Architecture History: California Modernism

Because of the new-found gold, beautiful beaches, temperate climate, and cheap desert land, California flourished around the time of 1945-1965. This caused a separate movement to occur in the history of architecture: California Modernism.

California Modernism emphasizes relationships with nature through transparent walls and outdoor recreation spaces. It also reevaluated the layout of plans and what creates space and what space is placed next to which.

The first phase included Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, and Rudolf Schindler:

Wright’s California houses were the Millard House and the Hollyhock House. Both of these were inspired by Mayan culture (although Wright would never admit that someone else influenced him). They had a Maya monument motif with low, dark, cave like interiors with brightness near transparent walls. This is contrast of dark and and open space was a romantic derivative of Mayan culture.

Millard House

Millard House

Rudolf Schindler’s houses feature flat roofs, clerestories, panel walls and corner glass walls. Most of his architecture featured complex 3D forms, earthy materials like concrete and stucco, a structure that was separate from the skin of the building, and were L-shaped, which created a center. The Lovell Beach House was raised in the air for ocean breezes and views–creating a healthy atmosphere for living and uniting life inside the house with nature.

Lovell Beach House

Richard Neutra’s architecture emphasized a close relationship with nature by seemingly blending exterior and interior spaces. He designed clarifying geometric plans (series of spaces), opening structures (glass walls) and integration of art, landscape and practical comfort. The Kaufmann Desert House was a house for recreation–with the recreation room being the backyard. Equipped with a backyard fireplace and movable glass walls merging the outside and inside, this house invites humans to be close to nature.

Kaufmann Desert House

Kaufmann Desert House

Charles and Ray Eames designed the Eames house. Their design strategy was based on mathematics and prefabrication. It utilizes steel framed factory windows on a mathematical grid with colored panels for privacy, and a large steel frame.

The second phase of California Modernism were the case study houses. During the 1950s, California was sprawling because of the cheap desert land, and it was a community based on highways. It was an experimental time of using new materials, prefabricated materials, and dense industrial defense materials. It was low cost housing looking for new ways of thinking–not solutions. The houses feature green buffers, flank walls (to give direction of zones without an actual wall), closets, transparent walls, indoor and outdoor space,  with curved and serpentine walls. The plans of the houses were not based on rooms enclosed with walls, but “zones” of spaces for sleeping, living, and eating.

These houses are thought to best symbolize California at that time–rejection of excess, making change, the influence of European modernism, the use of defense industry products like plywood, existentialism (living in the moment) because of the atomic bomb threat, and the use of leisure time. This was one of the first introductions of “casual” architecture that does not expect respect or deference. These houses reflect the spirit of the time and location. Just contrast that to the mimicking of Greco-Roman architecture still reproduced to this day. We’re not gladiators…just sayin’

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3 thoughts on “Architecture History: California Modernism

  1. As you’ve probably already been told, that’s Neutra’s Lovell “Health” house, not Schindler’s Lovell beach house…same client, but R.S.’s was in Newport Beach and quite different. I’ve got some photos of Schindler’s work somewhere on my Pinterest site.
    Also, your time frame of 1945-1965 would exclude Wright’s “Romanza” work of the 20’s. That group would’ve also included the Ennis-Brown, Storer, and Freeman houses.
    Wright’s work, of course, mostly rejected or ignored European modernism.
    Nice interior shot of Millard.

    • Yes, you’re correct, Wright’s California period began in the 1920’s, but the main trend of California Modernism was after WWII when defense materials were used as building materials and the Arts and Architecture Magazine encouraged reevaluation of modernism in Southern California with a competiton for low cost experimental housing.

      And I definitely need to change that image when I get home. I copied the wrong image accidentally.

      Thanks for those edits! I appreciate it!

  2. Very cool post on this style and these phases of architecture. Refreshing! And thank you for commenting on my blog post! I hope to add a new post or page, soon. : )

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