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Lean machine


This book is pretty much what we have come to expect from Phaidon. It is beautifully designed and photographed. Indeed, many of the images are stunning black-and-white originals taken by Julius Shulman, a longterm friend of Raphael Soriano. But essentially it is a product that seeks to reinforce received architectural discourse, rather than challenge it in any way.

It comes over as a solid and efficient recounting of Soriano's career, with a meticulous inventory of all of the projects, as well as an extremely useful map of how to find his surviving buildings in Los Angeles.Yet, in the end, the book does little to add to the sterling work on Soriano contained in Neil Jackson's more wide-ranging book on steelframed houses in post-war California.

In the research for that book, Jackson was able to draw in part on a close personal rapport with Soriano himself. The author of this volume, given Soriano's death in the intervening period, is forced to rely on a single interview carried out by someone else back in 1985, and hence there remains a detached air to the text. The result is that this book works best if regarded as a gazetteer to the work of Soriano, rather than something that one might read in order to obtain more insight into an architect who was clearly an intriguing and influential individual - well, at least for part of his professional life.

Soriano was born in Rhodes in 1904 and came over to Los Angeles in 1924, almost contemporaneously with figures such as Schindler and Neutra. He started up his own architectural practice in Hollywood in 1935.

Although he designed some attractive brick and timber houses prior to the Second World War, it was the experience of lean and efficient construction that he imbibed during the period of wartime rationing - Raphael Soriano By Wolfgang Wagener. Phaidon, 2002. 224pp. £39.95 whether in the use of steel, aluminium or plywood - that led him to design such seminal examples as the Hallawell Seed Garden Center in San Francisco (1942), or, in the Los Angeles area after the war, the Katz House (1947), Shulman House (1950), and his single contribution in the Pacific Palisades to the Case Study programme (also 1950).

In that, Soriano tried to return to the original Case Study ideal of creating anonymous and relatively economical dwellings for the city's expanding middle classes, rather than the exquisite but rarefied examples that were being built by, say, Charles Eames for his own use. Predictably, he did not get on with John Entenza, the figure behind the Case Study initiative, and so further involvement was unlikely. But regardless of this, Soriano managed to maintain a continuing influence by proxy, given that two of the assistants who went though his office on their path to fame were none other than Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood.

Always an awkward and pugnacious figure, Soriano was effectively driven out of Los Angeles by the local professional chapter in 1953. As a result, he headed up the coast to set up shop in Tiburon, just north of San Francisco. There, he engaged with progressive developers such as Joseph Eichler - his prototype for a mass-produced lightweight steel-framed house for Eichler, built rapidly on a small plot in Palo Alto, was as exquisite a statement of Soriano's intent as could be found anywhere.

Soriano also became embroiled in an attempt to revolutionise aluminium construction, but the sad truth was that by then his star was already on the wane. His last years were rather embittered, illuminated only by the enthusiasm of Jackson and a few others who continued to value his contribution.

Now it would appear Soriano is becoming recognised once more, and an in-depth biography is reputedly on the way. So this book is probably only for the true aficionados of the Case Study programme and of Californian post-war housing. Failing that, I recommend the far superior book by Jackson (The Modern Steel House), if you do not have it already.

Murray Fraser is a professor at Oxford Brookes University

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