A life less ordinary
Craig Ellwood By Neil Jackson. Laurence King Publishing, 2002. 208pp. £35 At times Neil Jackson's monograph on Craig Ellwood reads more like an episode of Hollywood Wives than an essay in the manner of Vasari's Lives. Born Jon Nelson Burke in 1922 and brought up in near poverty in the Mid-West, Ellwood finished his schooling in Los Angeles and married shortly before military service. His second wife was a Hollywood starlet, under contract to Columbia Studios, and they wedded under the assumed name Ellwood.
After, two more wives, a 15-year mid-life crisis, a facelift and a descent into drink and drugs, Ellwood's end came in 1992. He is not the only architect to have lived a colourful life, but here the sometimes lurid private details - Jackson weaves extensive quotes from taped interviews into a finely crafted text - are essential to understanding an almost equally extraordinary professional life.
Ellwood stumbled into building, forming a short-lived contracting company and then working as a cost estimator for the firm that built the Eames and Entenza Case Study Houses. From there he drifted into designing.He took evening courses in construction and structures, but did not formally qualify as an architect until after retirement, by which time he was in Italy developing a minor reputation as a painter.
Unable to sketch or draft, Ellwood was more than usually dependent upon assistants, to whom he gave scant credit. Equally, he had an intuitive feel for structure and a superb eye, evident in the slender steelwork and shadow-gap detailing of the 1951 Hale House, whose planar composition he regarded as his starting point.
The following year, 1952, saw Case Study House 16, featuring a recessed glass facade and wafer-thin roof, and the Courtyard Apartments, which introduced his trademark exposed steel truss. Gropius, Aalto and other European luminaries awarded the scheme a prize at the São Paulo biennial, which Ellwood was quick to exploit. He employed the best photographers, most famously Julius Shulman, and bombarded magazines with photos and eulogistic project descriptions, many of which appeared verbatim as 'editorial' text.
His was, Ellwood claimed, 'the most widely published 'architectural' firm west of Chicago', and several projects became iconic:
the 1958 Smith House on its dramatic sloping site, which The Architectural Review declared 'the ultimate demonstration of modern architecture as an erector toy'; three Case Study Houses; and the canyon-spanning Weekend House. He built elegant industrial buildings and an impressive facility for the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena - a large-scale and structurally more logical version of the Weekend House - but it is for the domestic work that he will be remembered.
Lacking any formal education in architecture, Ellwood was not given to theorising. He professed a belief in 'the art and science of structure', and was in no doubt that 'society judges a building by its visual expression.
Thus the substance of architecture is form, and this alone has survival value.' Several of the houses were, as Jackson points out, all but uninhabitable due to solar gain, and Ellwood was not always rigorous in his expression of structure. But, as reputations depended increasingly on the dissemination of images through magazines, this hardly mattered.
My only quibble with a finely written and well-illustrated book is the downbeat conclusion, which ends elegiacally - as in a morality play - with Ellwood's death rather than with an evaluation of his legacy. For all their practical shortcomings and little structural deceits, Ellwood's houses remain among the most moving emblems of that vision of lightness that was close to the heart of Modernity. Never easily emulated in the British climate, it now seems forever beyond reach thanks to the tyranny of Part L. Buy this book and dream again.
Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University