Ennis House: Frank Lloyd Wright’s LA Masterpiece

Much has been written about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House – the last and most ambitious of Wright’s Los Angeles textile block houses. But one need only look to the great American architect’s own writings for insight into one of LA’s most impressive and enigmatic residences.

In his introduction to the Wasmuth Portfolio, a collection of his earliest projects, Wright calls for dwellings to be designed as “complete works of art,” inside and out. According to Wright, a home should be composed of natural materials, relate to the features of its natural environment and embrace individuality. Ennis House manifests these ideals through a soulful yet spectacular interplay between the organic and the fabricated, the historic and the modern, and the domestic and the sublime.

Although built in 1924, the structure’s formal, asymmetrical design is not unlike Wright’s 1908 Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, but the context of California changes everything. With Ennis House, Wright stretches the sober lines of the prairie across the more dramatic descending foothills of Los Angeles. Bearing geometric designs reminiscent of Maya monuments, the house’s successively receding terraces rise up from the landscape like a temple to the sun. Wright was certainly influenced by the pre-Colombian drawings and artifacts he saw at the Panama-California Exhibition in 1915 while traveling across the country. Considering California’s Mexican heritage, the architect may have deliberately integrated a Mayan aesthetic to reference an “indigenous” style, but one more related to cultural inheritance than actual geography (Mayan civilization thrived a few thousand miles farther southeast).

Perched high in the hills of Los Feliz, Ennis House demonstrates an awareness of every aspect of its environment, both urban and natural. Like a fortress, it commands expansive views of the city, yet through other almost zen exposures, it frames intimate vignettes of its wooded surroundings. Even its fundamental structural unit – the square textile-block that Wright uniquely used as a building material for only four homes in Los Angeles – is cast of concrete, using granite and gravel from the site itself. Inside, a long horizontal loggia connects and grounds the structure’s rooms, while soaring teak ceilings, tall rows of leaded glass, and one of Wright’s iconic mitered windows free and elevate those who inhabit it.

Distinctively Wrightian, Ennis House is at once an idiosyncratic and timeless 20th-century masterpiece.