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Design Books for Holiday Giving

Design Books for Holiday Giving
Explore how architects think with these books.
How do designers think? What's the interplay between client and architect? Who are the most vivid architectural personalities of them all? These and many other questions are explored in four fascinating, and compellingly readable, new books on design and house building. [Note: this article is an update of an earlier post.]

Frank Lloyd Wright and San Francisco, by Paul V. Turner. This volume looks a little like a coffee table book but is so much more -- it's a fascinating story of how Wright reinvented himself in his San Francisco commissions. I'll mention just three projects out of a large body of built and unbuilt Bay Area work. You learn the complete back stories for the geometric Hanna Honeycomb house at Stanford University from the late 1930s; for the smaller but equally angular Bazett-Frank house in Hillsborough of 1940, which prompted the developer Joseph Eichler, who rented it for two years, to embrace a modern esthetic in the thousands of tract houses he subsequently built in the 1950s and 60s; and for the spiraling, ramped V. C. Morris Shop on Maiden Lane in San Francisco of 1949, which presaged the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Especially fascinating are the back-and-forth discussions between Wright and his clients. You learn how he responded to queries, how remarkably nimble he was in responding to different site conditions and changing needs, and how much he loved helicopters! Turner captures Wright's arrogance, acerbic wit, and wry humor and the infectious enthusiasm he brought to his interactions with clients and the press. And there are some 

remarkable houses that unfortunately never got built -- like this sweeping curvilinear design for the Hargrove house of 1950. The cover image is an unbuilt design for a large lighting company. Paul Turner concludes that Wright's Bay Area buildings "demonstrate, perhaps more than his buildings in any other location, the amazing variety and innovation of his creations, and the fertility of his imagination." The book is very hard to put down!

The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study, by Pierluigi Serraino, is absorbing in the way it brings to light a long forgotten scientific study from 1958-59 of how architects think, run by the director of the Institute of Personality Assessment & Research at the University of California at Berkeley, who was a psychologist.

The roster of architects who took part is impressive and included the most famous designers of the day, such as Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, and Richard Neutra. Serraino writes: "By the 1950s, creativity was becoming increasingly alluring to the scientific and popular imagination alike. But the topic was still thought of as the special romantic purview of the artist...So the researchers started with the basics. What makes a person creative? What are their motivations and drives?"

Among the many tasks the architects performed during three intensive days was an architectural aptitude test that asked subjects to draw 

as many images as possible starting with just the same two small lines, in ten minutes, as shown here by Los Angeles modernist Richard Neutra's example -- I especially like his face, centipede, shovel and accordion -- I think he was on a roll! As a psychological study, the chapter on ten key participants is particularly revealing. You learn what childhood experiences helped shape their character and how each person got interested in design in the first place. It turns out that some great architects were not that comfortable with drawing! The psychologists doing the interviewing wrote down their impressions of each person. For example, Philip Johnson was considered a difficult interview: "The subject seems like a controlled psychotic...He showed many classic features of the manic: self-centered, irritable, jumpy, flight of ideas, arrogance, use of humor to defend against serious anxiety-producing topics." This book is a mine of information about the architectural imagination. It doesn't answer why so many architects and designers wear a lot of black, but it does help you understand how driven they can be. Learn more abut this remarkable study in a fascinating podcast from 99 Percent Invisible, which includes recordings and an interview with the author, here. 

Speaking of Philip Johnson, whose Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut brought immediate fame, Architecture's Odd Couple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, by Hugh Howard chronicles the long, competitive love/hate relationship between the two men. The book is a pleasure to read. The architects met in 1931 when Johnson was the very young first curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Johnson admired Wright but found Mies van der Rohe more to his taste and once famously said that Wright was "the greatest American architect of the 19th century," which irritated the older man. Anecdotes and quips abound, as when Wright said, upon visiting the Glass House: "I don't know whether I'm supposed to take off my hat or leave it on. Am I indoors, or outdoors?" 

Alternating chapters set up parallels between major commissions such as the design of the Glass House and Wright's Fallingwater; the Seagram Building (where Johnson was the associate architect with Mies van der Rohe) and Wright's Guggenheim Museum. The section on Wright's most famous house is especially good at describing how he combined the abstract (i. e. the International Style) and the organic to create something completely unprecedented. The book is really about how Wright and Johnson influenced each other's work.


William Krisel's Palm Springs: The Language of Modernism, edited by Chris Menrad and Heidi Creighton, is an important contribution to the understanding of home design during the 1950s and 1960s, when Palm Springs became a hotbed (literally!) of architectural creativity. William Krisel was one of the most successful architects of modern mass-produced tract housing and his work is comparable to what architect Claude Oakland was doing for developer Joseph Eichler in the San Francisco Bay Area. Architecture critic Alan Hess writes that Krisel was influenced
by the practicality and efficiency of Japanese houses, which echoed the Modernist concept of structural expression. And he espoused Modernist planning principles in his design of entire neighborhoods, as you can see here in his design for the Sandpiper community, which resembles an abstract drawing.

Chris Menrad first encountered tract houses designed by Krisel (for the Alexander Construction Company) when he was looking for a new home. It was the genesis of the book. "As I rounded a corner in Palm Canyon, I could see unusual rooflines come into view. They looked to me like the fins of a Cadillac. [see cover photo, above]...The house felt like the ultimate expression of what postwar residential architecture in California was all about. It had the leisure aspect, as if it were always vacation time -- the soaring ceilings struck me, the view to the palms, mountains, and sky beyond through 

the clerestory windows, and the tremendous light and openness and ease that I felt there." Here's a Krisel drawing of a three bedroom two bath house at Twin Palms. It's very simple and flexible, with the covered breezeway between garage and house, and easily accessible patios off living room and master suite. Books like this are helping to drive a Palm Springs renaissance.

To browse a collection of comparable modern house plans for today, click here. 

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