MAY 26, 2012
IF ONE DESIGNER SYMBOLIZES the reality of California diversity — and our struggle to come to terms with it — it is John Lautner.
Lautner was part of the Organic design movement, which constituted the strongest alternative to the European International Style in California at midcentury — a movement which is not widely remembered today. Organic ideas were seen in every phase of design, from architecture, weaving, painting, furniture and cabinetry, to graphics. Growing from Frank Lloyd Wright’s output after 1900, it was well-rooted and thrived through the century. (Wright himself continued to work in California into the 1950s.) Like the work of European-influenced designers, Organic design is technology-based, but conceives of the machine’s role differently — the forms, materials, and patterns of nature are just as prominent as those of the machine. And though the work was sometimes notably Wrightian in appearance, it was also as widely varied as R. M. Schindler’s jagged spaces, Anshen and Allen’s urban high-rises, and John Lautner’s flowing concrete caves.
Thomas Hines in Architecture of the Sun and Nicholas Olsberg in Living in a Modern Way do Lautner the ultimate honor of acknowledging that his work is as central to the idea of Southern California as that of Gill, Schindler and Neutra. The drama in this acknowledgment may not be readily apparent, but even after his death in 1994, Lautner remained an outsider. He had advocates (Esther McCoy among them), but most critics considered his work as startling, undisciplined, hedonistic, and as sprawling as Los Angeles itself. Above all, his varied, exploratory, and unconventional architecture confused critics (much as Schindler’s confused Hitchcock). Thankfully he has emerged in the last decade as a quintessential California architect.
Olsberg and Hines properly highlight Lautner’s Carling house, one of the most innovative and daring Southern Californian designs of the era — the conceptual equal of the Eames house.
While Hines covers a range of excellent architects in his book — J. R. Davidson, Gregory Ain, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Gordon Drake, Ray Kappe, and others — he devotes an entire chapter to Lautner. His overall assessment is mixed; while acknowledging “as a total environment…the Sheats-Goldstein residence would come to seem, over the years, one of Lautner’s most impressive efforts,” he finds flaws in Lautner’s concepts and execution, averring that his lavish use of push buttons echoes the “conspicuous consumption” of the era. Lautner’s unresolved details, he writes, compare unfavorably to Neutra’s meticulous resolution. His houses exhibit “conceptually arbitrary and amorphously flabby qualities.” The Levy house, “possesses a brooding monumentality, but never as movingly as in the work of Louis Kahn,” another Modern master of concrete. “Few, except the most fervent Lautner cultists,” writes Hines, “could ever claim that the [Chemosphere house] was either beautiful or particularly functional.”
I could choose other examples of unresolved details in Lautner’s work, but I find that his greatest and most important success lay in discovering and executing large ideas. Those are fresh, profoundly creative, and magnificent reconsiderations of almost every aspect of architecture, from structure to space to function to detail. The roof of Silvertop, his Silverlake house for inventor and entrepreneur Ken Reiner, is a daring and early use of the Modern technology of prestressed concrete, but it also expresses the natural contours of the site, thus uniting technology and nature in form. The Pacific Coast house in Malibu organically melds the walls, windows, and roof into one form that holds its own on a heroic site between mountains and sea. These statements push the boundaries of possibility, and define successful and livable structures filled with light and invigorated by flowing space in astonishingly original ways. If not typical of midcentury California design, Lautner’s work is the perfect embodiment of its highest ideals. Hines’s final sentence calls out Neutra and Lautner as “regional exemplars … in the richly diverse world of Southern California modernism.”
Hines’s articulate argument and aesthetic preference for the Apollonian, structurally rational side of Modernism (notably expressed in his work on Neutra) may inform his critical opinion of Lautner. That both Neutra and Lautner were first inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright (and, I would say, Los Angeles itself) attests to the astounding abundance of design ideas exploding out of midcentury California, and leading in all directions. By devoting a chapter to Lautner, Hines launches an important discussion that has not really been seriously engaged in California, but there is still room left to discuss what Lautner’s legacy might mean for us today.
