Talking Gordon Drake

Talking Gordon Drake

William Stout Publishers recently reissued California Houses of Gordon Drake by Douglas Baylis and Joan Parry, with a new preface by Australian architect Glenn Murcutt and a new introduction by architect and author Pierluigi Serraino. Serraino is the author of Modernism Rediscovered, which contributed significantly to renewing interest in Midcentury Modernism, and went on to write NorCalMod, a book that helps rewrite the narrative about Northern California architecture. Photos of Drake’s work and some of the material from his archive will be on exhibit through May at the Berkeley location of William Stout Architectural Books. Kenneth Caldwell sat down with Serraino to get his thoughts about the newly reissued book.

Why did Bill Stout reissue this book now?

Pierluigi Serraino: I think that for Bill, these projects are reiterating what makes architecture such a fundamental enterprise in human existence. Drake really believed that these houses would make people’s lives better.

How did you learn about this work?

When I worked on Modernism Rediscovered. Julius Shulman often spoke about Gordon Drake, the spontaneity of his talent and his warm personality. The fact that Drake died so young always struck Julius, because he thought he had a tremendous promise of even greater buildings.

I started looking at these images and noticed the polarity between the vernacular model, the northern California Maybeck, versus the hypermodernism of Neutra and the Case Study Houses. It’s not by accident that Drake never made it in the Case Study House program—it’s  because of all the wood he used. Even if he was using it in a modern way, it was still an expression of some kind of attachment to the land, which is also something that Wright was very strongly tied to.

But John Entenza (editor of Arts + Architecture, sponsor of the Case Study program) was not?

No, he wasn’t. In Drake there is the experience of the war, because there’s his extensive use of plywood, an important material during the war. But he doesn’t use steel or concrete as a primary design expression or material. He reminds me of a Southern California Jack Hillmer, except his work wasn’t as pure as Jack’s. I also think the work of Ray Kappe, even if Kappe does not acknowledge it, shows some influence from Drake.

How does Drake’s work fit in the reappraisal of midcentury modern design?

I think we are at the tail end of the reappraisal at this point—it’s clearly institutionalized—but what’s happening is that we are becoming aware of this third paradigm, which included architects like Drake and Harwell Hamilton Harris, whom Drake worked for. But none of the houses of Harris are as plain as those of Drake. Drake’s spare spaces seemed to be targeting a middle-class audience. In Europe, they would call it “existence minimum”—just use the maximum amount of space with a minimum amount of money, maximizing the relationship with the outdoors, thereby doubling the size of the space. His own house became a manifesto for his ideas. The mythology of endless American wealth was questioned in his time. I thought it was worthwhile to reexamine that experience because we seem to be returning to that paradigm now.

The paradigm of houses that may be smaller and built for less money?

Correct, Drake’s houses retain a set of beliefs about modernity. And those houses are really still American, fundamentally American, because they retain the thought that you can have a single-family house for yourself with your garden. It’s going to be smaller—it’s going to have its own carport—but it’s going to be affordable. It’s within reach. So that was one of the things that I found particularly appealing. What also struck me about Drake was the awareness that he had about the publication process.

Because he hired Shulman, with all of his connections?

Beyond that. Just look at Drake’s address book, which will be on exhibit in the show at Stout Books. He had all the people that really counted in that book.

How old was he when he was killed in a skiing accident?

He was still fairly young, 34.

How did Bill Stout get involved?

Bill was the neighbor of Maggie Baylis, who was the wife of the landscape architect Douglas Baylis, who shared office space with Drake. Maggie and Doug put out the original monograph, and Maggie inherited Drake’s archive. Drake did a beautiful townhouse for them that is on the cover of the new book.

So what’s new in this volume?

Some of the drawings, which are really beautiful and had never been seen before. Within the limits of a sole practice, Drake was an excellent kind of one-man band. He also worked with Harris when he was doing the Weston Havens House. So Drake saw that house, although he never really had these kinds of heroic gestures about structure the way Harris did. There is also the essay I wrote based on the interviews with Julius Shulman and Clintorn Ternstrom, a colleague of Drake’s, and the new forward by Glenn Murcutt.


Was Drake as influenced by Wright as Harris was?

In some houses, Harris seems really close to Usonian models of Frank Lloyd Wright. They’re supremely elegant, very beautiful; but you can read the influence—in a way it’s almost too obvious—whereas with Drake you can’t. There’s a comfort about Drake’s houses, but they are really original.

Drake seems to work a lot with screens, whether they’re garden screens or interior screens that move. They have a Japanese quality, not heroic at all.

Drake served in the war and was stationed in Hawaii. I don’t know if he actually went to Japan. But I would argue that the Japanese aesthetic definitely informed the work, because his houses are based on units and modules, which is very much a modernist and a Japanese idea. The Japanese use light technology. Even if it’s wood, typically, it’s not about heavy timbers, it’s not about the logs you can find in Canada or in Norway.

You just feel the abstraction of the war, the machine layered into the wood. And that’s something that, in a way, is epitomized in the Katsura Palace in Japan. It’s an incredibly powerful project because it condenses so many of the tenets of the modern movement: an open plan, a light technology, a loose relationship to the ground, flexibility, screens, carving views as part of the landscape—the indoor/outdoor relationship, outdoor decks, navigating the space outside. Those ideas were carried out hundreds of years before modernism, yet they were powerful enough to navigate through space and time. So in this respect Drake must have been influenced by those messages, even if he never saw the Katsura Palace. That influence is just simply not present in Europe, where there’s heaviness in the architecture.

Very few houses remain for us to see.

Drake kept the addresses for the houses he designed. So I went to a number of them on Google Earth and just couldn’t find them. That makes me believe that many of them are gone. Gone because of economic pressures—the houses were too small for the site. It’s easier to rescue a house by Harris because they’re rather large.

Drake’s houses are also by an architect at the beginning of his career.

Yes, but they could have been bought by anyone, technically. That was really the idea. And in fact he was very involved with Sunset magazine in disseminating these ideas. Drake’s work was like a hybrid between something for the specialized audience and something for the general public.

In January of 1951, he started to work for Ernest Kump, but kept his office on Washington Street for evening and weekend work on what he called the Unit House.

The idea behind the Unit House was to retain the rigor of the design expression and the overall image while providing the flexibility that was always a critical attribute of the postwar house; especially because of the baby boom. Families were constantly changing, and therefore it was important to have a house that would lend itself to these changes—something, for example, Jack Hillmer never managed.

Drake was very much interested in designing a house that could change in scale without losing its own attributes. The sight lines go really deep into the Unit House, and it’s organized not around a courtyard really but around a critical, substantial outdoor space which carries the lines of the architecture onto the outside.

It’s not about landscape versus architecture.

Right, it’s all one. I believe he did this with Baylis’s help. But I’m not completely sure. I was unable to find the Unit House. Usually Julius would write down the address, but this one is just called “the Unit House” in Julius’s archive. After Drake died, no one really paid any attention to him anymore. Clearly he had a high conception of himself. He knew that he was talented, but he was very astute about how he was articulating that position and how he was selling that to the general public. And the work was relevant; it wasn’t just something that was a trend for the time. The work could have informed probably 20 years of residential design; although I think over time he would have gone on to other building types. Given his ambition, I just don’t see him staying with the single-family house.

These photos are beautiful.

This is particularly layered. There are a number of spaces where you don’t know exactly if you’re inside or outside. That’s what he accomplished.