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Blueprint for Obscurity

William Wurster vs. Frank Lloyd Wright

    Wurster's approach to residential building proved so influential that it's difficult to walk through a typical California neighborhood and not see some design element that was borrowed, cribbed or copied from him. He made a name for himself in 1928 by creating what many consider the prototype of the ranch house--the rustic, one-story Gregory Farmhouse in Scotts Valley. By blurring the distinction between indoors and outdoors, carefully positioning windows to take in breathtaking views or intimate private gardens, creating spaces that could serve a variety of uses, and relying on unadorned interiors and exteriors, Wurster helped define what architecture critic Lewis Mumford dubbed the Bay Region style.

    A native of Stockton, Wurster practiced a brand of flexible, comfortable modernism from Lake Tahoe to Big Sur that struck a chord with many wealthy Bay Area residents. Conditioned by their social consciousness and the country's economic woes in the '30s and '40s, the last thing these upper-class professionals desired was an ostentatious architectural display of their wealth. They would no sooner commission a period-revival mansion than they would discuss their financial status over dinner.

    Wurster also offered an alternative to the austere, dogmatic International Style espoused by architects such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who held sway over the architectural world throughout the bulk of Wurster's career. Instead of glass, steel and stucco boxes, Wurster developed an understated--some critics call it downright dull--architecture that relied heavily on regional building history and indigenous materials.

    "Wurster had a great understanding of sites and what kinds of materials were appropriate for certain places," says Wurster's friend and biographer Richard Peters. "He didn't just design a building on paper and slap it down on any piece of land like the International Style architects."

    Wurster was not only friends with President Harry Truman, but Frank Lloyd Wright thought enough of Wurster to poke fun at him, calling Wurster a "shanty architect." In a backhanded way, it was sure a sure sign that Wurster had arrived on the architectural scene; Wright didn't waste his barbs on also-rans. Like Wright, Wurster is one of only 54 architects to capture the prestigious Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.

    Who was William Wurster?

    For architecture students learning their trade at the epicenter of Wurster's influence, the question would surely be the equivalent of "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" with an architectural twist.

    It took eight tries, however, to find a student who could even identify Wurster as an architect. One graduate student responded to the query by saying, "I have no idea, but I'm not registered to vote in California so I don't really follow politics." Another student knew Wurster was dean of the college, but was unaware he ever built anything. Another identified him as an urban planner, possibly confusing Wurster with his influential wife, Catherine Bauer. Even the student who correctly tagged Wurster an architect faltered on the follow-up question: "Do you know any of his houses or buildings?" The response: "Didn't he build this building? Wurster Hall?" Well, one out of two ain't bad.

    As this very unscientific survey indicates, the legacy of William Wurster and his brand of "soft modernism" has not fared well since his death in 1973. Even Wurster's revolutionary reforms in architectural education are largely forgotten.

    "He was so influential in his day, but nobody knows who he is now," says Thomas Hille, an architecture professor at the University of Michigan and author of Inside the Large Small House: The Residential Design of William Wurster. "It's one of the things that made me so interested in him."

    Few architecture historians, however, share Hille's enthusiasm for William Wilson Wurster. "Although contemporaries hailed him as one of the most significant residential designers in the United States during the 1930s and later, Wurster's work has attracted surprisingly little attention from architectural historians," says Alan Michelson, who completed his Ph.D. in art history at Stanford with a dissertation on Wurster. "Wurster's work was in many ways too subtle to command the attention of recent observers used to flamboyant, easily classifiable architecture."

    A current exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art begins to put Wurster's accomplishments in perspective. "An Everyday Modernism: The Houses of William Wurster," which closes Feb. 11, makes Wurster's fate as the most important California architect no one has ever heard of seem even more unfair. With the client in mind, Wurster viewed his houses as places to be lived in, not simply sculptures to be looked at. After a long stretch of gaudy architectural excess, this nuanced, low-key approach seems surprisingly appropriate in the '90s.