In allowing the reader to evaluate challenging figures like Lautner, Lloyd Wright, Welton Becket and William Pereira alongside well known figures like the Greene brothers, Gill, Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Pierre Koenig, and Ray Kappe, Hines gives us fresh information to launch our reassessment of our design heritage.
Living in a Modern Way has not attempted to carve out so much new territory, in spite of the title’s inference that it defines California Design from 1930 to 1965. Its most glaring omission is the Bay Area architect Jack Hillmer, an almost-forgotten, but definitive figure. As original and daring a designer as Lautner or Schindler, Hillmer taught at Berkeley and was widely admired by architects (and his friend Esther McCoy) for his impeccable integration of structure and materials, redefining Mies van der Rohe’s clarity and Wright’s naturalness. His hard-won details of utter simplicity, his impeccable use of natural materials, textures, and colors, and his deep sense of history make him one of the most important California architects. Though his output was small (and some of his masterpieces, such as the Ludekens house in Belvedere, have already been lost), Hillmer’s work (like Lautner’s and Schindler’s) demands a conscious rehabilitation.
Northern California architects in general are not well represented in Living in a Modern Way. Bay Area ceramicists and weavers get their due, but other than William Wurster and landscape architect Thomas Church (both significant, but already well known) the real contributions of the Bay Area are not addressed. Roger Lee’s inclusion is encouraging, but the range of his work and the impact of his office are neglected. In Architecture of the Sun (on Southern California) Tom Hines writes informatively about Stiles O. Clements, a major commercial architect who deserves the attention, but Living in a Modern Way fails even to mention his Northern California counterpart, Timothy Pflueger, in defining California Moderne. The text sacrifices Mario Corbett, Ernest Kump, Gardner Dailey, John Carl Warnecke, and a host of other Northern California architects; Pierre Koenig, Craig Ellwood, A. Quincy Jones and other Southern Californians mentioned in Living in a Modern Way are certainly important, but in a book defining California design in our era, a truer balance should have been struck between North and South for the sake of posterity. We have work to do.
THE PUBLIC REALM
Nicholas Olsberg begins his chapter in Living in a Modern Way with Neutra’s schools. In a book tilted towards residential design, it is a needed reminder of California’s innovative public architecture. But Neutra’s schools are only the tip of the iceberg. No review of California design in the twentieth century can justifiably ignore the state’s dynamic public design, from murals to Art Moderne skyscrapers to brilliantly functional architecture and signage for the auto. California pioneered a Modern way of civic life.
The canard that “California has no public space” is still heard today. If we don’t acknowledge our dynamic and ever-responsive public design heritage through the decades, we can never design it properly today.
The reasons for our inability to face up to this heritage is worth a book in itself. Does this denial betray a lack of self-confidence about the unorthodox cities we have created for ourselves? Has an underlying bias against commercialism, popular taste, the auto, or suburbanization sabotaged efforts to bring these issues out into the open? Is design by singular artists for custom projects (homes, clothing, chairs, etc.) inherently better than design for mass production? Does a wealthy, educated client inspire better design than the mass audience of consumers? The fact is that California is a mass culture, with a huge, diverse, and relatively prosperous population — the perfect conditions for a commercial culture at its most provocative, creative, and daring.
Charles Moore explored these issues on the civic level in his 1965 essay “You Have To Pay for the Public Life.” Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour met furious resistance when they published Learning From Las Vegas in 1972, where Las Vegas was a clear stalking horse for the new architecture and urbanism of Los Angeles.
