Starting in the 1910'2 and 20's, Southern California has asserted itself as a social and cultural influence on America. It developed distinct and prescient versions of modern architecture that reflected its social culture, environment and technology. The legacy of these modern experiments would define the midcentury aesthetic of California, which continues to influence American culture through the present.
Almost everyone in California came from somewhere else; seeking financial opportunity, health or self-expression. Migrants and foreign exiles, independent women, social activists, health promoters, scientists and professionals created a mobile social structure with few societal restrictions or behavioral norms that promoted experimentation.
Southern California’s docile climate, expansive open space, and financial prosperity encouraged an indoor-outdoor living environment, made cheap land available, and enabled the middle class to explore novel ideas in housing not practical elsewhere.
Lack of an inherited building tradition encouraged unconventional designs, innovative uses of newly-developed materials, and appropriate applications of industrial technology for prefabrication and construction.
The builders of modern houses had a firm belief in modernity as a cultural value. These buildings were intended as practical and economical prototypes, and were successfully promoted to become the icons of a modern vision.
IRVING GILL came to California for his health. His most prominent patron, Ellen Scripps, who commissioned a complex of related buildings in La Jolla, was a successful newspaper publisher and philanthropist born in England with an interest in scientific research and the advancement of women.
She was attracted to Gill’s simple, cubic, modern buildings that were intended to promote a clean, sanitary and healthful environment. The innovative concrete construction technique Gill employed, using tilt-up concrete panels cast flat on-site, then tilted into place, is still in use today.
A commission from heiress Aline Barnsdall for an expansive home and performing arts complex in Hollywood enabled FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT to reinvent himself. Barnsdall was an independent, socially-progressive woman who had been a patron of the performing arts in Chicago, and was bringing high culture to Los Angeles.
For a series related houses in Los Angeles, Wright developed a unique, structurally-integrated construction method that laid patterned cement blocks without mortar, interlaced them with steel reinforcing rods, then filled the gaps with concrete; creating a monolithic wall system.
Construction supervision of the Barnsdall projects was left to R. M. SCHINDLER, who had trained with the most prominent modernists in Vienna. The buildings Schindler designed in his own practice were innovative and appropriate applications of the physical properties of different materials.
The beach house Schindler designed for the Lovell’s in Newport Beach was an unexpected solution. Five bold, open concrete frames, which would not be possible in any other material, lifted the volume of the house above the street and beach.
Leah Lovell had taught in Barnsdall’s progressive kindergarten with Schindler’s wife Pauline. Her husband Dr. Phillip Lovell was a homeopathic, ‘drugless’ doctor who changed his identity and moved to Los Angeles. His newspaper health columns promoted body-building, nude sunbathing and a vegetarian diet; and helped shape the image of a California lifestyle.
RICHARD NEUTRA was another Viennese exile. The ‘Health House’ he designed for the Lovell’s in Griffith Park was intended as a model for a healthy, clean and sanitary living environment. Its structure was an unprecedented steel frame from which angular planes and volumes were hung and cantilevered, lifted free of the ground on slender piers.
There was a shortage of building materials available in the 1930’s and 1940’s. RAFAEL SORIANO, a Greek immigrant, experimented with local aviation technology, new materials like bent plywood, and standardized steel framing components to produce residential and commercial models for postwar building construction.
When practice wanes, theory thrives. The generation of American architects who reached maturity after World War II envisioned the mass-production of affordable housing using newly-developed products, and tapping the under-used postwar industrial capacity for pre-fabrication.
To promote this potential, magazine editor John Entenza commissioned young architects to design experimental CASE STUDY HOUSES for real clients. The steel framed houses designed by CHARLES EAMES, PIERRE KOENIG, CHRIG ELLWOOD and others created the enduring vision of the modern house and California lifestyle.