    "Architecture is not a goal," Wurster wrote in 1956. "Architecture is for life and pleasure and work and for people. The picture frame, not the picture."

    ALTHOUGH HE WAS born in 1895 and trained in the classical beaux-arts tradition at the University of California, Wurster made a name for himself in 1928 by designing a summer home in Scotts Valley that was so spare and unadorned that it could have just as easily been built by a carpenter with good taste as by an architect.

    Situated on a hillside and planned around a central courtyard, the inside of the Gregory Farmhouse was only accessible by doors opening onto the unbroken verandah running along the court side or the terrace on the open side of the compound. Whitewashed redwood boards are used for the walls and ceiling. Even battens were avoided to eliminate any unneeded detail. It featured double-hung windows and a shingle roof, but not electricity. A simple watertower marked the entrance.

    "I like to work on direct, honest solutions, avoiding exotic materials, using indigenous things so that there is no affectation and the best is obtained for the money," Wurster said in 1936.

    Sunset magazine displayed the house on its July 1930 cover and made it the centerpiece of an article titled "There Must Be Romance in the Home You Build." The Sunset cover featured a stylized rendering of a man in chaps standing in the courtyard, even though no horses were kept at the farmhouse. By drawing on the tradition of Anglo-Spanish ranch houses in California, Wurster had created a home that captured the essence of Western life, both mythical and real.

    The Gregory Farmhouse is often labeled the first ranch house. This achievement isn't as dubious as it may seem; Wurster's intriguing design puts to shame the ubiquitous, low-slung copies that eventually sprang up in suburban housing tracts across the country.

    In 1929, the Gregory Farmhouse earned Wurster an honor award from the Northern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the $500 first prize in House Beautiful's Small House Competition two years later. "Obviously a copy of no other house, it is a straightforward attempt to solve a specific problem, which it does in the most direct manner," a 1931 House Beautiful editorial enthused. "The result is not only convenience of plan but charm of composition in no small degree."

    Just as the Gregory Farmhouse epitomized Wurster's approach to architecture, Sadie Gregory was typical of his wealthy, intellectual clients. Prior to her marriage to Warren Gregory--a successful San Francisco attorney who died shortly before Wurster began work on the farmhouse--Mrs. Gregory had served as an assistant to renowned sociologist Thorstein Veblen at the University of Chicago. Veblen explored the concept of "conspicuous consumption" in The Theory of the Leisure Class, written in 1899. Veblen's attack on ostentatious spending habits of the newly wealthy even extended into the realm of architecture.

    "The endless variety of fronts presented by the better class of tenements and apartment houses in our cities is an endless variety of architectural distress and suggestions of expensive discomfort," Veblen wrote. "Considered as objects of beauty, the dead walls of the sides and backs of these structures, left untouched by the hand of the artist, are commonly the best feature of the building."

    Veblen's stinging condemnation of those who flaunt their wealth was never far from the mind of Sadie Gregory; she kept a photograph of Veblen on her dressing table.

    "In the wake of such indictments, a segment of the upper classes, emulating the European aristocracy or 'old money,' more calmly adjusted their lifestyles and possessions in architecture and furnishings," Marc Treib, who curated the SFMOMA exhibit with the assistance of Dorothée Imbert, wrote in the exhibit catalog. "The higher social strata of the Bay Area tended to adopt these precepts and wished to inhabit an architecture at once comfortable yet expressive of social station."

    Wurster was eager to fill this need, and his homes epitomized the concept that less is more. He went to such great lengths to make his homes appear inexpensive that his wife, the urban planner Catherine Bauer, once remarked that he could make an $80,000 house look like a $10,000 house. Wurster himself wrote in a 1946 New York Times article that he favored designing "up from the log cabin instead of trying desperately to compress the mansion."

