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California dreaming

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Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream By Paul Adamson and Marty Arbunich. Gibbs Smith, 2002. 240pp. £35

From the Dom-ino house and the Weissenhofseidlung, the idea of creating housing that was mass-produced and affordable yet also Modern took firm hold. In California, the demand for housing at the end of the Second World War, fuelled by grants to war veterans, encouraged speculative builders to fling up large tracts. But only one man truly embraced the Modern idiom and showed that unadorned, open-plan houses could be built and sold in large numbers. He was Joe Eichler.

Eichler had moved from New York in the 1920s to develop his in-laws' egg business in the San Francisco area. He left the firm two years before it was indicted for fraud in 1945, and in the interim had rented a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Hillsborough, the modest brick and cedar Bazett House. This kindled his interest in architecture, and in 1947 he launched his own homebuilding business, through which he sold prefabricated homes to buyers with their own lots.

In 1949 Eichler hired a draughtsman to design houses, and in 1950 the architects Anshen and Allen. Robert Anshen designed a modest timber and glass model for a tract in Sunnyvale, an outer suburb of San Francisco where land was inexpensive. Some 226 houses were built, and in December 1950 they won an award in Architectural Forum.

The same issue also featured a prototype house by A Quincy Jones, whom Eichler also recruited. Jones and his partner Frederick Emmons, with Anshen and Allen and later Claude Oakland, went on to build more than 11,000 unabashedly Modern homes, mostly in the San Francisco area.

With low-pitched roofs, deep eaves, and large areas of glass enclosing private courtyards, these were modest versions of the timber-built Usonian house. Soriano produced a steel prototype in Palo Alto that was never put into production - timber was easier. Jones designed a Case Study House, -24, with Eichler for the Los Angeles-based Arts and Architecture magazine, but this also remained unbuilt.

Within his San Francisco tracts Eichler was, however, adventurous. He used landscape architects such as Thomas Church, and experimented with good quality street furniture and more varied layouts than was customary. At $14,000 to $20,000, Eichler's houses cost twice that of his competitors, but appealed to a niche market of university staff and scientists that made the San Francisco area unique for such a venture. Eichler was also progressive for his time in having no policy of racial segregation. Shrewd marketing, advertising campaigns, and plaudits from magazines such as House and Home ensured the success of Eichler homes through the 1950s.

In the early 1960s, Eichler and Oakland turned to inner-city developments. Eichler Homes could not cope with the higher land prices and the cost of building tall blocks for rent, and Joe Eichler allowed the firm to be taken over in 1966. It was finally dissolved in 1968, and Eichler died in 1974.

From interviews with Eichler's son Ned, surviving sales representatives and original owners, the authors piece together a remarkable story. The text is over-long, repetitive and hagiographic, but it is redeemed by the illustrations - most of them publicity photographs taken by Ernie Braun. With a low eye-level and carefully posed families - holding dinner parties or having pillow fights - these are little-known but stunning images of the 1950s Californian idyll.

The book is timely, for in 1999 a group was founded by a number of Eichler communities to campaign for the preservation of their tracts as 'historic districts.' With their balance of indoor and outdoor spaces, community and privacy, they are not some quaint, failed experiment, but a slice of real American life.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage

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