Los Angeles is known for its sub-urbanity and long history of innovative housing driven by the latest technological developments and social movements. In stark contrast to old world urban development formed over millennia, Los Angeles and its American sister cities like Atlanta and Houston, present a vastly different argument for how people live within a distributed network of streets and highways defined by the automobile. In the mid 1900’s with the advent of inexpensive mass-produced motorcars coupled with vast amounts of unencumbered land available, favorable FHA and VA government programs, and the interstate highway program fostered what we now understand as the physical manifestation of sprawl. Although ubiquitous throughout the United States it is not new or uniquely American, having occurred historically most notably in London as the affluent classes expanded the periphery in the late 19th century. However, it is in the United States where it becomes the dominant typology. Defining Los Angeles, its basin and the San Fernando Valley creating one of the 20th century’s greatest cities, sprawl in its American expression is the result of all the above conditions and a post-WWII population boom, limited planning and unrestricted investment with minimal capital and the very specific American social structure of homesteading. Aided by the General Motors street car conspiracy, which precipitated the wholesale dismantling of electric public transportation, and a local oil boom, Los Angles was engulfed in a perfect storm allowing for it to play a key role in establishing many of the de facto sub-urban typologies now found globally.
Within the canon of residential architecture, the substantive change in lifestyle resulting from sprawl’s reliance on the automobile and a transformation of industrial production called for a re-mastering of how peopled lived. Sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine under editors John Entenza and David Travers, the thirty-six Case Study Houses conceived and mostly built between the years 1945-66 challenged conventions by seeking to answer serious questions of scale and livability brought to bear in the post-war years in Los Angeles. As uniquely American Modernism, established by Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe and a retinue of European émigrés following them, the Case Study Houses and their architects employed the promise of architecture’s ability to transform working dynamically within the embedded hope found in James Truslow Adams’ concept of the American Dream.
The result of the project is a level of structural and material transparency and thinness never before seen in such variation. In direct response to Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion, the Case Study project called for a commercialization of Modernism’s tenants as can be found in the problem statement by the Art & Architecture editors for the 1945 Case Study House #1 designed, but unbuilt, by J. R. Davidson.
In stating the problem of this, the first of the eight CASE STUDY HOUSES, which the magazine, Arts and Architecture, will build as soon as praticable after restrictions are lifted, it is only necessary to invent a fairly typical American family of a type that has, in large numbers, indicated its wish to enter the postwar building market. Let us presuppose a Mr. and Mrs. X, both of whom are professional people with mutual business interests, the family consisting of one teen-aged daughter away at school and a mother-in-law, who is an occasional welcome guest in the house. In this case, we must suppose that the joint income is sufficient to provide ample but not elaborate living standards.