Gregory Ain: The Modern Home as Social Commentary
By Anthony Denzer, with an introduction by Thomas S. Hines
Idealistic and inventive, Gregory Ain was a modernist who, for a few years before and after World War II, challenged the patterns of living in LA. “His designs sought to restructure the spatial organization of the single-family house […] and offer alternatives to the housing patterns of suburbia,” writes Anthony Denzer in this first full-length study of the architect. In the minimal dwellings he designed for clients as progressive as himself, notably the Dunsmuir flats of 1937 and the Mar Vista tract of 1946-49, Ain was a radical in the Bauhaus tradition. His principles collided head-on with the realities and prejudices of mid-century America, and his achievement was consistently underrated. When he died in 1988 at age 80, he was a broken and forgotten man.
Denzer draws on his doctoral dissertation at UCLA, new interviews, and a close study of the 30 Ain projects that survive to create his well-researched text. The writing is flat and the plans are printed far too small, but the story is a fascinating one. Growing up poor in Boyle Heights, Ain’s Polish-Jewish parents instilled a respect for learning and an aversion to any form of extravagance. The Beaux Arts curriculum of the University of Southern California School of Architecture seemed irrelevant to him, and he became an architect by observing Schindler and apprenticing to Neutra, while working as a draftsman in the office of B. Marcus Priteca, the prolific designer of movie palaces.
Conrado lopez/courtesy rizzoli
Despite his lack of experience, Ain freely criticized Neutra, and he produced his own entry for the General Electric Small House competition of 1935. That introduced an idea he explored throughout his career: the servantless house, with an open kitchen as command post for the mother of small children. The living-dining room was placed to the rear, opening into a yard. Other progressive architects still separated servant and served spaces.
His practice got off to a brisk start. A Russian-born contractor commissioned the Dunsmuir apartments for a narrow, sloping lot, and Ain exploited the limitations of the site by adopting a sawtooth plan that gave each unit a separate entrance and a private garden to the rear. It’s a brilliant solution that looks as fresh today as when it was new, and it showed the architect’s potential for moving beyond his mentor in the subtlety of his planning and fenestration.
When the war interrupted civilian construction, writes Denzer, Ain joined the fledgling Eames office, channeling his engineering skills into the molding of plywood for military projects and the first generation of chairs. In 1945, he reestablished his office in association with Joseph Johnson and Alfred Day, forgoing elite commissions in his eagerness to build rational multiple housing. Three schemes were partially realized, and demonstrated a mastery of versatile spaces and varied siting. Mar Vista and Avenel tract developments are still eagerly sought-after.
But Ain’s bold plans for standardized construction were frustrated by the hostility of the building trades, and an ambitious plan for a multiracial community with shared amenities was blocked by the Federal Housing Authority (which demanded restrictive covenants) and local opposition to “socialist” housing. The housing authority also regarded open kitchens and flat roofs as too risky, and pushed the developer of the Mar Vista tract to include Colonials and Cape Cod houses. Ain and many of his clients were censored for their association with the Communist Party. Denzer cites the hysterical 1953 speech of Elizabeth Gordon, the reactionary editor of House Beautiful and tireless promoter of Frank Lloyd Wright, who denounced modernism as the expression of totalitarianism (apparently unaware that both the Nazis and Soviets had stifled it).
Ain was a natural for the Case Study House program—but he was never asked (or quietly refused) and the show house he designed for MoMA in 1950 fell short of expectations. He closed his office and became an inspiring teacher at USC and Penn State. Ain urged his students—one of whom was Frank Gehry—to build “a vital harmonious environment for the whole human community.” He denounced “caprice” and “groundless novelty,” insisting that only rational design could restore architecture to its status as “a universal language.” Though his career was brief, Ain merits this careful reappraisal. At a time when we all are renouncing excess, his work shows how to live large in small spaces. Spare, humane, and infused with natural light, they are as fresh and relevant as they were six or seven decades ago.