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Big Lebowski pad acquired by LACMA

27 April 2016

What is Los Angeles good at, beyond movies? Yes, the city has made an underrated contribution to modern art, and yes, much of Western pop music has come out of Los Angeles (although often incubated elsewhere first) and hell, it even has a couple of competent sports teams. But where the city has been a bona fide global leader in the last 100 years is in the field of residential architecture.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which prides itself on its encyclopaedic and interdisciplinary collection, has just acquired its first home: John Lautner’s Sheats Goldstein Residence in Beverly Hills, completed in 1963. You probably know the futuristic, angular building from the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski (1998), where it played the home of pornographer Jackie Treehorn. (‘Quite a pad you got here, man,’ says The Dude. ‘Completely unspoiled.’) Or possibly, depending on your proclivities, you might recognise it from Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), or from Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s video for Let’s Get Blown (2005), or from auteur porn director Andrew Blake’s film Unleashed (1996). It is currently rented approximately 200 days a year for photoshoots and filming, not to mention swanky private functions such as Rihanna’s 27th birthday party.

The James Goldstein House, designed by John Lautner.

The James Goldstein House, designed by John Lautner. Photo © Jeff Green

That the house is situated high up in Benedict Canyon, about 30 minutes’ drive from LACMA, at the end of a cul-de-sac and a narrow drive, is perhaps the least complicated thing about the promised gift. The billionaire benefactor, James Goldstein, though in his seventies, is still very much alive and continues to live in the house. When I visited last week, he was not home (he travels most of the year) but the grounds were thronging with gardeners and contractors, most of them working on the nightclub and screening room that Goldstein has been building for the past 15 years adjacent to his home. Plans also include a guest apartment, an infinity pool, and an outdoor rotating dance floor.

Lautner, who died in 1994, did not design Club James, as it is known, but Goldstein got the next best thing: Lautner’s protégé Duncan Nicholson. When Nicholson unexpectedly died last year, the project passed to the firm of Kristopher Conner and James Perry, who had, in turn, been mentored by Nicholson. Goldstein’s extension of his property is a direct homage to its original architect – what an art historian might call ‘School of Lautner’. But it is far from original.

Notions of originality in architecture are more vexed than in many genres, but in the case of the Sheats Goldstein Residence they are exceptionally convoluted. When Goldstein bought the property from Helen and Paul Sheats in 1972, it was in bad shape. He has described how the triangular coffers in the striking concrete ceiling had each been painted different colours, and chain-link fencing ran down the driveway. The living room, dominated by a spectacular view over Los Angeles all the way to the ocean, was designed by Lautner to be completely open to the elements. The Sheatses had – quite reasonably – closed it in with glass windows, but they had used clunky metal frames that spoiled the aesthetic effect.

In 1979, Goldstein approached Lautner, and asked for his guidance on returning the home to its original glory while improving it (I itch to use the word ‘pimping’) in ways that had not been possible within the original budget. The changes that Goldstein made over the following 17 years were all done in consultation with Lautner, who either came up with solutions to problems or approved Goldstein’s suggestions. It was, as are all client-architect relationships, a collaboration, although Goldstein seems to have called the shots. When he first developed his plans for Club James, Lautner reportedly gave him his blessing to purchase the neighbouring house, The Concannon Residence, which Lautner had designed in 1960, and tear it down in order to make way for Goldstein’s annex.

The James Goldstein House, designed by John Lautner.

The James Goldstein House, designed by John Lautner. Photo © Jeff Green

Today, the home is crowded with photographs of its owner posing with supermodels, rappers, sports stars (he is a basketball ‘superfan’) and Hollywood celebrities. Goldstein’s business card lists his occupations as ‘fashion, architecture, basketball’, in that order; he has his own fashion line of outlandish leatherwear and wide-brimmed hats made from such materials as python or ostrich skin. A framed Vogue article from 2002, headlined ‘Crocodile Dandy’, just about skewers his unique look.

Goldstein’s wardrobe, as well as his 1961 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, his art collection (including works by Ed Ruscha and DeWain Valentine) and architectural models of the property will all go to LACMA when he dies. The 2004 James Turrell Skyspace in the tropical gardens will also complement the museum’s growing collection of the artist’s work.

LACMA, in turn, has promised to maintain the house as a portrait of its last owner as well as an icon of 1960s Southern California architecture. Whether that means removing the photographs, or the framed magazine articles, remains to be seen. How the museum will manage public access to the residence, in which a slippery glass bridge crosses the koi pond and unfenced terraces jut high over the hillside garden, will undoubtedly be another logistical headache. While other American museums have taken stewardship of residential architecture, none has attempted to strike the same balance between historical conservation and the acknowledgement of a building’s ongoing evolution. LACMA is breaking new ground.

From the May issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here