By SUZIE HARRISON
In contrast to the smooth stucco facades and oversized faux-chateaus remaking the architectural character of Laguna Beach, practiced architect J. Lamont Langworthy’s creations continue to expunge notions of sterility or grandeur.
An exemplar of a different architectural aesthetic, Langworthy’s work is the subject of a Laguna Art Museum retrospective, “Hillside Homes: The Architecture of Lamont Langworthy,” which opens Sunday, Feb. 26.
The exhibit was assembled by guest curator and retired architect Janette Heartwood, who
admires the mid-century modernist.
Langworthy developed his signature style here in the ‘60s and ‘70s, building architecturally
sophisticated homes on lots considered impossible for cash-strapped clients.
Heartwood pitched the exhibition idea to the museum after seeing a copy of Langworthy’s book, “Hillside Homes.” “The memory of that always stayed with me,” she said. “His homes were so different, each one so impressive.”
“Hillside Homes,” is only the museum’s second architecture exhibit. A previous one more than a decade ago focused on Thom Mayne, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect who founded Santa Monica-based Morphosis architecture group.
What sets Langworthy’s architecture apart is its vitality and creative use of materials that complement the three-dimensional spaces filled with light, Heartwood said.
“Light and sometimes moonlight is very important,” said Langworthy, who is flattered by the exhibit. “It moves around the room, makes light interesting and makes you more in tune with your natural environment.”
Ideas for each site just come to him intuitively. He is currently working on second-generation projects in Laguna.
Langworthy uses long skylights that parallel ridges since he often built on steep lots with spectacular views. He uses huge areas of glass, which fills the interior with light.
“Even though the clients did not have much of a budget, the spaces are intriguing and inspiring,” Heartwood said. “For the people who live in them there’s an ethereal feeling, which I hope is captured in the images of the photographs.”
“His houses are always site specific,” she added. “In this exhibit, we get an opportunity to see all these different site specific solutions.”
Langworthy moved to Laguna Beach in 1960 and for the next 11 years he designed and built about 50 houses in Orange and Los Angeles counties, two-thirds in his hometown.
“That’s part of what makes our town so special. So much of his work from that period is right here in town,” Heartwood added.
The exhibit was distilled from Heartwood’s photographic journey with budding assistant architect, Jason Czelusniak, behind the lens. The team photographed and documented the buildings Langworthy executed as they are today.
Using huge images on boards up to five-feet tall, Heartwood’s large format material fills the museum’s entire upper gallery.
“My idea was that through this exhibit a visitor could actually have some sense to be in and
experience these buildings,” Heartwood said. “The object of an architecture show is to recreate the experience for the viewer.”
The exhibit pays tribute to Langworthy’s talents and to his clients, who never doubted his talent, Heartwood said.
“Without empowering clients an architect is dead in the water. An architect can only create great buildings when their clients believe in them.”
After seeing Langworthy’s projects on Diamond Street, Arnold and Bonnie Hano put their faith in him in 1968. Their steep Bluebird Canyon Drive lot was situated on a 20 grade.
Langworthy spent an entire day contemplating the lot. His ideas were immediately well received and his sketch turned out to be exactly what they wanted. They consider him an artist. “He did not want to disturb the land, which is his hallmark, to keep the land intact,” Hano said.
The entry inside the redwood house holds a six-foot wide bridge that overlooks the living
room. Across the width of the bridge opposite the entry is the stairway to the rest of the house.
Langworthy built down slope.
“It’s quite spectacular; two stories high and all open,” Hano said. “He taught us a lot about using natural materials, wood and glass. There’s not a speck of paint or wallpaper.”
The influence of natural materials, simplicity and suitability for its surroundings illustrated Langworthy’s style, Hano explained.
Al Trevino hired Langworthy to rebuild his slide-damaged house in Bluebird Canyon.
“He has a better understanding of structural ability and engineering that allows him to be extremely creative – pillars of design. He’s able to push the envelope because he knows what structurally he can do,” Trevino said.
Langworthy’s use of space is another aspect that sets him apart from other architects, Trevino said.
“All his structures and spaces he creates are very nice and comfortable and very enticing when you look at all the ways he uses materials,” he said, such as Langworthy’s use decades ago of corner windows without posts, now a popular design trend.
Langworthy pursues an architectural ideal of creating functional buildings that are delightful for people to inhabit, Heartwood said.
“Architecture is about capturing light in three-dimensional space,” Heartwood said.
Architecture exhibitions are not common, in part, because considering architecture as art remains controversial, said the museum’s chief curator, Tyler Stallings said.
“I think of art as usually about someone’s personal expression,” Stallings said. “An architect has to work with a client and doesn’t have complete freedom like an artist working in their studio.”
To make an architecture exhibition visually interesting requires revealing its process. Large photographs help. So do plans and a large sculpture type project, which is located in the museum’s lobby and represents the kind of materials Langworthy uses.
“It illustrates how he thinks about putting together those materials,” Stallings explained.
“Hillside Homes: The Architecture of Lamont Langworthy” runs through May 21.