While in Southern California for a few days, I had the pleasure of dining with architect Josh Schweitzer and his wife, the chef Mary Sue Milliken. Their house reminded me of what I love about a particular strain of architecture that has developed here: a loose arrangement of spaces flowing past over-scaled windows, doors, and support elements and sheltered by the kind of vegetation that this climate (when there is no drought) supports.
Schweitzer, to my regret, no longer works as an architect. Having made a name for himself in the architecture world with designs ranging from neo-primitive, rock-like cabanas massed together to make a home in Joshua Tree, California, to renovations of a 1928 Lloyd Wright house for Diane Keaton, he now spends his time painting and tending to the garden.
Schweitzer's abode is as anonymous as any star’s retreat. Situated on a deep lot in a flat, anonymous neighborhood in Los Angeles, it presents only a stucco wall, a wood gate, and birds-of-paradise plants to the outside world. Once you enter, you move back through the lot along a narrow path, plants and trees brushing against you, past gardens and pavilions, to a swimming pool, and finally the house.
There is no view out from this one-story pavilion. You are lost in a bit of domestic paradise, with walls and columns shifting, planes hovering over you, and those huge openings inviting in this piece of captured nature. Schweitzer cut, pushed, and shaped the yellowish-cream architectural elements to create compositions that rotate around you. The furniture, a mixture of Ikea’s finest and pieces Schweitzer himself built, has the same simplicity and power that comes from a combination of large scale, simple form, and a lack of articulated borders or details.
It is the same kind of design approach I have experienced not only in Schweitzer’s other works, but also in the houses designed by Gehry Partners, Koning Eizenberg, and even Morphosis, to name just a few other southern California-based firms. It comes out of a response to the climate, but also, I believe, out of the intersection of Spanish Colonial and modernist traditions. The intersection of the sheltering wall, the cage of structure, and fluid spaces marked and measured by sculptural form, here created new models for living.
What has always disappointed me is that this approach has rarely extended into larger, more public buildings, let alone multi-family houses. You can find echoes of these forms in some of the civic buildings designed by the firms listed above, and in the restaurants Schweitzer designs for Mary Sue and her business partner. Cost is, of course, one reason, but it is also an approach to architecture predicated on creating a moment of freedom within a terrain most inhabitants experience as either alien or too lose to make sense. For that reason, it is easy to criticize these houses as idiosyncratic designs for the wealthy—even if many of the earliest ones were cheap constructions commissioned by artists.
These houses are in a way incubators or laboratories in which pure prototypes of a future architecture are developed, even if the actual production models are considerably less ideal. It was a joy to hang in such a moment of beautiful experimentation for an evening. I only hope that someday Josh Schweitzer will again contribute more of his considerable talents to the wider world.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.