"Life in a Chinese Kite"
Architectural Forum: The Magazine of Building, September 1950


Standard industrial products assembled in a spacious wonderland

The sparkling construction shown on these pages happens to be the place where one of America's foremost young designers and his wife are having the time of their lives. More important, it is also one of the most advanced house structures built in this country to date.

So far as Charles is concerned, there is no reason why a house should not be:

  1. Spacious--space being the greatest luxury there is;
  2. A Sophisticated industrial product;
  3. And as light and airy as a suspension bridge--as a skeletal as an airplane fuselage.


(right) Porch at southwest end of building is partly enclosed by 8ft. retaining wall. Latter is 200 ft. long, accounted for a large chunk of building budget.

Having got this straight in his own mind, Eames asked himself these questions: How cheap is space? How industrial is our building industry? How light is steel?


(left) Two-story living room faces southwest. Eames-designed step-ladder at left is useful in opening projecting sash, climbin up to bedroom gallery in rear.

What price space?

To this question Eames did not get as happy an answer as Mies van der Rohe's perhaps apocryphal "air doesn't cost a cent." But neither did he accept the usual unhappy answer given by involuntary penny pinchers.

If space is indeed the greatest luxury--a greater luxury than swimming pools, precious finishes, perfect climate control or two-car garages--then Eames spent his money well. Every house contains a hard core of costly services: bathrooms, kitchen, and utility plant. Is it not wasteful, Eames asked, to surround this hard core with a cramped, minimal living area? Is it not cheaper to "amortize" the cost of this essential core over a generous living cubage? He decided it was.


(right) Two-story end of living room has sleeping area above. Bedrooms can be closed off with sliding panels.

To create this generous cubage, he turned to a steel fabricator's catalogue, found the ready-fabricated parts for an open and well-braced frame such as is customary for light factory construction. Small WF sections, open-truss joists, roof and floor decks, steel sash and door frames were all detailed to be bolted together like a Meccano set. Using this gigantic, clean-cut toy, Eames carved himself some 30,000 cu. ft. of space out of the air of the Pacific coastline. The result--two frames about 20 ft. wide, 17 ft. tall, 51 ft. and 37 ft. long, respectively--was not as advanced a space-mold as Buckminster Fuller's "private sky" (Forum, May '49, pg. 16), but almost over-night it gave him an industrial enclosure within which to plan his life--and plan it generously.

The cost of the two steel and glass enclosures was partly borne by manufacturers who contributed to the experiment. Figuring back, Eames thinks it would normally have been $11.50 per sq. ft., or the equivalent of good residential construction with traditional framing in California. But since his usable square feet in about half the house are 17 ft. tall, Eames' estimate brings the cubic foot cost down to a very economical $1! This is all the more remarkable since it includes a $5,000 chunk for the 200 ft. retaining wall along the hillside, as well as paving in the patio and around the periphery of the buildings.

Does the all-steel frame make economic sense? Until recently, the answer in California might have been "no"--freight charges being what they are. But the crux of the matter, so far as the home-building industry is concerned in the long run, must be the ratio of cost of material to cost of labor to erect framing lumber is about 50 percent of the cost of material; in the Eames house, the cost of labor was about 33 percent of the cost of steel. That 17 percent proportionate drop makes as much sense to the home-building industry as it has to every other American Industry over the past hundred years.


(left and below) Contrast between wide spaciousness of most of house and intimacy of sitting and conversation group under bedroom gallery is most striking. Eames says he used more traditional verticle wood siding on west wall interior because he needed something to nail into.

How industrial can you get?

As the spare steel skeleton shot up between the retained hillside and the eucalyptus trees, the house assumed that wonderful constructivist look that every sidewalk superintendent recalls with nostalgia long after the frame has been dressed up and disguised. This constructivist look was exactly what Eames wanted.


Into the frame of this steel box kite he fitted sheets of glass, wire glass ("to make people realize it is there"), asbestos, plywood or plaster in varying colors. Some of these sheets were fixed in place--fixed at least until Eames should decide to knock them out and replace them with some material of different texture or translucency. Others were set into projecting sash, ready to be opened to the breezes from the sea. All combined to create an ever-changing play of light and shadow, a series of surprise vistas, of sudden planes of color suspended in mid-air.

What did it all prove? To Charles Eames it proved that life could be beautiful, and that industrial precision as the designer's ally could make it so. Yet even Eames realized that his house was just a brave first step in a good direction. What lessons had it taught him? What were the pros and cons?

PRO:

  1. Steel could be designed to vary close tolerances;
  2. Labor costs could be drastically cut: Entire structural steel was erected by 5 men in 16 hours. Three days later, one man had finished the roof deck. After that, all other trades could work continuously under cover;
  3. Skeleton frame could be filled with and endless variety of interchangeable sheet materials (but one or two had to be rabitted);
  4. Space sensation was greatly enhanced by lightness of steel;
  5. Poor carpenter workmanship was a worry of the past;
  6. There was no condensation in any part of the house during the past year. Layers of warm air under the ceiling did the trick.

