Learning from Pierre Koenig
Although apparently simple, these houses still embraced the practicalities of construction and sensitivities to site, climate, and client. In 1953, Esther McCoy wrote:
"Koenig handles basic industrial materials with unusual spareness to achieve mobile perspectives. His dispassionate examination of steel is accompanied by an inventiveness of plan and detail, and in Case Study House #21 a sensuous feeling for water."
For architects today, the works that resulted from Koenig's idealistic vision of economical dwelling continue to be instructive and inspiring. In the introduction to Pierre Koenig by James Steele and David Jenkins, Norman Foster wrote:
"If I bring to mind what, for me, are some of the iconic images of 20th-century architecture — light shinning though the glass-block wall of the Maison de Verre; the volumetric clarity of the great workroom of Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson Wax Building, or the Olympian roofscape of Le Corbusier's Unité in Marseilles — there is one image which burns more brightly and stays on the retina just that bit longer.
"I am thinking, of course," Foster continues, "of the heroic nighttime view of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #22, which seems so memorably to capture the spirit of late 20th century architecture. There, hovering almost weightlessly above the bright lights of Los Angeles, spread out like a carpet below, is an elegant, light, economical, and transparent enclosure whose apparent simplicity belies the rigorous process of investigation that made it possible."
Still Modern after Many Years
Looking through the classic Shulman images, one is struck sometimes by how current the houses seem in contrast to the thoroughly dated, nearly antique, automobiles.
The distinction is fundamental to Koenig's architecture, stemming not from differences in the rate of change of different technical realms over the last 50 years, nor even from differences in the rate of change for different realms of fashion. The essential distinction has to do with the direct expression of fundamental structure.
Then and now, mainstream automobiles — like mainstream light-frame housing — have been clad in stylistic wrappings. The expression of automobile wrappers has tended to change every two or three years, driven toward the most profitable balance between amortization of production tooling, and fashion-driven premature replacement.
The Koenig houses, based on visible steel frames, are wrapper free and comparatively permanent. Their refined appearance is achieved through the rhythm and proportion of structural necessity, where the strong steel material bears the loads of shelter almost effortlessly.
Such simple expression of tensile structuralism defines, for me, architectural modernism. At a time when the common vogue in architecture seems so focused on the wrapper, there is still much to learn from him.
Pierre Koenig, age 78, died of leukemia on Sunday, April 4, 2004. His architecture lives on.
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Kevin Matthews is editor-in-chief of ArchitectureWeek.