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Social self-consciousness may reach its zenith in middle school, but intellectually we are at our most insecure in college. On view at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum (A&AD) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the exhibition Walter S. White: Inventions in Midcentury Architecture hands out a humbling reminder of our freshman ignorance. On the subject of White—a remarkably prolific architect and inventor working in Colorado and the Coachella Valley—midcentury monographs and weekend tours in Palm Springs have taught us almost nothing.
However embarrassing, White’s omission is at least explainable; born in San Bernardino in 1919, his career does not form a tidy resume of the sort normally favored by employers and curators. Attending school for only a brief time and with limited success, he parlayed his drafting skills and early familiarity with construction into works for Los Angeles firms whose names are no longer familiar.
Through 1942, White’s career could best be described as inconspicuous. His short stints in the offices of notable architects such as Rudolph Schindler and Harwell Hamilton Harris do not to appear to have been associated with important contributions or works. Rather than exaggerate his place next to acknowledged masters, the curators place this period of apprenticeship where it belongs— among dozens of more banal events preceding his independent career, such as the award that he received for architectural lettering at the California State Fair. In the context of this exhibit, it is an artifact at least as important as the names of his famous employers.
The exhibition is arranged into five sections: Early Career, Small Houses, Large Houses, Design Innovations, and Building with Nature—each is given a wall of detailed plans, photos, and elevations, and a display of associated ephemera. Models are absent except for a small card stock vignette of a roof. A commissioned reconstruction of a corner of one of his buildings sits in the center of the gallery and mostly serves to break up the size of an enormous room in which the detail of the drawings would otherwise be lost.
The curatorial intent seems clear enough; White was a professional engaged in the craft of designing and innovating through orthographic drawing, and his work is best understood with one’s nose at the wall. His design interests are apparent from what is registered on blueprint and vellum—the seasonal path of the sun, or an arc annotated “panoramic view of Pikes Peak Massif.”
One unpedigreed career stop does deserve note. In 1942, White took a job at Douglas Aircraft as a machine tool designer, which appears to have exposed him to methods of construction outside of conventional architecture, and reinforced an early inclination for detail. After Douglas and a short stint with Clark and Frey, White established his own practice, and the commissions become more varied and innovative—at first tentatively and then with the courage of someone who believes that while unconventional, what they are drawing is objectively better.
Later, still working primarily on residential architecture, he devised and patented the steel-framed hyperbolic paraboloid roof structure suitable for airplane enclosures as well as residences that was most notably used in his striking Willockson House from 1958. Dramatic roofs were the big formal move in most of his work. White continued to tinker with techniques to make their construction simpler and minimize their constraints on the underlying plan.
This yen to improve seems not to have been entirely rewarded—the exhibition is sprinkled with darting references to cost overruns, unhappy clients, and projects going unrealized. Nothing suggests that these setbacks left White dispirited, but it is impossible not to wince, seeing his careful drafting etch out “Industrial Designer—Not an Architect” on the title block a design in which he was obviously invested.
White eventually became licensed and earned some regional fame, yet his work escaped posthumous recognition. It’s too bad; most of the best experiences of the designed world come from architects like White, the ones tinkering in the background.
The AD&A has a history of mounting exhibitions on minor players who made major impacts. We should be grateful to the museum for refusing to let us forget them in favor of noisier contemporaries. This show is a great reminder that occasionally, we, like White, should sometimes leave Los Angeles behind. There is much to be learned from an architect who had no significant commissions in Los Angeles, left behind no single iconic work, but instead left his mark on Palm Desert and Colorado Springs with hundreds of remarkable residences that elevated the ambitions of modern vernacular housing.
The recent closure of Architecture for Humanity, the San Francisco–based nonprofit known for its post-disaster rebuilding projects, had a distinctly funereal feeling. Founded by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr in 1999, Architecture for Humanity (AFH) was guided by the tagline “Addressing global humanitarian challenges with architectural solutions.” In addition to managing the design and construction of specific projects in the U.S. and abroad, the organization was known for its international network of local, volunteer-run chapters and its high profile publications including the book Design Like You Give a Damn and associated museum exhibitions.
As with any funeral, these past few weeks have been filled with sadness, loss, hand-wringing, and questions: Why did this happen? What a shame. Who or what is to blame?
The stages of grief and mourning are universal, but they are also ephemeral and often productive in helping us gain perspective. AFH’s demise has catalyzed an important conversation about the organizational infrastructure surrounding architects, designers, and planners working expressly for public good. Even as we cope with the loss of this internationally recognized organization, we too must use this moment as an opportunity to celebrate the incredible work of innovative organizations that are placing communities at the center of the architecture and design processes.
While AFH may be the most recognized name in the field of public interest design, we look to organizations like Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), the Hester Street Collaborative, and Indigenous Design and Planning Institute (iD+Pi) at the University of New Mexico for best practices here in the U.S. The work of these organizations, ranging from urban to rural to tribal, are challenging top-down methods through planning, design, and architectural processes that are guided by equity and democratic decision making. When such processes are grounded in deep partnership with community organizers, community development corporations, municipal and tribal governments, and other representative groups, planning and development happen with low income communities and communities of color, not to them.
