Prominent critics from the East and West Coasts weigh in on an anthology of the famed architectural writer Esther McCoy. You’re reading Karrie Jacobs‘ take, published in The Architect’s Newspaper East. Michael Webb‘s review appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper West.
In a way, Esther McCoy was the Ada Louise Huxtable of the West. True, she never had a soapbox as substantial as The New York Times, but she was the most enthusiastic chronicler of the invention of West Coast modernism. While Huxtable was decoding the glass office buildings of Gordon Bunshaft and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for a befuddled, sometimes outraged, public, McCoy was striving to elevate the architectural significance of “the California House,” from the turn-of-the-century Craftsman bungalows of Greene and Greene to the lean modernist homes of R. M. Schindler. McCoy’s books, Five California Architects (1960) and her 1984 sequel, The Second Generation, helped define the California style, particularly the lack of fixed boundaries between indoor and outdoor living. And her writings were instrumental in cementing the legend of the Case Study Houses, a mere two dozen experimental homes built in dribs and drabs over the course of decades.
This first collection of McCoy’s work, Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader, edited by Susan Morgan and published by East of Borneo Books, part of an online arts magazine, presents a complex and generous portrait of the writer. She was more than just the leading cheerleader for Southern California as the fertile crescent of a Europe-inspired but thoroughly Americanized modernism; she was a versatile literary talent. McCoy (1904–1989) grew up in Kansas and landed, at a young age, in Greenwich Village. She worked as research assistant to Theodore Dreiser and, in the 1920s, befriended novelist cum bootlegger, Boyne Grainger, who secured her a tiny apartment in the Bohemian enclave of Patchin Place. McCoy’s memoirs of her early life in New York and her stay in Malibu, where she moved to recover from pneumonia, are among the unexpected pleasures of this collection. A 1948 work of fiction, The Important House, published in The New Yorker, is a wonderfully incisive commentary on the troubled relationship between architects and their clients.
McCoy eventually settled in Santa Monica and, during World War II, became a draftsman at Douglas Aircraft, an experience that qualified her, in 1944, to work for Schindler in his Kings Road studio. McCoy was thus an insider, a fly on the white concrete wall. Schindler, she noticed, spent his days on-site, supervising construction and arguing with the contractors about every detail. McCoy observed: “Someone called him an architect in an ivory tower during the years I was in his office; he was more like a field hand with a short hoe.” At their best, her essays induce a present-at-the-creation sensation. You find out, for example, that it had never occurred to Pierre Koenig, most famous for Case Study House #22, the aerie immortalized in that iconic Julius Shulman photo, to design in any material other than steel. According to McCoy he worked from “an innocence of wood.” From a retrospective look at the Case Study Houses we learn that the legendary architects faced the same impediments that innovative practitioners encounter today: “Banks, for instance, deplored a kitchen in the front of the house on the grounds that the house would have no resale value.” Charles Eames redesigned his house on the spot, after the steel was delivered. This flexibility, McCoy wrote, “makes one wonder what architecture lost when Eames chose to stick to furniture.”
With McCoy you always get her perspective, highly idiosyncratic, of the ongoing technological and cultural revolution, combined with her dispassionate descriptions of the buildings themselves, informed by a draftsman’s understanding of detail. Many of the pieces in the book were written contemporaneously, as events were unfolding, while others were retrospective, written later—sometimes much later—in life. Indeed, the only problem with this otherwise marvelous collection is that the writings are grouped thematically, not chronologically and the relevant dates can only be found in the back of the book. Occasionally that thrilling present-at-the-creation effect is, not an illusion exactly, but a sensation intensified by hindsight.