The distinctive and tremendous monument dominating the area of Loz Feliz in Los Angeles, California, is nothing short of a temple. But this stone-colored building is not a temple instead, one of the four Textile Houses designed by the great Frank Lloyd Wright. Perched atop a hill is an example of the Mayan Revival architecture, an architectural movement in the 1920s. The house is named after its original owner’s Charles and Mable Ennis.
Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the architecture community to so many timeless philosophies. His most famous extension to his mentor Louis Sullivan’s slogan ‘Form follows Function’ to ‘Form and function are one’ using nature as an example which further led to his establishment of ‘Organic Architecture.’ His early houses were based on the unique ‘Prairie House’ vocabulary that he had developed, but during the 1920s, he and few other architects were inspired by the Mayan architecture. After John Lloyd Stephens visited Yucatan, he wrote a landmark book, ‘Incidents of Travel to Yucatan’, illustrated by Frederick Catherwood who created meticulous drawings of the Mayan ruins. This created a breeze of interest in Mayan culture and architecture. He was looking to create a distinctive ‘American architecture’ in the era of Eurocentric neoclassical style and John Lloyd Stephens’s work showcasing the casts and photographs of the Mayan buildings inspired him to create these monumental masterpieces. In “The Future of Architecture,” he wrote that in Mayan architecture, “we see a grand simplicity and concept of form. Probably it is greater elemental architecture than anything remaining on record.”
A unique 8000 square feet house; comprising two buildings; the main house and the chauffeur’s apartment. The house represents the key elements from the Wright houses and Mayan buildings. The horizontal narrative of the structure persuades you to trace the building horizontally while restricting the movement of eyes vertically and the presence of 3 ponds on the site creates an organic connection to the land.
Inside it consists of three bedrooms, four baths, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a billiard room with a bar. The pool was added in 1940 by Wright when John Nesbitt bought the house. All these rooms are connected by the ‘Loggia’ which is a covered gallery supported by a series of columns; Wright wanted to create one space that flows and then expands based on its purpose. As you enter the house, you realize that the area is tight and dark. Nonetheless, as you move up the stairs you experience the classic Wright reveals, a bright and open public space. He was famous for using the compression and release in his planning to create these grande reveals in his designs.
Wright didn’t particularly like concrete and described it as ‘the cheapest and ugliest thing in the building world.’ Nonetheless, he understood its potential and posed a challenge to himself, ‘It lived mostly in the architectural gutter as an imitation of rock-faced stone. Why not see what could be done with that gutter-rat?’. While designing this house, he created asymmetrical blocks made from the concrete – a combination of gravel, granite, and sand from the site, that was hand-cast in aluminum molds to create blocks; that were woven together with steel rods.
When imagining a house made out of concrete blocks, one might imagine a dark and melancholy block but Wright introduced his signature windows, which he called light screens between the concrete blocks. He also introduced corner windows in the bedrooms to capture the views provided by the California skyline. The exterior was created from the combination of 27000 plain and perforated textured blocks. The textured blocks are used to highlight the elements of the building like the doors, windows, and balconies.
The house might have been the architect’s favorite but, his idea to incorporate granite from the site into the concrete mix was a failure as it introduced natural impurities which, combined with the air pollution led to hasty decay. The house was declared structurally unstable even before the construction was completed when certain blocks in the lower section began to crack.
The house has a unique relation to Hollywood and has been deemed as the most famous house in LA. It has been used in various movies and shows like Blade Runner, Buffy the vampire slayer, and Twin peaks to name a few. When understanding the relationship between set design and the narrative, the set is a silent backdrop and does not participate piercingly. But the Ennis house with its textured walls and flowing plan creates a grand cinematic vision making it a popular choice as a set. As explained by Deborah Riley, the set designer for Game of Thrones in an interview, ‘When Meereen was first described to me, I was told it was a pyramid city and that its wealthiest residents lived inside the pyramids. Having visited Mexico City several years ago, I first started revisiting my photographs of Mayan pyramidal architecture and, I suddenly recalled Frank Lloyd Wright and his Mayan Revival Period of the 1920s.’ She further explains why these blocks worked, ‘The use of the blocks meant that we were able to give the space much more texture than it otherwise would have had, and by punching through the block, we were also able to give the cinematographers an excuse to be able to push the light through.’
Still, the question remains, did this building fulfill its purpose? It might be perfect for a futuristic setting nonetheless, somewhere it did miss the mark on fulfilling its primary function – a home. Even Wright, at a certain point, felt that he missed the mark with the Ennis house and went over the bounds. The house may be perfect for a futuristic world or even an alternate reality but it does miss the mark as a home.