The Case Study House Program and Its Impact on Modern Architecture Today

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Case Study House Program Stahl House
All images courtesy of Julius Shulman / J. Paul Getty Trust

In January 1945, American architects and planners were talking, writing and arguing about how to go about fulfilling the overwhelming demand for post-war housing, mostly for single-family houses for young families who wanted yards for their young children, garages for their new cars and all the ideals - symbolic and real - that these homes represented as part of the American Dream.

That same month, John Entenza, editor of the modernist Los Angeles journal Arts & Architecture, threw his hat into the ring in such a way as to make all theoretical squabbling meaningless and change the face of American residential architecture. Entenza announced an ambitious program that, he said, would put an end to all the “talk and reams of paper” about post-war housing. No abstract discussions of theories for his magazine. He was putting his ideas to a real-world test, manifesting them in a series of experimental modern houses to be built in and around the Southern California area. “We are....proposing to begin immediately the study, planning, actual design and construction of eight houses...[designed by] eight nationally known architects...[using] new materials and new techniques in house construction.”

When the architect Edward Killingsworth first saw this announcement (later to become a designer of a Case Study House himself) he recalled, “ seemed the direction toward...a new way of life, better living...” As Entenza wrote, the homes were intended to show how industrial materials like concrete, steel and glass - considered unsuitable for American houses -  when paired with imaginative architects given free reign in design, would produce modern homes both attractive and affordable, outperforming the usual historic styles (Colonial, Craftsman, Victorian, Tudor, etc.) in style, efficiency and cost. Additionally, the Case Study concept meant floor plans were generic enough to accommodate a typical American family lifestyle; they were to be prototypes, repeatable with minor variations in many different locations.  

Case Study House Program The Entenza House
Case Study House #9 - The Entenza House

Part of Entenza’s brilliant scheme was hiring a mix of creative architects whom he thought grasped these goals, regardless of experience, age or notoriety,  The participants ranged from young novices to elder statesmen of modernism, like Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, and Charles and Ray Eames. None were women (other than Ray Eames), though there were few female architects in practice at the time. The closest was the designer Greta Grossman, who created several homes in the Los Angeles area during the 1950’s based on the Case Study House paradigm and who - as an emigrée from the colder climate of Sweden - famously stated that all she needed to live in Southern California was “a car and some shorts.”

The first Case Study house, designed by the young little-known architect, J. R. Davidson accomplished the prototype goal easily - in part because wood was its main structural material - in exterior walls and in long-span trusses for the roof, eliminating any interior structural elements -  and it was limited by wartime restrictions to a modest 1100 square feet. “The braveness of the house,” said Esther McCoy, architectural historian about Davidson’s design, “is not in the materials. But in the bold and simple way of putting them together and in a miraculously workable floor plan without halls.”

As far as public interest went, the program was an instant hit; during the first three years, six houses were built and each was opened to the public for tours. In total, the houses amassed a total of almost 370,000 visitors.

Over the years, the program’s homes - both built and unbuilt - fall into two distinct types of design, with a couple of outliers.  The first is the kind that Entenza originally envisioned; steel structures, flat roofs, very open planning, floor to ceiling glass nearly everywhere and crisp modern detailing throughout, giving them a more European “International Style” feeling.  The most well-known of these are by the architects Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, Raphael Soriano and Craig Ellwood.  These are the most photographed and often represent the “brand” of Case Study houses today. The other architectural approach is somewhat more regional to California, employing wood post and beam or wood framing, with somewhat less glass and more wood used inside and out, resulting in a “warmer” brand of modernism. These include homes by Richard Neutra (he was versatile), William Wurster, and A. Quincy Jones.

charles and ray eames case study house #8 the eames house
Case Study House #8: The Eames House

A few fit into neither category easily, the most famous being the pair of buildings that Charles and Ray Eames built for themselves in 1949 on the side of a hill, using all “off-the shelf” industrial materials for structure. However, their own quirky sense of humor and delight, combined with the Japanese “wabi” sensibility of the aesthetics of imperfection, make this home unique in the history of residential architecture and one of the most beloved examples of a kind of “everyday modernism” in the world.  Another project that defies categorization is Ralph Rapson’s “Greenbelt” house - sadly, never built - designed to create its own domestic environment around a central temperature-controlled courtyard garden, in which occupants would grow vegetation of all sorts and be in closer touch with nature without sacrificing privacy. Rapson’s renderings of this project are among the most enticing and lively of any architectural renderings in the modern era.

