I pass by the Eames House almost every day at about 35 mph on my way down to PCH, the sand, the waves, the subterranean tunnels, and the tsunami zone, where LA coughs up its junk on the urban beach, where the Westside comes to its logical conclusion. Sometimes traffic is backed up so far up the hill—this is Los Angeles, after all—that I sit motionless and adjacent where the house should be, but can’t actually see it. I listen to the engine, the radio, the sound of helicopters and leaf blowers. The house is silent somewhere behind a wall of dense tropical flora.
My first actual visit to the house was when I was barely thinking about architecture. In a way it was my introduction to the possibility that someone could do architecture, that it was something one could succeed at. It was optimism on real estate once considered solidly middle class. Improbably light-weight and even painterly, like a Mondrian composition, it sits in a perfectly mundane American yard, like the delicate skeleton of a bird perched over the Pacific.
The house is a sort of pilgrimage site for architecture people who come from all over the world to experience it. As the flagship house under the Getty Conservation Institute’s Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative, it is curated to look like Charles and Ray Eames just stepped out to go to the market.
Though it looks friendly and comfortably lived in, it is somehow too fine an object to imagine a typical crazy-busy, career-obsessed, over-achieving neighborhood family living in it now. Where would the full-time nannies stay and how would they clean it? It’s more the sort of house one would carefully clean on one’s own to stay connected to its workings and details.
Conceived as part of the Case Study Program, it was designed to be cared for by owners. It was meant to be “affordable modern living”, as mentioned in a recent Los Angeles Times article. It now exists in contrast to the stucco monstrosities that have and continue to go up in the neighborhood. These days, realtors and owners want so much more from their houses. The Eames, however, is more Zen, more “less is more”.
It was envisioned in the late-forties, when families required far less area to be happy and far fewer material objects, fewer bells and whistles. It was before consumer culture, now the engine of the US economy, really took off. The house embodied the centrality of a do-it-yourself middle class.
Now it is a monument to this, a still-life people visit for ideas and inspiration, to gaze at something that worked but now no longer seems to fit in. Or could it fit? Could a contemporary family live there? Maybe we should give it a try.
I would like to see a family moved into the Eames so that when you went on your architectural pilgrimage to the past you would see this family living in the house, cleaning, going to the bathroom, taking a book off the shelf. It would be like a Julius Shulman photograph brought to life, but inflected and updated. There would be wifi and a hybrid at the curb.
Or, better yet, just sign up a family to live in the house and document their experiences, a reality TV show, even. It would be called “Living Eames” and it would be in the vein of that show where families tried to live as they did in frontier days. It would follow a family trying to be middle class in the way of the fifties. No nannies, no wifi, no hybrid. A buy-your-own-groceries sort of fifties footprint that inspired the world; sustainability before there was “green”.
But if this veers too far the way of nostalgia then we could just have a family live there and see what happens without too much artifice or scripting.
Have Martha Stewart move in and do her show from there. Or, maybe, Getty, have me and my family live there for a year (or a few if we could stand it) and I’ll write about it. I think this is the only way to really understand the Eames House: by living in it day after day rather than appreciating it based on appearances and form. Architects could learn from it by living in it.
I would dust, water the grounds, clean the windows and toilets, sweep the floors—wax on, wax off. When it got hot I would open a window. If the telephone rang, I would answer.