By Kate Wolf / The Nation
In the last decades of his life, the great Modernist architect Gregory Ain stopped designing buildings. Following a brief tenure as the dean of Pennsylvania State University’s School of Architecture, he is reported to have had a nervous breakdown. He returned home to Los Angeles at the age of 60 and moved into an apartment in Silver Lake designed by Rudolph Schindler, his former mentor, colleague, and friend; later, he would transition to Sunset Hall, a retirement community known for housing aging communists and leftists. It was not lost on Ain that the scholars who came to interview him at either location were generally not there to discuss his legacy but that of other practitioners, such as Schindler and Richard Neutra, with whom Ain had worked before establishing his own firm in the mid-1930s. The architecture critic Esther McCoy wrote that in his retirement, Ain—who despite a commitment to anti-capitalist politics had once indulged in collecting cars—“bought a bicycle” and “haunted bookstores.” Yet even in his state of diminished productivity, his inspiration was not extinguished. As McCoy wrote, “The Roman candles still burst from his mind.”
Ain’s most active years as an architect were from 1935 to 1952. By the 1960s, he was hardly working (he would officially retire in 1970), indicating more about the kinds of buildings he wanted to make, and the scrutiny—including over a decade of active surveillance by the FBI—that he faced in trying to construct them, than his skill or ambition. During his career, Ain enjoyed both recognition and success: Under his apprenticeship with Neutra, he worked on some of the most famous examples of Modernist architecture in Los Angeles, including the Lovell House (1929) and the VDL Research House (1932), where Neutra lived. For a time, he served as the chief engineer in the studio of Charles and Ray Eames, developing the plywood molding machines that would result in the famous Eames chair, of which he made the first model. In 1940, he was awarded a Guggenheim, on the advice of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, to fund his research on the small and inexpensive single-family home, the type of dwelling in which he was most invested. In 1950, Phillip Johnson commissioned him to design and construct one of these homes, to be featured in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. The prestigious exhibition was seen by thousands of people, but to Ain, what was likely more important than the exposure, or even the dwelling he designed, was the hypothetical site plan he included along with it. The plan laid out how his house could be dynamically situated among other similar homes to create a compact, affordable, and well-planned urban development—something MoMA is presumed not to have shown.
Notes From Another Los Angeles, edited by the scholar Anthony Fontenot, is the first book devoted to exploring the communal developments that Ain believed in deeply, with a focused look at each of the projects he constructed. While the scale of his plans was often thwarted, Ain made four such communities in Los Angeles during his lifetime, of all of which still stand today. “He could have done large commercial buildings,” a former associate of Ain’s observed, “but his heart was in social housing.” Ain stated that he wanted to address “common architectural problems of common people,” and the best way to do this, in his view, was to design small homes on shared lots that were cooperatively owned.
Ain imagined these tracts as workable solutions to the housing crisis that plagued the United States through the Depression and after World War II. His projects ranged from Dunsmuir Flats (1937), which includes four rental homes on a single lot, to Mar Vista Housing (1948), with over 50 homes across more than two city blocks. Fontenot’s book also looks at Ain’s most ambitious plan, the Community Homes Cooperative (1946–48), a 280-home development in the San Fernando Valley that would have housed the likes of the actress Lena Horne and the designer Saul Bass, but that went unbuilt thanks to the Federal Housing Administration’s anti-integrationist policies. Rather than limit the development to white residents only, Ain refused to proceed with it, scrapping years of work.
The model of social housing Ain was committed to differs from what’s known as public housing, which is owned and managed by the state. It also differs from the monotonous and ill-conceived tract developments, like Long Island’s infamous Levittown, in which both the home and the land are owned individually. Ain and his close collaborator the landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, labeled their work “social art,” and Fontenot describes it as “a private initiative driven by a social ethos.” The types of developments that Ain worked on were, as Fontenot writes, “defined by multiple units of low-cost, high-quality architecture for common people.” They were conceived around “open green space, a balance between individual privacy and community cohesion, and subtle variation in materials and forms, expressed as collective or shared space.” In theory, the relative affordability of the houses would promote home ownership, and their design would be functional, beautiful, and integrated into larger ideas of communal living and property.