Is there a common definition of a Case Study House? Fortunately, the answer is no, although they do tend to share some common traits. The floor plans are open and modest in size (usually), glass is prevalent and tends to run floor to ceiling, the building structures are modular with the module dictating interior layouts and there is an open flow between inside and outside spaces.

In 1962, four years before the program ended, Entenza looked back on his effort with satisfaction, noting that, “These houses have their own unique importance, but perhaps the richest results have been the broadening influence on the many other houses over these years that took their form, and in some way, their courage from them.” 

The Case Study House program ended when the magazine closed in 1966, making its mark on residential design worldwide as one of the most successful modern housing programs ever undertaken. In the end, 20 homes out of the 36 published in Arts & Architecture were built and remain standing.  All of them, built and unbuilt, small and large, are inspiring in one way or another, and if you take time to study them, even at a casual level, you’ll be rewarded by seeing the many possibilities of great design.  

Case Study House #22 - Stahl House

Pierre Koenig, 1959-60, West Hollywood

Case Study House #22 - Stahl House nighttime view

One of the few Case Study Houses built specifically for a client, the Stahl House quickly became the most widely published home in the series by means of a single photograph by the acclaimed architectural photographer, Julius Shulman. The extraordinary nighttime image – now an iconic symbol of the epoch - captures the energy of the home’s entirely glazed living space perched above the lights of Los Angeles below, with a pair of damsels in white evening wear relaxing under the rhythm of the exposed steel structure of the sheltering roof. 

The design of the house is simplicity itself; an “L” shaped plan with all spaces opening onto a large patio with swimming pool, all of which is oriented toward the stunning view beyond. As with other Case Study plans, private and public spaces are separated from one another, with bedrooms in the short portion of the “L” and the kitchen, dining and living spaces in the larger wing, itself a large open pavilion entirely of glass, hovering seemingly weightless over the steep hillside. Nothing interrupts the clear open space aside from the kitchen cabinets and a delicate freestanding steel fireplace.

Shulman later said about this, possibly his most famous image, “My wife used to say, ‘After all, it’s only a glass box with two girls sitting in it.” But somehow that one scene expresses what architecture is all about.” 

Recommended Read: Step Inside Case Study House #22: The Stahl House

Case Study House #8 - Eames House

Charles and Ray Eames, 1945-49, Pacific Palisades

Case Study House #8 - Eames House grand entry

Although the Stahl house, with its iconic expression of an ideal mid-century lifestyle, became the most well-known of the series amongst the popular press, this house – designed by and for this eminent husband and wife team of designers – is easily the most revered by architects around the world. Built on the edge of a challenging hillside site, aesthetically it is the polar opposite of the Stahl house, despite both homes using exposed steel for their structure. 

Consisting of two double-height simple rectangular buildings separated by a terrace - the larger a residence and the smaller a studio/workshop – their construction consists entirely of “off-the-shelf”, prefabricated industrial materials. These are assembled using an adjustable modular system, allowing the free placement of variously sized siding, door, and window panels throughout. Ray Eames composed these in a brightly colored abstract pattern that manages to evoke both a lively and playful spirit of exuberance together with the graceful serenity found within traditional Japanese architecture.  

The interiors of both home and studio reflect the wide range of the Eames’ design interests, with mismatched furniture, brightly colored rugs, tapestries, masks, house plants, and innumerable items of decorative art and collections of odds and ends from countries and cultures worldwide. This house is a pilgrimage destination of architects and designers, admiring its ability to achieve complexity within a simple building framework of great efficiency on a lovely, but difficult site. 

