A Chance to Save the Central Coast’s Only Neutra

We are exceedingly sad to report that yet another exceptional Neutra structure is in peril. This one hits even closer to home for those of us in Northern California because it is right in our own backyard.

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Richard Neutra was a particularly prolific designer who gained a great deal of fame during his lifetime. With this notoriety came high profile commissions for wealthy patrons on prime lots and unfortunately many of these prime lots are now becoming targets for a new generation of wealthy individuals looking to make their own mark on the land. Most of the many homes that Neutra designed can be found in Southern California where his studio was located, but we are very lucky to have just under twenty in the Bay Area including five in the East Bay.

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Monterey County can claim only one extant Neutra design, and unfortunately that singular example of his work on the Central Coast is now in danger of being demolished by its current owner. The Connell House is located on an especially picturesque bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Pebble Beach. Its bare plaster walls interspersed with glass seem to rise out of the sand to support the varied horizontal planes that make up its roofs and balconies. It is a beautiful example of Neutra’s later work that would be worthy of preservation even if it were not the only Neutra home in the county.

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Please join with Monterey Bay Modernism and The Alliance of Monterey Area Preservationists to prevent the destruction of yet another of our mid-century landmarks. Last year saw the thoughtless demolition of quite a number of important examples of modern design across the United States including Neutra’s Gettysburg Cyclorama. Let’s make sure the Connell house does not suffer the same fate. Make your voice heard.

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Gordon Drake’s Unit House not so lost after all

We are always seeking out opportunities to spread a little holiday cheer this time of year, and to that end we are very pleased to announce that we have located Gordon Drake’s long lost East Bay Unit House.

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Drake is not particularly well known today, but he is by some accounts the James Dean of the California architecture scene. His rise to prominence was nothing short of meteoric. The first home that he designed while attending architecture school at USC won an award and was featured at the Fisher Gallery. It also brought his talents to the attention of Harwell Hamilton Harris who would briefly employ Drake in his office during the time that the famous Havens House in Berkeley was designed.

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After serving as a combat engineer in the Marines during World War II, Drake returned to southern California in 1946. Eager to begin his civilian design career, he built a home for himself in Los Angeles that would end up winning Progressive Architecture’s first annual design competition. That same year he would form a lasting friendship with acclaimed architectural photographer Julius Schulman. More commissions and more awards would follow. Drake relocated his office several times, eventually ending up in San Francisco in 1949.

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Throughout his brief career Gordon Drake had an almost singular obsession with paring the home down to its bare essentials and making it easy to construct and inexpensive. He was an early proponent of prefabrication and standardization in order to reduce construction costs. His Unit House is perhaps the ultimate expression of these lofty goals. Designed on a three foot by three foot grid, the home was detailed so that there would be a minimum of waste, and so that it could be expanded as a family grew.

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Unfortunately, Drake’s only commission in the East Bay would end up being one of his last. In January of 1952, shortly after the Unit House was completed, Gordon Drake would die in a tragic skiing accident in the Sierras. He was 34 years old. 

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For many years it has been assumed that the Unit House had been demolished. Julius Schulman kept notoriously detailed records about the locale of his various photo shoots, but the location of the Unit House was strangely vague. Likewise it seemed unlikely that such a modest structure could have survived our growing appetites for square footage. So it was with great excitement and some surprise that we discovered that the famous home is still extant and more or less intact.

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We have not had the opportunity to step inside yet, but the owner tells us that some of the redwood interiors are still in place and that the home has had no major additions. Despite being the granddaughter of the original owners, she was not aware of the home’s storied past or that it had been featured in numerous shelter magazines and an SFMOMA exhibit. We were able to do a bit of leg work and track down the original floor plan for her, so we hope that armed with this information and an understanding of Gordon Drake’s important place in the pantheon of mid-century architects, she has a new appreciation for her exceedingly rare and special home.             

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Last Call to Visit Ostwald’s South Branch Library Before it Disappears

As an unfortunate start to 2012, the City of Berkeley will be accepting bids on January 17th for the demolition and replacement of the South Branch Library. The library was designed by local Berkeley architect John Hans Ostwald and built in 1961. It was Ostwald’s first major non-residential commission and it was a project that would cause him to think more deeply about the place of the library in the community at large and indeed his own involvement in the Berkeley community.

The building is a quintessential expression of Ostwald’s unique Bay Region aesthetic. Masses of masonry support low-slung roofs with enormous overhangs. The roof structures themselves appear almost to float over a continuous row of clerestory windows that circumnavigate the structure. Inside, the spaces were originally filled with exposed redwood paneling befitting a library in the City that Maybeck and Wurster called home.

The building was an immediate success when it was completed. It was published in both Architectural Record and Architecture West in 1963, and received a Community Award from the Berkeley Civic Art Commission in 1965 and an Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects and American Library Association in 1966. It was particularly revered for its use of modernist forms to create an intimate environment conducive to reading.

Ostwald would go on to write a number of articles about library design and build a few other libraries around the Bay Area, but the Berkeley South Branch would always remain important to him as a turning point in his career – a point at which all of the knowledge that he had amassed from designing homes could be put to use to create relatively novel library form that retained the comfort and informality of a residence.

Go see it if you have a chance before it is razed. The building has not been maintained in a manner that befits its stature or values its unique design elements, but it is still a great example of Bay Region mid-century design and is worth checking out before it is gone. It is located at 1901 Russell Street off of MLK.

