The international reputation of Charles Sumner Greene (1868-1957) and Henry Mather Greene (1870-1954) rests on the sequence of ravishing houses which they built in Pasadena, California, in the brief period between 1907 and 1910. In those designs, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, the Green brothers fused influences from both the English Arts and Crafts movement and Japan into an architecture highly suited to the landscape, climate and emerging culture of southern California.
Edward R Bosley's meticulously researched new book sets these buildings in the widest context by describing the lives and works of their architects in the greatest detail. He follows them from their childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, and through their education, first in St Louis and later at the Beaux-Arts oriented MIT. In their parents' footsteps, they then moved to California and opened an office in Pasadena in 1894.
From the outset most of their work was for private houses. The early designs were, not surprisingly, derivative and relatively undistinguished, but at the beginning of the new century this started to change. In rapid succession the brothers were married, Henry in 1899 and Charles in 1901. By Bosley's account, Henry was the more organised of the two and he was left to look after the office while the more fanciful Charles and his new wife took a four-month honeymoon, travelling to England, Scotland and the continent - in all probability encountering the Arts and Crafts movement at first hand.
On his return Charles designed a house for himself and his family, and it is in this that the first hints of the mature manner may be seen. Bosley shows how the nature of the work quickly developed, as the practice grew in the first years of the century. He can legitimately claim that, in this short period, Greene & Greene laid down the ground rules for 'the Californian House'.
The central chapter of the book focuses on three major houses - Gamble, Blacker and Thorsen - with supplementary accounts of two smaller contemporary designs, Ford and Pratt. It is in these that the Greene & Greene house reaches its apogee. In form, materiality, detail and execution they are comparable with any of the great houses of their contemporaries in America or Europe.
It is not surpr ising that C R Ashbee , who visited California in 1909, wrote: 'I think C Sumner Greene's work beautiful; among the best there is in this country. Like Lloyd Wright the spell of Japan is upon him, like Lloyd Wright he feels the beauty and makes magic out of the horizontal line, but in his work there is more tenderness, more subtlety, more self-effacement than in Wright's work, and it is more refined and has more repose. '
But, just as the practice reached its highest point, Charles' restless spirit drew him away to England once more, where he stayed for six months in 1909, leaving Henry in charge of the office again, and continuing the trajectory of the work, though in a more restrained manner. On Charles' return the work took a significant new direction in the design of the Mortimer Fleischbacker house, Green Gables (1911-12). This is a very large house in an 'English' manner, quite unlike anything they had built before.
In 1916 Charles left Pasadena for good and moved to Carmel-by-the-Sea,480km to the north. In their now independent practices the brothers continued to produce significant houses, though not with the power and coherence of the great Pasadena designs.
When Greene & Greene's work attracted new interest in the '50s and '60s, the Pasadena houses were placed alongside Wright's Prairie period and the English Arts and Crafts as 'pioneers of modern design'. Bosley ignores the trap of such interpretation and shows their work to be deeply rooted in the social, economic and cultural circumstances of America as it sought its identity in the early twentieth century.
This is a work of first-class scholarship, thoroughly annotated and with a detailed listing of all the joint and independent projects. It is beautifully illustrated and, through its objectivity, presents both the men and their work in the most sympathetic light.
Dean Hawkes is professor at the Welsh School of Architecture