Sunseekers: The Immigrant Architects That Created Hippie California
The Making of Lovell Health House
Lyra Kilston, Los Angeles based writer and editor assembles this jigsaw in her first book Sunseekers: The Cure of California. It’s one of those books you read in one go – frankly, I couldn’t get enough of it – just like the fans of sun and fresh air who headed to the valleys of Los Angeles in their droves.
Turn of the Century Southern California was a place where aspirations and dreams slotted together with the search for a new and healthier way to live, with more space and more sun… to get out of the clutches of TB which was ravaging overcrowded cities . Being a big fan of modernist architecture I was always going to find my way to Lovell Health House and Lovell Beach House. Both houses are known to fans of American modernism for their design but not many know the background story to why they were built, and who precisely Dr Philip Lovell was. It’s too easy when writing about the Hollywood Hills to fall back on the assumption that anything grand and modernist was designed for a movie director or a queen or king of the silver screen. But actually, the early modernist buildings in the late 1920s were the domain of the new age healthy-living crowd.
It was later, with the emergence of cinema and the creation of fandom, that studio heads wanted their stars to epitomise glowing health and vitality, perhaps a counterpoint to any stories which might find their way to Heda Hopper about some very different lifestyle choices and fitness regimes. For Morris Saperstein or Dr Phillip M. Lovell ND (Doctor of Naturopathy), as he later self-styled himself, Los Angeles was the perfect place to develop his ideas. By the time he arrived in 1923, Los Angeles was already the centre of the universe for fans of ‘sunbaths’ (the dangers of overexposure to the sun were not known then) and advocates of a vegetarian or better still, vegan raw food lifestyle. Lovell was already a strict vegetarian when he arrived.
Within a few years, his career had taken off. Lyra’s research shows that ‘his weekly newspaper column in the Los Angeles Times had a large audience. He self-published and sold his books, and ran a successful medical practice for many years’. He was clearly a player, but was there substance to his beliefs? Lyra thinks ‘Some of them, yes. Others were completely wacky and unfounded’.
The natural (forgive the pun) next step for this, by now, well-known broadcaster was to have houses designed by Neutra and Schindler, who fully understood how to interpret his requirements. What they created were homes that were profoundly different from any of the surrounding properties. Lyra goes as far as to say that they were, ‘Shockingly unusual. Spanish revival, Art Deco, and Storybook were more common’. In these two architects, steeped in European culture, Dr Lovell had found designers whose deeply held beliefs about modern buildings chimed well with his. Theirs was the feeling of the age. Today many of those ideas are frankly mainstream.
Lyra quotes Corbusier,
“The machine that we live in is an old coach full of tuberculosis … where as the modern house is a [health] machine for living”
Lovell was deeply involved in the design of the Lovell Health House. Lyra’s research found that ‘Neutra began by interviewing each member of the household (two parents and three sons, plus their housekeeper and cook) about their daily habits and needs, and sought to build a house that would accommodate them, rather than impose his vision upon them. It seems like there wasn’t too much conflict between the architect and his client: through their attention to contemporary medical and architectural journals, they were both tuned into the latest developments in health design’. The house became a major sensation locally and put Neutra firmly on the map.
It was profoundly different to anything seen in California before, ‘Outdoor sleeping porches provided fresh air all night, large windows let in lots of sunlight, the kitchen was equipped for washing large amounts of produce for a vegetarian diet, and there was exercise equipment built into the backyard’. Regardless, this was not an extension of his practice, he had both ‘a gym and physical culture centre downtown for his clients’. But the showman in Lovell couldn’t resist inviting his audience to experience the Neutra steel-framed house … well from the road.
“Over several weekends in December 1929, thousands of curious Los Angeles residents traversed the winding, chaparral-fringed roads near Griffin Park to tour an extraordinary new house”
Lyra’s meticulously researched Sunseekers explains how it came to be that Los Angelinos and those drawn to its magnetic allure were, are and, undoubtedly, will continue to be, entirely comfortable with the notion of embracing experimental lifestyles. It was not by chance that the raw food fad began there, that a young Morris Saperstein was drawn there. The New Age dawned in Los Angeles 100 years ago.
As as for Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy … you’ll have to read the book
Images unless otherwise stated are the copyright of Sunseekers: The cure of California ©Atelier Éditions
Image 1) Job 761: Lovell House (Los Angeles, Calif.) 1950, 1965, 1967
Julius Shulman, photographer© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)
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