Kounkuey’s work in California’s Eastern Coachella Valley, for example, shows how residents whose views were once excluded from public processes because of their immigration status or inability to attend meetings because of language barriers, long work hours, or limited transportation options, have gained an important voice in local land use and development decisions. Working in partnership with the Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, the local chapter of Legal Aid, and residents from the towns of Mecca and Northshore, KDI has improved unsafe flooding conditions in a local trailer park and is currently working to develop a new eight-acre public park. The nonprofit design and community development practice was able to raise $2 million for the new park from public and philanthropic sources, based on the trust the staff has built with local residents, organizations, and elected officials.
Kounkuey’s work, which demystifies the often opaque language and processes of planning, leads to substantive outcomes both in terms of changes to the built environment and empowerment in the local community. Neither KDI’s work in the Eastern Coachella Valley nor any of their other projects is likely to make it on to the pages of architectural magazines or the white walls of a gallery. And that’s okay. We would rather not reduce the story to a simple park design project, but rather connect KDI’s work to broader issues of equity and inclusiveness.
Unlike a funeral, in this situation, no lives were lost. Rather a single organization, albeit an important one, has gone out business. So, we have taken a moment to reflect on AFH’s legacy, and celebrate life—the life, challenges, and successes of a new generation of practitioners and the communities with whom they work whose voices are increasingly driving a new type of practice.
On November 9, The Palm Springs Art Museum opened its newly renovated, $5.7 million Architecture and Design Center—The Edwards Harris Pavilion. E. Stewart Williams designed the original 13,000-square-foot glass and steel structure in 1961 for the Santa Fe Federal Savings & Loan. In its new incarnation, the modernist building recognizes architecture and design in its own right, not as a cultural side show to acclaimed art collections.
Williams is a member of the group of early post-World War II architects that landed in the Coachella desert and helped turn the resort into a burgeoning center of modern design. Marmol Radziner conducted the renovation, transforming the old bank building to serve as an exhibition space with a plan that opens up to the sweeping landscape beyond. The facility also houses an archive and design collection in its basement level.
The design of the facility—with its sharp right angles, polished terrazzo floors, and floor to ceiling glass—represents a period of architecture that was sensitive to the user, offering a range of affordable housing to meet the post World War Two demands of growing families. The attractive houses, a favorite of retirees and seasonal residents, are now getting more expensive, as evidenced on a tour of select homes that accompanied a preview of the center. An estimated 45,000 devotees attended the city’s Modernism Week last February.
When Santa Fe Federal Savings & Loan went bankrupt in the 1980s, the building’s site was proposed for a 4-story retail centerpiece to 19 condos. The proposal galvanized an emerging preservation movement, spurred by the architect’s daughter-in-law, Sidney Williams, which stopped the project in its tracks, declared the building a historic monument, and, in time, launched the rehabilitation of the center. Sidney Williams is now the curator of the new center.
Marmol Radziner’s renovation is based in part on the photographs of Julius Shulman, who documented many of the mid-century modernist buildings in the area.
E. Stewart Williams will be honored in the opening exhibit, entitled An Eloquent Modernist, which is accompanied by an illustrated book of the same title.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO FRANK
A certain someone turned 80 on the last day of February, and 500 of his nearest and dearest were dispatched to the closed-until-Eli-Broad-writes-another-check Geffen Contemporary, including Brad Pitt, Arianna Huffington, and Laurence Fishburne. Frank Gehry had a cake designed like Disney Hall, a building he is no longer self-conscious about visiting, according to Paul Goldberger, who wrote a "Talk of the Town" piece in The New Yorker about the festivities. But the most provocative birthday wishes came via Frances Anderton’s KCRW show DnA: Design and Architecture, where stars from Ed Mosesto to Esa-Pekka Salonen revealed what they’d like to give Old Frank for his 80th. But we have to say it was Cindy Pritzker’s answer which, um, aroused the most interest: “Viagra.”
Two years later and 2,462 miles away from its New York origins, Postopolis (sorry, Postopolis!) made its second appearance on the left coast. The five-day blogathon was held on the preposterously chilly roof of Andre Balazs’ Standard Downtown, where it was so cold that fingers froze to laptops and the Belvedere greyhounds were served hot in mugs. Meanwhile, about half of those watching the string of architects, designers, and the odd counter-terrorism detective paraded onto the Astroturf by bloggers Geoff Manaugh, David Basulto, Regine DeBatty, Bryan Finoki, Dace Clayton, and Dan Hill, surely felt another version of the cold shoulder: Out of the 62 people on the podium, only 13 were female. You’ll be happy to know that the only panel with a healthy male-to-female ratio featured both your faithful Eavesdropette and fellow AN editor Matt Chaban.
OH, THE THINGS WE KNOW
We’ve heard Michael Rotondi is hard at work redesigning the Flea-founded Silverlake Conservatory of Music, a job that’s apparently on the hush-hush… Students at SCI-Arc have designed a shimmery pavilion for this month’s Coachella Music Festival. Perennial pavilion-makers and class instructors Benjamin Ball, Gaston Nogues, and Andrew Lyon assured us that mushrooms will be administered on-site to truly appreciate the structure’s nuanced detail… And then there were three: According to our sources, the Broad Foundation has narrowed its list for their new museum in Beverly Hills down to three firms: It’s now a face-off between Christian de Portzamparc, Thom Mayne, and Shigeru Ban, and nary a single Renzo.
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