Similar planned communities began cropping up across the United States in the 1920s, as a part of a nascent movement spurred by a newfound interest in urban planning in England, and much of the rest of Europe, as “constructive action” for a better world following the atrocities of World War I. Besides Ain’s work, a handful of other examples were built in Los Angeles, such as Reginald Johnson’s much-loved Village Green (1942). But the window of interest for such projects proved to be brief. By the 1950s, a group called Citizens Against Socialist Housing was gaining influence in LA’s political sphere, and by the 1960s, in part because of the damaging, racist effects of urban renewal, “urban planning” had increasingly become a dirty word. As the title of Fontenot’s book suggests, Ain’s legacy conjures a different model of the city than the one some us occupy today; had his ideas taken further hold, “another” Los Angeles might indeed have developed. But in the midst of yet another massive housing and homelessness crisis with few viable solutions in sight, one might wonder if—or at least wish—it still could. Ain’s work and philosophy provide a compelling blueprint.
Before he began to experiment with different models of housing, Ain experienced alternative modes of living firsthand. He was born in 1908 in Pennsylvania, though his family relocated to Los Angeles a few years later, landing in the diverse, working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights. In 1916, Ain’s father, Baer, a socialist aligned with the Menshevik faction of Russian Marxism (he was once jailed by Czar Nicolas II for teaching peasants to read), moved the family to Llano del Rio, a farming colony in the Antelope Valley, on the outskirts of LA, run by the socialist and two-time mayoral candidate Job Harriman. Yet Ain’s health issues (he had ear trouble) and the many power struggles at Llano between the colony’s commanding board of directors and its rebellious stakeholder residents made Baer decide to pack up the tent the family had been residing in and move back to the city after about a year.
At his father’s urging, Ain attended UCLA at the age of 16 to study mathematics, but then transferred to USC for architecture the following term. He soon dropped out, finding the school’s emphasis on the Beaux-Arts style “an utter waste of time.” Meeting Rudolph Schindler, on the advice of a classmate, at his house on Kings Road in West Hollywood proved much more consequential. Schindler’s house had been specifically designed by the architect and his wife, Pauline, as a live/work space for two families. It lacked formal bedrooms or a living or dining room. Its open floor plan, separated by sliding canvas partitions, was conducive to salons that hosted artists and political lectures. Schindler made use of industrial materials and, in what would become a hallmark of California-style Modernism, walls of glass to blur the boundary between outside and in. When Ain began to visit, Richard Neutra and his wife, Dione, were in fact living there alongside Schindler and Pauline, a nearly five-year experiment that from many accounts was highly contentious, but one that turned out to be particularly fateful for Ain: It was here that he first met Neutra and started to work for him soon after.
Ain’s own houses would be defined by the type of flexibility he encountered at the Schindler home, often employing movable partitions to grant residents the option of transforming their spaces depending on their needs, creating additional bedrooms or working areas through the use of the sliding walls. Ain found the formalities of larger houses—“living and dining rooms…so located and furnished that they served mainly for display and hardly at all for normal family living”—antiquated. In an article that McCoy wrote about him for the Los Angeles Times (which Fontenot includes, along with other archival material), Ain insisted that architects had neglected the small home in a way similar to how medicine had for centuries neglected obstetrics, thinking it an undignified area of study, despite the fact that childbirth killed so many women.
In designing his houses, Ain took the real-life concerns and problems of the people who would live there into account. He acknowledged class realities too, never assuming the residents of his homes would have employed help. Instead of relegating the kitchen to the back of the house, near a service entrance, he made it easily accessible through the front door and open-plan, a feature that would become typical of much tract housing but was initially resisted by both the FHA and mortgage lenders. He also oriented his living rooms to face back gardens, so children would have a place to play in view of their parents. And he balanced his use of windows, with some designed to draw in breeze for cross-ventilation and others as clerestory on the more public-facing sides of his homes, to bring in sunlight yet maintain privacy.
After Ain began his own firm in 1935, at the age of 27, one of his first projects was to design a housing for farmworkers, who since 1930 had been striking intermittently in the lettuce and cotton fields throughout Southern and Central California, protesting low wages and inhumane working and living conditions. Ain’s homes for workers were conceived around prefabricated parts that were easy to deliver and assemble; he also included a master plan for laying out the homes that prevented homogeneity. Although the project was never constructed, it featured many of the same elements that Ain would later apply to other developments, including placing the driveways of adjoining lots next to each other to activate “‘social space’ by creating conditions whereby neighbors could casually communicate with one another as they moved from car to house.” This placement also blurred the lines of private and public property, another signature of future projects like Parked Planned Homes (1947) in Altadena. Ain, in collaboration with Eckbo, dispensed with fences and hedges in front of houses within the 28-home development, in favor of producing a continuous parklike streetscape.
