My favorite proto-modernist celebrated a birthday last week (April 26), so here's a look at Irving Gill's design for Santa Monica's Horatio West Court.
His work underappreciated and undervalued for decades, California architect (by way of Chicago) Irving Gill has seemingly found his rightful place among the pantheon of Modern masters (though he remains far from a household name). A pioneer and an innovator, Gill's experimental engineering and forward-looking aesthetic redefined the California landscape in a daring departure from traditional American architecture. Certainly on par with his better-known European contemporaries, Mies, Corbusier, and Gropius, Gill developed a formal architectural vocabulary that would not only predict the celebrated California Modernism of the 1950s and 1960s but would also prove indispensable to the evolution of twentieth-century design.
Born in 1870 in Tully, New York, Gill began his career as a teenage draftsman for a local architect before moving to Chicago to train with Joseph Silsbee. In 1893, Gill went to work for iconic innovators Adler and Sullivan (during their peak), where he labored under chief draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright and absorbed the stripped-down ornamentation of what would later become known as the Chicago School. After falling ill (or maybe he was just sick of Wright's taunts), Gill left Chicago for San Diego, eventually recovering his health and opening his own practice. Surrounded by the canyons, coastline, and blue skies of Southern California, Gill began building on his experiences in the Midwest to create a truly original and ultimately modern architectural style.
A masterpiece of early modernism and one of Gill's most impressive feats of planning, the attached houses of Horatio West Court perfectly encapsulate the radical purity of the architect's aesthetic. Constructed in 1919 in Santa Monica, the concrete complex consists of six cube-like residences symmetrically arranged around a shared driveway. Although the actual design of each home is relatively straightforward (two-story, flat roof, small entry porch), details like corner windows, repetitive arches, and slender chimneys provide an appealing rhythm to the austere forms. Densely arranged on a 60-foot lot, the six buildings still maintain a sense of openness, their overlapping geometry and shared spaces offering a mix of active experiences.
Though Gill completed a number of high-profile commissions during his career, the architect had trouble finding work during the Great Depression, and his profile slowly faded. Following his death in 1936, much of Gill's built legacy was lost or neglected (see the Dodge House), and even Horatio West Court faced an uncertain future. Lucky for us, a group of young, idealistic architects (and Gill enthusiasts) purchased the property in the early 1970s, lovingly restoring the complex and saving one of Gill's most significant designs for posterity. (In 1977, the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.)
Following years of irrelevance, historians now recognize Irving Gill as one of the most influential pioneers of American architecture. Modernism's “missing link,” Gill is no accidental modernist. His designs featuring stark, white walls, cubist forms, and concrete technology set the stage for the next generation of architects, who would continue to experiment with his groundbreaking techniques and straightforward compositions throughout the rest of the century.
You can read more about Irving Gill here.
All photographs are part of the Library of Congress' Historic American Buildings Survey collection (unless otherwise noted): Historic American Buildings Survey, Irving John Gill. Horatio West Court Apartments, 140 Hollister Street, Santa Monica, Los Angeles County, CA. California Los Angeles County Santa Monica, 1933. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, ca0298.
A version of this post was published on May 3, 2017.
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