Frank Lloyd Wright's Ablin House
Aaron Betsky Frank Lloyd Wright's Ablin House

Private homes remain the playgrounds where architects experiment. Ever since the advent of the middle-class home as a machine for the nuclear family’s self-definition and place-making at the end of the 19th century, designers have used it—unencumbered, as they saw it, by larger social concerns and focused on the relationship with one or two clients—as the site where they have tried out ideas. These innovations in space, structure, or image either can become the basis for larger commissions or can allow the designers to refine the tricks of their trade, such as the manipulation of light or the detailing of connections. This has been true especially in Southern California, where a forgiving climate, both physical and cultural, removes many barriers to such experimentation.

I was reminded of this venerable tradition when I took part in a tour of 1960s-era modernist houses in Bakersfield, Calif. The event’s highlight was a visit to the 1961 Ablin House, a tour-de-force designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and finished by his office after his death in 1959. As one of the last designs in which Wright had a hand, it did not lead to innovation in his practice, but it did point to one path he could have taken: the replacement of the hearth with the kitchen as the heart of the home. Throughout his career, Wright designed “galleys” or small alcoves for cooking, unless they were larger spaces used behind the scenes by servants. Mrs. Ablin, the client for this house, wanted a large, light-filled space from which she could watch her seven children play in the backyard and also be part of the frequent entertaining she and her husband expected to do. Wright’s solution was a lozenge-shaped, two-story space surrounded by textile blocks, each of which has a piece of glazing inserted into it. The kitchen penetrates both the outside of the L-shaped house at its elbow where it faces the lawn and pool and juts into the soaring living space. As one of the tour participants noted: “This the only Frank Lloyd Wright house I know where you actually hang out in the kitchen.”

Ablin House
Aaron Betsky Ablin House
Ablin House
Aaron Betsky Ablin House

With its two wings of bedrooms (one for the children and one for the master bedroom), its open, loft-like space, and its central place for the preparation of meals, the Ablin House perfects Wright’s attempts to build the perfect middle-class home that was both a castle for the essential family unit and an efficient place for its daily functions. That same combination of openness of the central public spaces, efficient packing of the bedrooms and service areas, and a focus on an architecture of framing both interior and exterior views was evident in the other half dozen modernist homes I visited that day.

Thom Mayne's new house

The next morning, I had the privilege of sharing breakfast with Thom Mayne, FAIA, and his wife Blythe, at the house Thom designed several years ago in Los Angeles. Their previous home, known as the Sixth Street House, was a place of experimentation that helped start the architect on his path towards winning a Pritzker Prize. The new place is a very different animal than the first one, which was marked by its exploration of half-undressed structure and “dead tech” intersections. Mayne chose to sink the house 18 feet below the street level. All you see from the sidewalk, beyond a hedge, is a cantilevered guest wing that juts out at the second level. The rest of the house spirals down a series of walkways and stairs all the way to a lower-level lap pool. Along the way, it develops as tiers of open space, each one open to the other–there are no doors anywhere. For Mayne, it is a realization of his interest in the primacy of outdoor spaces over interiors and the development of social gathering spaces as the thread to tie structures together.

Rather than breaking the box of the suburban home, Mayne has imploded it, erasing most of its image and internal separations. The showers are outside. The whole structure (other than the separate guest wing) is a loft space that happens to have been sliced and diced so that light penetrates even into the lowest level. Around a central living, dining, and kitchen area, nooks and crannies for working, relaxing, bathing, and sleeping spin around, catching light and offering views to nested gardens and peeks across the house. Designed for just two people whose children have long since flown away from the nuclear nest, this is a house about sensuality, an open and intimate relation between two people, and a paean to the Southern California ideal of living in nature in an urban setting.

Gehry's former house in Santa Monica, Calif.
Alex Fradkin Gehry's former house in Santa Monica, Calif.

Gehry's old house

In contrast, Frank Gehry, FAIA’s new house, which I visited later that afternoon, is a grand affair. It also hides behind a hedge, but it opens to views of the Pacific Ocean. Like the Mayne house, however, it is essentially a loft: two splayed wings, one for dining and one for living, meander together at the center and soar past balconies for sleeping and relaxing. Framed by 12 inch by 12 inch wood beams, these glass volumes are exploded versions of the compact spaces Gehry carved out of a Queen Anne house in nearby Santa Monica in 1978–a work that also sent his career on its way.

Gehry's new house

Gehry credits the new house’s design to his younger son, Sammy, and it is certainly more symmetrical, ordered, and clean-lined than you would expect from the elder designer. It is also a social place, bustling with visitors and, on the Sunday that I was there, expecting an invasion of children and grandchildren. Its backbone is a much simpler pavilion to the rear, where several guest bedrooms group around a smaller living room Gehry uses as a music performance space. Both that building and his original house have become living and workspaces for visiting musicians and other artists, allowing the architect to bring his longtime friendships and collaborations with other creatives literally home. If the Mayne house is retreat, this is a gathering place for a personalized form of community.

I ended the day having a bowl of fried rice with Hernán Diaz Alonso, the director of SCI-Arc, and his wife, Florencia Pita, who also teaches at the institute, in their loft in downtown Los Angeles. As I walked by the anonymous brick building, the sound of the couple’s two daughters and Hernán’s voice emanated from the ground floor patio. Inside, the nuclear family is ever-present. The daughter’s bunk bed and play area take up one corner of the space, the couple’s sleeping area another. The one luxury the couple has afforded themselves since Hernan became director of the institute, just two blocks away, is a Bulthaup kitchen, and we spent most of the evening around its thin table and cooking top. I asked them whether they were ever going to move. Never, they said in unison. Not even up to a higher level than their street -front perch, so they could get more light and view? No, “we are never going to move again,” said Hernan with his customary bravura.

If, with the design of their houses, the Maynes imploded and Gehry exploded, Diaz and Pita decided to continue to condense all their daily rituals, from the private to the public, into one room. The rest of their life is right around the corner—their office in one direction, the school where they both teach the other. For them, the house is a nucleus, a base, and no more.

Do these approaches offer lessons we can apply to social issues? Do they provide models for innovative housing solutions? Not necessarily, but, left to their own devices, these architects are refining the essential aspects and phenomena of what we call home, from the sensual to the social, and from the expansive to the compact, in ways that offer architecture a homing instinct.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.