Page C1.2 . 24 April 2002                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Case Study: The Eames House

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But a fourth point is important, too: none of the first three points were dogma. For example, some architects used traditional materials without breaching the values of the program. The Case Study House Program thus offered a strong, healthy push in a certain ideological direction, but without the baggage of pointless enforcement.

The Bridge Design

Charles and Ray Eames were the "hypothetical" clients of Case Study House #8: a working couple with no children living at home, needing space for living and for working. The initial design solution, now referred to as the Bridge House, was by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. Never built, it was a cantilevered structure rooted on an east-facing hill that stuck out through a row of Eucalyptus trees on a then-secluded site in Santa Monica Canyon.

Because it was to be made of steel, its construction was delayed by the postwar materials shortage. The Eames House had the advantage of being designed to be built completely of prefabricated parts. As Ray said, "It was the idea of using materials in a different way, materials that could be bought from a catalog. So that there was a continuation of the idea of mass production, so that people would not have to build stick by stick, but with material that comes ready-made off-the-shelf in that sense."

But it was not until about 1948 that the material was actually delivered to the site. By that time much had happened to change Charles and Ray's understanding of the site. Nothing dramatic; in fact, very subtle. Charles and Ray had played. They had picnicked in the meadow. They had admired the row of trees along the bottom of the hill.

When they looked at the delivered steel, Charles and Ray realized they had made the classic architectural error of choosing a beautiful site and then destroying it with a building. In a relatively short time, they redesigned the house to be built from the same pile of parts and needed to order only one extra beam to make the finished house.

Rethinking the House

Many factors went into the transformation of the Bridge House into the Eames House. Above all, there was the desire to respect the meadow. Another was the recognition that the Bridge House design was fundamentally inefficient in its use of materials; much of the steel was used to support the main house. Charles viewed it "almost as a math problem," to use Ray's words. "It was like a game to him." How could one enclose the maximum volume with the same steel?

In a sense, they were applying to this work of architecture their learn-by-doing process. Playing with the elements the first time around had given them some insights. But completing the drawings, living with the site, seeing the delivered materials, and spending time with the model all these things together primed the pump for an intense couple of months of redesigning while under the gun.

The final design is very simple. Two buildings, simple boxes, are tucked into the hillside behind the row of trees. One houses the living space, the other the work space. A long, nearly 200-foot (60-meter) concrete retaining wall runs behind the structures so that the front of the buildings shows two stories to the world, but the back is set into the hill itself, insulating the buildings.

The buildings are brothers but not twins. Each is two stories tall and can be measured in bays about 7-1/2 feet (2.3 meters) wide, but the module does not intrude. The house structure, closer to the ocean, is made up of eight bays (including an overhang of the patio), and the studio is made up of five bays. The patio between them is the width of four bays. Each structure has a two-story-high space on the end facing away from the other. The house is 1,500 square feet (140 square meters), and the studio, 1,000 (93).

On the outside, the factory materials that make up the buildings are shown matter-of-factly, not with pride or shame. Factory windows and X-trusses provide the texture of the exterior. Color panels (orange, blue, gold, and others) are arranged on the grid, like a painting by Piet Mondrian.

Construction of the house took only a few months. The frame was raised in a day and a half. The parts may have been "off-the-shelf" but Charles and Ray had found some very interesting shelves. Not many design offices would have had a marine supply catalog among their references, but the Eames Office did, and that is where a key element of the spiral staircase came from.

Living in Nature

Having lived with this house intimately in different ways all my life, I must report that some things about the house remain stunning. Above all, there is the house's comfort in the landscape. I could fairly describe it as a pair of steel boxes, and yet in spite or more likely because of that honest use of materials, it feels more comfortable in nature than many so-called organic shapes. Utter respect for the natural world finds no conflict with the geometrically aligned grid.

But there is more: the spectacularly unspectacular blend of indoor and outdoor, a kind of way-it-should-be-ness, an almost soap-bubble-like quality that inspired Ford Peatross to call the house "a vessel for the objects within."

Then there are the reflections; windows that reflect back abstract patterns of eucalyptus bark, superimposing them on the human textures within. Elsewhere you see the meadow through windows, through the house, through the interior plants, all at once.

There is a detail over the back patio a black-and-white photograph of these same trees screened onto a textile, then mounted on a panel and screwed into the building. Just before twilight, when shadows still fall on the image and the natural light turns the reflections of the leaves monochromatic, it becomes almost impossible to tell where the building ends and the reflections begin. One truly believes Ray when she remarked "after 13 years of living in it, the building for me ceased to exist a long time ago."

It is impossible to understand the whole presence of this house from photographs its comfort in the landscape, the exquisiteness of the siting, the peacefulness of the meadow.

Eames Demetrios is an author, multimedia designer, and filmmaker, and is the director of The Eames Office, which is housed in Case Study House #8 in Santa Monica, California.

This article is excerpted with permission from An Eames Primer by Eames Demetrios, copyright 2001, published by Universe Publishing, available from The Eames Office and from Amazon.com.

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ArchWeek Image

The studio of Case Study House #8, designed by and for Charles and Ray Eames, as seen immediately after construction.
Photo: 2001 Lucia Eames, dba Eames Office, courtesy of the Library of Congress

ArchWeek Image

The site of the Eames House and the hillside into which the house was set.
Photo: Eames Office, 2001 Lucia Eames, dba Eames Office

ArchWeek Image

A model of the first, unbuilt, design for the house, the so-called "Bridge House."
Photo: Eames Office, 2001 Lucia Eames, dba Eames Office

ArchWeek Image

Living room of the house as seen from the patio.
Photo: 2001 Lucia Eames, dba Eames Office, courtesy of the Library of Congress

ArchWeek Image

One of many sketches studying different ways to use the materials ordered for the original design.
Image: Charles Eames

ArchWeek Image

Floor plan of the Eames house and studio.
Image: Charles and Ray Eames

ArchWeek Image

A photograph of the eucalyptus trees, screened onto a panel and made a permanent part of the house.
Photo: 2001 Lucia Eames, dba Eames Office, courtesy of the Library of Congress

ArchWeek Image

An Eames Primer, published by Universe Publishing.
Image: Eames Office, 2001 Lucia Eames, dba Eames Office

 

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