One Family Defense Housing, as the farmworker plan was called, is early evidence of Ain’s political commitment. Anthony Denzer’s fascinating contribution to Notes From Another Los Angeles, an essay unpacking Ain’s voluminous FBI file, goes further in revealing the frenetic scope of his political organizing and activity. He was a member of a labor union, the Federation of Architects, Engineers and Chemists, as well as civil rights organizations like the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee (which lobbied for New Deal causes and world peace), the Civil Rights Congress (a racial justice group), and the Los Angeles Committee for Protection of Foreign Born (devoted to fighting the deportation of people accused of communism), among others. All of these groups, at various times, were perceived as communist fronts.
At the height of the FBI’s investigation into Ain, Denzer writes, the bureau had at least 21 informants gathering information on him. Some were former coworkers at the Eames company, where Ain worked during World War II, and some were even confidants of his family, such as his babysitter, who went to the FBI in 1950 to report that she believed Ain and his wife, Ruth, were members of the Communist Party. (Her reasons ranged from the leftist newspapers they had in their home to the vague sense that they appeared to be in “some sort of group” with people who were “not close neighbors.”) By the time the babysitter became an informant, Ain had been on the FBI’s radar for years, even appearing on J. Edgar Hoover’s Security Index, a classified list of dangerous subversives. Hoover went as far as to label him “the most dangerous architect in America.” Ain is likely to have first garnered attention when he visited the Soviet Consulate in 1944 to obtain information for a lecture on Soviet architecture that he delivered at UCLA (which an FBI agent, of course, attended). The bureau worried from then on that he was a Soviet spy.
Ain was surveilled and harassed for more than a decade. The inquiry never amounted to much, though, with agents concluding by 1960 that “no pertinent subversive activity” had been found. Still, Denzer speculates that the FBI’s monitoring of Ain may have ultimately resulted in the Federal Housing Administration blocking the Community Homes plan. As an interracial community (though barely—minorities made up only 15 percent), Community Homes was, as Denzer has written in a 2008 volume on Ain, “the first fully realized social and aesthetic solution to the city’s postwar emergency.” In 1949, the same year its construction was denied, the FBI gathered information on the project from four informants, who spoke of its multiracial character and the apparent radical politics of its members. One informant even claimed that “Communist Party membership was a prerequisite for securing housing at the project.”
Some of the members of Community Homes were eventually called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities later in the 1950s. And some had in fact been communists, though they described the planning that went into Community Homes as far more democratic than their dealings with the party. Testifying before HUAC was also the fate of three members of the Avenel Cooperative, the organization behind the 10-home complex in Silver Lake that Ain had completed in 1948. All of the original shareholders of the cooperative had been World War II veterans who’d contributed $11,000 each (about $146,000 today—by no means enough to buy a house in Silver Lake) for the purchase of the land and construction. Their elegant 960-square-foot homes were built on a model of 14 units per acre, three times the density of an average single-family-home neighborhood. But despite its success, Avenel was the last community that Ain built.
If the mounting tide of anti-communist sentiment is part of what deterred him from realizing future cooperatives, it is important to emphasize that housing in LA as a free-market venture—one intended to be profitable above all else—didn’t begin during the Red Scare. In his essay in Notes, the architectural historian Nicholas Olsberg writes of LA often being referred to as the “City of Homes”: “For more than one hundred years, single-family housing—and the financial and construction enterprises that develop, support, and sell it—was the city’s principal business.” Even now, the real estate lobby is powerful enough to convince the state’s residents to vote against something as basic as rent control, as they did in 2020, during the pandemic, no less. Meanwhile, the kind of small starter homes that Ain believed could ameliorate the housing crisis and enrich people’s lives are increasingly rare throughout the country. As The New York Times recently reported, homes 1,400 square feet and under make up only 8 percent of new construction; in 1940, when Ain was working, they made up 70 percent. Ain’s work in cooperatives appears now as a blip, an exceptional moment when a housing crisis momentarily converged with solutions briefly embraced by both the government and the public.
Following the demise of Community Homes and the disappointment of his exhibition at MoMA, Ain somewhat reluctantly returned his focus to custom housing, designing residences for individual (often well-off, politically progressive) clients rather than for tracts. In 1953, he also began to teach at USC, a job he greatly enjoyed (Frank Gehry was among his students), before moving on to his unfortunate stint at Penn State and then retirement altogether. In his book on Modernism in Los Angeles, Architecture of the Sun, the historian Thomas Hines describes Ain as being stifled throughout his career by a “chronic indecisiveness—a concomitant of his agonizing perfectionism.” But perhaps above all else, as McCoy wrote, Ain “was an idealist,” someone who “gave the better part of ten years to combatting outmoded planning and building codes, and hoary real estate practices,” only to see so much of his work come to naught. “It was the crumbs he fought for—and for the most part lost,” McCoy continued. “But he kept alive the humane standards one generation passes on to the next.”