16 Aug 2010
Sitting in for me today is David Mathias – a good friend of mine who has a book forthcoming titled: ‘Greene & Greene Furniture – Poems of Wood & Light’, an examination of the houses and furniture of Charles and Henry Greene. Needless to say he is an expert on the subject and I was lucky to get him sit in for me. David has his own blog and I encourage all of you to drop by it and poke around - I promise that you’ll learn something new and be all the better for doing so.
I’m not an architect and I’m not married to an architect. So why am I writing a guest entry for a blog called “Life of an Architect?” That’s a fair question, one that deserves a brief answer.
The simplest response is that I love architecture. Though I certainly can’t appreciate it or discuss it in the same way that an architect can, it is my primary interest. In particular, I am passionate about the work of Charles and Henry Greene, brothers who practiced in Pasadena, California at the turn of the last century and who are better known as Greene & Greene. In fact, Greene & Greene are primarily responsible for my transformation from computer scientist to writer.
For those of you not familiar with Greene & Greene, the thumbnail sketch goes something like this. Born in Cincinnati, raised in St. Louis and educated in Boston, they established a practice in Pasadena in 1894. Their work in the early years was eclectic and in prevailing styles, most of which were better suited to the Midwest and East with with they were familiar than to their adopted home. Soon after the turn of the century, this began to change. Whether due to experience, confidence or inspiration, a style began to emerge, slowly at first but with an amazing pace of evolution.
In 1902, they first incorporated furniture by Gustav Stickley in a home, for client James Culbertson. The following year, the first hints of Japanese influence appeared in the house for Arturo Bandini. The Bandini house is also the first by the firm to fully embrace the unique environment of Southern California. By 1906, they had perfected the style for which they are known today. A style they synthesized the Arts & Crafts movement, Japanese elements drawn from temple and imperial architecture, and a casual California sensibility that de-emphasized the strict delineation between interior and exterior spaces. With particular elegance, Ralph Adams Cram summed up their style in one phrase, “a wooden style built woodenly.” In a 1953 special citation from the AIA, that style was hailed as, “a new and native architecture.”
During their peak years, roughly 1904-1913, the Greenes created not just houses but also a broad range of furniture, lighting, art glass, fireplace implements, rugs and other decorative objects. The degree of detail and integration in their projects, particularly those for their wealthiest clients, is staggering. L. Morgan Yost said of these commissions, “They were able at that time to do a house for a wealthy family that would be complete right down to the last table cover and throw, all the furnishings. It was amazing to see such complete perfection.”
Perhaps more amazing, by 1916, Greene & Greene, Architects was, for all practical purposes, finished. Commissions were difficult to come by. Charles moved north to Carmel to pursue the life he had always wanted, that of Bohemian artist. He and Henry would both continue to practice, and both had good work left in them, but the heyday was over. They began a quiet descent into obscurity and very nearly died forgotten by their profession.
Fortunately for the Greenes and for us, that was not to be their fate. In the mid to late 1940s, their work was rediscovered and appreciated by several young architects and writers. Morgan Yost, Clay Lancaster, Jean Murray Bangs and Harwell Hamilton Harris, among others, helped rescue the Greene & Greene legacy. Harris is of particular interest in this venue because he was a modernist, as is Bob Borson, the landlord of this particular piece of internet real estate.
“God is in the details.” These words are often attributed to modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe though it is unclear if he ever actually spoke them. This fact hardly matters, however. The brilliantly brief phrase conveys to the listener an instantly understood, if previously unrealized, meaning: we get to the beauty of something by delving beyond the surface. That this concept is ascribed to a modernist, to the man who said, “Less is more” is intriguing. Architecture of the Modernist Movement is typically austere, minimalist. One tends to think of such designs not in terms of details but rather form. “Form follows function” is, after all, one of the mantras of the movement, if rather ambiguous. Details, in the decorative sense, are largely divorced from function. Practitioners of modernism, however, are no different than designers before and since in this regard: details are critical. We simply must expand our notion of what constitutes detail.
It might seem that modernism has little to do with the work of Greene & Greene. The Arts & Crafts movement was decidedly anti-modern. It was, in part, a rejection of the industrial age whereas modernism was conceived as an architecture for the industrial age. Despite this apparent diametric opposition, there are sympathetic aspects to the movements. Recall that Arts & Crafts was also a repudiation of the overly ornate characteristics of the Victorian era, a move toward more honestly expressed construction with less adornment. A philosophy of less is more, if you will. One must be careful not to carry such analogy too far as clearly the reigning attitudes of the two schools were vastly dissimilar but it is an interesting line of inquiry.
Of course, the modernist notion of architecture as transcending regional identity is completely antithetical to the work of Greene & Greene, whose houses were heavily influenced by their locale. It is also the case that the Greenes were highly aware of the people who would inhabit their buildings. No one-size-fits-all solution could have held any appeal for them. Despite the appeal of Arts & Crafts for its emphasis on natural materials, honest construction and simple forms, modernism won, at least for a time. It made Arts & Crafts seem irrelevant and anachronistic, a throwback to the era of horses and buggies at a time when automobiles were screaming about the countryside.
The Arts & Crafts revival has now outlived the original movement and doesn’t appear to be in danger of dying anytime soon. Modernism is now in its tenth decade and also seems unlikely to go away. Fortunately, there is room in the architectural landscape for both styles, and others. Perhaps the two can even mingle, as in some designs by Mr. Harris, who demonstrates that one needn’t be constrained by definitions, theories and politics. The Clarence H. Wyle house in Ojai, California and the Ralph Johnson house in Los Angeles demonstrate the beauty that can result from the mating of the two forms (if not necessarily the philosophies).