The “Buck” of the title is C.H. “Buck” Stahl, whose house offered a vantage point that is familiar to anyone who’s ever dipped his or her toe in mid-century modernism. I think it’s not merely the definitive icon of modernist architecture in the mid-20th century; it is perhaps the icon of mid-century modernism itself. Last Saturday I finally made a pilgrimage to this shrine, and was delighted to discover that it was just as overwhelming an experience as I’d thought it would be.
I’ve been asked why it is that this architecture in general—and this house in particular—so fascinates me. It wasn’t a question I had a good answer for initially, but after a bit of thought I came up with this: Modernism’s goal was to bring excellence in design within the reach of ordinary people. It was a repudiation of artisan craftsmanship and an exaltation of a degree of precision in production capable of rendering totally clean lines and nearly invisible walls. Contrarily, it liberated the design of furniture from the rectangle, making possible the conformity of seat shape to human form without tons of padding. Quite simply, modernism put machines in the service of art for everyday living.
And it was within the reach of many. In 2012 dollars, the two-bedroom, two-bath Stahl House cost a shade under $300,000. Today a roughly comparable house would certainly command well over $2 million. No longer is modernism within the means of ordinary people. I think it’s that devolution into elitism that I mourn, and that causes me to view nostalgically an era that seems impossibly glamorous yet attainable, and thereby more like fiction than history.
Glass-box houses are really only feasible in a Mediterranean climate, of course. Where there is snow, people need strongly pitched roofs and heavy insulation. In blistering heat, the greenhouse effect requires that the shades be drawn all day. But in Southern California—particularly in the Hollywood Hills—the combination of agreeable climate and dramatic terrain provides the perfect setting for the clear simplicity of the mid-century modern home.
Tours of the Stahl House are available regularly by appointment at fees ranging from $30 up. You can find all sorts of useful information here. If you’re living in or passing through the LA area, consider a visit to this modern masterpiece. It’s not Hearst Castle,, but it’s the apotheosis of the midcentury American dream of a castle for everyone.