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Irving Gill and the Enigma of Genius

IRVING GILL AND THE ARCHITECTURE OF REFORM: A Study in Modernist Architectural Culture, By Thomas S. Hines; The Monacelli Press: 304 pp., $75

June 24, 2001|KEVIN STARR | Kevin Starr is state librarian of California and a professor at USC. His most recent book, "Troubled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950," will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall

The La Jolla Woman's Club, its austere yet grand arched cloisters encompassing a palm-guarded lawn, glows with the sunlight of San Diego. The Bishop's School at La Jolla rises in white-walled futurism on the shores of the sundown sea. Sometime in the 1920s, writer M.F.K. Fisher, then a student, ate her first oyster here. The Dodge House in West Hollywood managed to say, by saying hardly anything at all, more than any grandiloquent Mediterranean revival mansion was managing to say in the same era about being safe and sound and fully arrived in Southern California. In 1970 it was demolished to make way for, among other things, a parking lot. The Clark House in Santa Fe Springs, its conjoined cubes and geometric fenestration created a conviction of urban density equal to any courtyard mansion in old Seville.

Where did such buildings come from, so devoid, as they are, of period or revival reference? Even more important, where did the ideas behind such buildings come from: such mathematical ideas, such reductionist ideas, ideas whose simplicity conveyed a complex program of architectural and social reform? The accepted late 19th and early 20th century model for Euro-American cultural movements--in literature, architecture, the fine and performing arts--has generally been Europe first, then New York, then Chicago, then finally (if at all) California and the West. Even in Europe, in fact, there has been an accepted sequence of influence. Abstract ideas, for example, begin in Germany and France before migrating to England and the United States.

Not so, argues UCLA architectural historian Thomas S. Hines in his brilliant study of architect Irving Gill (1870-1936), designer of the buildings just cited and of three dozen or so other astonishingly spare and sophisticated buildings that defined a distinctive time and sense of place in Southern California. In the case of Gill, at least (and, I would add, certain others), the Big Idea sprang almost spontaneously into being in Southern California, with next to no relationship to European, East Coast or Midwest influences. In Gill's case, that great big idea--namely that architecture could be reduced to its essentials in the name of aesthetics and efficiency--did not even come from fin de siecle San Francisco or Los Angeles, where it might have been expected to have arisen, but from the remote township of San Diego, only then beginning to think of itself as a city.

Without a degree in architecture, without travel to Europe or even much travel throughout the United States, with only the briefest of apprenticeships in Chicago, without major patronage beyond his middle-class clients, Irving Gill of San Diego (later of Los Angeles) took architecture into a new realm, stripping it of its dishonest Victorian and Edwardian rhetoric and superfluous adornment.

The fact that architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933) was doing the same thing at the same time in and around Vienna, then arguably the cultural center of Europe, only compounds the mystery of Gill; for he and Loos were not in contact, nor was Gill anyone's disciple. Gill and Loos were, rather, pursuing similar lines of development spontaneously and with next to no reference to contemporary architecture. Each of them was reducing architecture to its ontological premises of line, circle, arch, square and volume as if in search of some Pythagorean purity of formula or, in another metaphor, in search of some unified force field of architecture, its initiating matrix, from which, in time both primal and futurist, all buildings had sprung and would continue to do so, down through the ages. In this austere and ascetic crusade, Gill even left behind those interior embellishments that Loos, however the purist, could not forgo. (Loos was quite the interior designer when he chose to be. Gill preferred his interiors equally minimalist.) In his greatest buildings, Gill practiced the essence of architecture as mathematical-minimalist art--and as a way of bringing into being a new and startling vision of Southern California.

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