Righting Wright

To that list of must-see Maya ruins in Mexico and Central America, add the Ennis House in Los Angeles. The temple-like romanza of pyramiding volumes and battered walls designed by Frank Lloyd Wright grows up from a plateau the architect built in the Los Feliz hills overlooking the city. Last year, record rains exacerbated the damage caused in 1994 by the Northridge earthquake, and the once timeless, seemingly imperturbable monument, inspired by Precolumbian architecture, precipitously deteriorated. The high plinth on which the house appears to rest lapsed, great expanses of its south face shearing off the cliff-like base. Other façades on this apparently solid but vulnerable structure now resemble sugar cubes in melt-down. This is one of those monuments that doesn’t look better as a ruin. A milestone of invention in Wright’s career and a major monument even in this architecture-rich city, this haunting evocation of a distant and exotic Amerindian past was designed at a time when modern artists were looking at the African masks and sculpture of “primitive” cultures for inspiration, and when sensational discoveries in Egypt were capturing the popular imagination. Wright picked Maya architecture because the temples were indigenous to the Western hemisphere. A designated national, state, and local landmark, the Ennis House climbed onto the World Monument Fund’s list of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2004. With the most recent damage, building inspectors “yellow-tagged” as unsafe parts of the retaining wall, motor court, and chauffeur’s quarters. Famously used as a set for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Black Rain and John Schlesinger’s Day of the Locust—as well as many horror movies and fashion shoots—it can no longer host any income-producing shoots or public visits.

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