On the occasion of LACMA’s California Design show, I’d like to pass on to you the story of one of the most ambitious and utopian efforts to holistically implement the progressive worldview of mid-century California modern design on a communal level. It is the story of the Mutual Housing Association and the Crestwood Hills neighborhood perched high above Sunset in the Brentwood hills, a few minutes west of UCLA and the Getty. Having visited the site and toured one of the meticulously, lovingly, and exquisitely renovated A. Quincy Jones residences, I remain inspired by the elegance, rigor, and radicality of the architectural vision constructed there, even if (or because) such intelligent design and collaborative optimism seems at times, today, like a rather distant dream. To deliver the history as neatly and informatively as possible, written below by architect and author Cory Buckner.
After the war, in 1946, four musicians formed the Cooperative Housing Group. The housing shortage for returning servicemen and the excitement of creating a model community through cooperative methods was forefront in the minds of the original founders. After being discharged from the Army, Ray Siegel was reunited with two musicians formerly with the Indianapolis Symphony, Leonard Krupnick and Jules Sulkan. With a fourth person, Gene Komer, a meeting was held in May of 1946 to discuss the possibilities of purchasing land together.
By pooling their resources, the four families could afford such luxuries as a swimming pool. They mentioned the idea to a few friends and soon found they had twenty-five people interested in their idea. Articles ran in the Hollywood Citizen-News and other newspapers creating an interest that boosted the membership of the group to 400 members. Eight hundred acres were purchased in the Santa Monica Mountains in an area in Brentwood now known as Crestwood Hills. The tract was called Mutual Housing Tract and in keeping with the communal spirit, land was to be designated as private and public with acreage set aside for a park, nursery school, gas station, and grocery store.
Shortly after purchasing the land, architects, including Richard Neutra, were interviewed. The original contract was a joint venture between (A. Quincy) Jones, Whitney R. Smith, and Jones’ former employer, Doug Honnold. Also participating were John Lautner, an associate of Honnold’s, architect Francis Lockwood, engineer Edgardo Contini, and landscape architect Garett Eckbo. Lautner, a former apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright, had come west to supervise the construction of Wright’s Sturges house, just down the street from the MHA development. In Los Angeles he designed and built his own home in 1940 with a sweeping roof, clerestory windows and a raised kitchen and dining area which was a precursor for the MHA model 702.
Honnold turned over the project to A. Quincy Jones when personal problems made it impossible for him to continue. The team finally credited with the project was Jones, Smith, and Contini. […] The team drew up ten sets of plans, but was sent back to the drawing board after the Association determined the plans were too modern. They returned with fifteen more plans for modestly-priced houses designed with the simplicity of exposed structure and materials. The Association began a series of meetings to determine which homes they would select as models for the development.
Jones and Smith purchased an inexpensive lot in Hollywood and built a pilot house for the project out of their own funds. The house, model 102, made out of concrete block masonry and wood, was built on a hillside as a rectangular floor plan for a cost of $16,700 in 1950. A set of structural ribs and posts extended the slope of the hillside with a secondary roof creating a clerestory of operable plywood panels. The house gave the members of the association an opportunity to experience first hand the architects' sweeping design for a hillside home.
The individual site selection for MHA was based on the order with which each member joined the cooperative. Most lots were hillside lots with spectacular views of the Westside stretching from Malibu to Palos Verdes. Regardless of the site, there was a house plan designed specifically to meet the site challenges. Once a site was selected and a house design had been chosen, small neighborhood meetings were formed to discuss design issues for specific models. An interactive design process kept the community involved and interested.
There were originally twenty-three house designs to choose from with modifications available to upgrade five of the designs with additions of bedrooms and fireplaces. Eventually nineteen house plans were presented and out of those eight were used for 150 MHA houses eventually built. Today only thirty-three houses from the original tract remain intact. Sixty houses, some infill as well as the MHA houses were lost in the 1965 Bel Air Fire and others have been lost to the wrecking ball or to insensitive remodels destroying the integrity of the design.
[…] The Mutual Housing Tract houses were finished with unadorned materials in their natural state: concrete block, redwood siding, exposed Douglas fir plywood and tongue and groove ceiling plans, with no applied plaster or paint. The walls of glass gave a sensation of free flowing space, making a 1200 sq. ft. house seem twice the size by extending the sight line to the property line. Eight-foot wide sliding glass doors dissolved the boundary of house and garden. The post and built-up beams became the rhythmic ornament throughout the house. Beams marched across the structure like a series of ribs, which combined with a low-pitched roof, emphasized the horizontality of the structures.
[…] Jones’ interest in greenbelt planning is evident throughout the community. Reducing lot sizes allowed ample area to be preserved for the communal areas for a park and a nursery school, which still function today and are a draw for an increasing number of young families moving into the neighborhood. Reducing the sizes of lots to a bare minimum and still maintaining views and a sense of privacy was only possible by a great deal of imagination. Stepping lots and position houses at odd angles to neighboring houses created generous side yards where landscape over the years has masked out any evidence of closely packed houses.
[…] The cooperative-communal spirit ebbed with the construction of the individual house but it did prove to become the only successful housing cooperative effort controlled by its members through construction in the state of California.
(Images courtesy of http://crestwoodla.com/)