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Whitney Smith, 91; Pioneer in Modernist Architecture

April 28, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whitney R. Smith, an award-winning Pasadena architect who contributed considerably to the emergence of post-World War II modernist architecture, has died. He was 91.

Smith died March 13 of natural causes at his home in Bend, Ore., where he had lived briefly after retiring to Sonoma, Calif., in 1987.

Smith, who went into private practice in the early 1940s, was joined by architect Wayne R. Williams in 1946. Williams became a partner in 1949 and during the next 24 years the firm of Smith and Williams produced numerous national and Southern California award-winning architectural projects, including private residences, schools, community buildings and recreational facilities.

Smith was among a group of Los Angeles architects and designers who participated in the "Case Study Houses" program of experimental modern houses designed and built primarily in Los Angeles from 1945 to 1966.

Initiated by John Entenza, editor of the Los Angeles-based Arts & Architecture magazine, the program was designed to influence public opinion and the construction industry in accepting modern architecture during the postwar building boom.

The Case Study Houses, which were meant to be affordable homes for the typical middle-class family, showcased several major innovations that became standard in popular house design.

They include open floor plans with minimal internal walls to allow the interior to be flexible and appear spacious, the integration of indoor and outdoor living through the use of sliding glass doors, and the reversal of the traditional home plan by relocating the living rooms at the rear of the house.

Arts & Architecture published all 36 Case Study Houses designs, and 24 were built for clients.

Smith's two 1946 designs, which were not built, were among the most experimental and innovative in the program, said Elizabeth A.T. Smith, author of the recently published "Case Study Houses: The Complete Program."

"Basically the fundamental innovations of those designs had to do with a radical integration of indoors and outdoors within the houses' plans," said Smith, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. "They were very much opened up to nature and were oriented around gardens and natural plantings.

"I think that one of the primary characteristics of Smith's designs not only in these but throughout his career was his synthesis of experimental materials and structures with a real sense of appreciation for nature, the climate in Southern California and the landscape. And he was able to fuse these concerns to create very sensitively designed works of architecture."

From 1946 to 1950, Smith and Williams joined architect A. Quincy Jones and engineer Edgardo Contini in designing and building the acclaimed Mutual Housing Assn. development, a large tract of houses in the Crestwood Hills area of Brentwood.

The designs, which incorporated postwar techniques and building materials such as butterfly roofs, steel doors and innovative seamless plate-glass windows to take full advantage of the views, are considered key examples of the Southern California style of architecture that has since spread throughout the country.

Architectural photographer Julius Shulman, who photographed much of Smith and Williams' work, said they represented the transition from the modern architecture of Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler, who arrived in California in the 1920s and followed the precepts of modernism as practiced in Europe.

The so-called International Style of architecture was known for flat roofs, low ceilings and considerable use of glass walls.

"People jokingly called them the glass box because they had so much glass," Shulman said. "When Smith and Williams began to practice their architecture, they rebelled against the idea of having all that glass with a minimum of privacy ... and not having enough flexibility to the floor plan.

"They broke away from the flat roofs, the box-like design and they instead opened up the interiors with higher ceilings, sloping roofs and many features which made the modern houses more livable."

Among the firm's various projects: the Unitarian Church in Pasadena, the UCLA north campus student union and the UCLA Canyon Recreation Center, the central power building at Caltech, the dining facility and ancillary facilities at Camp Curry in Yosemite, the Griffith Park Girls Camp, the Santa Ana government center, the Buena Park Civic Center and the Japanese teahouse at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge.

Born in Pasadena in 1911, Smith received a bachelor's degree in architecture from USC in 1934.

With architectural work at a premium during the Depression, Smith was employed for a time as a movie set designer. He then worked for various architects, including the renowned Harwell Hamilton Harris, a modernist whom Smith cited as having a strong influence on his work.

After starting his own private practice in 1941, Smith designed the Linda Vista Shopping Center in San Diego, one of the first shopping centers to be built around a central green, with parking on the perimeter behind the buildings.

After leaving the firm of Smith and Williams in 1973, Smith operated his own private practice in South Pasadena until the mid-1980s.

His projects included designing the entrance complex and auditorium for the Huntington Library in San Marino, the Pasadena Neighborhood Church and the science building, art studio and gymnasium at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena.

Smith taught architecture and planning at USC in the early '40s and at Scripps College in Claremont from 1945 to 1952.

He also served on the Planning Commission and the Community Redevelopment Agency of South Pasadena

He is survived by a son, Gregory of Petaluma, Calif.; a daughter, Annabel Ziegler of Bend, Ore.; and a grandson.

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