Gregory Ain's Small Houses
Gregory Ain fully apprehended, and indeed even embraced, the 1930s emphasis on the small house. In a retrospective description of Ain's work during this period, Esther McCoy emphasized the social importance of the attention to this new building type:
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"Architecture took a long time to get around to the small house, says Ain. He finds a parallel in the way medicine neglected for centuries the study of obstetrics despite the fact that childbirth was one of the greatest killers. Until only 100 years or so ago medicine considered obstetrics beneath its dignity. In our lifetime the small house has finally received the serious attention of architecture."
Besides the emphasis on the small house, two things are striking about this passage. First, Ain's positioning of architecture in an analogous relationship to medicine was significant, for it emphasized the scientific and rational aspects of the discipline, a theme that became a cornerstone of his theoretical writings of the 1960s.
Second, the use of the word "dignity," presumably belonging to Ain, revealed his strong sociopolitical support for architecture's new ability to serve middle-class and working-class clients.
Ernst House (1937)
Ain once said, "A house could be quite playful, with a kind of starkness, a very gentle starkness, not at all like the Bauhaus sternness."
In the 1937 house for Anselem Ernst, it is possible to infer more clearly what Ain meant by "playful." His notion of play referred to the abstract kinetic manipulation of cubic elements: volumes, planes, and lines. In theory, Ain tested these manipulations independently from the functional needs of the building. "I have found a great tendency to play around with architectural forms," he said. "You can even turn the forms upside down."
To be sure, the Ernst residence could not be literally turned upside down; the trellises are shading the windows, the chimney rises to meet the sky. In this respect its formal modulation was conservative in relation to, say, Gerrit Rietveld's Schroeder House, where the floors, walls, and ceilings were treated in an equivalent manner, as planes in a Theo van Doesburg painting. Still, the underlying themes of spiraling movement and interchangeability began to emerge as important motives in Ain's work, and they would later manifest themselves in another manner when Ain became concerned with "kaleidoscopic space" in the postwar period.
The plan geometry of the Ernst residence was composed of overlapping squares that, though compulsively tied to the grid, were often positioned diagonally to one another and offset, leading to a dynamic relationship between spaces, such as in the dining room and living room. The dining room was itself a square; the living room, while not square, exhibited this figure in the position of the soffit and the overhang.
Similarly, in the design of the fenestration, Ain used repeating motifs in different planes, which, when viewed from an oblique position, would produce three-dimensional triangular/ diagonal relationships of great visual interest.
Ain's plan at the Ernst residence, and virtually all of his other projects of this period, obeyed a structural grid 48 inches (122 centimeters) square, while the vertical module was 16 inches (41 centimeters). In their discussions of the Ernst residence, both Esther McCoy and David Gebhard alluded to the influence of Rudolph Schindler. Gebhard contended "the fenestration... came as close as Ain was ever to come to emulating Schindler," while McCoy contended that "the metamorphosis from line to mass, was unmistakably out of Schindler."
To be more specific, Ain took the 16- and 48-inch modular dimensions from Schindler, who had developed this system through his knowledge of the craft of carpentry and also perhaps from an admiration for the simplicity of Japanese proportioning.
By adopting this system, Ain distanced himself from his teacher Richard Neutra, who used a 40-inch (102-centimeter) module during this period to accommodate the size of an industrial steel window. Ain had been frustrated by this system, especially during design on the Mosk house, and it led him to believe that Neutra "didn't understand construction."
Ain's adherence to the 16- and 48-inch modules shows that he practiced architecture in sympathy with the construction trades, which is not surprising in light of his working-class roots. But as much as he wished to pragmatically adopt the normative techniques of the builders, he also sought to idealize these methods, leading to some unique details.
For example, at the Ernst residence (and others), when Ain needed to place a door within the wall system, he did not specify a typical door — 30 or 36 by 80 inches (76 or 91 by 203 centimeters) — and "build out" the remaining void with framing and plaster. Rather, he used a custom-made door large enough to fill the bay of the structural system (45.5 inches, or 116 centimeters) and used the structural posts themselves as the door jambs.
This resulted in a simplicity of detail remindful of the work of Irving Gill, yet it also produced an oddly scaled door. It is easy to imagine that Ain would have been frustrated with the building industry for not recognizing the logic of his system and mass-producing 45.5-inch-wide doors.
Beckman House (1938)
Following the Ernst residence, a similar rigor of sculptural mass, structure, and detail characterized the house Ain designed for pharmacist A.O. Beckman in 1938. Here, too, the building was disciplined by a 48-inch grid in plan and a 16-inch module in section, and this system governed everything from room sizes to door and window details.
On the street elevation, Ain's nimble use of stucco moved in a serpentine fashion across the narrow lot, starting at the left as a thin vertical bar, which turned to cap the garage, widened considerably as it turned down, and turned again, spreading horizontally to contain a planter box.
Behind this bending element, a dynamic telescoping arrangement of forms moved to the rear in an alternating rhythm of solid and void. At the culmination of this visual motion, Ain placed the glass wall of the master bathroom, which showed a high degree of Japanese influence due to its translucence and its horizontally proportioned divisions.
Edwards House (1936)
In 1936 Ain designed a house for the postman Charles H. Edwards and his wife. It would prove to be his first significant building.
Ain enjoyed challenging sites, and the Edwards's plot of land in the Hollywood hills certainly offered many problems. Situated as a peninsula inside a looping curve in the street, the lot was exposed on three sides. On the fourth side, a hillside dropped away rapidly.
Ain responded by planning the house around an unusual positioning of the main entrance practically adjacent to the service entrance. With the garage pulled away from the body of the structure, the house was approached by two parallel paths: one moving from the street at the point of the peninsula, along the back side of the garage, to the main entrance; the other leading from the garage, through the service yard, to the kitchen. The two entrances, on the same "face" of the building, were placed just 12 feet (3.7 meters) apart, with a hedge in between.
Indeed, at the Edwards residence Ain essentially reconsidered the traditional hierarchy of "front" and "back" that was a fundamental characteristic of traditional houses, in the same spirit that Walter Gropius treated his 1922 Bauhaus building at Dessau.
The spatial organization of the Edwards House was especially intelligent, reflecting Ain's attention to child psychology and the role of the mother. The small entry hall functioned as a nucleus, giving immediate access to all three realms of the home: the realm of work, which comprised the kitchen, laundry, and drying yard; the realm of leisure, including the living room and patio; and the realm of privacy, consisting of the bedrooms and bathrooms.
This demonstrated Ain's concern for the ability of older children to "go in and out without answering to the parents" in the kitchen or living room.
These concerns certainly reflect a measure of influence of the complex psychobiological theories of his mentor Neutra, who later wrote: "More than half of our housing consumers are infants and children who don't vote or own stock; they are scarcely in a position of aesthetic advocacy. Their deeper needs must be spoken to forcefully, and this is the architect's responsibility."
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Anthony Denzer is an architect, historian, and theorist. He holds a Ph.D. in architecture from UCLA and an M.Arch. from the University of Kansas. Currently an assistant professor of architectural engineering at the University of Wyoming, he focuses on modern architecture, housing, and politics.
This article is excerpted from Gregory Ain: The Modern Home as Social Commentary by Anthony Denzer, copyright © 2008, with permission of the publisher, Rizzoli.