Social self-consciousness may reach its zenith in middle school, but intellectually we are at our most insecure in college. On view at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum (A&AD) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the exhibition Walter S. White: Inventions in Midcentury Architecture hands out a humbling reminder of our freshman ignorance. On the subject of White—a remarkably prolific architect and inventor working in Colorado and the Coachella Valley—midcentury monographs and weekend tours in Palm Springs have taught us almost nothing.
However embarrassing, White’s omission is at least explainable; born in San Bernardino in 1919, his career does not form a tidy resume of the sort normally favored by employers and curators. Attending school for only a brief time and with limited success, he parlayed his drafting skills and early familiarity with construction into works for Los Angeles firms whose names are no longer familiar.
Through 1942, White’s career could best be described as inconspicuous. His short stints in the offices of notable architects such as Rudolph Schindler and Harwell Hamilton Harris do not to appear to have been associated with important contributions or works. Rather than exaggerate his place next to acknowledged masters, the curators place this period of apprenticeship where it belongs— among dozens of more banal events preceding his independent career, such as the award that he received for architectural lettering at the California State Fair. In the context of this exhibit, it is an artifact at least as important as the names of his famous employers.
The exhibition is arranged into five sections: Early Career, Small Houses, Large Houses, Design Innovations, and Building with Nature—each is given a wall of detailed plans, photos, and elevations, and a display of associated ephemera. Models are absent except for a small card stock vignette of a roof. A commissioned reconstruction of a corner of one of his buildings sits in the center of the gallery and mostly serves to break up the size of an enormous room in which the detail of the drawings would otherwise be lost.
The curatorial intent seems clear enough; White was a professional engaged in the craft of designing and innovating through orthographic drawing, and his work is best understood with one’s nose at the wall. His design interests are apparent from what is registered on blueprint and vellum—the seasonal path of the sun, or an arc annotated “panoramic view of Pikes Peak Massif.”
One unpedigreed career stop does deserve note. In 1942, White took a job at Douglas Aircraft as a machine tool designer, which appears to have exposed him to methods of construction outside of conventional architecture, and reinforced an early inclination for detail. After Douglas and a short stint with Clark and Frey, White established his own practice, and the commissions become more varied and innovative—at first tentatively and then with the courage of someone who believes that while unconventional, what they are drawing is objectively better.
Later, still working primarily on residential architecture, he devised and patented the steel-framed hyperbolic paraboloid roof structure suitable for airplane enclosures as well as residences that was most notably used in his striking Willockson House from 1958. Dramatic roofs were the big formal move in most of his work. White continued to tinker with techniques to make their construction simpler and minimize their constraints on the underlying plan.
This yen to improve seems not to have been entirely rewarded—the exhibition is sprinkled with darting references to cost overruns, unhappy clients, and projects going unrealized. Nothing suggests that these setbacks left White dispirited, but it is impossible not to wince, seeing his careful drafting etch out “Industrial Designer—Not an Architect” on the title block a design in which he was obviously invested.
White eventually became licensed and earned some regional fame, yet his work escaped posthumous recognition. It’s too bad; most of the best experiences of the designed world come from architects like White, the ones tinkering in the background.
The AD&A has a history of mounting exhibitions on minor players who made major impacts. We should be grateful to the museum for refusing to let us forget them in favor of noisier contemporaries. This show is a great reminder that occasionally, we, like White, should sometimes leave Los Angeles behind. There is much to be learned from an architect who had no significant commissions in Los Angeles, left behind no single iconic work, but instead left his mark on Palm Desert and Colorado Springs with hundreds of remarkable residences that elevated the ambitions of modern vernacular housing.