Judith Chafee, an Abandoned Modernism

A few years ago the noted and well-reported death of Albert Frey-proponent of Pop-modernism and architect-godfather of Palm Springs, California-was observed. For Frey, Palm Springs acted surreptitiously as testing ground zero for his postwar, überriche modernism. Although formally aligned with elements of modernity emerging in Los Angeles, Frey’s vision was filtered through an ironic sensibility that became specific to this particular oasis in the desert. His wry comments on the production of architecture quoted and distilled from Le Corbusier’s Five Points-under whose tutelage Frey had been prior to his immigration-and the playfulness of his own peculiar brand of regionalism can be localized in his own House 2, where a rock-apparently of its own will-sacrifices itself to support the glass wall of Frey’s living room.

Albert Frey’s modernism is rooted in an America that believed in the Dream: it was a time when suburbia was a place just like Palm Springs and Formica installed Boomerang in every kitchen; when Frank Sinatra could hold court in a house designed by Richard Neutra; when the chances of running into superstardom at the supermarket increased hand-in-hand with a development mentality. It is therefore not surprising that in an era when the illusion of the Dream is played out in sentimental image-saturated media that those who champion that earlier time bring with them a certain pre-fabricated nostalgia, making a place for a young Swiss immigrant to rise and become part of a nation’s lore and signifying the attainability of the Dream.

What was not noted by this culture obsessed with post-bachelor-pad irony was the passing of another significant figure of American modernism. One who may not have possessed the star-studded status of Albert Frey, but who had equal amounts of bravado and machismo entrenched in her own particular take on the American desert. Judith Chafee-who passed away in November 1998 at the age of 65-grew up in the deserts of Arizona, went East to attend Yale and emerged on the architecture scene at the height of this period of optimistic American modernism. Judith practiced on the East Coast for a number of years, most notably in the office of Edward Larrabee Barnes and did time at the American Academy in Rome alongside Charles Eames. When confronted by the implications and formal reductions of the new "historical architecture" beginning to dominate the practices of many of her contemporaries, she returned to the desert, settling once again in Tucson, Arizona. It was there that she continued to practice her own brand of modernism, one that borrowed both from the mythology of the land she inhabited and the hard truth of the desert climate-one as unforgiving as it is beautiful. While Judith’s work does not share in the Pop sensibilities that Frey was so fond of, it does share roots in the modern project.

Chafee’s work stands in sharp contrast to the work of her contemporaries, particularly to the overt mannerism of the early East Coast-domestic post-modern architecture that was under construction as she returned to Arizona in 1970, such as Robert Venturi’s Brant House, and Michael Grave’s Alexander House. It is her practice, which the University of British Columbia Architecture Chair Chris Macdonald has termed "an unreconstructed modernism," that strikes one as being with purpose, without pretense and without the sculptural symbolism that many of these other works took as their mantra. "To have made such fine work in the face of such a powerful cultural force (as Postmodernism)-and this in an environment where a forthright and passionate woman would be patronized as a matter of course-represents an accomplishment of singular determination," Macdonald writes of two of Chafee’s houses. On first encounter it is tempting to categorize this work as regional-it takes its surroundings as fact, not as mannerist means of producing form or simply acting in opposition to an emerging culture of surface and historical reference. Yet the notion of a tectonic is largely absent in her work. In fact the details that are present slyly subvert the assumption that materials have a proper way to be deployed in a building. This is particularly surprising because on first glance the materiality and organization of her work is so clear. Through her practice, Chafee consistently proposes that the politics of a regional practice do not have to refer back to the manner and tradition of building and place in itself in order to find capable means of expression. Neither does it need to become invested in a populist understanding of "style." For Chafee the main thrust was always a dedication to the roots of modernism.

Her Gates Pass house first strikes you as being out of sync with other architecture that was being built in the year of its construction 1979: it somehow seems older. Fabricated of concrete block and concrete beams, with subtle steel-mullioned windows, the seemingly rectilinear form of the house easily could be mistaken as being constructed more than 20 years earlier. The house rises out of the rocky desert surrounding it and recalls the nearby rock formations that shield it from the adjacent road. Closer inspection reveals that the rectilinear character of the home is undone by the central figure of a triangular fireplace that rises through the center of the main room, a formal device that Chafee used in many of her projects. This form separates the main area of the house into a living room, guestroom and bathing areas. A staircase zigzags around the chimney to the open guestroom. The flue itself maintains other functions, both radiantly heating the house through the winter months and, via a process of convection, alleviating heat during the dry hot summers. The flues, carefully placed in both the upper and lower walls, allow for a wide variety of conditions to be accommodated through opening and closing. A small kitchen is wrapped around the north end of the house, leading toward the front entrance and main bedroom.

Given the nature of the climate, the materials are left exposed: an untreated wood ceiling softening the relative hardness of the other concrete block walls. In place of wood support beams, cast concrete spans the distance between the walls. This simultaneously subverts our expectations of a wood beam while giving a semblance of tonal continuity to both the interior and exterior surfaces of the structure. Throughout the house the modern tradition of material-one that favors a right placement and moment for any given element-is played against type. The concrete beams and concrete block walls would be expected in a commercial structure contradict our assumptions in this type of residential application. In fact, the "coolness" of the material is undone by the thermal function that they serve in the project-the hollowness of the block acting literally as heat containers-and the elementary belief of modern architecture merging with its landscape is inverted by the landscape itself. Cycles of heating, cooling and time of day are reflected in the abstracted mass of the building itself.

After the first year of my Masters degree, I visited Chafee during her last summer. I was unclear as to the intentions of my assignment, believing that we were to go down to Arizona and measure a few of her houses for the purpose of constructing models for an exhibition we were organizing of her work. It was my first trip to the Southwest, Los Angeles and the desert. I had yet to really grasp the importance of the Southwest’s contribution to the durability of modernism. I was not yet familiar with the cataloging of this era’s work by Esther McCoy and only cursorily so with the early attempts by R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra to translate what had been a European phenomena to their newly adopted country. It was meeting Chafee, sharing an evening with her and a day at the house that really opened my eyes to an enduring legacy that wasn’t primarily based in its current fashion status. This house condensed all of the reading that I had done that year into a single, physical artifact. And as I stood in the now abandoned house, I observed the walls covered with graffiti, all of the windows smashed out and began to understand that this was all part of a larger legacy. Even in its current state, the house could still begin to describe all of its author’s intentions, and these intentions were critical to my own cultural legacy. This was an architect working at the apex of her capabilities. And this is how she should be remembered.