Construction Literary Magazine

January 2017 Writers Respond

The Eames House

The Eames House

The Eames house, also known as Case Study house #8, was a landmark for modern architecture in America. Completed in 1949, the Eames house proved that modern architecture could create “homey” houses with minimalist structure.

Case Study Houses

The Eames house was a part of the Case Study house project launched in January 1945 by the California magazine, Arts & Architecture. This project was a response to the seemingly imminent housing shortage caused by the end of the Second World War.1 The intention behind the Case Study houses was to investigate how prefabricated materials could aid in the mass production of houses to fill the need for post-war housing. Additionally, the houses would embrace the spirit of modernism, to be interpreted by eight architects and firms, which would in turn create a shift in the way southern Californians viewed their environment.2 Over time, the project was expanded to over 23 houses; ironically, most of the houses built for the case study project were not appropriate for mass production. Many of the houses designed for the Case Study project were either too intricately designed or did not actually use industrial and/or prefabricated parts, and thus were too expensive to be used for mass production.3

The Eames house was one of the few that actually used all prefabricated parts, although the house was never mass produced.4 Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen were chosen for this project, but Charles and his wife, Ray Eames, were the true architects. The Eameses purchased the land for this house, which they would live in until their deaths, from the editor of the Arts & Architecture magazine, John Entenza. Their house was built on a shared three acre parcel with John Entenza, where they also designed a house for him, the Case Study house #9. The two houses shared this parcel of land in the Pacific Palisades, situated on a meadow on top of a 150 foot high cliff facing the ocean.5

 

Context & Privacy

The initial design considerations were guided by the materials, location, and need for privacy between the two houses. The placement of the Eames house on the three-acre lot was determined by privacy from the Entenza house and the surrounding context. The entrance to the lot is from the north, leading from the main street down a small lane. The lane is lined with other residences, with the entrance to the Eames/Entenza lot at the very end. Despite the proximity to other buildings, the lot has a very private feel. The west side of the lot is bounded by a hill, the north by the private lane, the east by a large row of trees, and the south faces the highway and the ocean beyond.

The two houses were placed such that the Entenza house and the Eames house are on the perimeter of the meadow on the north and west sides, respectively, without blocking the view to the ocean. The Eames house was originally placed perpendicular to the hill on the west, jutting out onto the meadow, with a large view of the ocean. This design was called “the Bridge house”, as it was elevated over the meadow, connected to the west hill, with the front of the house facing the ocean. This initial design was rotated 90° for the final design, with the front of the house facing the meadow, and was no longer elevated. The Eameses started designing the house in 1945, and due to some constraints in the prefabricated parts, the house did not start construction until 1948.6 During the period between the first design and receiving the materials, the Eameses fell in love with the meadow and the eucalyptus trees.7 They felt that the Bridge House design did not complement the site, rather imposed upon it, and would have required the Eameses to remove many existing eucalyptus trees. The 90° rotation kept the meadow intact and provided the Eames with a large view of the meadow and a diagonal view of the ocean.

 http://w3eames.blogspot.com

http://w3eames.blogspot.com

Additionally, this new configuration would provide privacy between the Eames house and the Entenza house. The Bridge House would have been parallel to the Entenza house, with a direct view from the Entenza house into the Bridge House; however, both houses would have had ocean facing fronts. This new configuration gave the Entenza house a clear view of the ocean, unimpeded by the Eames house, and the Eames house gained a large view of their beloved meadow. The rotation also created a natural screen of privacy, as the Eames House was finally situated directly behind a row of ten existing eucalyptus trees. Furthermore, excavated fill from the Eameses retaining wall was used to create a boundary between the Eameses and John Entenza.8

Photographeamesfoundation.org

Photographeamesfoundation.org

Structural Materials

The Eameses were particularly interested in prefabricated materials, especially since they had spent the previous years during the war investigating moulded plywood in their furniture designs.9 The Eameses appreciated materials that were low-cost yet high quality, and would not depreciate through the process of mass production.10 This is reflected not only in their furniture, but also in the designs for their house and the Entenza house. Both houses utilize the same scheme for the structure: prefabricated steel for the frame, including 4” H-columns, 12” open-web joists, and glass.11 Particularly for the Eames house, Charles Eames wanted to use “minimal materials to create maximum interior volume” that felt “open and airy.”12 His use of thin steel H-columns and open-web joists truly created that feeling, especially in the Eames house. Despite the houses having very similar materials for the structures, each building is very different, as the needs of the owners varied widely and the situation of each house created different needs. For example, the Eames house is embedded in a hillside, which required the Eameses to build a retaining wall along their entire property (8’ high, 175’ long), whereas the Entenza house is free standing, as it is placed flat on the meadow.13

