Irving Gill and the Enigma of Genius

Kevin Starr is state librarian of California and a professor at USC. His most recent book, "Troubled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950," will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall

The La Jolla Woman's Club, its austere yet grand arched cloisters encompassing a palm-guarded lawn, glows with the sunlight of San Diego. The Bishop's School at La Jolla rises in white-walled futurism on the shores of the sundown sea. Sometime in the 1920s, writer M.F.K. Fisher, then a student, ate her first oyster here. The Dodge House in West Hollywood managed to say, by saying hardly anything at all, more than any grandiloquent Mediterranean revival mansion was managing to say in the same era about being safe and sound and fully arrived in Southern California. In 1970 it was demolished to make way for, among other things, a parking lot. The Clark House in Santa Fe Springs, its conjoined cubes and geometric fenestration created a conviction of urban density equal to any courtyard mansion in old Seville.

Where did such buildings come from, so devoid, as they are, of period or revival reference? Even more important, where did the ideas behind such buildings come from: such mathematical ideas, such reductionist ideas, ideas whose simplicity conveyed a complex program of architectural and social reform? The accepted late 19th and early 20th century model for Euro-American cultural movements--in literature, architecture, the fine and performing arts--has generally been Europe first, then New York, then Chicago, then finally (if at all) California and the West. Even in Europe, in fact, there has been an accepted sequence of influence. Abstract ideas, for example, begin in Germany and France before migrating to England and the United States.

Not so, argues UCLA architectural historian Thomas S. Hines in his brilliant study of architect Irving Gill (1870-1936), designer of the buildings just cited and of three dozen or so other astonishingly spare and sophisticated buildings that defined a distinctive time and sense of place in Southern California. In the case of Gill, at least (and, I would add, certain others), the Big Idea sprang almost spontaneously into being in Southern California, with next to no relationship to European, East Coast or Midwest influences. In Gill's case, that great big idea--namely that architecture could be reduced to its essentials in the name of aesthetics and efficiency--did not even come from fin de siecle San Francisco or Los Angeles, where it might have been expected to have arisen, but from the remote township of San Diego, only then beginning to think of itself as a city.

Without a degree in architecture, without travel to Europe or even much travel throughout the United States, with only the briefest of apprenticeships in Chicago, without major patronage beyond his middle-class clients, Irving Gill of San Diego (later of Los Angeles) took architecture into a new realm, stripping it of its dishonest Victorian and Edwardian rhetoric and superfluous adornment.

The fact that architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933) was doing the same thing at the same time in and around Vienna, then arguably the cultural center of Europe, only compounds the mystery of Gill; for he and Loos were not in contact, nor was Gill anyone's disciple. Gill and Loos were, rather, pursuing similar lines of development spontaneously and with next to no reference to contemporary architecture. Each of them was reducing architecture to its ontological premises of line, circle, arch, square and volume as if in search of some Pythagorean purity of formula or, in another metaphor, in search of some unified force field of architecture, its initiating matrix, from which, in time both primal and futurist, all buildings had sprung and would continue to do so, down through the ages. In this austere and ascetic crusade, Gill even left behind those interior embellishments that Loos, however the purist, could not forgo. (Loos was quite the interior designer when he chose to be. Gill preferred his interiors equally minimalist.) In his greatest buildings, Gill practiced the essence of architecture as mathematical-minimalist art--and as a way of bringing into being a new and startling vision of Southern California.

Hines is a scholar of social as well as architectural history. Thus the strength of "Irving Gill and the Architecture of Reform" resides not only in Hines' compact and always pertinent architectural criticism but also in the larger story of Gill's Southern California clientele: those extraordinary Progressives of the first quarter of the 20th century who were willing (in the form of commissions and hard cash) to authorize Gill to design and build for them homes, garden courts, churches, schools and train, police and fire stations unlike any being built elsewhere in the United States, or even Europe for that matter, with the exception of Loos' works in Vienna and its environs. As if to prove this point, Hines includes in this generously illustrated monograph, at once a bravura studio book and a scholarly study, a number of photographs of Gill's clients standing in their dark, formal and frumpy Edwardian clothes before structures that still, 70 and more years later, astonish us by their modernity.

As a deft psychologist as well as architectural critic, Hines shows us how Gill had the courage of the autodidact, most obviously the ability of the self-taught genius to shed the intimidations of convention and pursue new pathways and how, without his Southern California clients, Gill's talent might have been confined to utopian sketches of unrealized projects, drawings in a lost archive. Instead, he was buoyed and sustained by an entire generation of Southern Californians--educated, upper-middle-class, Christian and Jewish alike--who had migrated to Southern California because to some degree they were dreaming of establishing here in the Southland a new and better way of American living. In politics, such energies gave rise to the Progressive movement that reformed state and local government. In architecture, such Progressive energies--before they lost the courage of their convictions and returned to historicism--dreamed of buildings, institutional and domestic, that would announce and sustain life in Southern California as something to be lived as if for the first time in human history: purely, directly, honestly, democratically, including provisions for Native Americans on reservations, for blue-collar workers and renters, for whom Gill designed and built as well as for his well-heeled clients.