    While Wurster's homes may have looked inexpensive, they didn't necessarily come cheap. He often employed baseboards that were flush with the wall--another attempt to eliminate distractions. But this required a highly skilled--often more expensive--contractor and high-grade wood that would not warp or shrink over time. Custom windows were expensive, but they were essential to the aura Wurster desired. And Wurster once joked: "Interiors of Douglas fir plywood are more expensive than sheet rock but look cheaper, so we use Douglas fir plywood."

    The grandeur of Wurster's homes was evidenced not so much in how they looked, but the feeling of openness and space he created. Wurster built what he liked to call the "large small house," even though many weren't exactly small. Although the floor space may have been slight in proportion to the wealth of his clients, Wurster designed high ceilings and wide, generous hallways that could be used as far more than just pathways from one space to the next. He created the "room with no name" by eliminating interior walls that traditionally separated the living room, dining room and den. Again, this opened up the interior.

    "He had an incredible sense of scale," explains Caitlin King Lempres, a Bay Area architect who is working on a Wurster biography with Richard Peters. "He was very good at building a very small house that had a sense of graciousness."

    Wurster also blurred the distinction between inside and outside. It was not unusual for several--if not all--the rooms in his homes to have access to the outside. At the Pasatiempo Country Club and Estates in Santa Cruz, Wurster unveiled the "kitchen cave" in the home of golfer and Pasatiempo founder Marion Hollins. It was typical of the patios, screened porches and partially sheltered areas he loved to create.

    "Although in some respects the cave resembled a porch open to both the view and the weather, it belonged more to the interior than the exterior: a cool room for the warm days of summer or a place to light a fire for those days with fog or nippy temperatures," Treib wrote in the Wurster exhibit catalog."

    By designing his homes around the magnificent views his clients' property often afforded, Wurster made the California landscape and climate the "ostentatious" elements of his homes, not the building itself or its details. Even when a view of the hills or the ocean wasn't possible, Wurster directed attention to garden and patio areas.

    "He was simplifying to allow attention to be directed to the view instead of the detail of the house, and that required a lot of sophistication," says architecture professor Thomas Hille. "It's hard to talk architects into doing that these days. They want people to be gawking at their houses instead of other things like the view."

    SADIE GREGORY WAS also typical of Wurster clients in that she became close personal friends with the architect. In fact, Wurster named his only child, Sadie, after Mrs. Gregory. The charming, eloquent Wurster didn't just work for his clients; he was their peer.

    "Wurster was connected," says Donald Olsen, an architect who worked for Wurster at Cal and helped design Wurster Hall in 1966. "People like the Gregorys didn't just go to any old hack. They went to someone they knew."

    Wurster's active social life was intimately tied to his professional livelihood. He never walked away from a commission--whether it was a bathroom remodeling job or the U.S. Consulate Office Building in Hong Kong--or turned down an invitation to dinner or the theater. It was at these numerous social events that his clients introduced him to their friends and business associates, who often became clients as well.

    "On a typical day he had tea with his clients in the afternoon and went to the opera with them at night," Peters says. "It wasn't unusual at all for him to show up at the office early in the morning wearing a tuxedo. That was the social pace of the time, and when you read his diaries you wonder how someone could do all that in one day."

    Wurster's graceful, polished personality allowed him to woo clients and mix comfortably with San Francisco's elite social set. But he also had a darker side that was reserved for his employees and close professional associates.

    "Simply saying he had a bad temper is a grand understatement," Olsen says. "He became a raging lunatic at times. I've seen him practically down on the floor chewing the rug. People would want to run out of the room to get away from him.

    "On the other hand, in just a minute or two he would change totally and become this utterly charming personality who could charm the birds right out of the trees. Nobody could resist him."

    Vernon DeMars, another architect who taught at Cal and worked on the Wurster Hall project, chuckles when asked to describe Wurster's professional demeanor: "I used to say he had an iron whim, but his anger never lasted very long."

    Wurster was a meticulous stickler for detail. He worked long hours and expected his employees to do the same.

