Simplicity and permanence in modern architecture.
Los Angeles is a city constantly being molded like clay. The topography which has been formed over hundreds of millions of years serves as the permanent backdrop for a city that appeared only a few hundred years ago. Of the many architectural styles that have been built, the work of Irving Gill stands out for its simplicity, materiality, and permanence.
Gill a descendent of Quakers and artisans (his father was a carpenter), was never formally trained as an architect. He worked in Chicago, first crossing paths with Frank Lloyd Wright whom he worked under at the office of Louis Sullivan in Chicago. It’s believed that a bout of illness is what brought him to our sun drenched climate in Southern California, where the majority of his work was designed and built.
His early work in San Diego, with his business partner, William Sterling Hebbard reflected the types of homes that were being built at the time. The work had a range that included English, craftsmen, and Spanish colonial revival style. Reviewing the span of their work together, a pattern emerges building by building that is more and more taut, simple, and cubic. But it was when Gill started his solo practice, that his most famous work was designed. It was during this time his interest in concrete as a construction material developed.
Concrete which has an extensive history as a building material was first used by the Egyptians. The Roman’s developed a type of concrete by mixing volcanic ash with lime paste which was used to construct some of the oldest buildings in the world such as The Pantheon in Rome. This potential for longevity, resistance to fire, and its sculptural possibility is what attracted Gill who used it in most of his later work.
Gill pioneered in the tilt slab method of construction which involves pouring concrete into wooden molds. Each wall could be a mold with metal frames inset within each mold to account for windows and doors. The walls would then be “tilted” into place using rotating jacks. The technique, which is reminiscent the older practice of barn raising, was developed by the engineer Robert Aiken and was even used to construct the beloved Schindler House.
Maybe it was this process constraint that helped Gill to develop his work in the modernist vision. By developing a language using the simplest architectural elements like flat plains, square angles, and circular arches, Gill mastered a truly original aesthetic that was consistent in his work. To this day, his buildings still feel modern and although some have been lost to development, the ones that have lasted have the potential to be around for hundreds if not thousands of more years, which unfortunately, isn’t true for the majority of buildings that are built today.
His work can serve as a model for a purely Californian architectural style and even though there is a visual connection to a Spanish influence, his work is more closely associated with other modern masters.
Text by Dante Iniguez. Images courtesy of the Art, Design, and Architecture Museum of UC Santa Barbara and Gibbs Smith Books.