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  • Writer's pictureTodd Pitman

San Diego Regional Modernism?

I often want to go back and caveat things I have written in the past where I call Ruocco "The father" of San Diego modernism or the "Pioneering San Diego Modernist. In fairness the late Bob Mosher called him "The Modernist" and Julius Shulman had a similar opinion of him; he likened Ruocco to John Lautner. I don't know that I see the connection but it sounds good. 

It's hard to believe but back in the early 2000s nobody in San Diego called Irving Gill a modernist. At the time that led me to conclude that Ruocco not Gill was really ground zero for San Diego Modernism. Even then I kept pointing at those wonderful, simple and spare cube cottages. More seasoned preservationists would almost laugh at me....silly boy Gill's work is Arts and Crafts. They didn't  want to credit him with a style that at that time wasn't appreciated the way it is today.  Now he's widely noted as a significant early modernist and everyone is on the bandwagon. It took them time to warm up to that idea I guess.

Horatio West Courts designed by San Diego architect Irving Gill in Santa Monica 1919

For my part I have always seen Gill as one of those transitional figures. He started out in Victorian progressed to Arts and Crafts and ended in Modernism. Not too many architects made that trip.  If one were to write a book on San Diego Modernism it would of course start with Gill because he was the first to do it here  but his lead wasn't really followed...not in San Diego anyway.  Who were Gill's proteges in San Diego?  Requa, Rice, Mead, Waterman, Louis Gill? Although talented designers none of those folks will be confused as "modernists" any time soon.

Rudolph Schindler was certainly influenced by Gill, he said so much, Richard Neutra? yep him too. It's well documented that they saw parallels between Gill and his European counterpart Adolf Loos. Schindler and Neutra emulated Gill's work in aesthetic, scale and even construction method. So here is some irony.....most historians who write about San Diego Modernism will say that Los Angeles influenced San Diego. Some essentially dismiss San Diego Regional Modernism as being the fringe or scraps of what happened to the north. If you've studied or researched what happened in San Diego between the late 1930s and mid 1970s you'd know that wasn't true. 

Buck Residence Rudolph Schindler 1934

Kun Residence Richard Neutra 1936

So here is the surprise, Gill, a San Diegan was the father of Los Angeles Modernism......yes I said it......San Diego influenced Los Angeles.  It's exactly the opposite of what is most often written. There are a handful of other threads that would support that conclusion but Gill's influence on modern design in Los Angles is undeniable.

In San Diego that would be a harder argument to make. With a few notable exceptions, the first structures that could be defined as mid century modern were built in San Diego from the late 30s and into the eraly 1950s. The predominate materials used in these homes were redwood, rock, and glass. Roofs were most often pitched normally with deep overhangs to shield the glassy elevations from sunlight. It was rare to see the more simple spare, cube based designs championed by Gill and later emulated in the work of Schindler and Neutra. While Los Angles designers moved towards a clean post and beam style of modernism, San Diego embraced a more organic earthy approach often integrating nature and art as a central feature of the design. In later years the cross pollination between the regions blurred the uniqueness of the endemic styles but as they began they were quite different.

Holmgren Residence Lloyd Ruocco 1948

Il Cavo Lloyd Ruocco 1945

In my eyes San Diego Regional Modernism is best exemplified by a woody, strongly climate driven, organic style of modernism best depicted in the earliest work of Lloyd Ruocco and Sim Bruce Richards and later carried on by Fred Liebhardt, Henry Hester and others. This woody, organic style evolved from many disparate influences including Bay Area modernists that were seen as progressive designers to young architectural students at the University of California, Berkeley (Ruocco, and Richards attended in the late 20s and 30s). Further influence can be found in the highly under-recognized work of San Diego architect Emmor Brook Weaver whose Craftsman designs tended toward spare almost Japanese modernism. The well documented influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on Sim Brice Richards is evident as well.

La Motte Cohu Residence Sim Bruce Richards 1948

Liebhardt Residence Fred Liebhardt 1951

San Diego was a quiet town with a small but vibrant art community in the years before and immediately after World War II far from the comparative hustle of Los Angeles. The designers, artists and other creatives who sought to make a living in these fields were close by necessity. Lloyd Ruocco was instrumental in the formation of organisations like Allied Artists that gave individuals the stability and support of a larger group. What evolved in San Diego although similarly motivated was largely quite different than what happend in Los Angeles. It deserves recognition on its on merits.

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