Created By: Friends Of Residential Treasures: Los Angeles
Jane M. Spiller
Why is it on the Trail?
Here, I’m cheating a little on the date. While the Jane M. Spiller Houses were started in the 1970s, they were completed in 1980. Gehry’s most famous 1970s house, the one he designed for himself, is well known, but there are other projects from this period that I find just as intriguing. One is the Ronald (Ron) Davis Studio and Residence (1972), nestled in the Malibu Hills with views of the ocean beyond. The project was conceived as a “container for movable things,” and marked an important turning point in Gehry’s early career. It was tragically destroyed in the Woolsey Fire in 2018.
Down on the flats, in Venice, Gehry developed a project for Jane M. Spiller that showcases his early experiments with open shed structures, found materials, and deconstructed interiors. However, instead of the generous corner lot he had for his own house, or the wide open expanses afforded him by Ron Davis’s project, Jane Spiller presented him with a narrow, 30 x 90 foot lot in the crowded context of Venice. Spiller’s desire for a rental unit, and the site’s cramped confines, mandated a vertical orientation, so Gehry slotted two buildings onto the site: a four-story residence for Spiller in the rear, and a two-story rental unit in the front, with a small courtyard in between. Both have rooftop decks with views to the ocean.
The Spiller Houses showcase Gehry’s interest in Los Angeles’s “ordinary and everyday” streetscape through the use of materials that could be found in any hardware store to build façades and interiors. The application, however, is rendered in unexpected ways that pay homage to Venice’s eclectic, bohemian energy. Gehry faced both buildings with the same corrugated metal and standard sash windows he had used for the Ron Davis studio. If you step back, you can glimpse dynamic placements of simple plywood railings and trellises, off-center windows, and a protruding wood volume that signals Gehry’s interest in deconstructing standard building forms.
Keep your eyes open for the occasional house tour because the interior is a knock out. As Architectural Record stated in its 1983 review of the project, “Skylights and windows animate this space with shifting patterns cast by the sun—an almost cinematic effect that marks a logical step beyond Gehry’s previous experiments with direct and reflected light in his own Santa Monica house. The exposed-stud structure that constituted only one element in that busy collage has expanded here into an all-inclusive esthetic.”
Corrugated metal, glass, wood, plywood, and solar panels.
Postmodernism emerged as a critique of modernism, which, by the early 1970s, was no longer regarded as radical and contemporary. Pushing back against its predecessor, which condemned the use of symbolism, historical references, and ornamentation, postmodern architecture featured asymmetries, curved geometries, forms evoking various historical styles, and, often, contradictory elements designed to directly reject modernism’s ideal of architecture purity.
Deconstructivism was a movement within postmodern architecture that emerged in the 1980s, largely as a result of Frank Gehry’s radical work of the late ‘70s. Characteristics of the style include fragmentation, the use of non-rectilinear shapes to distort and dislocate architectural elements, and the visual appearance of controlled chaos. The movement strived to break down traditional understandings of constructed structures, and was a form of rebellion in the same vein as Postmodernism’s retaliation against Modernism.
IDEAS AND PROCESS THAT WENT INTO STRUCTURE:
When she bought the lot on Horizon Avenue, Jane Spiller was hoping to build two rental units in addition to a residence for herself, but because her lot is located only a block away from the beach, it is controlled by the California Coastal Commission, which imposed a two-dwelling limit. The narrow lot surrounded by other residences required a vertical orientation, and the commission granted a variance to exceed the mandated height limit, so Gehry was able to fit two tall, thin buildings onto the site: a four-story residence for Spiller at the back of the property, and a two-story rental unit closer to the street, with a small courtyard between them.
Initially, the two buildings were to be simple rectangular boxes, but Gehry’s design became progressively more sculptural over time, and the completed
structures have no right angles and feature asymmetrical trusses, trellises and protruding volumes. Both buildings’ exterior walls are clad in galvanized corrugated metal cut into 47-inch lengths, and both incorporate unexpected arrangement of sash windows of various shapes and sizes, many of them bisected by vertical wood studs that serve a purely decorative purpose. Both buildings also open up vertically through skylights that let in natural light and roof decks that provide ocean views to the West (the taller one also offers city and mountain views to the East). Solar panels for hot water were originally mounted above the rental house, though it’s unclear whether or not they are still in place today. Because the California Coastal Commission required four on-site parking spaces, Gehry put a garage off the back alley, cantilevering the second floor of the taller building to form partially sheltered lateral carports.
