Films Tell Tales of Mallrats and a Modernist (continued)

Despite its critical take, Malls R Us steers away from didacticism by acknowledging the positive aspects of the building type. Victor Gruen, the architect who invented the enclosed mall, saw malls as a way to simulate Europe’s cafés and street life, in America. Many mall-goers develop an attachment to malls as a center for activities and memories. However, they tend to have a short lifespan of three to five years; when they start to become dated and profits fall, they’re abandoned or replaced. (The site deadmalls.com is a testament to that.) If malls are to truly work as a substitute for town centers, they need to be rethought. “As soon as the commercial end doesn’t work anymore, the communal spaces are gone,” filmmaker Klodawsky said in a Q&A after the film.

Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner
ended the afternoon on a more uplifting note, with its portrayal of a Modernist visionary who used his talent for residential design to enhance his clients’ quality of life and create a keen sense of harmony with nature. Featuring interviews with family members, clients, architects, and others, the documentary traces the story of the late architect’s life, from his childhood in Michigan, to his Taliesin apprenticeship, to his growth to establish his own design identity, marked by a futurism combined with a flair for creating synergies with a site’s natural beauty. “I think Lautner’s the missing link between people like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and… humanist modernism like Frank Lloyd Wright did,” director Murray Grigor remarked in a Q&A. “Frank Lloyd Wright always said that Lautner was the second best-architect in the world,” he added.

Infinite Space offers insights into Lautner’s working process, such as his long, intense study of a site’s natural features before coming up with a design. Judith Lautner, his daughter who worked in his office, recounts, “When my father would get a new client, he would get a topo of the property, of the contours, and go off to the site with it. He’d take a soft pencil with him and mark all of the aspects of the property that he could perceive while he was on the site… Then he would come back to his office, and he could sit in his chair staring at that thing… He could sit for days, actually… And then one day, he would suddenly have the idea.”

While Lautner became famous for his hillside residences such as the Chemosphere in Los Angeles and the Mar Brisas House in Acapulco, as well as his “Googie” restaurant designs, he was frustrated by the fact that his larger commissions remained un-built, a problem he blamed on politics. One of his few public buildings was the Midtown School in Los Angeles, which featured radiant heat, natural ventilation, and all natural light, revealing a sensibility attuned to nature in ways that go beyond aesthetics.