Blog: Malibu Architect John Lautner’s Revolutionary Take on Beach Living

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What distinguished John Lautner as a residential architect then, and now, was his approach to each commission as a singular entity with a unique set of requirements to harmonize the home both within its natural surroundings and within the day-to-day needs of its occupants. 

Although known as one of California’s most iconic mid-century and “atomic age” architects, John Lautner made a significant mark as a residential architect in Malibu for nearly three decades. While only five of his Malibu projects were actually completed (a sixth was demolished), the importance of his contributions to the aesthetic that defines Malibu certainly entitles Lautner to be called a Malibu architect.

Home to some of the world’s most creative and entertaining personalities, and the object of innumerable photo essays, museum showcases and academic studies, Lautner’s residential architecture revolutionized building design during his time, and continues to inspire today. His designs in Malibu are no exception.

Born in northern Michigan, he was raised by parents who imbued him with a deep appreciation for nature and the importance of creative pursuit. Lautner’s particular architectural aesthetic began taking shape at a young age when his family designed and self-built their vacation cottage, Midgaard, over the course of three summers on the shores of Lake Superior, Michigan. A teenager at the time, Lautner credited the experience later in life for instilling in him an appreciation of the interrelationships that exist between humans, their dwellings, and the greater natural world – a theme that would remain a constant in his work throughout his career.

Lautner attended Northern State Normal School (now Northern Michigan University) in 1934 and went on to apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright for six years. His time spent under Wright’s tutelage played a formative role in shaping the young architect’s aesthetic approach to harmonizing a structure within its natural environment.

After leaving Wright’s apprenticeship, Lautner worked on a few Wright projects before establishing his solo practice in Los Angeles in the early 1940s. Los Angeles, and its population of monied, creative types proved fertile soil for a young, experimental architect hoping to make his mark. It wasn’t long before his first commissions were turning heads, and changing Southern California’s approach to residential architecture.

What distinguished Lautner as a residential architect then, and now, was his approach to each commission as a singular entity with a unique set of requirements to harmonize the home both within its natural surroundings and within the day-to-day needs of its occupants. Of the twelve projects Lautner was commissioned to design in Malibu, which included a design for Miles Davis’ swimming pool in 1990, five were constructed and stand today, five were never constructed, and one was demolished.

Taken as a whole, the existing Stevens (1968), Garwood (1970), Beyer (1975), Segel (1980), and Krause (1982) residences form a complete portfolio emblematic of the Lautner aesthetic: a heavy, and wholly unusual use of concrete, a perfect dialogue between the building and its natural environment, and large airy interiors designed to recognize and nurture the humanity of their occupants.

See more photos here