Toward a Simpler Way of Life: The Arts and Crafts Architects of California Edited by Robert Winter. University of California Press, 1997. 320pp. £35. (Distributor 01243 779777)
In the early twentieth century a gutsy eclecticism was the rule for middle-class houses in California. In the lush suburbs of Pasadena or in San Francisco's Pacific Heights district, you will see houses all of one type but in different styles - Colonial Revival, English Tudor, Spanish Colonial, French Renaissance. Occasionally you will come across a house which cannot be so readily labelled. Apart from a massive chimneystack of boulders or roughly-burnt brick, it is probably made of wood, and looks it, a wooden frame covered with planks or shingles. It has gabled roofs and deep eaves, a wide porch, balconies and perhaps a terrace.
The other houses present a solid-looking exterior, masonry as mask. But this one is partly open, the wooden frame only lightly sheathed, and here and there neatly-sawn timbers stick out, as if anxious to tell you what a useful job they are doing further back. Inside, the principal rooms are loosely grouped, and often linked to each other by wide openings. In their day these houses were furnished with stout oak furniture by the likes of Gustav Stickley, table lamps from the San Francisco coppersmith Dirk van Erp, and pottery from one of America's many art potteries such as Rookwood or Grueby. For these are the houses of the Arts and Crafts movement in California.
Nowadays there is an Arts and Crafts revival in America. It is not only a matter of scholars and collectors but also of home-makers and craftspeople. People buy Arts and Crafts houses and want Stickley furniture to put in them. If they can't get the real thing, there are skilled furniture-makers who can make replicas, or solid furniture in the Arts and Crafts manner. Increasingly, these houses are being furnished as they were 90 years ago.
Toward a Simpler Way of Life is a part of this revival. It is a collection of well-researched and, for the most part, well-focused essays on individual architects. The editor, Robert Winter, was one of the first to draw attention to California's Arts and Crafts history in the exhibition 'California Design 1910' of 1974. At that time, perhaps the only names that were known beyond a local circle of experts were Greene and Greene, whose Gamble House in Pasadena is now a celebrated house museum, Irving Gill of San Diego, whose adobe-inspired plastered houses read easily as early Modernism, and the quirky, eclectic genius of Bernard Maybeck in and around San Francisco. In 1983 Richard Longstreth published a scholarly study, On the Edge of the World, which drew attention to a group of very inventive architects working alongside Maybeck - Ernest Coxhead, Willis Polk and A C Schweinfurth. And now, enlarging the canon further and witnessing to the flood-tide of the revival, Winter has brought together a team of historians, architects and journalists to write short essays on no fewer than 28 individual architects.
The big names are there, but so are others who deserve to be looked at carefully, such as Coxhead and Louis Christian Mullgardt. There are important figures who contributed to Arts and Crafts architecture without being quite of the movement, such as Julia Morgan, and John Galen Howard, a Beaux-Arts man who influenced Arts and Crafts architecture through the engaging directness of the ever-growing, ever-temporary wooden building he designed for the School of Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. And there is a welcome last section, devoted to Modernist architects working either side of the Second World War, such as William Wurster and Joseph Esherick. Arts and Crafts plainness evolved into a local brand of unpretentious Modernism. Catherine Bauer Wurster said of her husband, 'There is nobody like Bill to make a $90,000 house look like a $10,000 house.'
Notable among the essays are Winter's own introduction on the myth of California, Edward Bosley's careful description of the building of the influential, nature-oriented Swedenborgian church in San Francisco, the late David Gebhard on F T Underhill's bungalow at Montecito, perfectly rational and perfectly woodsy, and Daniel Gregory on Wurster and Esherick. If the book has a drawback it is that, in contrast to the sumptuous colour of much modern architectural publishing (and of many Californian buildings), it is illustrated in a delicate sepia tone. I don't think it was meant to, but it gave me a sense of nostalgic pastness, which is misleading. Some of these buildings have gone. But many survive, and they are well worth seeing.
Alan Crawford is an architectural historian