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Back to the Future

KESLING: MODERN STRUCTURES, Popularizing Modern Design in Southern California, 1934-1962, By Patrick Pascal, with photographs by Julius Shulman and David Sadofski, Balcony Press: 104 pp., $24.95 paper CALIFORNIA PLAIN: Remembering Barns, by Morley Baer, Stanford University Press: 120 pp., $60

September 01, 2002|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch is the author of "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People." He is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Much anxiety is expressed nowadays over the preservation of structures designed by such famous architects as Richard J. Neutra and R.M. Schindler. But, at least until now, not much has been said about the work of William Kesling, a brilliant if also deeply troubled master builder once sentenced to San Quentin on a conviction for fraud. Yet Kesling surely deserves to be included among the visionaries of modernism in Southern California architecture.

"At a critical time in its beginnings, he brought modern design within reach of the everyday home-buying public," Patrick Pascal writes in "Kesling: Modern Structures," an elegant and illuminating little book that makes the case for Kesling's overlooked genius. "The scandals have long since been forgotten, but his buildings and the weight of his influence on modern architecture remain."

Unschooled but gifted, Kesling embraced and perfected the architectural style known as Streamline Moderne, a style characterized by horizontal lines, "machine-like" framing and detailing and the use of materials that were seen in the '30s as ultra-modern--concrete, stucco, Vitrolite, Carrara glass and baked porcelain enamel panels. The overall effect, as architectural historian David Gebhard explains in a useful preface to the book, "should ideally ... give one the impression of entering a Buck Rogers rocketship."

Modernism in architecture is the stuff of much theoretical and even ideological writing, but "Kesling: Modern Structures" allows us to see what Streamline Moderne looks like in the real world. Generously illustrated with black-and-white photographs by David Sadofski and Julius Shulman (a master photographer who has earned his own place in the pantheon of modern architecture), the book is, among other things, a gallery of evocative images that remind us that Southern California has always sought out the shock of the new.

Kesling's personal saga is even more compelling. Born to a German immigrant couple with a stubborn entrepreneurial impulse--his father died when he accidentally fell off a cliff while prospecting for gold in the Anza-Borrego Desert in 1928--Kesling apprenticed as a carpenter but soon reinvented himself as a designer and contractor and opened an office in Silver Lake under the company title of Kesling Modern Structures.

Kesling, sporting a pencil mustache and a combed-back hairstyle that emphasized his resemblance to Ronald Coleman, courted the "film colony" for his early commissions; actor Wallace Beery was among his first and most ardent clients. In 1935, Kesling--"far and away Los Angeles' most prolific and successful practitioner of Streamline Moderne design," Pascal writes--broke ground on more than 20 projects.

Overcommitted and underfunded, Kesling found himself under attack by a few of his own disappointed clients, who accused him of "cheating poor, defenseless people." Harried by the police and the grand jury and facing the threat of criminal prosecution against his wife, Kesling pleaded guilty to one count of fraud involving the sum of $24: The judge sentenced him to San Quentin but then suspended the sentence on the condition that he stop designing and building houses.

Kesling reinvented himself yet again when his probation ended in 1939, retreating to La Jolla and re-opening Kesling Modern Structures. During World War II, he turned to designing and building prefabricated housing for the aircraft workers who were flocking to San Diego. Later, he developed a residential neighborhood in the Mira Mesa district of San Diego; one can stand at the corner of Kesling Court and Kesling Street in the subdivision that he built.

But Kesling crashed and burned a second time, thanks to the old curse of too much work and too little time or money and to what Pascal vaguely characterizes as Kesling's "unethical actions" in coping with the stress. By 1962, then in his 60s, Kesling was reduced to making a meager living as a handyman and carpenter, and he died in 1983 of Alzheimer's disease.

"The real tragedy of this episode was not Kesling's but that of Los Angeles itself," writes Pascal, whose book succeeds in its goal of rescuing Kesling from obscurity and polishing his tarnished reputation. "Kesling's scandal allowed the architectural establishment to look down at this uneducated interloper and hold him up as an example of the dangers of not hiring professional architects with proper credentials. Despite leaving his wide and distinctive mark on the modern design landscape of Los Angeles, it was as if William Kesling never existed."

If Shulman is regarded as the dean of architectural photographers in Southern California, the late Morley Baer (1916-1955) held the same title in Northern California, and "California Plain" allows us to understand why. Here are 68 black-and-white prints, each depicting a ramshackle farm structure and each reproduced with the precision and punch of a fine art photograph.

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