The Eames House consists of one long, narrow, rectangular form about 175’ long by 20’ wide, embedded in a hillside and facing the meadow. The Eameses wanted to have separation between their everyday living spaces and their working spaces, and thus created two separate buildings for each use. The two buildings are situated on the outer ends of the rectangular form, each with small patios on the outer ends and with a shared central courtyard in the middle. The entire rectangle is broken down into 7.5’ wide, 20 feet deep, and 17’ high bays, created by the exposed, yet painted, thin steel structure.14

The south building, or the “house” portion, is made of eight bays, the courtyard is four bays, and the north building, or “studio”, is five bays. The repetition within the structure of both buildings creates a sense of unity and rhythm that is often described as “machine-like.”15 While some may find steel to be cold and conflicting with the natural environment, Charles found that the inorganic materials were a “complement to the surroundings.”16

The steel frame for each building within the Eames house was covered with corrugated decking, which was exposed on the inside of the building. The sides of the steel frames are filled with colored panels, sliding glass doors, and wired, translucent, and transparent glass.17 The use of the different materials created contrast to the repetition of the thin, prefabricated steel frame, marks the usage of the program inside, and creates pleasant, aesthetic shadows from the surrounding eucalyptus trees.18

On the other hand, the Entenza house is a square-like form in which nearly all of the steel framing is concealed by plaster and birch wood strips.

Program

The first building encountered from the driveway is the studio portion of the house, although this was not considered to be the main entrance. The house runs in line with the driveway, so in order to access the main entrance in the living portion of the house, one had to follow a walkway, consisting of old railroad sleepers, past the studio and the courtyard. The main entrance is on the meadow-facing side of the house, and is very modest.20 The facade facing the meadow consists of a mixture of colored panels and glass, and it does not help the guest to find the entrance, as it is unmarked and quite similar to the other windows.

Upon entering the living portion of the house, one is underwhelmed by the low ceiling and narrow hallway.  Directly across the entrance is the spiral staircase leading to the second floor, highlighted by a skylight. From the entrance, one can move in three directions: towards the kitchen, living room or upstairs to the bedrooms and bathrooms. The living room is located on the southernmost part of both the house and the studio, with the main eastern facade view out to the meadow, and a brief, diagonal view of the ocean. The living room is a great open space from floor to ceiling, as the second floor covers only the entrance and the kitchen (the opposite side of the living space building).

This room, and its nearly mirrored counterpart, the studio, is clearly marked with high hierarchy by the height of the ceiling. This great room not only has a large, lovely view of the outside world, but also interacts with it through the windows. The windows show the diurnal passage of the sun and blur the lines of interior and exterior through a play on view and shadows of both natural and unnatural objects.21 There are curtains in the living room and an overhang over the south side of the building to block the sun for the interior. This room and its adjoining outside patio, accessible from within the living room, were intended to be used not only by the Eameses, but also by their family and many guests.22

On the opposite end of the living space is the kitchen, dining area, and utility room. These rooms are lined up in a row horizontally across the width of the building. There are sliding doors which can separate the utility room and kitchen from the dining area (or sitting room). These rooms are not particularly large, and do not seem to be a focal part of the house. There is a sliding glass door from kitchen, which is the northern part of the living space, that leads to the courtyard and the studio beyond.

The spiral staircase leads up to the more private parts of the living space. The staircase speaks to the Eameses previous work with plywood, as it consists of triangular plywood treads secured to an I-beam, mounted to a pipe pole.23

At the top of the staircase, one can access the bedrooms, which are separated by sliding panel doors. Standing in the bedrooms, one can look down onto the living room, or create more privacy by sliding panels along the edge dividing the living room and the upper floor. There are also two bathrooms and two dressing rooms on the top floor. Although the rooms are very small, in fact, the bedrooms have only enough room for a mattress each, the structure and the lightness of the materials are able to create the feeling of more space.24 Interestingly, when one is on the second floor, either in the living section or in the studio section, one feels strange to realize that one is on the ground level.25 The view out of the west facing window shows how the house is embedded into the hillside, and the retaining wall ends just at the start of the second floor. The windows on both the east and west facing sides of the living space are not transparent, so as to provide privacy and protection from the sun.

Heading directly across the courtyard from the living space kitchen, one can enter the studio workspace.

