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Reading L.A.: Esther McCoy

February 28, 2011 |  6:13 pm

McCoy’s 1960 book “Five California Architects,” the fourth installment in our Reading L.A. series, is in reality a somewhat different book than its title would seem to advertise. Two of the five architects in the book are the brothers Charles and Henry Greene, which means it is really about four architectural practices, not five. On top of that, the detailed but rather workmanlike section on the Greenes is written not by McCoy but by a writer and architect named Randell L. Makinson. And the book’s first chapter is on Bernard Maybeck, who was based not in Los Angeles but in the Bay Area.

Schindler As a result, for the purposes of Reading L.A., the book -- whose central goal was to rescue the reputations of architects McCoy felt were by midcentury at risk of being forgotten -- exists essentially as complementary chapters by McCoy on a pair of pioneering L.A. modernists, Irving Gill and Rudolph Schindler. Still, two chapters by McCoy are worth a full book by most architecture writers; and the section on Schindler is filled with particular insight because McCoy knew Schindler and his work remarkably well, having worked in his office, doing drafting work, from 1944 to 1947.

Schindler, the Austrian émigré modernist who oversaw Frank Lloyd Wright’s office in Los Angeles before striking out on his own, was for McCoy as much artist -- and visionary, experimental artist at that –- as architect. “Schindler brought a particular vision to architecture,” she writes, “one in which materials  -- and even the structural systems he developed -– were always incidental.”

She describes him as driven, private, a man who nursed grudges; as opposed to the rationalist designs and business savvy of his fellow Austrian Richard Neutra (who does not get his own chapter in this book), Schindler’s work emerges as deeply felt -- modern and forward-looking, to be sure, but also touched by a kind of poeticism, even romanticism.

Still, McCoy makes a point of noting that Schindler “had an enormous ease with structure” and was a builder at heart, one who “designed directly with building materials as much as on paper. He took the hammer from the carpenter’s hand, and the trowel from the mason’s.”

“In 32 years of professional life,” McCoy adds, “almost all his buildings … were executed under his direction by subcontractors. Thus, only a limited number of jobs went through his office –- no more than he could supervise personally. The financial rewards were small, the daily travel from job to job was long and tedious, but only in this way could he maintain complete control over every detail.”

In describing Schindler’s own 1922 house in what is now West Hollywood (and just down the street from Gill’s sadly demolished Dodge House), McCoy veers close to psychoanalysis. “Schindler,” she writes, “had made an uncannily correct autobiographical statement in the design of his Kings Road combined residence and office—with its guarding masonry front and its charming intimate views of gardens. His explosive laughter and his charm could not quite hide the recluse who reserved himself almost wholly for himself.”

If Carey McWilliams, meanwhile, and other famed observers of L.A. history had already given Irving Gill credit for bringing a strikingly pure and potent kind of architectural modernism to Southern California, it wasn’t until McCoy came along that the architect got the full, sympathetic treatment he deserved. McCoy makes clear that Gill was among the first architects anywhere in the world to build in a fully modern style, stripping his early houses of ornament and decoration even before Adolf Loos began famously doing the same in Vienna. In praising his “forthright” architecture in San Diego and Los Angeles, with its “austere simplicity” and experimental  use of concrete and other materials, McCoy notes that “Gill performed an enormous service to his profession at a time when, in the West, the contractor was considered the proper person to design everything except public buildings and large residences, which were almost invariably done in revival styles.”

His buildings, she adds, were “touching in their simplicity, but the simplicity was of a kind that came from a lifetime of architectural concern.”

In a certain way, my interest in putting "Five California Architects" on the Reading L.A. list had as much to do with a desire to write and think about McCoy as it did in exploring McCoy’s particular takes on Gill or Schindler, as smart as those takes are. For it was McCoy, as much as anyone, who first explained the experimental wing of Southern California architecture to a large audience, and in so doing helped the region get a firmer sense of itself. (For more on the remarkable life and career of McCoy, who was an accomplished short-story writer as well as a journalist, see this essay by Susan Morgan, who is editing a collection of essays by McCoy that is due out later this year.) Indeed, what McCoy said about Schindler’s smaller houses in and around Los Angeles –- that with their “informal dignity” they “did much to lift Los Angeles out of a prolonged provincialism” –- could easily be said about McCoy’s work as well, so naturally did it seem to match the emerging personality of her adopted hometown and its most significant pieces of architecture.

“It is not true that there was no California architecture before Esther McCoy,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in 1990. “But there was no one writing about it, and that made all the difference.”

We’ll meet up again with McCoy in August, when we read "Blueprints for Modern Living," a history of the Case Study program that includes the final significant essay of her career.

--Christopher Hawthorne

Above: Schindler's house on Kings Road in what is now West Hollywood. Credit: Grant Mudford

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