In Living in a Modern Way, the issues of commercialism and popular design are well handled in Glenn Adamson’s chapter on ceramics, which highlights the split — and the healthy debate — between ceramicists such as Edith Heath who mass-produced ceramics with a hand-made appearance, and those such as Peter Voulkos who made highly individual, high art pieces. The chapter on home furnishings, where we read of the key stories of commercial enterprises such Brayton Laguna Pottery, Catalina Pottery, and furniture makers Hendrik Van Keppel and Taylor Green also faces these issues; Van Keppel-Green not only helped Julius Shulman to set the scene in his classic photos of Case Study houses, but furnished the thousands of Ranch houses and tract homes wherein a Modern lifestyle was brought to the general public.
Bill Stern’s chapter in Living in a Modern Way on dishes, radios, furniture, luggage and other mass-produced artifacts explores the bias against commercial design with excellent and specific research. Here the story of small entrepreneurial startups by creative artists becomes an important part of the story about why California design evolved as it did. The startups initially created consumer goods when postwar prosperity demanded them. Quickly, however, demand outstripped the mom-and-pop factory, and mass capitalization and fabrication were required. The story of this sometimes wrenching transition is well told and important; many of today’s most iconic midcentury Modern objects did not survive by their superb design alone, but by their creator’s entrepreneurial flexibility. In the story of fiberglass, Stern presents a valuable case study in the intricate high/low, commercial/governmental dimensions of the California design story: on one side, there were the Eameses, methodically experimenting with the fiberglass chair for years; on the other, there were some surfers out on the beach searching for lighter-weight boards. Both strands of development trace their birth back to wartime investment in fiberglass airplane nose cones. The story repeats, says Stern, with luggage, auto design, and salt and pepper shakers. This is a valuable close up view of how the California design magic was created.
Pat Kirkham’s chapter in Living in a Modern Way delves into the democratic nature of California domestic architecture — the creation of good design that the mass audience could afford in their homes. It’s an important part of a new narrative: the design for a range of suburban lifestyles, and the willingness of many designers to design unashamedly for the middle class. The boundaries between “high art” and “popular art” are simply not as useful as they were when good design was Classical, made of marble, and defined by the upper class.
The issue of public design highlights, once again, the importance of Millard Sheets. Sheets’s murals for bank buildings, beginning in the 1950s, were but the latest examples of public art. Banks, schools, post offices, and civic buildings often had murals. Diego Rivera’s 1931 Pacific Stock Exchange mural in San Francisco is only one notable example; Rivera like Sheets was no stranger to bringing archaic methods of art into the modern era. In keeping with Los Angeles’s incarnation as a new kind of metropolis for the car, Sheets’s bank murals are located and scaled for the public on the suburban roadside, the public realm of drive-in restaurants, markets, laundries, and most of the rest of the buildings associated with life in the modern city.
The automobile’s role in shaping public and private Modern design is enormous. While European-born Richard Neutra and Kem Weber were savvy enough to design for the automobile, the key innovations were by California natives who grew up with cars. These architects saw that the auto’s scale, speed, and convenience had to alter the form, scale, and appearance of buildings.
For the impact of this shift in the public realm, we must look to Hines’s Architecture of the Sun. As he does with California’s long history of Modern residential design, Hines lays a foundation for understanding how commercial architecture grew after the 1920s. Just as domestic designers accepted toasters, televisions, and washing machines as legitimate design tasks, so many California architects accepted jobs designing gas stations, drive-in restaurants, motels, and tract homes as legitimate Modern challenges.
The evidence Hines compiles for California’s innovations in commercial design in general is impressive. Whether or not the reader agrees with all of his conclusions, his inclusion of these long-neglected subjects makes the greatest statement: commercial design is essential to the story of California Modern architecture. There were at least three facets to this: one was at the low scale of the roadside; another was at the skyscraper scale; a third was in the expansive tracts of mass produced housing.
