Saturday, July 9, 2011

Esther McCoy Appreciation

The MAK Center in West Hollywood has some great events this summer - to celebrate his centennial, a July 23 tour of John Lautner houses and an appreciation of Esther McCoy, the architectural critic and historian who Reyner Banham famously called "the mother of us all." (He was talking about architectural historians, so I imagine "us" was a pretty exclusive party.) McCoy's role championing the remarkable activities of a few architects in a nascent Los Angeles architecture scene cannot be overestimated. Far from the usual suspects of high culture in New York or Europe her words, and the images of Julius Schulman and Marvin Rand captured the world's imagination.

While introducing nearly forgotten early 19th century California pioneers Irving Gill, Greene and Greene and Bernard Maybeck, (as well as the more modern Rudolph Schindler) in her 1960 "Five California Architects" McCoy also championed the use of industrial methods of housing fabrication and new materials favored (in theory if not always reality) by Richard Neutra, Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano, Craig Ellwood and others during the post-war boom. Starting in 1945 she began her nearly accidental career writing about architecture for John Entenza's influential Arts and Architecture Magazine and soon was writing for the LA Times, the LA Herald-Examiner and other popular publications.

Perhaps because she also had worked as a draftsman for Rudolph Schindler, her love of the new did not trump her respect for the continuity of architectural tradition, even in such a "new" place as California. In 1965, three years after the 1963 demolition of McKim, Mead and White's 1910 Penn Station in New York, McCoy made a film to publicize the planned demolition of Irving Gill's 1906 Dodge House. Her deft use of Hollywood style publicity was no match for other civic forces (the house was eventually demolished in 1970) but the story was big enough to create awareness of Gill and spawn an appreciation that grew into official protection and historic recognition of his (and other early pioneers) significant work.

Curators Susan Morgan and Kimberli Meyer will also explore her fiction and other non-architectural writing, no doubt looking for parallels with her keen psychological observations and appreciation for movement through space that forms her best architectural writing.

Her books are still cribbed by designers looking at Soriano or Gill or Neutra or Schindler or Harwell Hamilton Harris for compositional tropes or clues to organize a building or how to marry it to a site. More importantly, her emphasis on the use of the building and its place in the social, political and economic threads of the day is a tonic for the breathless hype surrounding our jet-setting starchitects.

This exhibit isn't scheduled until late September, so there is plenty of time to read (or in my case re-re-read) Five California Architects, Case Study Houses, Vienna to Los Angeles: Two Journeys, Second Generation or any of her many articles published in Arts and Architecture Magazine.

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