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The San Diego Union-Tribune

 
BOOK REVIEW
Irving Gill

Our resident master New book complements studies of 'first modernist'

ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

December 3, 2006


Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith, Publisher.
The ocean is steps away from the front porch of the Wheeler Bailey house (1907) in La Jolla. A pair of barn doors slide open to reveal a redwood-paneled interior.
Irving J. Gill, the San Diego architect who is considered this country's first modernist, died 60 years ago this fall in Carlsbad. He was living alone in a house surrounded by an orchard.

Marvin Rand, a prominent architectural photographer at work in Southern California for five decades, has assembled a coffee-table book in tribute to the innovative, still – influential master called “Irving J. Gill: Architect, 1870-1936” (Gibbs Smith, $50).

Rand's color and black-and-white photographs are sandwiched between two important, engaging texts – one by Gill from 1916, the other by Esther McCoy, the late architecture critic responsible for Gill's posthumous recognition. Their writings flesh out the chronological portfolio with the architect's ideas and accomplishments, rise and demise. It helps to read these short articles before diving into the visuals.


Irving Gill portrait, San Diego Historical Society.
Rand met McCoy in 1952, soon after he graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Four years later, they teamed up to begin researching and photographing Gill's work. Their efforts resulted in a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1958), and McCoy's now classic, 1960 book, “Five California Architects” (about Gill, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, Charles and Henry Greene) with photography by Rand.

A Marina del Rey resident, Rand aims to convey the art, vitality and emotion of architecture. No stranger to San Diego, Rand was tapped by architect Louis I. Kahn to be the project photographer during construction of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, now considered a modernist masterpiece, in the early 1960s. His images have been published in more than 40 magazines and books, including “Greene & Greene: The Photographs of Marvin Rand,” published last year (also by Gibbs Smith).


Above photos from a new book by Marvin Rand.
Not as well-known as Los Angeles-based architectural photographer Julius Shulman, who is 15 years older, Rand may finally be gathering wider publicrecognition with his monographs on the Greene brothers and now Gill.

Rand's latest look at Gill includes rare and somewhat startling photographs of elaborately romantic, period-style houses he designed in the early 20th century in Newport, R.I., for the adult children of Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture. Startling, at least, to those of us accustomed to the spare, geometric architecture Gill pioneered only a few years later: cube-shaped buildings, arched openings and smooth walls stripped of ornament.

Meet the author

Marvin Rand will sign copies of his new book, “Irving J. Gill: Architect, 1870-1936” (Gibbs Smith, $50), at two local stores:

Friday, 1-3 p.m., Seaside Home, 7509 Girard Ave., La Jolla. Author talk, refreshments. Free. Information: (858) 454-0866.

Dec. 10, 1-3 p.m., The Book Works, Flower Hill Promenade, 2670 Via de la Valle, Suite A230, Del Mar. Author discussion and slide show. Free.

Information: (858) 755-3735 or www.book-works.com.

Many of Gill's local landmarks are here, too, including the 1904-05 Marston House, designed when he was a partner in the firm Hebbard & Gill and now a museum operated by the San Diego Historical Society; the 1907 Bailey house on La Jolla's coast (which shows the influence of Frank Mead, Gill's partner at that time); and a row of complementary rental houses designed on Albatross Street in Bankers Hill. (The book glosses over Gill's partners, who are mostly relegated to an appendix.)


Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith, Publisher


Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith, Publisher
Two Irving Gill buildings from 1905 show the architect's abrupt departure from the Arts and Crafts movement (Douglas or Johnson house, San Diego) to unadorned, geometric modernism (Scripps Biological Station, La Jolla), which he went on to pioneer in this country.
Rand illuminates what may be Gill's most recognized cluster of modernist buildings: the Bishop's School (1910), the La Jolla Woman's Club (1913) and the La Jolla Recreation Center (1915).

Conspicuously absent from the book's La Jolla “family portrait,” however, is the Ellen Browning Scripps house (1916), across the street from the club and rec center. Now occupied by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the former dwelling has undergone major additions and, more recently, alterations and a partial restoration by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. Is this omission Rand's comment on the building's transformation?

As this roster of high-profile commissions suggests, Gill was popular among wealthy and well-placed San Diegans for two decades after his arrival here in 1893. National press coverage brought him more clients, prompting Gill to open a second office in Los Angeles.


MARVIN RAND / Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith, Publisher
Only one of these two fireplaces in magnificent, early 20th-century homes designed by Irving J. Gill - and portrayed in a new book on the architect's work - still burns brightly. The one tucked into a redwood staircase warmed the servants' quarters in the Melville Klauber house, which faced Balboa Park on Sixth Avenue in San Diego. Despite an intense preservation battle, it was razed in 1987 and later replaced by a condominium tower.
Gill's influence on San Diego dwindled after he designed the unadorned, modernist administration building for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. He lost his bid to design the rest of the buildings to New York architect Bertram Goodhue, who created ornate renditions of Spanish and Mexican Colonial Revival-style buildings laced with formal gardens. The romantic revival captured the public's imagination and set off a national wave of Spanish Revival-style homes.

Gill closed his San Diego office in 1916 and moved to Los Angeles. He continued to attract clients for homes, churches, schools, civic buildings and urban plans in Coronado, Oceanside, Torrance, South Pasadena, Los Angeles and elsewhere in Southern California.

“His favorite of all his designs was the 1910 low-cost, garden court (workers apartments) for Sierra Madre,” east of Los Angeles, McCoy wrote.

Rand's images don't show us much about Gill's continuous explorations into low-cost housing and labor-saving devices, but he does take us inside some warmly inviting interiors that most of us wouldn't otherwise get to see. Rand shot some of these rooms and secluded outdoor spaces years ago – indeed, a heartbreaking number have been demolished – and others as they appear today.


MARVIN RAND / Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith, Publisher
The other fireplace, which attests to Gill's love of craftsmanship and symmetrical arches, is central to the large, white Chauncy Clarke house, designed in a Los Angeles suburb about a dozen years after the Klauber house. The city of Santa Fe Springs restored the former residence and uses it for special events.
Rand's book is a personalized and enticing introduction to Gill's work but it can't stand alone for serious students of architecture. To better appreciate this remarkable architect, his times and San Diego's modern roots, turn to “Irving Gill and the Architecture of Reform: A Study in Modernist Architectural Culture” by architectural historian and University of California Los Angeles professor Thomas S. Hines.

But don't stop there. Using the project addresses listed at the back of each book, set out on your own exploration of Gill's architecture in San Diego and beyond.


Ann Jarmusch: (619) 293-1019; ann.jarmusch@uniontrib.com

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