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So beautifully, naturally spare

Irving Gill cherished the interplay of building and plants, creating a distinctively regional style.

February 16, 2006|Ariel Swartley | Special to The Times

A palm frond's blue shadow rippling on a white stucco wall; a burst of fiery red geraniums turning an arched window into a summer hearth. These building-and-plant combinations are such a familiar part of the Los Angeles scenery that they seem to have sprung straight from the chaparral, as native to the region as dooryard-blooming lilacs are to the Midwest.

That's exactly what their inventor, architect Irving Gill, had in mind.

Gill, who was active in Southern California from 1893 until his death in 1936, is remembered as one of the region's Modernist visionaries. A pioneer of such technical advances as tilt-slab construction (where exterior walls are poured flat as a single piece of reinforced concrete, then raised -- or tilted -- into position) and painted and waxed concrete floors, Gill also established, in the decades before World War I, a home-grown Southern California style.

Drawing on the sinuous arch of Mission porticos, the smooth, white-washed walls of adobe cottages, the interior courtyards of rancho haciendas, his buildings -- mansions in Hollywood and San Diego, apartment blocks in Sierra Madre, workmen's cottages and a railway station in Torrance -- offered a geometry so spare and elegant that they seemed to float beside the burly wood and stone bungalows of the era.

That they didn't actually drift off might have been largely due to the plantings, supervised by Gill himself. That ropy, yellow cat's claw vine (Macfadyena unguis-cati) winding its way up to the second story, or the net of creeping fig (Ficus pumila) spreading across a facade, assured admirers that Gill's airy abstractions were safely anchored to the earth.

Architects and gardeners don't always share a vision. The same clean lines that give a building distinction turn a ficus tree into a stubby caricature of graceful growth. But garden lovers owe a special debt to Gill. Unlike those architects who regard greenery as a necessary evil, or at best, a subservient design detail -- something that if kept strictly pruned may conceal a dryer vent without distracting from the building's shape -- Gill welcomed plants into and onto his buildings.

Whether he was designing a screen-roofed "green room" for a Pasadena home, or a vine-shaded promenade for the La Jolla Woman's Club, he treated the natural world not as an adversary, to be worked around, but as a valued collaborator.

"We should build our house simple, plain and substantial as a boulder," Gill wrote in the Craftsman Magazine in 1916. "Then leave the ornamentation of it to Nature, who will tone it with lichen, chisel it with storms, make it gracious and friendly with vines and flower shadows as she does the stone in the meadow."

It was of course a romantic notion, and once on the ground, Gill was as quick as the next garden neatnik to square up a hedge, or plant palms in sentinel rows to frame a Hollywood Hills view. But his love for the exuberant California landscape was genuine and his appreciation of the way buildings and grounds can enhance each other over time remains a long-term vision worth contemplating in a quick-fix world.

When Gill first landed in San Diego in 1893, Southern California architecture was still eminently Victorian. In other words: no different than the rest of the country's. Every surface was an excuse for some kind of elaboration: Houses were cloaked in patterned shingles or Tudor style-half-timbering; windows were circles or casements, stained glass or mullioned; garden beds were carpeted with close packed annuals; lawns boasted plumed clumps of pampas grass; and pergolas were swathed in climbing roses -- small-blossomed noisettes and once-blooming ramblers.

Gill, born in 1870 in upstate New York, had had plenty of experience with this style as the son of a building contractor. At 20, however, his ambitions had led him to Chicago and the drafting room of Louis Sullivan, an architect whose innovative use of new building materials such as steel, and preference for simple surfaces was inspiring a new generation. Arriving in Southern California, where he moved for health reasons, Gill found an inspiringly blank slate: a landscape at once dramatic and uncluttered.

Within a decade, he had begun to pare down his buildings to essential shapes -- cubes, rectangles, semi-circles -- and to peel away unnecessary frills like interior moldings and roof overhangs. "Don't try to imitate Nature with machine-made stuff," he advised in Sunset Magazine in 1913. "The result is depressingly monotonous in its rigidly regular irregularity. Dare to be simple [and] rely upon Nature to supply the irregular contrast."

He had a huge regard for the health-giving properties of the California air. Every home, he noted, should have a tree in the back garden -- not just for beauty, but from which to hang a baby's basket. He even put an open roof on a jail he designed in Oceanside. (It was later covered.)

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