Inside, the two structures combine the airy feel of high-ceiling industrial lofts with the warmth of natural wood—all interior wood was coated with a mixture of wood preservative and linseed oil. The open plan living spaces are flooded with light thanks to the dramatic atrium skylight, and wooden stairs lead up to the bedrooms.
Gehry admired the beauty of exposed-stud structures, and incorporated an unfinished aesthetic into most of his residential designs of the 1970s and early ‘80s. The Spiller Houses were no exception. In 1983, he told Architectural Record, ”I wanted the whole house to look as if it was in process… When Jane Spiller (who helped supervise construction) and the contractor began selecting lumber, I was worried they’d make it more finished than I intended.” Gehry and Spiller also elected to preserve some evidence of the construction process. As Spiller explained to Architectural Record: ”The drywall contractor had to learn that we were seeing his work as an esthetic. We told him, ‘We want the corner beads exposed.’” She also carefully preserved some crayon markings made by the plumbing subcontractor on a duct in her bedroom.
BIOGRAPHY OF ARCHITECT:
Frank Gehry was born Frank Owen Goldberg in 1929, in Toronto, Canada. His grandfather owned a hardware store and, when Frank was a child, his grandmother would entertain him by building imaginary houses and cities with him in her living room with scraps of wood and metal from her husband’s store. Both of his parents also fostered his creativity, his father drawing with him while his mother took him to concerts and museums.
When Frank was 17 years old, he attended a lecture by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who showed slides of his undulating buildings and had brought one of his bent-plywood chairs. This formative experience led him to consider architecture and design as art forms on a par with painting and sculpture.
The Goldbergs left Canada for Los Angeles in 1947, when Frank was 18, hoping that the warm, dry climate would restore his father’s declining health. Gehry drove a delivery truck and pursued general studies at Los Angeles City College, where he took some architecture classes on a whim. Supportive professors and an encounter with the modernist architect Raphael Soriano convinced him to pursue a career in the field. In 1950, he enrolled at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture.
While studying at USC, Frank met a young secretary named Anita, who would become his wife. When they got married, she convinced him to change his (and, by extension, her) Jewish last name to avoid anti-semitism. Frank invented the name Gehry, which looks similar to Goldberg with its initial “G,” its tall middle vowel, and its long “tail.”
Frank Gehry graduated from USC in 1954, at the heights of the post-war housing boom. He was immediately hired by the architect Victor Gruen, but his burgeoning career was interrupted by compulsory military service. After serving in the United States Army for a year, Gehry pursued graduate studies in urban planning at Harvard University, but he clashed with his conservative professors and eventually returned to Los Angeles without completing his degree. He went back to work for Victor Gruen for a time but soon grew restless. Months later, the Gehrys and their two children moved to Paris, where Frank spent a year working for the architect André Remondet and studying the work of the pioneering modernist Le Corbusier.
In 1957, when Gehry was 28 years old, he co-designed his first private residence, a cabin in Idyllwild, California built for his wife’s family’s friend, Melvin David. Five years later, Gehry had established his own architectural practice in Los Angeles and was receiving a steady stream of commercial and residential commissions throughout Southern California. In the late 1960s, he also designed a furniture collection called Easy Edges, a series of chairs made of folded corrugated cardboard reinforced by Masonite that received attention from the international design world.
As the 1970s progressed, Gehry became increasingly drawn to the art scene emerging in Venice and Santa Monica, where he lived. Although he was designing relatively conventional structures like shopping malls and amphitheaters, he socialized with conceptual artists like Robert Irwin and Ed Ruscha, drawing inspiration from their experiments with light, space and unconventional materials. By then, Gehry was divorced from Anita and had married a Panamanian woman named Berta Aguilera. His radical 1978 renovation of their modest Santa Monica bungalow attracted serious critical attention. From that point on, Gehry began to infuse his work with a spirit of experimentation rarely seen in commercial architecture.
