Structural Ode to a Meadow

Postcards for sale at the Eames House, Case Study #8, in the Pacific Palisades

I really like the large grassy areas that surround LACMA. Even before I worked here I used to occasionally trek over from my job in Beverly Hills and take lunch (or sometimes a nap—I called it my “LACMA napma”) on the lawn next to the ice age garden between the Hammer Building and 6th Street. One can become hyper-aware of green areas in Los Angeles. Sure, there are some patches of grass in the ginormous and grossly underused Griffith Park, but compared to some cities there just aren’t that many places where you can spread out, eat a sandwich, get a tan, or plain take a nap.

This appreciation for expanses of grass was why I felt especially charmed by something I learned last Saturday on my first visit to the Eames Case Study House #8, high up on a bluff in the Pacific Palisades, where Charles and Ray Eames lived for most of their lives together. Designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen and originally to be called “The Bridge House,” the plan for the house published in Arts & Architecture (who sponsored the Case Study House program) in 1945 depicted an elegant steel box structure composed of H-beams, joists, windows, and corrugated metal ordered prefab from the likes of Trucson Steel Company catalogs. The structure jutted out from a hill, cantilevered directly over the middle of a large yard, supported by metal columns and with room for parking underneath. I mean, it was kind of a no-brainer to make use of the view on a bluff like that by perfectly paralleling the house to the bluff’s edge and the Pacific coast beyond.

The original plan for the Bridge House, as shown in the pamphlet provided for visitors to the house by the Eames Foundation, © The Charles and Ray Eames Estate

However, due to the war, shortages prevented the eleven-and-a-half tons of steel that they ordered from being delivered for several years. Time passed, and Charles and Ray made use of the property on occasion, holding picnics and making merry. They got to know this view overlooking the Pacific very well. Consequently, they also became quite attached to the large yard that was to be split down the middle with the construction of the Bridge House. Perhaps they took another read-through of the brief they had written for the house in 1945, part of which explained, “The house must make no insistent demands for itself, but rather aid as background for life in work.”

The swing that Ray hung for a nice view of the house from across the meadow

After three years the materials finally arrived, but by that time Charles and Ray had fallen madly in love with their meadow, so Charles redesigned the position of the house, rotating the plan 90 degrees and backing the structure up against a concrete retaining wall against the hill, preserving maximum space in the meadow and eliminating the need to fell any of the grandiose eucalyptus trees that scattered around the perimeter. Thus, the meadow was saved.

A view of the meadow and house, photo by Paul Gachot

Charles and Ray moved into their house on Christmas Eve, 1949, and lived there for the rest of their days. Today the structure is a shrine to the Eameses, left intact as they had it. The house and accompanying studio are off-limits to the 5,000 or so visitors a year who come to pay homage to the architect/designer duo who were known for their “serious fun.” It doesn’t much matter, however. The open doors and airiness of the house allow for full views of the interior and its accoutrements. However, if you really want to go inside, for one day in June, members of the Eames Foundation are invited to a picnic with the Eames family and welcome inside the house.

And if you take a trip to LACMA before January 24, make sure to take in the exhibit “From the Spoon to the City”: Objects by Architects from LACMA’s Collection where you will see an original ESU (Eames Storage Unit), 1951–52, by Charles and Ray Eames and the Herman Miller Furniture Company.

ESU (Eames Storage Unit), 1951-52, Charles Eames, Ray Eames, The Herman Miller Furniture Company, gift of Mr. Sid Avery and Mr. James Corcoran, © The Charles and Ray Eames Estate

Sarah Bay Williams

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