AN West Coast editor Sam Lubell sits down with Ray Kappe, one of the most acclaimed architects in Southern California. Kappe was Founding Chairman of Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona and Founding Director of SCI-Arc. Now at 84, he opens up about the problems with prefabs, SCI-Arc’s issues, and his attitudes about architecture and recognition.
AN: Tell me about your latest project.
I recently completed a three-unit prefab project for Living Homes in Los Altos. It was the first multi-family project that I did for them. I’m also working on four single-family houses in a little grouping in Canada. I have a large $3 or $4 million custom house in Beverly Hills, and there’s a five-unit condo in connection with a hotel on Pico and Beverwill in Beverlywood.
Your work for Living Homes has been well documented. Do you consider it a success?
Sometimes it’s worth it to push prefab. But for me, until they really do a lot of them, it doesn’t work. It’s not economical. When I did the first Living Home it was $125 a square foot. That was a two-story, simple house. That seemed great. Then the fabricator underbid the glass too much so that the price popped up, and there were some change orders that got it up to around $140 a square foot. And then the houses went on the market at $250. That isn’t the way that the normal housing market works when you do quantity housing.
When the market changed, the picture changed, and we weren’t getting our prices to where we should have them. It was still cheaper than custom work, but we were essentially doing custom houses. Every bath was custom, every kitchen was custom. You have to do those parts in quantity to get the price down.
You’ve been passionate about prefab for a long time.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about prefab as well as energy systems. Probably twenty years of my life were spent in those two areas. When I couldn’t get modulars built as modulars, I would play around with the idea anyway. The point was to get away from the box and into spatial qualities like you’re seeing in Living Homes.
You mention spatial qualities. In many peoples’ opinions you’re a master at organizing space and views and light. Can you talk about what differentiates your approach?
I don’t really do like some architects do—I don’t force volumetric space. My house was really created by the site and the relationships to the site and solving the site. The space evolves rather than this preconceiption set up ahead of time. However, if there is a place where you can explode in section you do. That’s where you get the excitement. Most architects do that today. I think when I did my house it wasn’t so common. Wright obviously did. Some did.
Architects are always looking for any place where they can open the building up and get something going where it’s more exciting. But often if you open something up you lose square footage, and if you lose square footage you lose value. There’s often not enough gain for the owner. I’m certainly someone who cares about the economics of a project, so I use that mentality. Architects who deal with primo jobs like museums usually have a lot of freedom. I’m sure if you asked them, they’d say there are tight constraints. But it’s different. They seem to have more room to move and play around.
It’s also the layering and making the site prominent, right?
Most of us were always given difficult sites, which I like. That’s my favorite type of job. I have a much harder time on a simple flat site. I’m not really an architect who deals in conceptual work. I deal in problem solving and solutions. I’m pretty much a straightforward architect. I don’t try to think of ideas that will play in the architectural media. And students are almost taught to do that, because they’re very seldom working on real sites or real problems or real conditions or constraints. In school you’re taught to think about things that will make your projects more interesting. You get no knowledge of what really happens when you’re out there.
Let’s talk more about school, beginning with SCI-Arc’s recent purchase of their building in the Downtown LA Arts District. You’ve complained that SCI-Arc’s founders were excluded from that conversation.
From the very beginning we always wanted to buy our building. We started leasing because I didn’t want to start with a mortgage. The school was built on zero dollars. But we were reasonably successful after a couple of years, and we always tried to buy our building. I was a little bit critical that the term “vagabond” was used for our situation when in reality each move we’ve made was for reasonable—and usually for financial—reasons.
Buying our building was always part of the agenda. You can’t run a school without having some economic savvy. Sure, the education part is most interesting, and it’s why you’re there in the first place. But if you’re going to get into your own school you have to think of it as a business. You can’t run it in the red. So I ran the school in the black. I knew what was going on.
Between Cal Poly and SCI-Arc, you have quite a legacy with education in Southern California.
It’s sort of funny, I never intended to do that. The Cal Poly thing intrigued me because there wasn’t a school of environmental design here. It was only USC really. UCLA was just coming up. We were going to be something else. So I thought that was a valid addition. SCI-Arc was about freedom and learning by doing . Pretty soon people saw that you could do what SCI-Arc was doing, and schools like Woodbury wound up doing a similar thing.
Regarding your own work, people often say you don’t get the recognition you deserve. Do you agree?
I’m well recognized in Los Angeles and in California. I’m not recognized on the east coast to a great degree, and I’m not totally recognized internationally. I’m known, but not on a superstar level. I never intended to be or wanted to be, and I never focused on that attitude. It wasn’t prevalent in Southern California to think like that in my days in architecture. Most of us thought more about how you promote modern architecture than about how you promote yourself. My partners and I were very interested in urban design and planning issues, and we had a decent reputation. I always thought if you do a decent body of work someday maybe somebody will want to write about you.
Sure, I entered my work for AIA awards and that stuff, but I always had enough work and a nice clientele, and I never had to compromise my work. I had a great career. And I don’t really care about promotion, nor do I have the personality that wants to put in the energy it takes. I watch what Thom Mayne has done with his career. I watched Frank Gehry grow up as he wanted to. I’m very self-satisfied. I think Thom is to a certain degree, I don’t think Frank will ever be. Why, I don’t know. I would be if people thought about me the way they think about him. I’m more interested in my family and my life.
I’m glad my career was where it was early on so I didn’t have to end up in this world of being in the air all the time in order to get work all over the world. It was nice being a local architect. I enjoyed walking down the street to my job. Some people like that or at least can do it for ego reasons I guess. I’m kind of low key in general. I get embarrassed by promotion. Do you have to send everything to everybody?
Your firm doesn’t even have a web site, correct?
No. I should have one. I sort of retired twenty years ago. Our firm was terrible at marketing, because we didn’t have to most of the time. Nowadays they get 35 or 40 applicants for every job. And then you’re competing against these huge firms that gobble up everybody so they can do everything. How does the little guy do it?
The only thing I feel sorry about is that I never had enough community jobs. Jobs that were medium scale and could have some meaning in society. The fact that what’s available today for planning and urban design firms just blows my mind. That was the stuff that we would have given our right arm for. We were the only small firm doing planning work at that time. We were going against the DMJMs and A.C. Martins and doing okay, but just a small firm.
Do you have any favorites working now?
I’ve always liked Piano. If I had his commissions I would think closely to how he thinks. I like the way he approaches his work and the way he thinks about his work. It’s based on the full range of principles. It isn’t form. It’s based upon structure and environmental control systems and site use. It comes down to the person in the architecture as well as the rational decision making. The intuitive stuff that comes through.
So what does your own house say about you?
I don’t know, you’d think I was an egomaniac! I can still sit here and look and be happy with it. It just evolved in a rather natural way. The heights weren’t pre-determined. I like the varying heights and shapes and sizes. As you draw the plan you’re walking through the whole process in your head of what’s going on. It’s a function of how I was taught to design. You start to think of space and dimensions, and what it looks like on the outside is from what those decisions are. I never designed from models. I made models for clients, but I didn’t design from them. Today people design from computer modeling. So the ones that design that way are still thinking about what it looks like externally, usually fitting the internal parts in some way or another.