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

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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Was Ellwood architecture’s version of the con man portrayed in so many novels and films? Jackson deftly handles this question on two interrelated tracks: Ellwood’s Gatsby-like rise from almost nothing to a spurious pinnacle as a “great designer” and the happier saga of a body of influential architecture produced by designers in the Ellwood office. Although important architects of the early modern movement -- Mies, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving J. Gill -- never attended architecture school, they developed their design skills and their understanding of structure by apprenticing in the offices of older, established architects. Craig Ellwood, because he lacked the know-how to work for another architect, never learned the importance of crediting his support staff. In giving equal emphasis to a succession of less famous figures who largely designed the “Ellwood” buildings, Jackson guarantees a belated recognition to gifted architects whom Ellwood was unwilling to acknowledge -- either to his clients or to the press. These included, besides Peters and Tyler, Emiel Becsky, Ernest Jacks, Jerrold Lomax, Philo John Jacobson, Gerald Horn, Alvaro Vallejo and Stephen Woolley. Also crucial from the beginning to Ellwood’s success, as to that of most architectural offices, were the stream of talented student draftsmen and the advice of structural consultants. The Ellwood “stamp” was largely defined by others. He would usually come up with a floor plan, Jacks told the author, “and we’d talk about it ... and while he was dashing about on job sites ... I’d work it up into something, and we’d talk about it and change a few things and finally get it into working drawings.”

In the early 1950s, informally and then legally, Johnnie Burke gained distance from his past by changing his name to Craig Ellwood. He was born in Clarendon, Texas, in 1922, the son of Cleve and Jessie Belle Burke. His father, an itinerant barber, kept his family moving. Jackson depicts them as Okies out of Steinbeck, trekking west on Route 66. On reaching California, they lived briefly in Anaheim before settling in San Bernardino, where Cleve died of pneumonia in 1925 and Jessie, the widowed mother of three, set out to find whatever jobs she could. There, and after they moved to Los Angeles, Johnnie dabbled in juvenile delinquency, but in high school, he showed enough intelligence, natural charm and ambition to be elected Belmont High’s senior class president. Jessie worked as a short-order cook in a drugstore cafe across the street from the Teamster’s union, where she was befriended by Jimmy Hoffa. Johnnie got married in the early ‘40s, but after the war, in which he served but saw no action, the couple admitted mutual infidelities and got a divorce.

One of Johnnie’s first postwar jobs was in the public relations office of the Hollywood Bowl, where he honed a talent he would later use to advantage. He then worked for a small company that marketed “packaged” houses -- structures devoid of any design pretensions -- and when that firm collapsed he moved on to a more ambitious variant, with his brother Cleve and a licensed contractor. The minimalist designing was done by student draftsmen and later by Pete Peters, based on specifications from the partners. When all agreed that a better name was needed for the firm, Johnnie modified the moniker of a nearby liquor store, Lords & Elwood, doubling the L to make it sound “swankier” and pulling from nowhere the first name “Craig.” Since it was usually he who answered the phone, he became “Craig Ellwood,” and the name stuck. Shortly before the birth of their first son, Johnnie and Gloria Burke legally changed their names.

Craig Ellwood Inc. lasted only a short while, and Ellwood got work as a cost estimator with the contractors Lamport, Cofer, Salzman, who built for a number of prominent Modernist architects. The firm served as contractors for the house that Charles and Ray Eames designed for themselves as Case Study House 8. They also built Eames’ and Eero Saarinen’s Case Study House 9 for John Entenza. Meeting there for the first time, Ellwood and Entenza hit it off, and after Ellwood established his own design office in the early 1950s, the editor of Arts & Architecture selected him to design Case Study houses 16, 17 and 18. Built between 1952 and 1958 with crucial design support from Becsky, Jacks and Lomax, these flat-roofed, post-and-beam, horizontally oriented structures of steel and glass, with accents of brick and concrete block, epitomized Entenza’s -- and Ellwood’s -- penchant for elegantly minimalist, finely detailed architecture.

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Disturbed by his own lack of skill and experience in design and engineering, Ellwood took night classes from 1949 to 1954 in UCLA’s engineering extension program. There he got mostly Bs and Cs in design and structure courses and an A only in technical writing; the last served him well in presenting the firm’s work to an increasingly large number of magazine editors and lecture audiences. But Ellwood never passed the exam for an architect’s license and achieved certification as a registered building designer only in 1964. Still, because he was careful to employ registered practitioners, his limitations did not hamper the office’s flow of important projects and buildings, which, over a 25-year period, numbered approximately 125 commissions. Of the most significant of these, Jackson offers insightful explications.

