Case Study Houses: Part 2

House #20B - The Bass House

© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives

Located in Altadena, this house was designed by the architectural firm Buff, Straub & Hensman for the well-known graphic designer Saul Bass and his family. The young architects had been interested in plywood construction since their days at University and finally got the opportunity to properly test their ideas in the CSHP in 1958.

© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives
Model of the house built by the architects © Julius Shulman / Getty Archives
© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives
Completed house in it’s lush surroundings © Julius Shulman / Getty Archives

The structural system made use of several prefabricated plywood products available directly from the factory. The basic structure is a post and beam system which is constructed from hollow box beams made from plywood. This support structure had to be very precisely designed in order to accommodate the infill panels which were stressed skin plywood.

© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives
© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives

A central area of the house had a special roof construction that used a prefabricated hollow core plywood vault to span each bay.  Each vault consisted of two plywood sheets spaced with ribs and filled in with fiberglass insulation.  The panels were bent to the required form and then pressure glued together in order to create a lightweight modular sandwich which could be mass produced.

© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives
© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives

All of these prefabricated plywood parts were trucked to the site which allowed for the main building frame to be assembled rapidly.  The plywood vaults were positioned in less than one and a half hours.  This roof form created an interesting spatial dynamic with the use of vaults to created rounded space with view out to the sky and surroundings throughout the house

House plan ©Buff, Straub & Hensman

The plan of the house shows how the architects zoned the programme around the social strip that runs down the middle of the building.  The children’s area, parent’s area, and office space are all completely separate parts of the building that are linked to this open living strip.  The interior space of the strip seamlessly becomes the outside patio, expressed by the continuation of the same floor finish, which helps to incorporate the swimming pool into the large social area of the house.

© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives
View of the open plan living strip © Julius Shulman / Getty Archives

The plan shows sensitivity between privacy and openness and the relationship between indoor and outdoor space.  All the rooms open onto garden courts and patios via full height glass sliding doors that make it seem like there is minimal enclosure in the house.  The circular brick fireplace forms a break in the rectilinear plan creating focus on the hearth as the heart of a living space. Its location on the border between the interior and exterior spaces assists in emphasizing the actual lack of boundary between them.  Outside spaces are celebrated in this house due to Los Angles good climate.

© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives
© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives

Although timber was, and still is, the predominant building material used in the United States it was generally used to build traditional styles. This new expression of timber explored by Buff, Straub & Hensman was a defense against the conservative neo-Georgian and mock colonial style that was threatening the modernist cause.  Their innovative use of plywood celebrates the characteristics of wood as a material and the exposed the structure serves to highlight the possibilities of timber construction.

© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives
Saul Bass’s Studio space © Julius Shulman / Getty Archives

This new approach was made feasible due to technological advancements like lamination, pressure gluing and plastic impregnation that made plywood a viable structural material for small buildings.  The use of such a new building techniques made it very difficult for the architects to get a building permit.  The city building department was unwilling to support the construction of the roof system just based on the calculations from the architects and engineers but required that the roof be physically tested first.

© Julius Shulman / Getty Archives
View of the entrance to the house © Julius Shulman / Getty Archives

This building presented a solution for a different way to build in a well know material which made construction quicker and easier and resulted in a structural system which was modular and therefore flexible and could allow for both duplication and adaptation.  Having a system that could accommodate the general, as well as the individual, was key in creating a design that could be mass-produced but could also be modified to suit a variety of peoples’ needs.