Ioseb Jughashvili cleverly rebranded himself as Josef Stalin (“man of steel”) before becoming the Soviet dictator, and Pierre Koenig (1925-2004) could have done the same and with greater justification. Timber was the material of choice for his teachers at USC, but his first project was the steel-framed house he built for himself in Glendale, and he remained loyal to that material throughout his 50-year career. He is best remembered for his two Case Study houses, and the Stahl house stands for the whole program, thanks to Julius Shulman’s iconic image of two girls in white dresses, buoyed in a glass capsule above the sparkling lights of the LA basin.
Charles Eames, Rafael Soriano, and Craig Ellwood also built steel-framed houses in the post-war decades but steel defined Koenig from first to last. It was a means to an end: a way of speeding construction, cutting costs, and allowing for prefabrication. Mass production had won the war for America; surely it could solve the urgent need for affordable housing and other post-war challenges. Even the popular press embraced the idea of steel and glass houses for a decade before enthusiasm waned and public taste reverted to familiar models.
Neil Jackson, a British architect and professor, wrote The Steel House and Craig Ellwood: California Modern, before becoming a visiting scholar at the Getty Conservation Institute, and basing this book on his study of the Koenig Archives in the GRI. It’s a handsomely produced, meticulously researched study with more than a hundred pages of plates and footnotes, but the chronology of buildings tells a sad story. In his first decade of practice, Koenig was able to realize ten ground-up houses, and the remaining 40 years yielded only 10 more. There were remodels and additions but larger commissions were rare. The dream of mass production went unrealized. His personal favorite, Case Study House 21 was the most costly because it was a one-off; had it been replicated in quantity it might have become the least expensive, Jackson concludes.
Pierre Koenig: A View from the Archive. Neil Jackson (Getty Publications, $55)
Author: Michael Webb
Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.