Hines traces the upwelling of creativity on the commercial roadside, from Lloyd Wright’s Yucca-Vine market in 1928, to the Googie coffee shops of Armet & Davis in the 1950s. Equally formidable in this public design tradition are Wayne McAllister’s Streamline Moderne drive-in restaurants of the 1930s: the symbiotic relation of driver, car, restaurant, and city and their integration of sculptural form, neon technology, and advertising graphics mark them as among the most quintessential Modern buildings in the world. The car reshaped the single family home, too: Pierre Koenig’s carports were as integral to his spaces as his kitchens.
The longstanding critical bias against these important designs should now be at an official end. Undeterred by their popular usage, Hines analyzes them as pure design. Taking Banham’s insight that Modernism and popular culture could go together, Hines notes that the enormous integral signs of Googie coffee shops in the 1950s parallel the solutions of the Constructivists in the early Soviet Union, who also used Modern design for propaganda and/or communication. One was for a new socialist political system, the other for a resurgent capitalist economy, but both were remarkable design.
Hines threads these commercial buildings into the broader story of California design. With the 1930s Streamline Moderne in Los Angeles, he established the presence of a distinctive commercial sensibility, continued in the 1950s with Googie. Hines explains its continued significance: “Googie…anticipated by several decades the theories and the ‘mannerist’ buildings of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown and the neo-Constructivist work of Frank Gehry.”
Hines notes the innovations in public design in such long-recognized examples as Bertram Goodhue’s 1925 Los Angeles Central Library and Lloyd Wright’s 1946 Wayfarer’s Chapel. But key to Hines’ discussion is the impact of large architecture firms such as Morgan Walls & Clements, Parkinson & Parkinson, and John C. Austin in creating the Modern stage for the average Angeleno’s daily life in the 1920s and 1930s. Atlantic Richfield employees worked in a gold and black pinnacled skyscraper, matrons shopped at the tan and copper Bullocks Wilshire department store, theater-goers flocked to the turquoise Wiltern theater in the Pellissier building — these and many more buildings were what living in a modern way meant in Los Angeles by the early 1930s.
All of these were examples of total design, integrating Modern decoration, furniture, and architecture, and were also all Art Moderne. While Moderne was a national style, Los Angeles’s version was quite distinct from that of Miami Beach, Detroit, Tulsa, or New York. Its impact was substantial and lasting; while many of the best Moderne examples (residential and public) are from the 1930s, it evolved into a strong Late Moderne style in the 1940s and 1950s, and this strain of California Modernism served as an influential alternative vision even after the Case Study program introduced a lighter, structurally expressive version in the 1950s.
Living in a Modern Way downplays these examples of public Moderne architecture. Jock Peters’ Moderne furnishings for Bullocks Wilshire are introduced as part of the discussion of European designers, but no effort is made to connect those superb artifacts with the entire Moderne city outside the department store’s doors. The old narrative’s refusal to acknowledge the Moderne style and its unique Los Angeles variations shows its failure to include the diversity, populism, and public nature of California design.
Perhaps the single most important original contribution of Architecture of the Sun is Hines’s discussion of two of Los Angeles’s commercial architects of the 1950s and 1960s, Welton Becket Associates and Pereira & Luckman (later William Pereira & Associates.) In contrast, Living in a Modern Way largely ignores this architectural tradition without explanation; it mentions another large commercial firm, Victor Gruen Associates, in the context of Gruen’s role as an émigré. Hines helpfully fills in the gaps. His chapters on Becket and Pereira are as critical in our understanding of California design as his seminal books on Neutra and Gill. This is a bold step; though hugely successful locally and internationally as architecture firms, Becket and Pereira’s corporate work has rarely been discussed alongside that of our acknowledged artist-architects like Schindler and Neutra.
The distinction between artist-architects and commercial architects is important, but not disqualifying. Continuing the role of earlier corporate firms like Morgan Walls & Clements and Parkinson & Parkinson, Pereira, Becket, A. C. Martin, and Gruen were corporate in their organization, as well as in their clients. “The firm is not a single individual,” Hines quotes A.C. Martin himself declaring, clearly delineating a different design process than the ateliers of Schindler and Neutra. These big corporate firms were reorganizing themselves to handle the complexity and scale of larger projects for the city of tomorrow. Welton Becket would call this process “Total Design.” Also, it should not be overlooked that these large offices gave a start to Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne, who would have their own impact on the future.
