Esther McCoy was known as the “founding mother” of Southern California architecture, an accolade she earned for her pathbreaking 1960 book Five California Architects. Her famous study is justly the starting point for any understanding of the heroic early days of modern architecture in California, and her writing sparked an international pilgrimage that today, more than fifty years later, is stronger than ever. You cannot visit the houses of Greene & Greene, Irving Gill, Bernard Maybeck, R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, and the generations that followed, without seeing them through the sharp, clear, and literate eye of Esther McCoy. She was, as the architectural historian David Gebhard remarked, “a one-woman crusade.”
Yet McCoy herself remains an almost unknown figure. “Sympathetic Seeing,” at the MAK Center at the Schindler House, is an effort to fill in the blanks. The exhibit follows the arc of McCoy’s work, beginning in the 1920s, when she led a bohemian life in Greenwich Village and was an apprentice to Theodore Dreiser, and ending with her valiant yet failed attempt to save Gill’s undisputed masterpiece, the Dodge House, from meeting the wrecker’s ball.
Sympathetic Seeing is, at its core, a show about understanding architecture through words not images. “It wasn’t that architecture sprinkled fairy dust on Esther McCoy,” co-curator Susan Morgan commented. “It’s that she was a writer who found architecture.” So, this is a show about words, in the form of short stories, magazine articles, pamphlets, newspaper opinion pieces, broadsides and jeremiads. Some are the originals, others reproductions. When pieced together they describe the silhouette of a woman whose work as a labor activist during the Great Depression segued flawlessly into her writing as a champion of modernist architecture.
Her dream was to be a novelist, but poor health brought her to Los Angeles in 1932, where she used her pen to document the poverty of the city’s slum dwellers. She began a public crusade for public housing. Out of these struggles, McCoy became a life-long advocate for improving the built environment in low-income neighborhoods. Moving from housing advocate to advocate of innovative architecture was a short journey. Esther McCoy had found her calling.
McCoy’s political beliefs undoubtedly informed her eye. But her writing was far from hemmed in. She was, in fact, interested in how artistic expression might liberate the occupants of a house from the shackles of conventional, dull space. The show reveals McCoy’s writing as interpretative, not the voice of an aesthete but of a person of feeling. Of Schindler she says, “He piled up forms, cut in and out of space” and produced “inspired Cubism.” Of Neutra she wrote, “His typical module was so acerbic to the eye that I could stand for minutes tasting the sharpness. There was a moral participation of the senses—the puritan ethic was aesthetic.” Of John Lautner, she stated, “His houses are thorny with ideas, ideas that wake up the eye and astonish the mind.”
She was no toady, either. Her New Yorker short story, “The Important House,” deftly skewers a presumptuous photographer who jettisons the furniture in a newly completed, architect-designed house, causing the owner, Mrs. Blakely, to seek refuge in the only room the photographer hasn’t mucked with. Reading the story, you cannot fail to see Julius Shulman peaking out from behind the camera viewer.
But as you walk the show you begin to wish for a definitive time line and more biographical information. Without the two catalog essays, by Morgan and co-curator Kimberli Meyer, you’re a bit blind to McCoy’s life: her upbringing in Arkansas, her move to literary New York, her entry into Bohemian Los Angeles. You get to know her words, but you want to trace them to the events of McCoy’s life.
Still, Sympathetic Seeing reveals much, especially in the voice of McCoy. And, the 1922 Schindler House is a fitting and poignant exhibition choice. The house itself, Meyer notes, is “one of the primary objects in the exhibit.” McCoy worked in the house on and off through the late 1940s; her good friend, Dreiser, lived up the block; and Gill’s ill-starred triumph, completed in 1916, was across the street, just a few houses away. The house is the living embodiment of the modernist ideal: to shape architecture around principles of social justice and artistic experimentation. Those were the principles McCoy espoused, and with this exhibit we learn at last how she came to them and how deeply rooted they were in the architecture she avidly avowed.