Bette Jane Cohen captured a spirit in architecture

Bette Jane Cohen's documentary “The Spirit in Architecture: John Lautner” helped birth a renaissance in interest in Lautner. Cohen passed away on Oct. 19.

Bette Jane Cohen
Bette Jane Cohen (photo: Stephen Zeitzew).

It is easy to forget that there was a time when John Lautner houses were in disrepair and selling for relatively modest prices. That was the same time that Eames originals could be found at yard sales for a few dollars and the experiments in Modern living of the Case Study House Program had been superseded by the stylistic innovations of the Postmodern era.

It was during that time, the late 1980s, that a fledgling filmmaker named Bette Jane Cohen discovered an interest in architecture and went to study at SCI-Arc. While there she happened to join an LA Conservancy tour of the Rainbow house, also known as the Garcia Residence, designed by John Lautner.

Bette Jane Cohen sits with Helen Arahuete, longtime architect in the firm of John Lautner.
Bette Jane Cohen sits with Helena Arahuete, longtime principal in the firm of John Lautner (photo: Evelyn Wendel).

Cohen entered the soaring space, with its gymnastic structure oriented towards astounding views, and realized that both the man and the architecture were extraordinary. She then set about researching Lautner’s work and found that there were very few resources: a few articles, barely any books and no film about him (even though several of his homes starred in movies, including Diamonds Are Forever, Lethal Weapon II and Body Double.)

So she decided to make a documentary about John Lautner. She applied for funding and tapped friends and family for support and bit by bit she made a film, released in 1990, called “The Spirit in Architecture: John Lautner.”

The film includes extensive interviews with Lautner as he walks through buildings that are so dynamic and three dimensional they are hard to capture in still photography.

When she asks Lautner about the elusive “spirit” she finds in his work, he says: “I think any work of art has to have a spirit, has to have a feeling in order to be really art. If it’s alive it’s art, if it’s static and dead, it’s not. So that’s a difficult thing to get in. So that’s where you have to get exactly the right shapes, whether they are angular or curved so they have a lift or a feeling. It’s an instinctive kind of thing.”

John Lautner checks the view.
John Lautner checks the view during filming of “Spirit”.

Earlier this year Cohen told me that she was nervous about meeting Lautner for the first time because she had gone ahead and applied for grants without having got his prior permission for the project. “But once I met him,” she recalled, “he just knew that we can work together… he was very genuine and I gave him my proposal and he goes, ‘well, seems like a worthwhile project and you seemed tall enough to do it,’ and that was it.”

By this point Bette Jane Cohen was at work on a 25-year anniversary edition of “Spirit in Architecture,” because she now knew her own time was shortening. After a long illness she passed on Oct. 19 at the age of 62.

I first met Bette soon after arriving in LA in 1991, when she was doing early screenings of her movie. She herself had a special spirit. She was indeed very tall, very determined and at the same time very gentle and kind, which made her perhaps a kindred spirit for the towering, bear-like Lautner, who could be curmudgeonly (especially to people in the press and others he considered fools) and also very sweet.

Frances Anderton talks to Bette Jane Cohen in the Sheats Goldstein Residence, for the 25 Year Anniversary edition of Spirit in Architecture.
Frances Anderton talks to Bette Jane Cohen in the Sheats Goldstein Residence (photo: Evelyn Wendel).

Lautner himself died in 1994, when he was just beginning to enjoy the fruits of a renewed interest in his work — a revival that was in part thanks to Cohen’s tireless work making the documentary, and making sure it got seen.

For the last 25 years she traveled the world, giving screenings of the movies. In the early years she was accompanied by Lautner himself.

Over the course of her career Cohen also worked as an editor on films including “Meteor,” “Lady in White,” “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and Prince’s “Under the Cherry Moon.”

Most recently she was working on a documentary about the Swiss architect Albert Frey, who spent much of his career in Palm Springs.

Cohen was supported in her projects by her husband Steven Lawrence Zeitzew (Executive producer of “Spirit”, with Ann Gray and Joseph Cohen; Evelyn Wendel produced the film). Her son Jacob served as stills photographer on the 25-year anniversary edition.

Bette Jane Cohen and her work will be celebrated next February at Modernism Week in Palm Springs. 

Arango House, Acapulco, Mexico, designed by John Lautner image from Spirit in Architecture
Arango House, Acapulco, Mexico, designed by John Lautner (photo: Bette Jane Cohen).