Recommended Read: Step Inside Case Study House #8: The Eames House

Case Study House #20 - Bailey House

Richard Neutra, 1947-48, Pacific Palisades

Case Study House #20 - Bailey House front exterior

Richard Neutra was primarily known for his large, sprawling homes designed in a pinwheel fashion, composed of several glazed pavilions branching out into the landscape, such as the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, built the year before this much smaller Case Study was built for a young family. Designed to accommodate future additions (which were later built), this house of steel, wood and glass is more compact than Neutra’s larger homes, yet includes his famous insistence on large operable glass panels to bring outside and inside spaces seamlessly together, taking full advantage of the temperate southern California climate. 

The floor plan consists of a pair of low, flat-roofed rectangular bars of space, connected by a kind of service core where the kitchen and bath are located. Both wings are enclosed by ample floor to ceiling glass on nearly all sides as part of Neutra’s reverence for nature. Not unlike the modest homes designed around this time by Frank Lloyd Wright (for whom Neutra briefly worked), this house presents a quieter, private presence to the street, while opening up entirely at the rear, allowing the interiors of the house to fully embrace the large deck, patio and extensive natural landscape beyond.  

Recommended ReadStep Inside Case Study House #20: The Bailey House

Complete List of Case Study Houses 

In chronological order, using original numbering system

Case Study House #1  1945-48  [unbuilt] - Julius Ralph Davidson 

Case Study House #2   1945-47 - Sumner Spaulding & John Rex  

Case Study House #3 1945-49  [demolished] - William W. Wurster & Theodore Bernardi 

Case Study House #4 "Greenbelt House" 1945  [unbuilt] - Ralph Rapson  

Case Study House #5  “Loggia House” 1945 - Whitney R. Smith

Case Study House #6 “Omega House” 1945  [unbuilt] - Richard Neutra

Case Study House #7  1945-48 - Thornton Abell

Case Study House #8  1945-49 - Charles & Ray Eames

Case Study House #9  1945-49 - Charles Eames & Eero Saarinen

Case Study House #10  1945-47 - Kemper Nomland & Kemper Nomland Jr.

Case Study House #11   1945-46  [demolished] - Julius Ralph Davidson

Case Study House #12   1946 [unbuilt] - Whitney R. Smith

Case Study House #13  “Alpha House” 1946 [unbuilt] - Richard Neutra

Case Study House #15   1947 [#14 not used] - Julius Ralph Davidson

Case Study House #16   1946-47 [demolished] - Rodney Walker

Case Study House #17   1947 - Rodney Walker

Case Study House #18   1947-48 - Rodney Walker

Case Study House #20  “Bailey House” 1947-48 - Richard Neutra

Case Study House #21   1947 [unbuilt] - Richard Neutra

Case Study House #1950  1950 - Raphael Soriano

Case Study House #16 (B)  “Salzman House” 1952-53 - Craig Ellwood

Case Study House #17 (B)   1954-55 - Craig Ellwood

Case Study House #18 (B)   1956-58 - Craig Ellwood

Case Study House #19   1957 [unbuilt] - Don Knorr

Case Study House #20  1958 - Buff, Straub, Hensman

Case Study House #21   1958 - Pierre Koenig

Case Study House #22   “Stahl House” 1959-69 - Pierre Koenig

Case Study House #23   1959-60 - Killingsworth, Brady & Smith

Case Study House #24   1961 - A. Quincy Jones & Frederick Emmons

Case Study House #25   1962 - Killingsworth, Brady & Smith

Case Study House #26   1962 - Killingsworth, Brady & Smith

Case Study House #26   1962-63 - Beverley David Thorne

Case Study House #27   1963 - Campbell & Wong

Case Study House #28   1965-66 - Buff & Hensman 

Case Study Apartment #1   1963-64 - Alfred N. Beadle & Alan A. Dailey

Case Study Apartment #2   1964 - Killingsworth, Brady & Smith

Inspired by the modernist design of these Case Study Houses? Search all mid-century modern homes for sale today.

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