Lautner’s Engineer

Great Maple
January 17, 2018
Block Party
January 31, 2018

Lautner’s Engineer

 

Pasadena’s Andrew Nasser is the engineer who designed the structure behind the fanciful creations of John Lautner’s last 25 years.

 

Southern California Style. When it comes to residential architecture, the phrase encompasses a number of different architectural vocabularies that together nevertheless describe a coherent sense of place. As distinct as is the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, or R.M. Schindler, they all created residences throughout Southern California that are unmistakably of this place. As much as with any of these giants, the work of John Lautner enlisted the specific geography of the site and the nature-centric Southern California ethos and incorporated them directly into his designs.

 

Lautner was designing in the mid-century, at the height of modernism, and while his structures were certainly “modern”, in the sense of being new and utterly original, his free, organic sense of form and material failed to display the clean logic inherent in the more rigid minimalism of the time. His conceptions were often devilishly difficult to engineer, such that many were never built. Then he met Andrew Nasser.

 

Born in an Eastern province of Ethiopia in 1936, Nasser displayed an early affinity for design when, as a young man, he drew the plans from which his parents’ plantation home was constructed. Steeped until early adulthood in English high culture, Nasser retains much of the patrician about him today. He’s still straight backed, assured at 81 and speaks six languages, with the remnants of a British accent coloring his English.

 

Unlike his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright and several of his contemporaries, the critical reception to Lautner in the architectural press was relatively muted until after his death, while the contribution of Andrew Nasser in turning Lautner’s vision into actual, buildable structures remains somewhat obscure even today, not least due to Lautner’s unfortunate reticence when it came to sharing credit.

When I meet Nasser at the A-frame office he designed and built among the residences on Marengo Avenue, he’s anxious to discuss not just Lautner, but the serendipitous career turns that mark an impressively varied number of engineering achievements and which brought him into Lautner’s orbit with the singular skills and temperament necessary to complement and facilitate the architect’s idiosyncratic vision.

 

Before Nasser was a structural engineer, however, he too was an architect, or at least studying to be one. He came to America on a foreign exchange from Africa and was an architectural student at Detroit University. Part of the program involved work-study and Nasser had been working for the now legendary architect Eero Saarinen. While Saarinen would achieve greatness on his own terms, as Nasser tells it, early in his career Saarinen built his business on the already established architectural reputation of his well-known father Eliel Saarinen, and from the beginning had his pick of plum jobs.

 

Fortunately, Nasser says, he got a dose of reality regarding the actual rarity of such lucrative, high profile work when Saarinen’s HR guy came to him with some advice.

“You’re very talented,” the executive told Nasser, “but you’re a foreign exchange student. You don’t have wealthy parents living in California with property waiting for you to design beach houses for. You’ll be drawing garage apartments, and you’ll be disappointed. Why don’t you become a structural engineer? You’ll never starve.”

 

Nasser took the advice to heart and, always an excellent student, applied to Caltech, MIT and Northwestern. Despite a scholarship offer from Northwestern, Nasser “picked the weather,” and enrolled at Caltech.

 

Upon graduation, he took his degree and personal affinity for thin shell concrete construction to a job with the engineering firm Johnson&Neilson in Eagle Rock. Nasser, though young, proved particularly adept at engineering the formed concrete structures that defined much of the era’s architecture. As Nasser tells it, he did a lot of correcting architectural conceptions for J&N’s architect clients. Conceptions that often contained little to no basis in engineering realities. When one of these problematically fanciful architects came to J&N with a commission for a theater at Culver City High School, Nasser got tapped to engineer it. In a new drawing Nasser proposed what became a concrete shell roof, composed of folded plates in the shape of a scalloped dome, with a single soaring buttress arch. Only four inches thick, this reinforced concrete, fan-shaped structure remains crack free, despite enduring numerous earthquakes since its construction in 1964.

As it turned out, this job, in addition to launching Nasser’s career, was his first real lesson in the importance of not only building, but protecting his own reputation. Early in the construction process, Nasser says, he opened the L.A. Times to read an article, placed by the architect’s PR flack, in which the architect claimed the basic architectural concept came to him in a dream which he wrote down on a pad he kept by the bed for that purpose.

 

Even now over 50 years later, this clearly rankles Nasser. He’s temperamentally unsuited for such shameless self-promotion, but he’s also proud of his work, then and now, and deeply resented the misrepresentation. Righteously, he went to the architect directly and confronted him in his office regarding his assumption of credit for Nasser’s concept. As you might expect, the architect who was much older and well established, “turned red in the face,” threw Nasser out of his office and told him, “You’ll never get to work on this job. I will see to it!”

Unfortunately for the architect, however, when Nasser reported the confrontation to his boss, his boss said “Well, he’s wrong. If he wants it done it’s going to have to be you doing it.” The job went on with Nasser on it, and he determined to make sure he got the credit he deserved. Fortuitously he received a letter informing him that a “World Conference” on shell structures was coming to San Francisco and “papers were welcome.” Nasser submitted his and he was not only chosen to present, his was made the first paper presented.

 

“Here I was, just 23 years old, rubbing shoulders with guys like Pier Nervi and Felix Candela,” says Nasser. Andrew Nasser had arrived.