The courtyard facing facade of the studio building truly indicates the program in this section. The glass windows indicate the bottom floor kitchen area, opaque paneling for the darkroom, and wood panels to indicate the top floor storage with just a small window. The studio consists of three main sections: the kitchen and utility section, the upstairs storage section, and the studio. The studio building is almost a mirror of its counterpart, the living space across the courtyard;26 certainly the kitchen and utility sections of each building are mirrored.27 Steele remarks that  this mirroring is a “contrapuntal, positive and negative rhythm of spaces connected by narrow passageways.”28 Upon entering the studio from the courtyard, the first space encountered is the kitchenette. Aligned horizontally along the width of the building are first the kitchenette, then the storage spaces and bathroom, and finally, the darkroom. These spaces have low ceilings, with the main storage space directly above them. One can access the main storage space through an open staircase from the studio area. The studio area, like the living room in the building opposite, does not have a second floor above it, and thus has an extremely tall ceiling and high hierarchy. Heading straight from the entrance from the courtyard, one walks through the kitchenette, through the studio, and out the sliding doors leading to another patio and on to the driveway. The top half of the north facade of the studio is made of glass, as is the sliding door on the bottom corner. This allows for a curated light show in the studio as the sun moves across the building in the morning. Some critics say that this type of unified configuration is reminiscent of Schindler’s King Road house, although the Eameses do not list that particular house as an influence.

Aesthetics & Influences

According to Steele, the Eameses paid attention to minute details of aesthetics, such as the “patterns of colour, leaves on the pathway of the house, dapples of shadows from the long, narrow, “Schindleresque” window frames on interior walls, distant views through to the seas, and changing of seasons.”29 The placement of the windows and panels throughout the two buildings are highly aesthetic, consciously placed elements of the Eames house. The panels intertwined with the windows are Mondrian-esque, with a touch of De Stijl.30 The windows create curated views outside and allow light in throughout the day, thus producing a fun play on shadows in the interior and on the exterior. The windows in each bay create camera frames that capture vignettes on the exterior, in the interior, and in a blend of the two.31

The steel frame does not impede on the windows, and has very minimal corner detailing to create a continuous perception of space.32

The choice of steel seems to be not only critical for mass production, although the house was never mass produced, but also critical to the aesthetics of the house. The Eameses chose very thin steel columns for the main frame, merely 4” thick, to give the feeling of lightness and strength.33 Steel also reacts well to the nature and weather in California, as it is strong enough to withstand earthquakes, does not distort by rain and snow, and feels appropriate for the huge mass of land and ocean.34

The simplicity of the structure which creates simple interior spaces appears to be influenced by Japanese architecture, as are the moveable interior walls. The Eameses note that they were moved particularly by the idea of edo, purity, humility and oneness with nature.35 The interiors are minimalist, as many Japanese houses are, but the Eameses filled the interiors with the stuff of their lives. This seems to clash with the idea of the Japanese influence. Also, certainly the extremely orthogonal Eames house stood out amongst the crooked eucalyptus trees, the primary colored panels are not natural against the brown and green landscape, and the steel seems coldly contrasted to the hillside. Yet, the Eameses, and many of critics, seem to find edo in the Eames house.

Most importantly, the Eames house feels like a home. The Eameses truly focused on how this house would actually be used by its inhabitants, themselves. They created built in sofas and tons of storage, well knowing that they would need spaces for their many, many things. They found that space for entertaining and working were the most important places, and dedicated large areas and high ceilings to mark the importance of these areas. The other areas of life, such as sleeping and washing, seemed almost secondary to the need to interact with other people and work. This focus on the house as a home seems to mark this house as different from the other modern houses of the era.

Endnotes

1.-5. Steele, James. Eames House: Charles and Ray Eames. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1994.

6. Koenig, Gloria. Charles & Ray Eames, 1907-1978, 1912-1988: Pioneers of Mid-Century Modernism. Köln; Los Angeles, CA : Taschen, 2005.

7. Kirkham, Pat. Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995.

8. Steele, 1994.

9-10 Koenig, 2005.

11 Kirkham, 1995.

12 Koenig, 2005, p.36.

13 Kirkham, 1995.

14. Steele, 1994.

15. Kirkham, 1995.

16. Steele, 1994, p. 10.

17. Koenig, 2005.

18. Steele, 1994.

19. Kirkham, p.104.

20. Ibid.

21. Steele, 1994.

22. Koenig, 2005.

23. Kirkham, 1995.

24. Steele, 1994.

25. Demetrios, Eames. (2001). An Eames Primer. New York, NY: Universe Publishing, 2001.

26. Steele, 1994.

27. Ibid., p.11.

28. Ibid., p. 10.

29. Kirkham, 1995.

30-34. Steele, 1994.