One key proof of the Modernity of these firms was their ability to handle high tech and media complexes. Silicon Valley would become noted for this type of building beginning in the 1950s (though Kem Weber’s movie studio for Disney in 1939 is an obvious predecessor), alongside Southern California’s Pereira & Luckman-designed CBS Television City in 1953, and aerospace campuses by A.C. Martin, Pereira & Luckman, and Welton Becket in the 1950s and 1960s. California design handled society’s every Modern need, from the design of the television set in your living room to the production facilities that produced the programs.
Hines helpfully opens the conversation — long avoided — about how a critic should evaluate the enormous output of these large corporate firms. By pairing Becket and Pereira, he points out the crucial differences between two architects who are usually lumped together as “corporate Modernists.”
Hines discusses the complexity of the corporate design process itself. He notes that some of the voluminous work of a large firm such as A.C. Martin could be “eclectic, uneven, and ‘anonymous’,” but also recognizes that their methods could produce such unquestioned monuments as A.C. Martin’s Department of Water and Power — a building radiating such ineffable light and modernity that it actually deserves the over-used term “icon.” Hines pulls back the curtain of corporate anonymity to report that Karl Klokke designed the DWP in the Martin office.
These buildings — and their artwork and decorative lobbies — are even more evidence of notable design in midcentury California’s public realm. Beyond the widely appealing Department of Water and Power, however, stand such long controversial civic complexes as Becket’s Music Center, and Pereira’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the University of California, Irvine.
Hines’s ultimate assessment of these buildings reflects his long and articulate devotion to clarity and simplicity. The Music Center’s classicism makes it seem “dowdy and retrograde” in comparison to its neighbor, the Department of Water and Power, he suggests. I would argue that the Music Center’s historicist references are a legitimate choice in the spirit of California Modernists such as Gill, Maybeck and others who saw Modernism not as a break with the past but as a continuum; the ways in which Becket brought those classical elements into the present — the warped outer walls of the Chandler Pavilion, the slenderness of its tapering columns and their delicate metal footings — are what makes it a great design. It is today both a thorough period piece and a timeless high point of California design, in the same way that the 1937 Golden Gate Bridge by Joseph Strauss, Irving Morrow, and Charles Ellis is both rooted in its Art Moderne period and still considered a masterpiece today.
Hines criticizes the “finicky decorative manner” of Pereira’s original campus for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Arts+Architecture editor John Entenza, Hines reports, felt LACMA harkened back to Pereira’s early movie theaters in Chicago, and was “theatrical rather than dramatic.” (Entenza did not explain why Hollywood theatricality should discredit a building in Los Angeles).
Today the source of LACMA’s design seems much more local and contemporary: Pereira (like Becket, Gruen and Martin) designed many shopping centers, one of the premier architectural and planning innovations of the day. It would be difficult to make a case that Wurdeman and Becket’s 1947 Bullocks Pasadena was not a significant piece of design. Like Bullocks Wilshire twenty years before, it was a fully integrated work incorporating everything from architecture to murals to cabinetry and furniture to clothing.
The large boxes of Pereira’s LACMA design, knitted together by plazas and fountains, reflected the next step beyond Bullocks Pasadena in the evolution of suburban shopping center design. It was an absolutely appropriate and tested — and Modern — architectural form for the display of objects and the circulation of consumers, whether for shopping or culture. Pereira amped up the space with a higher quality of materials and a dramatic use of water. But the evolution of shopping center into cultural center in a modern suburban metropolis was as logical as the evolution of the basilica market into the sacred churches of the early Christian era. Only the shortsighted attacks of Eastern critics (and, it must be acknowledged, some local ones, too) helped to derail the natural evolution of these forms — and the reputation of commercial architects.