Excepting the Case Study structures, two of the most widely acclaimed residences from the Ellwood office in the ‘50s were crisply simple beach houses in Malibu, largely designed by Lomax, who, just after entering the firm, was surprised that Ellwood “just let me move right in and take over.” Thanks to Ellwood’s impressive marketing, one of these, the Hunt House, was published at least eight times between December 1958 and June 1960 in the United States, Britain, Italy, Germany and Japan. In addition to the intrinsic excellence of their design, a crucial factor in the wide publication of these and later buildings was Ellwood’s use of such excellent photographers as Julius Shulman and Marvin Rand.

The firm gradually gained an international reputation for outstanding Modernist residential design, allowing it, in the mid-1950s, to progress to larger, equally distinguished commercial and institutional structures. Designed mostly by Lomax, the Fidelity South Bay Bank in Manhattan Beach was commissioned in 1956 by Gerald Rosen, one of the bank’s directors, because of his firm belief in “the positive influence of an ‘exceptional’ building on the development of a business.” Rosen’s delight in the bank’s beautifully proportioned sturdiness led him, five years later, to commission a house in Brentwood. Chiefly designed by Lomax and Jacobson, the Rosen House, with its major collection of Modernist painting and sculpture, was widely published. In the mid-1960s, Max Palevsky of Scientific Data Systems asked for a cluster of structures in El Segundo for his growing communications empire and followed this, as in the Rosen case, with a notable Palm Springs house from the Ellwood office. The commercial buildings were largely designed by Tyler shortly after he entered the firm, and the main designer of Palevsky’s desert house was Alvaro Vallejo, although Ellwood paid closer attention to this project than usual. Like most of the firm’s commercial structures of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Scientific Data Systems and Fidelity South Bay Bank were essentially enlarged versions of its solidly engineered, handsomely detailed houses.

By the mid-1960s, Jackson asserts, “the office, under Jim Tyler as Vice-President for Design, began to move on without Ellwood ... for the scale and complexity of the projects was more than Ellwood’s knowledge allowed. His involvement in the design process became transitory.” Abandoning for the most part even his acute critical sense, he “would now correct the spelling rather than the details on working drawings.... Like a train on a downhill incline, the Ellwood office was carried along by its own momentum, its reputation drawing in the clients.”

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Arguably the firm’s finest achievement in this period was the Art Center College of Design (1970-76) in Pasadena, which bridges a canyon in the wooded hills above the Arroyo Seco. In this long, slim, single-building campus, the bridge contains the one-story library, while two-story extensions on either side of the canyon hold classrooms, studios, and offices. Tyler effectively designed the structure; Woolley was project manager. The assessment in the Architectural Review was a familiar litany that could have applied to most of the firm’s work: “The building is virtually unadorned. All the elements of its construction are ... part of a consistent design in which consideration of order, proportion, scale, materials and colour create a harmony of elements from the smallest detail to a total building concept.” Yet such muted praise failed to predict the consensus over succeeding decades that, despite its functional shortcomings (the vast distance between the two ends, for example), Art Center was one of the great buildings of the century.

Ellwood’s inability to credit his associates deepened as he became less involved in the work. In the early 1960s, after carrying the design load for so many excellent buildings, Lomax expressed his frustration at being forced to keep his distance from the clients of structures he had largely designed. After he repeatedly asked to meet Entenza, for example, Ellwood finally made the introduction, then immediately whisked Entenza out of the room. When Lomax pressed him on the importance of his becoming more publicly involved, Ellwood replied with disarming candor that in view of his reputation he wanted clients “to continue thinking that he was the designer.” When Lomax asked to be made a partner, Ellwood was reluctant to alter the firm’s name to share billing. In 1962, Lomax left to start his own firm. As others took his place, the routine continued, but in 1977, when Tyler announced that he too was leaving, Ellwood decided to close his office, leave architecture entirely and retire to Italy to paint. His work in this genre was, not surprisingly, simple and abstract. After his divorce from Gloria in 1976, he married twice again, became increasingly alcoholic and in 1992 died of heart failure in Tuscany.

Jackson does an admirable job of telling Ellwood’s painful story, but even more important, he skillfully assesses the significant buildings, largely designed by others, that emanated from the Ellwood office -- work that reflected Ellwood’s discriminating taste and the remarkably high standards of the firm he founded. In its integrated complexity, Jackson’s book is a model of social, cultural and architectural history, a strong rebuttal to those critics and historians who claim to be concerned only with “the work,” as though that could somehow be disconnected from life. *


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