California Modern: The Architecture of Craig Ellwood

Last summer, New York saw a critical reassessment of Mies van der Rohe’s body of work in America and Berlin in a pair of exhibitions. While Craig Ellwood may not seem a likely candidate for such curatorial fanfare, a book on this early California Modernist is nonetheless warranted. With snippets of hearsay and measured retribution, California Modern: The Architecture of Craig Ellwood leans heavily on the side of biography. A thorough review of Ellwood’s work is present, yet like many monographs, Neil Jackson falls somewhat short of giving a fully qualified assessment. In large part, Ellwood’s focused his career on domestic architecture concluding with larger commercial projects and an institutional building of note—the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Following a path set out in California Modern, his career travels from a modest start to the proverbial bitter end. Perhaps the highlight of Ellwood’s practice in both architecture and brandmaking is his authorship of the modern house.

At present, the single-family house is an erratic architectural pursuit. It is a product of patronage for the few. Developer cost-driven productions and popular taste in housing turn the masses elsewhere for shelter. Yet the architectural housing exercise still holds value. An opportunity for experimentation, domestic design has helped many renowned architects develop reputations. Ellwood modeled his practice on a distinct set of ideas, and actively marketed his ability to produce the commercially desired modern home.

Often thrown around and accepted with semi-conscious nods of understanding, modern is a complex adjective. Here it is directly linked to the set of building practices in California following the end of the World War II. Ellwood’s work follows the earlier beginnings of Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra and is directly related to John Entenza’s Art and Architecture magazine and the Case Study House Program. Not trained as an architect, Ellwood entered into modern design as a cost estimator for the Eames and the Entenza houses. Contact with these pursuits introduced him to a housing aesthetic that was based on a simplified organization of space constructed with affordable materials and methods. Many of the houses are simply post and beam (metal or wood) with glass, brick and stone, plaster or wood infill. This early exposure would mark much of his built work, specific systems of building and the constraints of budget.

Tracing who did what on Ellwood’s Pierson and Hunt houses, one can outline the organizational hierarchy in the office. Jerry Lomax, an early employee, did a majority of the work on the two houses. The Piersons came to Ellwood though the Eames and Entenza relationship. Recent California émigrés, the Piersons wanted a modern, "Richard Neutra-style" house. The Hunt house followed shortly after. The clients had seen the Pierson house and wanted something similar. As a result, the two houses share a comparable parti. The houses meet the street with twinned garage façades separated by a main axis that leads to the house. The public solidity at street level gives way to private transparencies as the house steps down to the beach. Compared to the boxy and often spatially confused Pierson house, the Hunt house achieves a cleaner plan. The ‘H’ configuration living spaces are given full exposure on the beach while the bedrooms retreat to the back and are protected by outdoor spaces.

In size and plan these houses are very modest: approximately 1200 square feet. They were sought out by clients who desired something more that the tract home (which was what they could afford). What is most significant about the two houses is that the clients wanted a modern California home. They bought into Ellwood’s dream. The houses were products of a branded popularity.

Since he secured the work and communicated with the clients, both houses are considered original Ellwood designs. While Lomax was on to designing the office’s next creation, Ellwood, true to his hustler tendencies, busied himself with furnishings and photographic records of the projects. It is important to note that his office was a very well-devised vehicle for this delegated system. Throughout his years of practice he consistently hired people who were traditionally trained architects, thus bringing with them both technical skills and modern idiom.

The firm’s projects account for only a small part of an enviable construction boom in California. A period in which those with modest means sought out housing. California Modern makes the case that Ellwood had the ability to deploy the structure and materials around a modern plan in a cost-effective way. It would not be accurate to claim that Ellwood was a pioneer. Indeed, a large part of Ellwood’s housing projects were simply derivation of the tract house. Instead he understood the desire for the new and was able make the modern home accessible to a significant number of clients.

California Modern puts forward a body of work that corroborates an aesthetic that we have come to value again. Although the biographical tone of California Modern comes off as a bit nostalgic, Ellwood is a worthy addition the cannon. A more relevant reading of his body of work considers his influence on home production. A study of Ellwood’s practice opens up the range of possibilities available to the design of the single-family house.