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Neutra’s Kronish House – A Rare Opportunity

It is exceedingly rare to be given the opportunity to stop the demolition or defacement of a structure of architectural importance. In the vast majority of cases the damage is done while the attentions of those who would protest are elsewhere. We are simply left looking back in dismay and wondering why nothing was done to prevent it. This is particularly true for residential structures whose private nature leaves them more subject to the whims of their owners alone.

It is for this reason that it is so important to take advantage of the rare occasions that we are afforded the ability to save an important home that is in imminent peril. Such is the opportunity with which we are presented today in Beverly Hills. The Kronish House, the largest Neutra-designed home in Southern California, and the only surviving Neutra in Beverly Hills is slated for demolition next month. For the next couple of weeks, we all have the chance to prevent this from happening.

Richard Neutra created a quintessentially Californian international style that would influence many architects that followed him. We are fortunate to have a number of his homes here in Northern California, but Southern California is where the bulk of his projects were located, and where his practice was based. He and his son Dion, who took over the practice in 1970, were trailblazers of California modernism, yet despite the breadth of their influence and quality of their design, a number of important examples of their work have been lost largely due to the general historical lack of preservation interest in mid-century architecture.

Let’s make sure the same fate does not befall the Kronish House. Join Dion Neutra and the Neutra Institute and make your voice heard. Because most depressing of all are those rare occasions when there is ample time for action and ample publicity, but due to lack of will, or imbalance of power, or sheer size of impediment, nothing is done. Then we have no one to blame but ourselves.

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A New Bay Bridge for a New Century

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I recently had the good fortune to tour the new Eastern span
of the Bay Bridge, and I thought I would share a few photos here. Though the
focus of this site is residential design, I think it is useful to occasionally
make note of other parts of our built environment that have had and will
continue to have a profound effect on the Bay Area. The Bay Bridge is one such
structure.

Completed in 1936, the Bay Bridge transformed the Bay Area
landscape both literally and figuratively. It greatly facilitated transit
between San Francisco and Oakland for both cars and trains (the lower deck was originally
reserved for rail traffic), and in so doing, encouraged the continued expansion
of the East Bay’s residential communities.

The bridge was an impressive engineering undertaking when it
was originally built, and the new span is equally impressive. The new
self-anchored suspension segment will be the largest suspension bridge of its
kind when complete. It is unusual because it is “self-anchored”, which is to
say, the suspension system is actually a single cable that begins on the
eastern side of the bridge, loops around the Western end of the bridge and
comes back to where it began. Traditional suspension systems consist of two
separate cables that are anchored on both ends into the earth.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Influence on Bay Region Architects

 

Though Frank Lloyd Wright was not a Bay Region architect in the strictest sense, the influence he exerted over a great number of designers who practiced here cannot be overstated. Wright did have a number of commissions in Northern California, including his striking Marin Civic Center as well as a number of equally memorable residential projects. Joseph Eichler famously lived in a Wright home when he first moved to California and his eviction therefrom is what prompted him to begin developing his own very successful modern tracts.

But it was not the structures that Wright designed in Northern California that have had the greatest impact on our built environment, it was the architects that he mentored at his Taliesen Fellowship, that then moved to the Bay Area to practice and have left a lasting mark. Among these were Frederick Langhorst, Mark Mills, Aaron Green, and Rowan Maiden. Then there were numerous other local designers who were declared admirers of Wright despite never having trained with him. Notable among this group are Warren Callister and Jack Hillmer who are jointly and separately responsible for some of the most striking residential architecture in the Bay Area.

I was recently fortunate enough to visit Wright’s winter home, Taliesen West in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Taliesen Fellowship is still thriving there. Students spend half the year in Arizona, and half in Wisconsin at the original Taliesen. The structures that Wright and his students built in the desert remain striking today, but they must have seemed very remote and exotic when they were first erected. They were all open to the elements, built from materials found on site, with no air conditioning or windows. The roofs were just sheet canvas, which creates a wonderful diffuse light inside the buildings.

Wright began work on Taliesen West in 1937 and the Bay Area designers who helped to build it over those first years, carried a bit of it with them when they went on to practice independently. In future posts I will try to illuminate how this influence manifests itself in the various designers who took up residence here and built upon Wright’s legacy.  

Posted in Aaron Green, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frederick Langhorst, Jack Hillmer, Joseph Eichler, Mark Mills, Mid-Century, Rowan Maiden, Warren Callister | Leave a comment

Preservation Nightmare – Charles Moore’s Orinda Home Eaten by Oversized Ranch

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After

I’m not sure how this was allowed to happen, but it appears that Charles Moore’s famous Orinda home was desecrated sometime in the last ten years. This small house, designed by Moore for himself and built in 1962, was considered by many to be the quintessential expression of third bay region residential architecture. It received numerous awards and was published around the world.

Originally one bed, one and one half baths, and 1545 SF, it has now ballooned to four beds, three baths, 3291 SF. The original structure is now barely discernable within the greater whole. The new gabled porch over the originally unadorned entry masks most of what used to be the facade. The entire interior has been drywalled over and whitewashed, and glazed walls have been replaced with clusters of vinyl windows and doors.

This may be the most compelling recent example I have seen of why it is important to document and preserve our important architectural resources. This is now especially true for the work of our important mid-century designers because their structures have until quite recently been largely overlooked by the preservation community.

Posted in Charles Moore, Mid-Century, Preservation, Third Bay | 4 Comments