1916 Gill 1916

Irving J. Gill Excerpts from The New Architecture of the WestThe Craftsman Magazine, May 1916 (Cited in Esther McCoy's Five California Architects, 1960

     "Architecture, Victor Hugo says, is the great book of the world, the principal expression of man in his different stages of development, the chief register of humanity. Every religious symbol, every human thought has its page and its monument in that immense book. Down to the time of Gutenberg, he points out, architecture was the principal, the universal writing. Whoever was born a poet then, became an architect. All arts obeyed and placed themselves under the discipline of architecture. They were the workmen of the great work. There was nothing which, in order to make something of itself, was not forced to frame itself in the shape of architectural hymn or prose. He has shown us that the great products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society, rather the offspring of a nation's effort than the inspired flash of a man of genius, the deposit left by a whole people, the heaps accumulated by centuries. the residue of successive evaporations of human society, in a word, a species of formation. Each wave of time contributes its alluvium, each race deposits its layer on the monument, each individual brings his stone.

     "No architect can read his inspired analysis of the place and the importance of architecture in preserving the records of the world's thought and action, without approaching his own part in the human record with a greater reverence and greater sense of responsibility. What rough or quarried stone will each of us contribute to the universal edifice, what idle or significant sentence will we write with brick and stone, wood, steel and concrete upon the sensitive page of the earth? In California we have great wide plains, arched by blue skies that are fresh chapters as yet unwritten. We have noble mountains, lovely little hills and canyons waiting to hold the record of this generation's history, ideals, imagination, a sense of romance and honesty. What monument will we build, erect to the honor or shame of our age?

     "The West has an opportunity unparalleled in the history of the world. for it is the newest white page turned for registration. The present builders have the advantage of all the wisdom and experience of the ages to aid them in poetically inscribing today's milestone in the progress of humanity. The West, unfortunately, has been and is building too hastily, carelessly and thoughtlessly. Houses are springing up faster than mushrooms, for mushrooms silently prepare for a year and more before they finally raise their house above the ground in proof of what they have been designing so long and secretly. People pour out here as on the crest of a flood and remain where chance deposits them when the rush of waters subside, building temporary shacks wherein they live for a brief period while looking about for more permanent anchorage. The surface of the ground is barely scraped away, in some cases but a few inches deep, just enough to allow builders to find a level. and a house is tossed together with little thought of beauty, and no thought of permanence, haste being the chief characteristic.

     "If we, the architects of the West, wish to do great and lasting work we must dare to be simple, we must have the courage to fling aside every device that distracts the eye from structural beauty, must break through convention and get down to fundamental truths. Through force of custom and education we, in whose hands much of the beauty of country and city is entrusted, have been compelled to study the style of other men, with the result that most of our modern work is an open imitation or veiled plagiarism of another's idea. To break away from this degradation we must boldly throw aside every accepted structural belief and standard of beauty and get back to the source of all architectural strength-and drink from these fountains of Art that gave life to the great men of old.

     "Every artist must sooner or later reckon directly, personally with these four principles-the mightiest of lines. The straight line borrowed from the horizon is a symbol of greatness, grandeur and nobility; the arch patterned from the dome of the sky represents exultation, reverence, aspiration; the circle is the sign of completeness, motion and progression, as may be seen when a stone touches water; the square is the symbol of power, justice, honesty and firmness. These are the bases, the units of architectural language, and without them there can be no direct or inspired architectural speech. We must not weaken our message of beauty and strength by the stutter and mumble of useless ornaments.

      ". . . Ornaments tend to cheapen rather than enrich, they acknowledge inefficiency and weakness. A house cluttered up by complex ornament means that the designer was aware that his work lacked purity of line and perfection of proportion, so he endeavored to cover its imperfection by adding on detail, hoping thus to distract the attention of the obsrver from the fundamental weakness of his design. If we omit everything useless from the structural point of view we will come to see the great beauty of straight lines, to see the charm that lies in perspective, the force in light and shade, the power in balanced masses, the fascination of color that plays upon a smooth wall left free to report the passing of a cloud or nearness of a flower, the furious rush of storms and the burning stillness of summer suns. We would also see the glaring defects of our own work if left in this bold. unornamented fashion, and therefore could swiftly correct it.

