A Missionary for Modern Architecture

Honored last weekend at Cal Poly Pomona's School of Environmental Design was architect Raphael Soriano, who practiced in Los Angeles with distinction in the 1930s through the '50s.

Now 83 and living in Claremont, Soriano, is best remembered for his pioneering use of steel framing for housing and office buildings and his disciplined designs in the severe, smooth international Modernist style.

The style, distinguished by flat roofs and ribbon windows accenting a light, horizontal look, was introduced to Southern California in the 1920s by Austrian emigres R. M. Schindler and Richard Neutra, both of whom Soriano had worked for at various times.

Schindler and Neutra, along with other disciples of the style, in time pursued a more relaxed Modernism, using wood and raising roofs. But Soriano held true to his vision of a strict, reasoned marriage between architecture and engineering, prompting architectural historian Esther McCoy to describe him as "a romantic technologist" who had become a "true missionary."

As a result of his approach, Soriano did not have a particularly active practice, and many of the projects he designed that did get built unfortunately were demolished or extensively remodeled.

Just recently bulldozed, despite the protests of the Los Angeles Conservancy and other preservationists, was the Colby apartment complex on Beverly Green Drive in the Palms District. This design by Soriano in 1950 had won a national American Institute of Architects honor award, one of several he garnered over the years.

Surviving as originally designed by Soriano and in excellent condition is a steel-and-glass house and studio, tucked high in the Hollywood Hills on a lushly and lovingly landscaped site at the end of a curving driveway at 7875 Woodrow Wilson Drive. It was designed by Soriano in 1949 for the eminent architectural photographer Julius Shulman, and last year was declared by the city a Historical-Cultural Monument, as well as being honored by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

"Though Soriano was very rigid in the selection of the materials," Shulman recalled recently, "he also was very sensitive to the needs of the client and felt that the ultimate test of architecture was not in the construction but the use."

Shulman added that "after living here 40 years, there is not one change I would make." But he did say that his wife, Olga, had moved the furniture around to take better advantage of the views of the gardens through the extensive glass walls. He noted that she could do that because Soriano had designed the house as an open plan consistent with the Modernist style.

Soriano also experimented with all-aluminum houses, designing one at 11468 Dona Cecilia Drive, Studio City, for friend Albert Grossman, an architectural product representative, who still lives there. Though since expanded, the house at the time of construction in the 1960s was distinguished by being completely prefinished at the factory, including its 28 glass sliding doors.

One of Soriano's larger projects still standing and an excellent example of his design philosophy is the Adolph's office building, at 1800 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. It was constructed in the 1950s using a modular system of steel columns and aluminum framing, which allowed considerable flexibility in locating offices and work spaces enclosing a pleasant courtyard and swimming pool. Hints of the ambitious structure are expressed in the facade and can be seen from the street, exuding the spirit of the 1950s and the concern then for form and function.

Exuding quite a different spirit is the Hale House, a Queen Anne-Eastlake-styled extravaganza of ornate detailing painted in authentic shades of bright greens and reds. Said to have been designed in 1887 by Joseph Carter Newsome, the house now sits in Heritage Square, off of the Avenue 43 exit of the Pasadena Freeway in Highland Park.

The Hale House will be open for guided tours Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. As part of the annual membership meeting of the Los Angeles Conservancy at Heritage Square, members may tour the house for free. Information: (818) 449-0193. Admission $3, children 13-17 or seniors 65 and older $2; 12 and younger free. There are three other historic homes, a depot and a gift shop at Heritage Square.

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