Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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BOOK REVIEW: California Houses of Gordon Drake

California Houses of Gordon Drake
by Douglas Baylis & Joan Parry
William Stout Books ($39.95)

In a preface to this new edition of a 1956 monograph, Glenn Murcutt pays tribute to an architect who inspired him while growing up in Sydney. As he writes: “In an era besotted with computer generated and often extremely noisy ‘architecture’ where anything can be ‘designed’…simply because it can…the reprinting of this book on Gordon Drake in a timely reminder that good design lasts.” 

Drake achieved extraordinary success in a brief career that was delayed by war service and cut short by a fatal skiing accident at age 34. He designed 60 houses in his seven years of practice, realizing only a quarter of them. Their warmth, simplicity and sensitive detailing resonated with clients and editors. His work was widely published in leading magazines, but few remember him now. That makes this handsome reprint and its fresh appraisal by Pierluigi Serraino especially welcome.

It’s hardly surprising that Drake has been forgotten, for his houses represent the middle ground of modernism--pragmatic, sustainable and woodsy--eschewing the crisp geometry and ideological rigor of the great form-givers. Born in Texas, he graduated from USC, worked for Harwell Hamilton Harris and launched his practice with his own house in a canyon above Bel Air. It cost $8 a square foot, was furnished for $300, and was published in New York and Europe.  Six more quickly followed, but Drake found the Bay Area a more fruitful work environment than the Los Angeles of Neutra, Schindler and the purist Case Study Houses. Ironically, he was the equal of Neutra and Craig Ellwood in his skill at self-promotion, thanks in all three cases to the imagery of Julius Shulman.

The original text transports us to a vanished era of optimism and idealism in which the future of America and, especially California, seemed boundless. Land and construction were cheap, middle-class couples could commission a house from a celebrated architect without bankrupting themselves, and a good practitioner could complete a dozen houses in a year. Drake wasn’t satisfied. “The time has come when decent living no longer should be the exclusive right of the wealthy or the intellectual,” he wrote, “but rather must be shared with the great mass of America…” Like so many of his contemporaries he dreamed of mass production, while creating unique houses tailored to difficult sites and discerning clients. Flash forward to the present, and you realize how little has changed—except for the lack of sites and escalation of prices. Architects still want to share their skills with a broad public and this loving account of a dedicated man may encourage them to persist in that quest.

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