    "He was a workaholic," Peters says. "He really believed you produced and you didn't make mistakes. Least of all you didn't make mistakes with fancy clients. As amiable as he was, he had his own point of view and you dare not cross that point of view because he would just slash you off right at the ankles and that was it."

    Original Ranch: The interior of the Gregory Farmhouse displayed an austerity valued by its owner, Sadie Gregory, an admirer of Thorstein Veblen who shared his disdain of "conspicuous consumption."

    Although primarily known for residential design, Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons also landed larger commissions such as the Bank of America building in San Francisco, the Schuckl Cannery offices in Sunnyvale, and the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. Regardless of the project, Wurster strove to broaden the responsibilities of the architects and designers who worked for him, and he was well-liked despite his emotional pyrotechnics.

    "Wurster believed that the training of younger architects should introduce them to the full range of professional responsibilities," Peters and Lempres wrote in the exhibit catalog. "They should meet clients, participate in conferences, sketch preliminary drawings, complete working drawings and specifications, and supervise constructions. He did not believe in assigning them only 'stair details.' "

    Wurster's partner Donald Emmons summed up the spirit of the highly successful firm: "The office was a place of high enthusiasm. We had a feeling of being in the right place at the right time."

    Wurster brought the same approach to his academic work. Three years after marrying Catherine Bauer, Wurster moved to Cambridge to undertake graduate study in urban planning at Harvard in 1943. His studies were cut short the next year, however, when he was named dean of the School of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, Wurster set about to change the very foundation of how architects were educated. He viewed architecture as a social art and sought to broaden the areas each student explored, including social research, economics, geography and political science.

    Wurster also did away with the practice of having students send drawings off to New York for judgment in the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design competitions. Instead, the work of MIT architecture students would be evaluated at MIT, and the students would have a chance to discuss their work with their professors.

    Wurster made similar innovations at the University of California when he became dean in 1949. Continuing his efforts to broaden the scope of architecture education, he integrated the departments of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning to form the new College of Environmental Design in 1959.

    "Wurster revamped the system," biographer Lempres says. "No one realizes how innovative his changes were because it's taken for granted now that education involves a dialogue back and forth. Wurster introduced this concept to architecture education."

    THERE ARE MANY reasons Wurster is not as famous as one might expect given his architectural and educational accomplishments. In the argot of architecture critics and academics, Wurster is not considered a "form giver," and it is the form givers who are lionized in the annals of architecture history. Wurster's willingness to please his clients meant he rarely pushed the envelope of architectural design. While he used the tenets of modern architecture to fashion a distinctive regional style in Northern California, he is not credited with creating the very building blocks of modern architecture that overshadowed the beaux-arts tradition.

    It doesn't help Wurster's legacy that the form givers in his era were so powerful, so influential and so unassailable that they managed to eclipse even Frank Lloyd Wright for several decades, despite the fact that they built very few buildings and, in hindsight, pleased very few clients. Le Corbusier, Mies and Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus in Germany, were the heavyweights of the International Style, and all three descended on the United States in the World War II era--a time when America was suffering from a fierce cultural inferiority complex.

    In his biting treatise on the International Style, From Bauhaus to Our House, author Tom Wolfe describes the 1937 arrival of Gropius in the United States in cinematic terms, comparing it to a stock scene from the jungle movies popular at the time. "Bruce Cabot and Myrna Loy make a crash landing in the jungle and crawl out of the wreckage in their Abercrombie & Fitch white safari blouses and tan gabardine jodhpurs and stagger into a clearing. They are surrounded by savages with bones through their noses--who immediately bow down and prostrate themselves and commence a strange moaning chant.

    "The White Gods!

    "Come from the skies at last!"