By the mid-1980s, Gehry had developed an international reputation as an audacious, innovative architect known for his ability to explode conventional geometries and reassemble them in complex new configurations. In 1989, he received the Pritzker Prize, the world’s most prestigious architecture award, and in 1997, he reached the highest echelon of the architecture world with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, widely regarded as one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century. In 2006, he was the subject of the documentary film Sketches of Frank Gehry, directed by Sydney Pollack, and in 2016, president Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has also exhibited his sculptures and furniture in galleries, and has designed consumer products such as the Wyborovka Vodka bottle, a wristwatch for Fossil, jewelry for Tiffany & Co. and the World Cup of Hockey trophy.
Still active in his nineties, Frank Gehry remains one of the world’s preeminent architects.
ELEMENTS OF STRUCTURE THAT ARE TYPICAL OF ARCHITECT'S WORK:
At the Spiller Houses, Gehry drew on ideas that he had developed for previous projects, including Ron Davis’s Malibu home, completed in 1972, and his own residence, completed in 1978. Like these precursors, the Spiller Houses demonstrate Gehry’s interest in using common building materials that can be found in any hardware store (including corrugated metal, timber studs and plywood) and in creating an unfinished effect by leaving parts of a structure intentionally exposed. His unexpected placement of railings, trellises and windows, and a protruding wood volume atop the taller building, are also reminiscent of his own house’s jagged profile.
Inside, the Spiller Houses’s open floor plan with unpainted wood ceilings and stairs bear a strong resemblance to the Ron Davis House and Studio, while skylights and crisscrossing trusses cast striated shadows across the living spaces, an effect reminiscent of Gehry’s experiments with light at his own personal residence.
Although the Spiller Houses’s simple geometric volumes and lack of ornamentation recall Modernism, their deconstructed interiors and intentionally unfinished appearance come across as anti-modern, making the project a perfect example of Gehry’s signature brand of postmodernism of the 1970s and early 80s.
HOW THE ARCHITECT MIGHT BE RESPONDING TO A SITE PROBLEM :
Spiller requested both a house for herself and a rental unit to be built on her 30 x 90 foot lot shaped like a slanted parallelogram, so Gehry came up with the idea of building two vertical structures with a courtyard between them. Spiller would live in a three-story tower at the back of the property, while a two-story building closer to the street could be rented out, its shorter stature ensuring that Spiller would have abundant sunshine and panoramic views of the ocean from her house.
Jane M. Spiller
When Jane M. Spiller met Frank Gehry in the early 1970s, she was a designer who had worked for Charles Eames and then gone to film school. While researching a documentary film about Los Angeles artists, Spiller visited Gehry’s office and saw his plans for the house and studio that he was in the process of designing for the painter Ron Davis. She was impressed by Gehry’s sculptural approach to architecture and by his enthusiasm for unusual building materials like corrugated metal.
A few years later, when Spiller purchased a narrow lot in Venice that had been cleared as part of an urban renewal scheme, and decided to build a house and rental unit on it herself in order to save money, she asked Gehry if she could hire him as a consultant on the project. He turned down the offer, but because he was excited by the prospect of building in Venice Beach (then an eclectic, bohemian neighborhood populated by artists), he suggested a compromise: if Spiller hired him as the project’s architect rather than merely as a consultant, he would come up with a design that she could afford and charge very modest design fees. She accepted.
The design process took four years, but it appears that Spiller was pleased with the results and has remained at her Gehry-designed compound ever since. As of 2016, she still lived in the three-story house at the back of the property and rented out the smaller apartment to a young artist couple.
QUOTES FROM OWNERS:
“I told Frank I wanted a lot of light and this translated into the whole house being a greenhouse.” — Jane Spiller (Architectural Record, 1983)
“I would bring ideas, Frank would bring ideas, and he would do sketches. I often think that Frank is like a conductor or a composer. There are many other people involved but without Frank, you wouldn’t have the symphony.”
— Jane Spiller (Goldberger)
TALES AND TIMELINES:
Jane M. Spiller meets Frank Gehry while doing research for a documentary film about Los Angeles artists.
Jane M. Spiller purchases a vacant lot in Venice, just a block away from the beach, and hires Gehry to help her design and build two dwellings on it: a house for herself and a rental unit.
After a four-year design process that involved much back-and-forth between architect and client, the Spiller Houses are completed.
As of this date, Jane M. Spiller still lived in her Gehry-designed house and rented out the second structure to a young artist couple.
This point of interest is part of the tour: Surfside 70s