Irving Gill may not be a household name, but the California (by way of Chicago) architect is one of the most important pioneers of modern architecture. 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 remains indispensable to the historical development of the Modernist movement.
Born in 1870 in Tully, New York, the teenage Gill began his career as a draftsman for a local architect before moving to Chicago to work with Joseph Silsbee. In 1893, Gill went to work for Adler and Sullivan, where he trained with chief draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright and absorbed the architectural tenets of what would later become known as the Chicago School. After falling ill, Gill left Chicago for San Diego, eventually recovering his health and opening his own practice surrounded by the canyons, coastline, and blue sky of the California landscape. It was Southern California where Gill would build on his experiences in Chicago to create an original, ultimately modern architectural vision.
Gill’s architectural vocabulary rejected ornament, embraced clarity of form, and responded to the climate and regional context of Southern California. One of his most recognizable projects, the attached houses of Horatio West Court, perfectly encapsulates the formal purity of Gill's aesthetic and anticipated the rise of California Modernists Richard Neutra (who extensively photographed the buildings) and Rudolph Schindler. Constructed in 1919 in Santa Monica, the complex consists of six white, cube-like residences symmetrically arranged around a shared concrete driveway. In trademark style, Gill employed concrete construction, flat roofs, unadorned walls, ribbon windows, and simple arches to create an austere but profoundly pleasing complex. The architect's cubist geometry and concern for simplicity, efficiency (he also designed the interior of the houses), and architectural permanence made Horatio West Court one of his most renowned designs, garnering interest from avant-garde architects in both the United States and Europe.
Although Gill completed a number of high-profile commissions during his career, the architect had trouble finding work during the Great Depression, and his profile quickly faded. At the age of 66, the architect passed away in relative obscurity. For decades, Gill’s work went unappreciated, neglected, and in some instances demolished. Even the attached houses of Horatio West Court remained in a state of severe disrepair until a group of Gill enthusiasts and architects restored the complex during the 1970s. (In 1977, the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.)
Following years of irrelevance, historians now recognize Gill as one of the most influential pioneers of the Modernist movement. Working with innovative forms, materials, and techniques, Gill developed an inventive architectural style that predated the giants of European Modernism. Recently, many historians have been working to secure Gill's legacy, returning him to his rightful place within architectural history's pantheon of masters. The “missing link” of modern architecture, Gill is no accidental modernist. His designs featuring stark, white walls, cubist masses, and concrete technology helped create a new mode of design that would set the stage for the next generation of architects.
You can read more about Irving Gill here, here and here. Or buy this book.
And you should definitely read more about Gill. His work is incredible and so obviously deserving of the recent attention.
Photo Top of Page- Horatio West Apartments by Richard Langendorf. Courtesy of MIT Libraries, https://dome.mit.edu/handle/1721.3/130788.