol House and Treweek House. Behind this impressive row is Neutra Place, featuring the Reunion House, Flavin House, Ohara and Akai House (below).

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Close by on Glendale Blvd is the original 1951 building that housed the Neutra Offices – where Richard Neutra and his son Dion worked. The building is now listed as a monument by the City of Los Angeles. Do not miss the opportunity to see VDL Research House 2, the house where the Neutras lived and where Richard also worked. The original house was built in 1932, and was funded by a loan from Dr CH Van Der Leeuw, hence the VDL in the name. An impressively radical glass house, with a roof top garden, it was built to accommodate two families and his practice. In 1963 the house had to be completely rebuilt by Neutra and son, Dion, after a fire destroyed everything of the original apart from the basement and  1940 Garden House. The ‘new’ build includes a penthouse solarium.

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Another highlight for us on the tour was the Droste house (above) designed by Neutra’s early housemate R. M. Schindler in 1940. Another Vienna born architect, and protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, Schindler oversaw the construction of Wright’s Hollyhock House in Hollywood in 1920, where he then settled and set up his own practice. His architectural triumphs include The Kings Road House, built as a studio and home for him and his wife in West Hollywood, Laurelwood Apartments, Studio City, California and the development of his own platform frame system, the Schindler Frame in 1945. In Silver Lake there are 9 structures by Schindler, whose clients often couldn’t afford the same kind of expensive plots as Neutra’s. The Droste house is a great example of how he was masterful at creatively dealing with a difficult site. The completed house appears perched above the roadside which gives it spectacular views over the reservoir from the inning area. The house is supported by garages, with two storey living above. One neat trick, which the height allows, is that although the roof is gabled, from street level it appears to be a modernist flat structure.

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We next take a visit to another, but this time rather hidden Lautner House on Mitcheltorena St, which he designed and built for himself and his wife in 1940. From street level all that is apparent is a flat roofed, concrete car port, which, while unassuming, is important is the blueprint for more spectacular projects  Lautner was responsible for over the next fifty years, in which he explored merging exterior and interior spaces using simple materials, like steel beams, concrete and redwood which you can experience first hand if you ever stay in Hotel Lautner, a tiny boutique bnb that pays homage to Lautner by staying absolutely true to his vision, a couple of hours down the road in Palm Springs.

As you can see from our enthusiasm, Silver Lake gets under your skin. On our return, we compared notes with fellow aficionados, Hannah Dipper and Robin Farquhar from design company People Will Always Need Plates. When we asked Hannah if she’d consider moving to Silver Lake her response was “I’d be there like a shot – I wouldn’t even stop to check I hadn’t left the gas on.” It sums up our feelings perfectly.

Designer Keith Stephenson at Mini Moderns travelled by Virgin airlines to LAX airport. If you want to reproduce any part of this feature c modern shows please contact lucy@modernshows.com.

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Photography: Keith at Mini Moderns, Andrew Tomlinson and a very big thanks for permission to use images from Laura Massino Smith.

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