    Wurster was not one of the White Gods. And a story retold by architect Donald Olsen indicates he didn't want to be one if it meant adhering to the International Style. Mies van der Rohe became dean of architecture at the Armour Institute in Chicago. When Armour merged with the Lewis Institute to form the Illinois Institute of Technology, Mies was commissioned to design 21 large buildings at a time when most architects were struggling to find work. Olsen made the mistake of making a reference to Mies' work at IIT while he and Wurster were discussing the plans for Wurster Hall.

    "I didn't even get the words out of my mouth when he flew into a rage," Olsen remembers. "He didn't want anything to do with that damn Mies van der Rohe. He was constantly saying he didn't want some sheer, sleek box. We had to calm him down."

    At a time when architecture was becoming dominated by compounds with a set of inviolable principles and dogmas, Wurster insisted on a flexible approach. As Peters points out, Wurster often spent more time in his letters to clients explaining what style they were not going to get instead of what he was going to give them.

    "Over and over again I would reiterate that Modern is a point of view not a style," Wurster wrote in a 1936 Architect and Engineer article. "And everyone seems so determined to pin set things to it. Use the site--the money--the local materials--the client--the climate to decide what it shall be."

    It's an approach that served Wurster well, especially during the Depression, but it is not one that carves out an easily identifiable niche in architectural history.

    "Wurster's development did not follow the usual lines, with stylistic traditionalism suddenly and finally thrown over for the more progressive, International Style," Alan Michelson wrote in Toward a Regional Synthesis: The Suburban and Country Residences of William Wurster. "His evolution was more gradual and complicated. Modern and more traditional houses were being executed simultaneously by the office, according to client preference. Few single projects stood out as radical departures. Thus, Wurster's stylistic development was probably not dramatic or clear-cut enough to satisfy historians."

    There are other reasons Wurster's is an architecture of obscurity. He specialized in homes, not skyscrapers. Few, if any, architects make custom-built residential architecture their bread and butter today. Although Wurster built memorable urban dwellings in San Francisco, many of his building went up in what was, or has become, suburbia--a locale rarely associated with the cutting edge.

    And regardless of how livable his homes were, how attuned they were to California life, and how much his clients enjoyed them, Wurster's work doesn't lend itself to coffee-table books, the primary gauge of mainstream architectural appreciation. The exteriors are plain, and it's difficult to capture the charm of the interiors in a photograph. When architecture critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock--a shill for the International Style--toured the Bay Area in 1940, he downgraded Wurster's residential work as being "perhaps duller than one expects." A visitor to the Gregory Farmhouse once remarked, "So where's the architecture?" While picture books abound for Gropius and crew, glossy hardback chronicles of Wurster's efforts are rare indeed.

    The desire for understatement that was shared by Wurster and his clients has largely disappeared. The '80s, in particular, were anathema to Wurster's aesthetic. As Bay Area architect Joseph Esherick puts it, people need a "pillow consultant" when they build today to satisfy their grandiose desires. In contrast, Wurster worked to hide his clients' wealth behind plywood and unassuming exteriors.

    It should come as no surprise that those who acquired Wurster homes after the original owners often chose to upgrade and stylize them, especially when summer homes--lacking insulation and electricity--were purchased for year-round occupation. The bare-bones King House in Atherton featured on the cover of the SFMOMA catalog, for example, has been converted to a French Provincial style--a transformation that might have made Wurster explode if no clients were within earshot.

    Finally, elements of Wurster's work have also been so thoroughly adopted in California that his pioneering work has been lost in the shuffle. The notion of patio life has become such a standard in California that even dumpy college housing often comes equipped with a sliding glass door and cement slab patio. The inferior descendants of the Gregory Farmhouse can be found throughout the nation.

    "The ranch house has been belittled by the mundane repetition you get in tract housing," observes architecture professor Thomas Hille. "But you could say the same thing about Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie-style houses. They've also been belittled by so many awful reproductions. But the original models are still pretty wonderful places."

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From the January 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro.
© 1996 Metro Publishing Inc., San Jose, CA. All rights reserved. Reproduction
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