We are rightly amazed by what we know of Southern California’s Mid-Century Modern architecture. But the recent passing of architect Allyn Morris reminds us just how much more inventive California architecture was than we have even realized. Though his work is not widely known, Morris stretched our expectations about Modernism.
COURTESY the Morris family
Born in 1922 in San Francisco, and graduating from Stanford as a mechanical engineer in 1949, Morris soon moved into architecture because of the freedom it afforded. His first residential design, the 1956 Max Bubeck house in Eagle Rock, integrated steel, concrete, and glass as fluently as any other architect of the period. Yet the multi-leveled, interlocking spaces he created are more dynamic than the classic minimalist serenity seen in most architecture of the period.
The Bubeck house reminds us of R.M. Schindler’s work, and Morris readily acknowledged the influence: “Schindler has a freedom and comfort with design, a looseness about his architecture,” he explained in a 2006 interview. What’s intriguing about this is that in 1956, Schindler was three years dead and almost twenty years forgotten. Neutra inspired most young architects then, not Schindler.
After leaving Stanford, Morris tried architecture at the University of California, but only for three semesters. The courses were too confining. Like other World War II veterans eager to create a newer, better world, Morris was impatient to build.
Other notable Morris designs include his own 1957 studio-home in Silver Lake and the nearby1962 Murakami house, where he used sharply defined steel frames to create bold cantilevers and complex vertical and horizontal spaces. The Roberts, Clinton, Landa and Aldama apartments in Echo Park, Silver Lake, and Highland Park each solved different problems. Like Lloyd Wright, Morris used a bold palette of colors and textures.
But Morris’s inventive designs did not lead to much publicity in the crowded world of Southern California architecture in the 1960s. “[Arts + Architecture editor John] Entenza never liked my stuff. John was a nice person but opinionated,” reported Morris. Still, he was active in the architecture community; Marvin Rand and Julius Shulman photographed his buildings, Gebhard and Winter included his Silverlake work in the Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles & Southern California, and he was part of the L.A. 12 group in the 1970s.