La Miniatura: A Reflection – Barbara Lamprecht

September 10, 2010


Re: “Lost L.A.: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Alice Millard House Could Be Leaving Town” 09/04/2010

Dear Editor:

The article suggests two things about the Millard House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1923. First, that some fool will move it, quite possibly to Japan, where, apparently, shrewd taste, money, and engineering acumen still abound. Second, that the house is in terrible shape; it’s small, it’s crumbling, it’s cramped. There’s no room for the flat screen, the wine bar, the massive fridge. How incredibly un-American of FLW, that most ardent of Americans.

The first statement is true, the second is not.

The Millard — 4,230 square feet on an acre of land, very cramped indeed — is actually in fine shape. This is partly because the house was, fortunately, Wright’s first go at his new technology of Textile Block, meant to “take the despised concrete block … and turn it into a thing of beauty,” as he said. This brocaded, undulating surface didn’t incorporate the slender but ultimately destructive Rebar that his other three textile block houses did. The Millard is also in fine shape because its current owner had the resources to equal Wright’s passion in restoring it. When I visited the house long ago, it was dark, gloomy and claustrophobic, with wet tarps draping the interior walls and roof. The experience confirmed everything I loathed, physiologically and intellectually, about Wright and what I then believed was a kind of arrogant authoritarianism, both in the the hubris of using the surrounding soil material in the blocks and in the architectural vision he tried to force me to submit to. In some ways that’s still true, although my view is more nuanced now because any architectural vision demands some dictatorship. But here, after a multimillion dollar restoration over a 11-year period, the house astounds me as a piece of spatial DNA, conferring so many remarkable opportunities in three dimensions that I now understand what Wright needed to achieve for his client. It’s sunny and open, but solid; refuge and treehouse; majesty and then informality. Even walking along the concrete canopy from house to the studio makes the heart quicken because that space, so serene and beautiful, promises that whatever work is to hand will be done more richly — it’s why virtually every visitor’s conversation I’ve overheard includes something about coveting that space. Rather than authoritarian, the Millard’s generosity unfolds, one senses, over years.

Sam Watter’s piece really begs the question, what makes “great architecture” so great? La Miniatura is exceptional because it knits together not only textile blocks but other larger relationships, beginning with the site.

Sure, someone could move it, even if there is hardly another example of a deeper symbiosis between a house and a setting, a hidden oak ravine in Pasadena as diminutively scaled as La Miniatura itself, the Millard’s other name. As my wise structures professor said, “ You can do anything you want structurally … but should you?” The house and the site are irrevocably intertwined, the design tracing the changes in the topography like a lover. The northeast portion of this acre site, the ravine, is dense with the oaks’ greyed greens and shadows, a brocaded texture itself; somewhere below is the tiny creek, dry in summer. To the south is a serene pool, sited in the crook of the L formed by Wright’s house and the studio. In a way the ravine and the pool are perfectly … predictable. Of course “organic” architecture would have that kind of rustic setting. However, the east side of the house is a shock. Here the Millard demonstrates how it knits two landscape paradigms together, the wild and the formal. Beyond the massive wooden gates the house is flanked by a bright, flat, meadow of a manicured lawn surrounded by geometries of ordered landscaping. One nicely pruned tree obediently shades a patio with table and chairs. You can just see the inevitable wedding, or some dog with a Frisbee.

This: the weaving of earth and dwelling, the knitting of body with nature, indoor with outdoor, the weaving of sheltered, intimate space with soaring, liberated space, even the seamless integration of the studio, by son Lloyd, with the house, by father Frank … and finally the knitting of a new owner with the last and the local craftspeople who know this structure’s every quirk and need, including the solution to that one bit of roof that still inhales and exhales water. Is there a homeowner who doesn’t get that something always needs attention? At the Millard, there is a confidence that a lot of difficult issues have been resolved and that there is a community to call on. Of course there’s a cost to living in and maintaining a thoroughbred. But in contrast to owning, say, a two-dimensional Picasso for one hundred million dollars, La Miniatura offers the opportunity to experience one’s humanity in ways most houses and their architects have never even conceptualized. One could buy more space, but would it feel alive?

Besides, maybe the massive fridge isn’t necessary. Despite its seclusion, the Millard is in the middle of Pasadena, a stone’s throw from freeways and near, even walkable, to all kinds of stores from Super King to Whole Foods. After all, you know it’s the law here to burn calories.

Sincerely, Barbara Lamprecht, M.Arch.

Qualified Architectural Historian

Author, Richard Neutra – Complete Works; Neutra: Selected Projects (Taschen 2000, 2004).