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An Architect From the Inside Out : JULIA MORGAN, ARCHITECT by Sara Holmes Boutelle (Abbeville Press: $55; 265 pp., illustrated)

September 04, 1988|Thomas Hines | Hines is professor of history and architecture at UCLA. He is the author of "Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner" (Oxford, 1974) and "Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture" (Oxford, 1982)

When architect Julia Morgan (1872-1957) was once asked by a Berkeley professor to design a home "just like" one she had done for another professor, she asked him if he was, in every way, exactly like his colleague. His inevitably negative reply led Morgan to design for him an equally excellent house, but one that reflected his own individual needs and choices. This incident epitomizes the architect's penchant for subordinating "style" to client, site, and program. "Before designing a house for someone," historian Sara Holmes Boutelle observes in this splendid new critical study, Morgan "would visit the family, often sitting on the floor with the children and make every attempt to understand what the client wanted, however quirky. . . ."

After gathering such information, Morgan would concentrate on the plan, designing the building "from the inside out," with the exterior allegedly of secondary importance. "Morgan delighted," Boutelle asserts, "in the purposeful variation of scale. She used vaulted ceilings or left trusses open to extend the height of even small rooms and favored open plans that created a feeling of expansiveness, while sometimes juxtaposing that openness with an enclosed recess to give a sense of shelter and privacy." Moreover, Boutelle insists, Morgan's "affection for the California landscape infused her work, influencing her choice of styles, materials, and colors."

Preoccupied with Morgan since 1957 when she first visited San Simeon, the spectacular "Castle" Morgan designed for publisher William Randolph Hearst, Boutelle has patiently reconstructed a maddeningly elusive history. Shortly before she died at age 85, Morgan destroyed almost all of her papers, drawings, and office records, rationalizing her action in the flawed belief that "since architecture is a visual, not a verbal art," her buildings should "speak for themselves." In tracking down the extant documents from clients and other sources, Boutelle was faced with a formidable detective job. The result is the first critical biography of the most significant and successful woman architect in the history of the profession. In a career that lasted more than half a century, Morgan designed more than 700 buildings, a large proportion of which were built.

Born into an established family in San Francisco in 1872, Julia Morgan graduated with a degree in engineering from UC Berkeley. At the time, she was Berkeley's only female engineering student, though two women had preceded her there. With a foundation in engineering, she then decided to become an architect. Her sister, meanwhile, was preparing to become a lawyer, a commitment Boutelle finds "especially remarkable given the absence of any immediate role model: Mrs. Morgan wanted her daughters to fulfill their potential, but she also expressed all the traditional hopes that they would marry and repeatedly urged them to enjoy life rather than study so hard."

With the encouragement of her Berkeley mentor, the great architect Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan left for Paris in 1896 to prepare for admission to the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Two years later she became the first woman to be accepted in the architecture section of that prestigious school of art. She completed her course at the Ecole and returned to San Francisco in 1902.

Prior to her years in Paris, Morgan had collaborated with Maybeck on various buildings in Berkeley, several of them funded by the remarkable philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Upon her return, Morgan worked for the prominent architect, John Galen Howard, on more of Mrs. Hearst's projects including the Mining Building and the Greek Amphitheater on the university campus.

In Phoebe Hearst, the young Julia Morgan \o7 did\f7 find a role model for assertive accomplishment. As a pragmatic visionary, the older woman had co-founded the General Federation of Women's Clubs (1890); the National Congress of Mothers (1897), which later became the Parent-Teacher Assn.; and the Travelers' Aid Assn. (1917). She was a leader in the movement to restore and preserve Mount Vernon as a national shrine and, in her eagerness to support the new class of working women, she gave massive support to the YWCA. Morgan benefited chiefly from her patron's enthusiasm for California projects, which were continued in different ways after Phoebe Hearst's death by her son, William Randolph.

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