Irving Gill: Daring to Be Simple
“If we, the architects of the West, wish to do great work we must dare to be simple, must have the courage to fling aside every device that distracts the eye from structural beauty, must break through convention and get down to fundamental truths.”
It may be the quintessential tale of Southern California architecture, what time and earthquakes don’t destroy, ignorance often does. Such is the story of Irving Gill’s Dodge House. Once considered “one of the most architecturally significant American houses of the 20th century.” Completed in 1914, at a time when the Italianate, Queen Anne, Folk Victorian, and Eastlake/Stick styles were the rage. Styles that had emigrated from the East Coast which in turn was an attempt to create America into an image of a low budget Europe.
The Dodge House wanted to change all that, break with conventions and bring Southern California its own architectural legacy. To do that Gill went back to California’s first colonial buildings, the missions: Unadorned, white, boxy, with Moorish details. (Not unlike the cubes of townhouses of Moorish Portugal, Olhão Terraces in Algrave.)
Gill was Bauhaus before there was Bauhaus (he died in 1936), one of the pioneers of Modernism. Gill had no formal architectural training and never attended college. His minimalist, boxy buildings—like the Dodge House above—proved to be highly influential to both his peers and the next generation of architects, many of whom were no slouches themselves: Schindler, Lloyd Wright, Neutra, Loos, Van Der Rohe. Critic and historian Henry-Russel Hitchcock, a contemporary of Gill’s, said that Gill’s buildings of the 1910s “approach rather closely the most advanced European houses of the next decade… The whole effect, in its clarity of form and simplicity of means, is certainly more premonitory of the next stage of modern architecture than any other American work of its period.”
Other critics called his work “cubist.” Tastes being what they are, would move on and leave Gill behind in his later years. After his death, his reputation faded quickly. A 1960 book, “Five California Architects” (still in print) did much to renew interest his work (and California architecture in general). Eventually, his reputation would grow to exceed even what it was in his lifetime.
The Oceanside Museum of Art (OMA), Gill’s 5,000 square foot original building on the left and Fredrick Fisher’s three-level, 15,000 square foot expansion:
The Timken House, demolished:
Raymond House (1918), still standing: