Marc Hagan-Guirey (aka Paper Dandy, or 'The Dark King of Kirigami' as he was once christened) is one of the few people lucky enough to have seen Frank Lloyd Wright's amazing Ennis House in the flesh. Here he tells us the story behind his unofficial guided tour…
I owe Frank Lloyd Wright a drink. I say this as one of my most life changing events comes down to the formidable architect. Without a doubt my career as a kirigami artist and author simply wouldn’t exist had it not been for a mischievous ruse involving the legacy of the man. The plot was simple – all I had to do was pose as British gentry and pretend I had $14 million spare.
Whilst it was my Horrorgami collection that kickstarted the kirigami journey, the inspiration for my first piece came after an unexpected visit to a Wright building. The enigmatic Ennis House in Los Angeles was a long time obsession of mine. It was designed in 1923 for Charles and Mabel Ennis and completed in 1924. The 4th and largest of Wright’s textile block houses, it was so called due to the way in which it was constructed, with interlocking pre-cast concrete blocks. The Mayan influenced home is one of the most recognised yet illusive addresses in Hollywood. Famed for its use as movie locations, film buffs will recognise the building’s unique geometric patterned walls from films such as Blade Runner (1981) and the campy Vincent Price classic House on the Haunted Hill (1959). The highbrow and music connoisseurs amongst us will also know the house was used in the music video ‘Have you ever loved and lost somebody?’ by pop sensation S Club 7.
It’s not uncommon that those who had the honour of owning a Wright house often had to grow accustomed to the odd ‘internal water feature’. Plagued by leaks and more serious structural woes, upkeep often escalated beyond their owner’s means and unfortunately many had to eventually, quite literally ‘throw in the towel’. The Ennis House was no exception.
The textile block houses were the beginning of an experimental period for Wright, especially where his choice of primary material was concerned. Part of Wright’s Organic Architecture philosophy meant that materials excavated from the site should be repurposed. He felt the building should share the same DNA as the ground it sat upon, essentially sprouting up like a tree with its roots embedded below. In this instance, decomposed granite from the site was added to the concrete mix to create the blocks. Aesthetically the result was a success but on a practical level the concrete mix was no match for the elements or those naughty Californian tectonic plates. From the instant the first block was cast, it also began to decay and over the years the structure began to suffer. Decades of neglect and ill advised attempts at rectifying the damage lead to further deterioration.
In 1980 its final private owner, Augustus O. Brown created a trust to act as custodians in an attempt to preserve its legacy. Whilst progress was made in rectifying some of the damage, the devastating effects of the 1994 Northridge earthquake left the Ennis House barely clinging to the hillside. The huge southern retaining wall was so close to collapse that the house was now off limits to the public. Despite earnestly pouring money and effort into stabilising the structure, funds eventually ran dry. On the verge of condemnation, the trust had no other choice than to put the home on the market. Survival of the Ennis House lay in the hands of a private owner who shared the same passion they had… it might also help if they had buckets of cash.
In December 2011 my ex-partner and I were visiting our friend Steve in LA and I was keen to take advantage of the location and add a drive-by to our itinerary. Unbeknownst to me, I was to get a lot more than I expected, for my companions had surreptitiously orchestrated a plan to get us into the house. So, on the 31st of December on a gloriously crisp morning we meandered our way up Glendower Avenue towards the imposing edifice, and instead of being halted by the elaborate Art-Deco gates, they opened. My heart was in my mouth. I was now in on the secret. My mischievous friends had sold the Christies Auctioneers a tall tale.
As we pulled into the vast courtyard, Steve whispered to me with a grin: ‘I told them you’re only here for 24 hours and you needed to see it’
I looked at him aghast. “You little shi…”
The car door was swung open and a real estate agent by the name of DeNiro eagerly thrust his hand at me. On stepping out of the car I was struck by the fact that even the ground was covered in the same 16” block tile cladding the exterior walls. Despite being completely exposed to the elements the house managed to hold dominance over its surroundings. Standing there with my hands resting on the low walls, I took in the 180º uninhibited view of the sprawling metropolis below. It was breathtaking.
My pulse quickened as the real estate agent beckoned us towards the main entrance. ‘Keep calm, keep calm,’ repeated in my mind as the huge wooden door creaked open. Like the exterior, the same patterned blocks cover every inch of the interior. Just as Wright had intended, the experience of walking into the house was the antitheses of the sun bleached courtyard. Low ceilings gave a sense of claustrophobia only to be heightened by a slight smell of damp. From the hallway the billiard room veered off to the right, an addition that was made by the house’s second owner. I was already planning what I’d use the room for and could see my knock-off Eames chair looking quite at home by the window. Walking up the marble steps into the loggia that connects the principle rooms to the private, I was again moved by the change of environment. Rising from the dark low ceilings of the hallway, the cavernous cathedral-like vault of the main floor swallowed you whole, and just as intended was extravagant and commanding.
The tsunami-scale emotions, combined with trying to keep up the charade meant adrenaline was pumping through my veins. In an attempt to play it cool I awkwardly asked ‘In what the state is the plumbing?’. I kicked myself. ‘What state is the plumbing?’ I don’t think I even asked that when I bought my own place. Master of deception isn’t something I’ll be adding to my CV anytime soon.
Whilst the use of decomposed granite would inevitably have catastrophic consequences, I wholeheartedly doubt the building would be the same without it. The way the sunlight glistens against the walls, you’d be forgiven for believing you were in an ancient ethereal temple rather than a Hollywood suburb. Despite the brutality of the surrounding concrete, the sensation was that of being cocooned in a golden ether. Indeed the house was in a sorry state and the damage caused by recent spate of bad weather was everywhere, but despite it, this was still the closest thing I’d had ever had to a spiritual experience. I wanted to melt into the luminous stone and stay there for eternity… coming out for cocktails at sunset.
A year later I learned the house was sold to Ron Burkle for nearly $10 million less than the asking price. Although the prospect of ever owning it was a far fetched fantasy, I couldn't help but feel a little saddened. I took comfort in the fact that Burkle had a history of sympathetically restoring significant buildings and under his guardianship the house has been now been saved for many more generations to come.
It’s an experience that will stay with me forever and once home I felt it was appropriate to give Steve a gift. During my hunt for Wright artefacts, I happened upon the art of kirigmi. I was mesmerised by it and wanted to explore the technique for myself. It felt right that a model of the Ennis House should be made from a fragile piece of paper. I created a model of my other house obsession The Addams Family, and sat along side the House on Haunted Hill it gave me the idea to create a collection of movie haunted houses. The Horrorgami exhibition was followed by its book namesake – which was followed by more exhibitions, commissions, auctions and so on. And now five years after that fateful event it feels so wonderful to create a book solely about the work of my hero – Frank Lloyd Wright.
A representative from Christies was unavailable for comment.