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So beautifully, naturally spare

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.)

Besides private houses, his commissions in the decade before World War I included a school, a hotel, a laboratory and a barracks for immigrant cement-plant laborers. The last, like his 1910 Lewis Court apartments, which were designed as low-cost housing for Sierra Madre, included a vine-covered central pergola and communal garden.

Ingenuity was a hallmark of Gill’s designs. He made the buttresses of a garden wall of San Diego’s Timkin House hollow. Filled with earth, these gave vines planted within them a leg up.

Gill’s contemporaries such as journalist Eloise Roorbach were particularly struck by his cleverness with paint. Indoors, his ubiquitous pearly whites were mixed with small quantities of red, blue and yellow. The proportion would be adjusted to pick up the dominant colors of the garden outside.

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Meanwhile their somewhat shiny finish caught the changing light from morning to evening. Outdoors, too, he gave the white finish of his garden walls strong colors to reflect -- a mass of red geraniums, a rose-tinted concrete patio -- often arranged so the colors would also warm the interior of any room that overlooked it.

Hugh Davies, who was involved in reconstructing the facade of Gill’s Ellen Browning Scripps house for San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art, noted that the architect’s choice of trim color was also keyed to his plantings.

“Often, he used a beautiful green color, a rich, dark green. Not as dark as British racing green, but not really a Kelly green; right in between those colors, a very well-considered decision.”

Magical as they appear now, Gill’s designs failed to find a wide audience in his lifetime. He was slated to become the chief architect for San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition, but insider lobbying replaced him with Bertram Goodhue. Thanks to Goodhue’s curlicue-laden, turret-studded exhibition halls in Balboa Park, a flurry of ornate Spanish Colonial design swept the Southland in place of Gill’s simple shapes.

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Two San Diego connections, however, had a lasting influence on Gill’s career. Kate Sessions, a UC Berkeley graduate and professional horticulturist decades before either was regarded as a feminine activity, was an early collaborator. A collector and breeder of drought-tolerant species, she popularized the use of dramatic plants like bougainvillea. In her design for Gill for a hillside garden in 1912, she used banana trees and Italian cypress, small trees with bold shapes that the architect continued to favor.

The Olmsted Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park and UC Berkeley’s campus, were early Gill friends and admirers. Having failed to secure his position with the San Diego exposition -- and withdrawn from the project themselves -- the landscape-architect brothers invited Gill in 1913 to collaborate on a visionary scheme: the designing of an entirely new city in which workers, factories and shopkeepers would exist in healthful harmony. The name of this progressive dream was Torrance.

Today a visitor trying to locate downtown Torrance can find herself driving in circles. The rectangular grid usually followed by Los Angeles streets turns cockeyed here. A road peeling off at an angle and aptly named Sartori eventually leads to the town center and enlightenment.

When the Olmsteds laid out their new city in the fields, they wanted to take advantage of the dramatic vista provided by the San Gabriel Mountains on the horizon. Torrance’s street grid is therefore angled to face the highest peaks, with avenues running not north-south but northeast to southwest.

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A long allee of palms and eucalyptus still runs down the central residential core to form a T with the modest white-washed business district. On a clear day, seen from the grassy median strip between the palms, Mt. Baldy seems to crown the town.

Almost none of Gill’s garden-surrounded concrete cottages are visible. That’s because only 10 of hundreds planned were built. According to architectural historian Esther McCoy, the aesthetic and practical economy of Gill’s designs were unpopular with both the labor unions involved in their construction and the Pacific Electric workers destined to live in them.

But the flat shapes of Gill’s Pacific Electric Rail Depot -- now a restaurant -- with its dark- shadowed portico and simple, white columns, continues to set the serene village tone, and the city is home to one enduring example of Gill’s power to “decorate” with nature.

Angling across Torrance Boulevard, and marked with a plaque from the National Register of Historic Places, is a towering concrete railroad bridge. The first of Gill’s structures for the city, it’s a literal entrance for freight and a visual gateway as well. The series of vaulting concrete arches turn the road into a canyon, forcing it to pass through islands of greenery: long-needled pines on the shaded west side, fat palms and ivy-smothered eucalyptus along the sunnier eastern approach.

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The high arches are patterned with vines. Evergreen, English-style ivy grows on the southern arches, and deciduous, occasionally red-leaved, Virginia creeper on the northern ones. Going or coming, the approach is intriguingly varied, yet Gill’s clean lines and harmonious proportions are always in sight.

Nearly a century after its construction, Gill’s bridge is a glorious reminder that the man-made and the natural need not be at odds.


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