Pierre Koenig, who died on 4 April, was one of a pioneering group of architects who reshaped the face of architecture in southern California after the Second World War but whose influence was felt worldwide, writes David Jenkins.
Born in San Francisco, Koenig moved to Los Angeles as a teenager, something he recalled as a liberating experience - a shift from the fog and damp and closed rooms into the warmth of the sun and the open air.
A similar sense of liberation underscores Koenig’s approach to architecture - using new materials to new ends, and dissolving boundaries to create houses where inside and outside coalesce.
Koenig’s first house, built in 1950 when he was in his third year at USC, established a way of thinking and a means of building that would stay with him throughout his career.
Built in steel, against the advice of his tutors, the house proved that the use of prefabricated materials could open up new spatial possibilities in affordable housing. The house brought Koenig to the attention of John Entenza, publisher of Arts and Architecture magazine and promoter of the Case Study House Program, which aimed to bring Modernism to a popular audience. Its featured architects represent a roll of honour for the post-war period in California: Richard Neutra, Charles Eames, Raphael Soriano and Craig Ellwood.
Koenig’s two Case Study houses - numbered -21 and -22 - were completed in 1959 and ‘60 respectively. Koenig recalled them as ‘champagne houses built on beer budgets’.
By the standards of the time they were generous, but one senses everywhere an economy of means rooted in a thorough understanding of the construction process.
For many, house -21 represents the high point of the Case Study Program but it was house -22 that became truly iconic.
Through the medium of Julius Shulman’s celebrated photographs it is universally accepted as a kind of shorthand notation for the California good life. Perched on an ‘unbuildable site’ in the Hollywood Hills, its foundations lie, in Mies’ phrase, on ‘an architecture of almost nothing’. Reyner Banham characterised Koenig’s taut steel and glass vocabulary as ‘par excellence an architecture of omission’, one that took Mies’ dictum ‘Less is More’ beyond what even the master himself had achieved.
Used as a set for numerous movies and fashion shoots, Case Study House -22 is surely the most photographed Modern house in the world. It was perhaps not surprising that in 1989, when MOCA staged its memorable ‘Blueprints for Modern Living’ exhibition, Case Study House -22 should form the centrepiece; a full-size mock-up dominated the exhibition.
The MOCA show drew Koenig into the critical limelight once again but he was frustrated by those who wanted to focus only on the Case Study period. As he said: ‘Actually I have never considered myself out of the period.’ Looking back over his career, one sees a gradual process of experimentation and refinement. Like Mies, his career was one of constancy and truth to principles. But there was also a sense of delight and adventure. The houses he designed in the 1980s and ’90s are as fresh as those he completed in the 1950s and ’60s - all seem to be the product of a young mind, but a mind with a complete mastery of technique.
Koenig wanted also to be recognised as a teacher. For 40 years, from 1964 until shortly before his death, he taught in the School of Architecture at USC. He was first appointed as assistant director of the Institute of Building Research, assuming the title of director in 1980. There he was responsible for guiding generations of students towards what are now regarded as ‘sustainable’ strategies for building, demonstrating how orientation and choice of materials and the use of sunlight and natural ventilation can transform a building’s environmental performance.
Watching the pendulum swing towards a renewed understanding of social and environmental concerns, one sees Koenig’s work as providing a beacon for younger architects, something that would surely have surprised this unfailingly modest man.
David Jenkins is co-author of a Pierre Koenig monograph and partner in Foster and Partners