CON:

  1. Steel costs more than wood, especially if transported far;
  2. Steel must be well protected against weather;
  3. Residential wiring and plumbing are still hard to integrate with factory-type structure;
  4. Carpenters are easier to find than steelworkers.

How light is steel?

One of Eames' many surprise discoveries as the house went up was that light steel is a distinct material, very different from its familiar, heavy parent. A delicate tracery of thin rods 12 in. deep can span more than 20 ft.; a cleverly bent sheet can bridge more than 7 ft. and still carry all the usual roof loads; a 4 in. column can rise 17 ft. without wavering; a few crossed wires and turnbuckles can pull together an entire bolted frame. This, he decided, is a material inspired by the daring of aviation engineers, rather than by the more timid techniques of traditional buildings.

The complicated connections between steel members were handled in the most direct manner possible: A welded plate joins the open-truss joints to its column; a window frame butts against a corner post; a wall panel is set precisely into an angle frame. Nothing is concealed, nothing is elaborately "designed."

Like the best artists, Eames is highly self-critical. An avid reader of catalogues on marine and aviation equipment, he is now sorry he stuck so close to the building industry, neglected several offerings from outside quarters. If he could do it all over again, he might treat his house more as a job of "product design," less of architecture in the traditional sense. Yet, he would reverse few of the major decisions made in designing the house. A saving, he admits, might have resulted from spanning his steel joists the long way. He would give more thought also to integrating mechanical equipment. And, just possibly, Charles Eames wishes that he could do it all over again, because he had such wonderful fun doing it the first time.


"Steel Shelf with a View"
Architectural Forum: The Magazine of Building, September 1950


On the edge of the Pacific, this house proves that standardized building is adaptable to many needs

LOCATION: Santa Monica, California

CHARLES EAMES & EERO SAARINEN, Architects
PAUL LAMPORT, General Contractor

The most important point about his house for John Entenza is that it is so much like the Eames house next door (p. 90). The next most important point is that it is also very different.

At first reading, the paragraph above may make very little sense. Yet, in reality, it does make sense: the two houses are technological twins but architectural opposites. Both were built from the same standardized building ingredients; but program, siting, orientation and esthetic preference have made them as different as a tenuous web from its solid shell. As a pair, these houses are eloquent proof that standardization of building parts need not mean regimentation of design.


(right) View across sunken living room ahows dining area in rear, kitchen screened by free-standing partition. Changing floor level follows site contours.


(left) Bedroom alcove above sofa can be closed off with sliding door.

Architecturally, the greatest difference between the Eames and the Entenza houses is that the former is a frankly exposed structural cage while the latter conceals structure and is, instead, a play of flat vertical and horizontal planes. Where the Eames house, for example, emphasizes the "weightlessness" of the roof by exhibiting the delicate tracery of open-truss joists, the Entenza house has a continuous ceiling of narrow wood strips to hide the structure. The trick in the Eames house is to make the ceiling disappear; the trick in the Entenza house is to make it a strong directional plane that leads the eye toward a chosen view of the Pacific to the south. Where the Eames house is a tall construction through which space is permitted to flow in three dimensions, the Entenza house is a flat metal box with a distinctly horizontal flow of space inside, strictly controlled by freestanding screens and partitions.

Architecturally, the greatest difference between the Eames and the Entenza houses is that the former is a frankly exposed structural cage while the latter conceals structure and is, instead, a play of flat vertical and horizontal planes. Where the Eames house, for example, emphasizes the "weightlessness" of the roof by exhibiting the delicate tracery of open-truss joists, the Entenza house has a continuous ceiling of narrow wood strips to hide the structure. The trick in the Eames house is to make the ceiling disappear; the trick in the Entenza house is to make it a strong directional plane that leads the eye toward a chosen view of the Pacific to the south. Where the Eames house is a tall construction through which space is permitted to flow in three dimensions, the Entenza house is a flat metal box with a distinctly horizontal flow of space inside, strictly controlled by freestanding screens and partitions.


(left) Fireplace is focal point of house, surrounded on far side by large, U-shaped sofa.

The result of all of this is again a highly personal house, and its personal features demonstrate all the more clearly how structural standardization can be fitted to special needs. Chief among them is the living area, an amusing playground that takes up more than half the house and somehow conveys a suggestion of social life in a Pompeian Bath or cocktail parties on a roller coaster. In striking contrast is the monastic, windowless study, designed for concentrated work in an atmosphere free from distraction. And when the owner wearies of vigorous entertaining or hard work, there is an elegant bedroom which can either be small and remote, or thrown wide open to the upholstered arena behind the fireplace. To those who hold that there is no freedom of design within standardized building systems, this plan--a portrait, almost, of its owner--is about as good an answer as anyone could find.

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