Case Study House #20(B): Wood Construction Meets Modern Design

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Case Study House #20B

As just another quirk to the Case Study House numbering system, there are actually two Case Study Houses numbered 20. Richard Neutra’s Bailey House is the first number 20, built in 1948. The second number 20 came along ten years later, and was designed by the architectural firm of  for the widely-acclaimed graphic artist Saul Bass. Next up in the series, let’s take a look at the second Case House #20, or the “Bass House.”

In many ways, this house is an outlier in the Case Study program. Instead of creating another steel-framed design seen in many of the previous submissions, the architects chose wood as the primary construction material, which allowed them to explore the potential of wood as it pertained to mass production. The use of wood also allowed them to put a modern twist on the American Craftsman style while staying true to its Southern California heritage.

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The architects and clients shared a preference for sculptural forms, and the property’s location on the site of an old estate in Altadena provided a stunning contrast to the curved structural design. The interior featured a circular fireplace and barrel-vaulted ceilings, and an oval-shaped swimming pool in the backyard reinforced the overall aesthetic while adding a subtle touch of luxury.

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Of the (curving forms of barrel) vaults, Bass said: “ They are an important visual aspect, but the beauty of the space does not depend upon them. They added the richness of curved space, and the sensuous satisfaction of volumes, but what was most pleasing were the vistas from every point. As in the piazza system of European cityscapes, you move around a bend and spaces are revealed. You wander through space.”

The post-and-beam wood construction was set on a concrete slab foundation, and featured a sophisticated roofing system comprised of lightweight, prefabricated plywood barrel vaults. Plywood was also used for the box beams, barrel vaults, and flat stressed skin panels, which allowed the architects to showcase the practical versatility of wood in a modern context.

Posts, beams, and connecting plywood panels were constructed in Berkeley, California, and then trucked to the site where they were handled by forklift hoist to expedite construction. Skilled workers positioned and initially secured the vaults covering the central area of the house in rapid succession. The vaults were custom-built for construction, and measured the same 2” thickness as the panels. Straub recalled some anxiety that the prefabricated components wouldn’t fit together, but when they arrived, it was a perfect match.

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“The character of space was very precise, and there were no overhangs,” Straub said. “Overhangs were omitted because of the numerous trees on the property and adjoining lots, while the preciseness is a consequence of the engineered house.” The narrow 1/8-inch tolerance was the closest ever used in a wood house.
Much like other homes in the Case Study Program, the Bass House featured an open layout that seamlessly blended interior and exterior spaces to allow for plenty of natural light. The floor plan included a children’s wing, adult wing, and a studio space with a private entrance. All rooms opened to garden courts and decks via sliding doors. Exquisite landscaping was provided by Garrett Eckbo, one of the most highly respected and influential modernist landscape architects.

Although Bass worked closely with the architects in planning the home, he gave them full credit for coming up with the design. For his part, Bass installed the tiles in the backyard pool, and produced a ceramic tile mural for the entryway dubbed “Bass Relief.”

One of the most striking visual elements of the house was a gigantic Italian pine tree, incorporated into the structure upon the request of Bass and his wife. Its trunk rested against the back wall of the house, and its branches soared through an open lattice in the terrace roof. Unfortunately, the tree had to be cut down in the 1980’s because it had started to displace the house and threaten the windows during high winds.

The Bass House Now

Saul Bass lived in the house for just a few years before his divorce forced its sale. In the 1990’s, the house underwent a restoration to maintain its structural integrity, but the original design and workmanship stayed intact. According to the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, the house continues to “maintain enough physical integrity to be readily identifiable as a contributor to the (Case Study House) program.”

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