 

Soon enough with the wind at his back from the Culver City project and a solid portfolio of work he’d done for Johnson&Neilson, he went out on his own, opening a one-man engineering shop he called Omni Span. He soon learned the hard lesson, however, that even though he was the engineer on many big jobs completed for his previous firm, representing himself he was unable to land big institutional contracts with clients who wanted the “safety” of a big firm’s name. So Nasser took the work he could and soon found himself specializing in Catholic churches, drawing the plans by hand himself, working all the calculations out on a slide rule. Over time, he also fell into a side-line working with Western Airlines and designed them a mobile maintenance structure to service DC-10’s at LAX, which put him on the radar of Eastern Airlines who happened to be looking for a mobile maintenance structure capable of navigating the new Lockheed L1011. Or rather, it put him on the radar of the firm that had the contract for the structure. Nasser admits to some naiveté in submitting his bid. He didn’t want to scare off a potential client. The response to his bid was entirely positive however…except they inquired as to whether he hadn’t “meant to add another zero!” It seems the firm evaluating the bid had established a comfortable billing level with the airlines, and didn’t want Nasser’s bid to stand out as suspiciously inexpensive.

 

This serendipitous turn of events made Nasser’s business financially secure and built the Marengo Avenue office he still occupies. His focus, however, was about to change. In the eyes of the Caltech engineering community from which he sprang he remained a singularly creative expert in thin shell concrete construction, and so when the university was approached by The Shea Construction Company—who had worked on the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge – about a recommendation for an engineer with an affinity for thin shell concrete construction, for a tunnel project they had in Arizona—they gave them Andrew Nasser’s name.

 

Though tunnels were new to Nasser, he put his thin shell expertise to good use, designing a system that minimized the number of precast elements required and greatly improved the efficiency of the system for casting, delivering and installing the tunnel sections. The nearly 7 mile-long Buckskin Mountain water tunnel in Arizona was the first of over 20 tunnel structures reliant on Nasser’s concrete expertise throughout his career, including tunnels in Washington D.C., San Francisco and the Hollywood Tunnel in Los Angeles. Tunnels alone, however, could not hold Nasser’s interest.

 

LAUTNER CALLS

 

By some accounts, principally the architect’s own and those influenced by his personal PR efforts, Lautner was a particularly gifted engineer. While he undoubtedly possessed his own genius, because he managed the narrative, the engineers he relied on throughout his career went largely unrecognized. Nasser was Lautner’s principle structural engineer from the early ‘70s until Lautner’s death in 1994. In that time and since, he built or re-modeled some 24 Lautner houses, including some of the most famous, including the Sheats-Goldstein residence in Beverly Crest and the Beyer and Pacific Coast houses in Malibu.

 

Nasser had once shared an office with an architect named Roland Coate with whom Lautner had some familiarity. And when, frustrated with much of the engineering he was getting, or rather the lack of it, Lautner asked Coate for the name of his structural engineer, Coate gave Lautner Nasser’s name. As Nasser says until this point, Lautner’s plans had a relatively high “failure” rate. That is, many designs ultimately were never started, or completed, due to the seemingly insurmountable engineering challenges.

The Pacific Coast House, one of Lautner’s clear masterpieces and an early collaboration with Nasser displays a number of the typical features requiring significant engineering, including 30 foot high concrete walls, a massive thin shell concrete roof, copious expanses of floor to ceiling glass and a lap pool circling the ocean side of the house. The architect, says Nasser, displayed some very definite “blind spots” regarding his work. In short, he was largely oblivious to the actual construction challenges that his designs created. He habitually underestimated both the costs of construction and the time frames in which they could be completed, and because of this myopic perspective, he harbored a personal antipathy for the builders and bankers (who were reluctant to loan on his projects) who he thought, simply “failed to appreciate what he was doing.”

The problem, says Nasser, is that they didn’t understand what he was doing, and so they couldn’t appreciate it. Most engineers, he says, weren’t thinking about the builder whose experience was confined to “scrutinized rectangular, square or L-shaped buildings with a conventional roof.” Their depictions, he says, failed to “let the contractor know the special aspects of the building.”

“I was a better bridge,” says Nasser, “between what Lautner was dreaming about, and what the contractor would actually face in the field. I understood the special nature of the concept and was able to emphasize it on the drawings, to depict what was special about the job and how it needed to be reinforced.”

 

I wonder, with such insight into the mind of an obviously difficult man, how was Nasser’s relationship with Lautner on a personal level. “He was wonderful,” says Nasser succinctly.

Even while remembering the architect fondly, however, he recalls a Lautner presentation at UCLA, that Nasser attended unbeknownst to the architect. When a student asked Lautner about his engineering skills he said, in typical fashion, “I have such a good feel for proportion and structure that I don’t really need an engineer. Except maybe to tell me how many rods to put in the concrete.” Nasser laughs ruefully now at the contradiction between the public architect and the private man. “It was a little weird,” he says. “I was 40 years younger or something, but he always came to my office (rather than make Nasser come to him), and he was always very humble with me, wanting to get my opinion, to know if there was something I thought he should be aware of.”

 

Nasser worked with Lautner for over 20 years until the architect’s death, and despite Lautner’s passing, now in his 80s, that work continues for Nasser. He remains deeply involved in the ongoing restoration and additions to the Sheats-Goldstein residence (see side bar), and has engineered a solution to the “Harpel 2” house, a circular glass structure designed in 1958 by Lautner, but never built at the time due to the engineering and construction difficulties inherent in its design. Now thanks to Andrew Nasser’s quiet contribution, the “genius” of John Lautner will once again be on display in a brand new Lautner designed residence…finally engineered and built 25 years after his death.

 

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