In general, architectural historians have grouped such buildings under the rubric of Secessionism, meaning a generalized movement of progressively-oriented artists and architects, centered mainly in Vienna, Berlin and Munich, who withdrew from established academic societies and exhibitions as a way of protesting the fake rhetoric and lavish ornament of the Belle Epoque . Conventional taste in this era agreed with Mae West's later dicta: "Too much of a good thing is wonderful" and/or "Only too much is enough." The Secessionists theorized and practiced, rather, an art of reductionism. There is no evidence, Hines argues, linking Gill to this movement, although the rise of magazine photography might have made him aware, even in far-off San Diego, of such developments.

Some of Gill's sensibility came from his Quaker ancestry. Born in upstate New York, Gill was raised in an ambience of aesthetic simplicity and a sense of the Inner Light on him, from the beginning, a quiet but steely independence. He entered architecture as an apprentice draftsman after graduating from high school, moving to Chicago, where he apprenticed himself to Frank Lloyd Wright, who both in terms of ego and talent was fully equivalent to MIT, Harvard and Yale. In the 1890s, Chicago and its hinterlands were in the process of colonizing Southern California, so Gill moved to San Diego, in part for his health, on a wave of migration that would fill the Southland with aspiring and high-minded Midwesterners.

Then there is the matter of the architecture of North Africa and the Spanish Southwest, including California. Many historians, Hines cautions, uneasy with the self-actualizing nature of Gill's talent and the sui generis nature of his oeuvre, have been tempted to explain Gill in terms of these architectural precedents. Gill, they argue, was merely adapting the folk Mediterraneanism of North Africa and the Spanish Southwest to the Mediterraneanism of Southern California in terms of the climate of the region and the strong simplicities of its Spanish and Mexican architecture.

Gill was also being influenced by the Native American pueblos of the Southwest, buildings that in their geometricism and materials were at once futurist and from some dawn of time when architecture was first born. Hines does not fully repudiate the possibilities of such historicism. The pueblos of the Southwest, after all, would influence California modernists such as Rudolf Schindler (1887-1953), concerning whom Hines is also an authority, pointing that newly immigrated (in 1914) Viennese architect toward a new austerity and use of materials. Yet Schindler--and certainly not Gill--can never be reduced to any sum total of historicist influences, no matter how demotically direct, austere or primal.

And yet Gill's work is not without a social context, which Hines develops with the scholarship and expository skill that have won him a Guggenheim fellowship and election in 1994 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as one of the country's leading architectural historians.

In its reform spirit and taste for aesthetic value, San Diego was perhaps the center of such sentiments in the early years of the 20th century, when Gill began his practice there. Lacking the density of San Francisco or the self-conscious Mediterraneanism of Los Angeles under the spell of the Ramona myth, San Diego pushed itself toward a certain collective and redemptive progressivism that sought to live life (and build for the life that was to be lived) according to norms of simplicity, efficiency, honesty and understatement. That taste for understatement, in fact, would confer upon San Diego a certain minimalism enduring to this day. Hines chronicles how it also engendered through Gill in these years a succession of astonishingly simple and elegant buildings, almost utopian in their architectural enhancement of the plain style and the simple life.

It is hard to write about Gill's buildings at any length because, like a very dry martini, they speak for themselves. By extension, however, they remind us that Southern California was not unilaterally and unequivocally committed to Ramona-land or the Churriguer-esque or the Spanish Colonial Baroque or the Mission Myth as either a matter of life or architecture. In 1914 the oligarchy of San Diego, searching for the architect of the forthcoming Panama-California Exposition, rejected Gill in favor of Bertram Goodhue, prestidigitator of Spanish Colonial Revival and the historicist mode that, because of the success of the Exposition, would dominate Southern California architecture through the 1930s. Before that grand rejection, however, there was evidence aplenty in San Diego and elsewhere among Gill's clients that the Southland had no need of historicist theatrics to express and reinforce its lifestyle. Far from it: Southern California represented a new beginning in life and art, a new way of directly relating to nature, life and art that would require, thank you, no mediation, no filtration, no architectural mise en scene from other times and places.

It can be argued that Gill--in his autodidactism, his refusal to be intimidated before history and tradition, his capacity for the direct and powerful line--paralleled what his Northern California contemporary Jack London was simultaneously trying to do with literature. Hines' comparisons to Loos, Schindler and Richard Neutra are, of course, appropriate. Yet I feel in Gill, especially after reading this wonderful book, a reoccurrence of that passion for life and art unadorned and in and of themselves, for pure literature, for pure art and architecture, for life on its own terms, simple and direct, that, as in the case of London, suggests something very important about the California experience. From this perspective, comparisons to Loos' Steiner House (1910) in Vienna remain important, yet Gill must also be seen in the context of an entire generation of Southern Californians, many of them Gill's clients, who dreamed of new beginnings and a reformed way of life on this grand and achingly beautiful western shore.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World