Architect and historian Alan Hess, architecture critic for the San Jose Mercury News, reviews three recent books on California Modernism: Thomas S. Hines’s Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970 (New York: Rizzoli, 2010); Kimberli Meyer and Susan Morgan’s Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of America (Nürnberg: Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2012); and Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011), edited by Wendy Kaplan for the L.A. County Museum of Art. His essay begins:
“THE OLD NARRATIVE EXPLAINING CALIFORNIA design is roughly this: European Moderns planted the seeds of an avant-garde, technology-based design community when they arrived in California in the 1920s and 30s. In the fertile soil, balmy air, and absence of a root bound cultural establishment, their ideas created a distinct California Modern sensibility, which blossomed in the 1950s. “European émigrés…established avant-garde ideas on the West Coast,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan sums up in his foreword to Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965. The distinguishing characteristics of these ideas: fluid boundaries between indoors and out, open adaptable living spaces, light, views, and modern technologies — the hallmarks of what we today call Midcentury Modern.
“This extraordinary blossoming, however, was only in domestic design, we were told; it was expressed in residential architecture, furnishings, clothing, and other expressions of personal, not public, life. “The everyday middle-class house — not the reshaping of city skylines…. was the primary field for modern design in California,” states Nicholas Olsberg in his essay in the LACMA catalog, Living in a Modern Way. Asian and Mexican influences smoothed off some of the sharp Bauhaus-related edges, but California Modern (so says the old narrative) is essentially the technological expression of European Modernism (notably excluding the Dutch Expressionists or the Russian Vkhutemas) adapted to the sunny lifestyle of this earthly paradise.
“It’s a pleasant story line; if only it were true. We need a new narrative about California’s design heritage that fits the scholarship and criticism that has emerged in the past twenty years. While the LACMA catalog, edited by Wendy Kaplan, includes some of these recent discoveries, it does not incorporate them into a fuller vision that we sorely require. Thomas S. Hines’s more comprehensive Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970 takes bolder steps into this territory. And, though narrower in focus, Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of America by Kimberli Meyer and Susan Morgan becomes something of a moral compass to guide us into new terrain today. Sympathetic Seeing, the catalog of the MAK Center’s recent exhibit on critic and historian McCoy (1904-1989), serves to remind us of the intellect and courage needed to look unflinchingly and accurately at California, at ourselves.”
Read the full review here.