Architecture of the Sun introduces the much-needed debate about the meaning of California’s design heritage that A Modern Way of Living largely avoids. Clearly we need to re-examine some of our basic definitions: while Hines labels Pereira’s UC Irvine buildings “Brutalist,” I would contend that they are not. Brutalism used raw concrete to settle a building weightily on the earth, and gave the concrete surface a muscular, autochthonous grittiness. Pereira’s buildings for UCI are something else: they are light, floating above the rolling landscape, and their surfaces are almost delicately rendered in smooth precast sculptural sunscreen units. To me, they are examples of Pereira’s creativity in reinterpreting Modernism for the institutional world of the 1960s. He did not regurgitate the Modern past of Le Corbusier or Mies as Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, and others began doing at the same time in an effort to revive Modernist idealism.
Another area of commercial design in which California excelled was the mass-produced tract home. Even the plainest of these houses were modern in significant ways: their fabrication translated the assembly line (the most important technological invention of the industrial age) into a means of building desirable and affordable housing after World War II. Living in a Modern Way touches on the Eichler Homes and the Alexander Homes by Palmer & Krisel to acknowledge the phenomenon, but these and other innovative mass produced Modern designs that were successfully marketed deserve a much larger share of the story of California design. At the very least, their existence meant that Van Keppel-Green and Heath Ceramics had a ready domestic market for their furniture and plates.
Besides the need to face up to commercial design (especially in architecture), the other touchy California subject, ever present as a subtext but rarely brought out into the open, is Suburbia.
Nicholas Olsberg makes a significant point in Living in a Modern Way when he identifies the much-praised Case Study houses as “suburban rather than metropolitan,” but this truth goes far beyond those famous designs. California design meant suburban design. Modernistas lived in single- family homes with backyards. They traveled to their work, play, and social events in cars. They lived in suburbia because it was easier to get to the beach to surf, the mountains to ski, or the desert to golf from there — or to stay at home, swim in their backyard pool, and invite friends over for a barbecue. One of the strongest statements Living in a Modern Way makes for the new narrative of California design is the sheer number, vitality, quality, creativity, and range of designers inspired by the suburban way of life. Wurster’s Ranch houses in Marin County are as good as his townhouses in San Francisco; Cliff May’s modular, mass-produced prefabricated designs for tract housing builders are as significant as Neutra’s custom design for the desert home of Edgar Kaufmann.
Both Living in a Modern Way and Architecture of the Sun helpfully open new ways to consider California’s suburban design heritage. Hines notes, for instance, how Alfred Heineman adapted the Greene brothers’ expensive single-family suburban bungalows for low cost and multiple housing in the 1900s. Olsberg gives due attention to apartments (such as Gregory Ain’s Dunsmuir Flats) undermining the old narrative’s myth that good California design focused only on single family homes, not the planning of entire neighborhoods, and therefore by implication, cities. Olsberg could have gone further, though, to show the evolution of these designs in such planned apartment communities as Park Merced in San Francisco and Baldwin Hills Village and Park LaBrea in Los Angeles.
Living in a Modern Way‘s single representative of this enormous suburban design initiative is Olsberg’s consideration of one master planned tract, Ladera Heights (1947) in Northern California, by landscape architects Garrett Eckbo and Robert Royston and architects Joseph Allen Stein and John Funk. Incorporating houses, greenbelts, schools, recreational facilities, shopping centers, and churches, it was high quality California design at the scale of the city. Similar ideas had a large impact on the California landscape in the string of innovative designs for master planned communities that, unlike Ladera, were actually built, including developer Ross Cortese’s early exploration of retirement communities at Rossmore in Northern California (with architect Charles Warren Callister) and Leisure World in Southern California, through to the sophisticated master planned communities in the early 1960s: Irvine, planned by William Pereira and the Irvine Company, and Valencia, planned by Victor Gruen Associates with Charles Warren Callister. These city designs had no skylines (a nineteenth century urban concept), but they were metropolises — suburban metropolises — nonetheless.
