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Of all Ellwood's designs, his life may have been his best

California Modern The Architecture of Craig Ellwood Neil Jackson Princeton Architectural Press: 208 pp., $50

September 14, 2003|Thomas S. Hines | Thomas S. Hines is a professor of history and architecture at UCLA. His books include "Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture" and "Irving Gill and the Architecture of Reform."

Craig Ellwood led two lives. Although many careers include contradictions and changing identities, Ellwood's was characterized by a dramatic bifurcation that remained unknown to his public and even to some who thought they knew him well. This astonishing story is told in a meticulously researched and beautifully written book by Neil Jackson, a historian and professor of architectural engineering at Leeds University.

Heading a firm internationally heralded in the 1950s, '60s and '70s for the minimalist elegance of its steel-and-glass houses and public structures, Ellwood was generally seen as a gifted West Coast follower of German American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. By 1960, he had become a name not just in the architectural press but also in such popular magazines as Living for Young Homemakers, which assured its readers that the "charming, reticent" Ellwood was "considered by certain authorities to be one of the three or four most influential designers in the United States." But Ellwood was never reticent in courting those authorities, who continued to celebrate the work from his increasingly productive office. These included John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture and sponsor of that magazine's Case Study House program; Peter Blake, editor of Architectural Forum; architects Konrad Wachsmann and Philip Johnson; and such established critics as Reyner Banham in Britain and Esther McCoy in Southern California. Wachsmann placed him among the Modernist immortals, insisting that Ellwood had achieved "a stage of purity and perfection that [makes] his work [appear] timeless" and comparing him to Picasso and Stravinsky. In an admiring monograph, McCoy observed that Ellwood's "work becomes more and more his -- and no one else's. He did not set out to make a style but to solve problems in steel. A style followed him.... This man could have designed anything." Indeed, the "California Mies" was twice invited, but both times declined, to be considered for the deanship of Mies' Illinois Institute of Technology. Following Ellwood's death in 1992, Blake still believed him to be "the very best young architect to emerge from the West Coast in the years following World War II."

But there were naysayers, and Jackson has interviewed a number of them. James Tyler, a gifted Ellwood design associate in the '60s and '70s, says that in those years, "if you thought about who you'd like to be as an architect, you'd say Craig Ellwood, because he was good looking, dressed nicely, drove sports cars.... He had remarkable charisma. He could charm the birds off the trees. He could walk in a room and everybody stopped what they were doing.... The hard part of the whole story is that he was well known as a great architectural designer, which in point of fact ... didn't exist." An earlier design associate, Robert "Pete" Peters, who helped Ellwood get started in the early 1950s, characterized him as an "office manager," a marketing wizard, an intermediary between clients, builders, designers and the press, who "could not draft, draw, hold a pencil, or by any stretch of the imagination do creative design work." Throughout his career, Ellwood was known for having a "good eye," a high level of "taste," a feeling for materials and detailing and a general idea of what he wanted the buildings to "look like" -- making suggestions and critiquing designs somewhat in the manner of an engaged client. But "the reason you don't find Ellwood sketches," Tyler notes, was that "he never did them." Nor did Ellwood "really understand structural engineering."

Mark Meryash, a business associate who helped him get his first commercial commissions, recalled that Ellwood "was very taken up by Hollywood celebrity. He just loved that sort of thing. He was the Cary Grant of architecture." When Ellwood married his second wife, the actress Gloria Henry, he glided easily into that world, a condition evoked perceptively by their daughter Erin, who told Jackson: "[W]hen you get too much too soon, you buy into this illusion. He got a whole lot really early for not doing a whole lot.... This is a town where you don't have to know how to sing to be a famous singer. It's all about image and he was good at the image thing." Ellwood's continuing search for "who he was" took many forms, including that illusory 1970s American self-help panacea, the est philosophy of the pseudonymous Werner Erhard, like Ellwood a California transplant. Those given to regional stereotyping might see the careers of both men as "quintessentially Southern Californian."

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