Even when Saarinen’s designs were gratuitously exhibitionistic, they never descended into mere styling, which cannot be said of the work of his year-younger contemporary John Lautner, who outlived him by more than three decades. Lautner has been posited as America’s answer to Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian master whose critical status has had its ups and downs during his hundred-year life span. Both these architects are superficially alike in their flair for creating sculpturally arresting structures that relate to dramatic natural settings without exactly accommodating them. Beyond that, it’s apples and guavas.
A Niemeyer retrospective I saw in Paris five years ago made me realize what a profound social impulse underpins even his most seemingly willful forms, even in monumental and problematic public commissions such as his start-from-scratch capital city Brasilia. Nothing of the sort emanates from Lautner’s predominantly residential corpus, and not simply because private houses by definition do not affect society in the same way urban planning does.