     (p. 12)  "I believe if we continually think more of line, proportion, light and shade we will reach greater skill in handling them, and a greater appreciation and understanding of their power and beauty. We should build our house simple, plain and substantial as a boulder; then leave the ornamentation of it to Nature, who will tone it with lichens, chisel it with storms, make it gracious and friendly with vines and flower shadows as she does the stone in the meadow . . .

     "There is something very restful and satisfying to my mind in the simple cube house with creamy walls, shear and plain, rising boldly into the sky, unrelieved by cornices or overhanging of roof, unornamented save for the vines that soften a line or creepers that wreathe a pillar or flowers that inlay color more sentiently than any tile could do. I like the bare honesty of these houses, the childlike frankness and chaste simplicity of them. It seemed too peculiar an innovation at first to make a house without a large overhanging roof, for we have been so accustomed in California to think them a necessity, but now that the first shock is over people welcome the simplicity of the houses without these heavy overhangs and see that they really have distinction.

     "In the West, home building has followed, in the main, two distinct lines-the Spanish Mission and the India bungalow. True, we find many small Swiss chalets clinging perilously to canyon walls, imposing Italian villas facing the sea and myriad nameless creations whose chief distinction lies in the obvious fact that they are original. different from any known type of architecture. It were much better for California if there were less complicated, meaningless originality and more frank following of established good types.

     "Because of the intense blue of sky and sea that continues for such long, unbroken periods, the amethyst distant mountains that form an almost universal background for houses or cities, the golden brown of summer fields, the varied green of pepper, eucalyptus and poplar trees that cut across it in such decorative forms and the profusion of gay flowers that grow so quickly and easily, houses of a light romantic picturesqueness are perfectly suitable that would seem too dramatic in other parts of the country. They seem a pleasing part of the orange-belted flower fields and belong to the semi-tropical land. These same houses would certainly look artificial and amusingly uncomfortable and out of place in the East; but they essentially belong to the land of sunshine.

     "The contour, coloring and history of a country naturally influence its architecture. The old wooden Colonial house of the East, shaded by noble elms, with their attendant lanes and roads outlined by stone walls, perfect pictures of home beauty; the stone houses of Pennsylvania, charming of color, stately, eloquent of substantial affluence and generous hospitality, and the adobe houses of the Arizona Indians formed of the earth into structures so like the surrounding ledges and buttes in shape that they can scarcely be told from them, triumphs of protective, harmonious building, are familiar types of buildings characteristic of their locality . . .

     "The arch is one of our most imposing, most picturesque and graceful architectural features. Its power of creating beauty is unquestionable, but like any other great force, wrongly used, is equally destructive. Fire warms and cheers us and cooks our food, but if not carefully handled destroys everything it touches.The Missions have taught us also the beauty and usefulness of the court. Ramona's house, a landmark as familiar in the South as some of the Missions, was built around three sides of an open space, the other side being a high garden wall. This home plan gave privacy, protection and beauty. The court contains a pool and well in the center and an arbor for grapes along the garden wall; the archway that runs along the three sides formed by the house made the open-air living rooms. Here were arranged couches for sleeping, hammocks for the siesta, easy chairs and tables for dining. There was always a sheltered and a sunny side, always seclusion and an outlook into the garden. In California we have liberally borrowed this home plan, for it is hard to devise a better, cozier, more convenient or practical scheme for a home. In the seclusion of the outdoor living rooms and in their nearness to the garden, the arrangement is ideal."

     ". . .

     "In California we have long been experimenting with the idea of producing a perfectly sanitary, labor-saving house, one where the maximum of comfort may be had with the minimum of drudgery. In the recent houses that I have built , the walls are finished flush with the casings and the line where the wall joins the flooring is slightly rounded. so that it forms one continuous piece with no place for dust to enter or to lodge, or crack for vermin of any kind to exist. There is no molding for pictures, plates or chairs, no baseboard, paneling or wainscoting to catch and hold the dust. The doors are single slabs of hand-polished mahogany swung on invisible hinges or else made so that they slide into the wall. In some of the houses all windows and door frames are of steel."

     ". . .

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 Kelyn Roberts 2017