Not all of these examples of community design could be included in a survey like Living in a Modern Way, but their major influence on later decades should have been mentioned. And while the book notes how such trends as the counterculture, hippies, and surfing moved California design in new directions after 1965, the trend to large scaled master planned communities was at least as significant.
WORK TO DO
From his perspective teaching at UCLA for forty-plus-years, Hines presents the shifting self-perception of the region. California’s identity is an amalgam of the observation of residents like McCoy, and the perception of others — especially those in the East, once the center of gravity for architectural criticism. The Music Center’s opening, Hines reports, was greeted with condescending comments that played into any number clichés about California, and sowed the seeds for a generation of new myths. Time, Newsweek, and Saturday Review, Hines reports, all announced that with LACMA’s arrival “a new sense of ‘culture’ had obviously begun to ‘awaken’ in the hitherto ‘backward’ and ‘unsophisticated’ City of Angels.” Even more perplexing today is Jon Reese’s assessment (also reported by Hines) of Lautner’s masterpiece, Silvertop, in a 1960 Saturday Evening Post: “about as homey and cheerful as a branch whetstone factory in the Soviet Union’s first colony on the moon.” Unfortunately many Californians accepted these Eastern assessments, too. Why they did is a good subject for more study.
Exorcising the demons of the old narrative is the function of these three books. We might be fixated on today’s latest beguiling designs, but great architecture arises from a foundation, from a soil, from years of development of ideas, out of a region’s identity. All of the designs in these books are part of our California heritage; they dealt with many of the same issues that we deal with today. California design needs to have these designs (and more) in its bones as it moves forward.
The only unsettling aspect of Hines’s book is the huge amount of new material to be digested and incorporated into our own history. Sadly, many of the reviews of this book have focused more on the Gill-Neutra-Schindler-Case Study material — the easy and popular stuff — and neglected to engage in the tough issues he raises in the Lautner-Clements-Becket-Pereira material. Not everyone is ready to rewrite history. But by combining his previous work on Neutra and Gill with this new material, Hines outlines the issues to be debated for the health of the profession and to nurture new directions.
We can take inspiration from Esther McCoy, now that Kimberli Meyer and Susan Morgan have compiled her story in Sympathetic Seeing (Morgan’s second volume, Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader was published by East of Borneo Books this year). While McCoy came to California from New York City in 1932 primarily for her health, as a career move it may have seemed a poor choice for an aspiring writer. But there were plenty of others we now admire who made the same counter-intuitive choice: Frey, Weber, Neutra and Lautner to name a few.
McCoy was a warrior for Modernism as an expression of social justice, not just an aesthetic style. To her, Neutra’s “puritan ethic was aesthetic. Beauty was morality during the Depression years.” We might puzzle over some of her statements, but she was in the midst of a heroic battle, with only a few compadres and limited resources. Much of her career was conducted in the heat of this battle. The first time McCoy saw Schindler’s house in 1941, “I couldn’t understand it. It was curious and disturbing,” she wrote, but she kept looking until she did understand it. No wonder she was later among those able to see what was important about Lautner during his lifetime.
Today we have the benefit of perspective to weigh these designs. McCoy was able to write in 1953 in praise of the Bradbury building, a faded dowager few took interest in, already 60 years old. If she had the insight and the energy to look afresh at the Bradbury’s character then, as un-Modern as it seemed to most, then we have no excuse not to discover as many untold treasures as she did.
When Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote, “I do not profess to understand,” he was telling us directly that Schindler did not fit into the story he wanted to tell, so he ignored him. What a mistake. This is a sobering fact for any historian, including the present writer. It’s why we should be casting as wide a net as possible, opening our eyes as widely as possible, driving as many streets as possible. The story is there. We just need to continue to write it.