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Californian promise.

Had Gordon Drake not died aged 35 while skiing in the Sierras in 1952, he might have become one of the great names of post-war Californian architecture. As it was, he had not yet finished taking his California architectural licensing exams. Nevertheless his immediate influence can be recognised in the framed terraces and enclosed garden courts of Craig Ellwood's three Case Study Houses of 195 3, `55 and `58, and more recently, a similar use of gridded plans and natural fighting can be identified in Glenn Murcutt's work.

Gordon Drake suffered the mixed blessing of achieving early fame by winning, in 1946, Progressive Architecture's First Annual Award with his very first house and then winning, with his next two buildings, second place in the House and Gardens 1947 Awards in Architecture and a Mention in Progressive Architecture's Second Annual Award. His architecture was strongly influenced by Harwell Hamilton Harris who had taught him at the University of Southern California and for whom he had worked before and after the war. It was some indication of Drake's demanding character that Harris later wrote, `When satisfied there was nothing further to be discovered by continuing a design, he dropped it. Knowing this about him,' he added, `it is surprising that I let him come to work for me'.(1) In July 1949, frustrated in his own attempts at architecture, Drake had written to Harris: `It has taken me almost three years to write this letter and perhaps my present low estate was necessary for me to tell you that should I ever arrive at anything of merit in architecture it will be because I was able to work for a time under your guidance.'(2)

It was from Harris that he had learned the benefits of modular construction and the flexibility of gridded plans. It was not just the simplicity of such systems which appealed to Drake but also what they implied: here was a building process which could provide, at minimum cost, a high-quality living environment even an egalitarian architecture. This was the intent of his first house, built for himself in Beverly Glen, Los Angeles, and the essence of all his later work.

The Beverly Glen house, judged by William Wurster and Eliel Saarinen to `best exemplify sound progress in design,'(3) was a simple, single-room, handmade affair in glass and redwood. Arranged on a gridded plan, its long west elevation opened into the warm bowl of a hillside, the roof beams reaching out and hugging the trees which punctuated the brick terrace. Thus despite the restricted, viewless nature of the canyon site, every attempt was made, as The Architects' Journal told British readers, `to do away with any feeling of enclosure or smallness.'(4) Constructed of 100 mm square posts at 1800 mm centres, the redwood frame set up a close and intimate rhythm which was picked up in the repetitive glazed doors and translucent screens of the west elevation and extended across the panelled ceiling to the clerestory lights lining the other walls. Drake had conceived the house while serving in the Pacific as a major in the US Marines and, on coming home, built it with a group of war veterans who, as Progressive Architecture noted, `felt responsible for more than the labor they were performing'.(5) This was the same altruistic intent which John Entenza expressed in promoting Arts Architecture's contemporary Case Study House program: an attempt to provide well-designed and affordable housing for the post-war years.

Surprisingly, Drake never built a Case Study House. Perhaps he died too soon or was too faithfully wedded to timber, for from 1949 to 1960 the eight Case Study Houses which Entenza published had steel frames. Nevertheless, his David Presley House, built in Silver Lake, Los Angeles in 1946 was as experimental as any Entenza promoted. It was built as a test house for the Home-Ola housing company of Chicago, but the fact that the site was unconventional, steeply sloping and with excellent views, compromised the prototypical nature of the design which was intended for unremarkable, flatland sites. `The Presleys', Drake wrote to Eleanor Bittermann at Architectural Forum, `are a couple in their mid-twenties and like most young people have never been exposed to work of this spirit ... My work was called to their attention just at the time when the panel system of construction was being investigated. They were told of the nature and risk of the experiment and decided to be the subjects ... Throughout the design and construction they have been most cooperative and now that the house is finished seem very pleased with the finished product'.(6) As with his own house, the Presley house snuggled into the hillside but, with open views to the north, the main living spaces also took advantage of this aspect. Arranged on a 1200 mm grid, the house was constructed of prefabricated stressed-skin plywood panels with doors and windows built in. The simple, monopitch roof allowed for clerestory windows and standardised roof and fascia panels. `The Presley house,' he explained, `investigates the feasibility of the system of construction and stays within the limits of the basic scheme as much as the site and the client's needs would allow. It cannot be compared to either a custom designed house or to one that has reached the simplification of mass production. I feel it is a compromise to both; a compromise that will be justified by the revised sceme [sic] that suits the needs of an average unknown client on a site devoid of either grade or view.'(7)

In his attempt to design for the average unknown client, Drake left Los Angeles in early 1948. `I must go up to Carmel,' he wrote, `and build a professional budding that expresses what I believe in. This must be built with my own hands as an expression of faith.'(8) His idea was to open a professional office which was also a graduate school and research centre, simllar to Christopher Alexander's forum at the Center for Environmental Structure at Martinez, California. Its interests were not limited to architecture, but would encompass planning, landscape and other disciplines. But most importantly, the office would serve the community. As Drake said, `Through research arrive at honest planning. Build. Evaluate. Give these ideas and developments to the community as they desire them. Create that desire.'(9)

The result was two houses, one a vacation home for Edward Kennedy, publisher of The Monterey Peninsula Herald and the other a speculative design called the Mesa House. Both houses brought the design and social philosophy of his Los Angeles houses to northern California. The first was set into a hillside with trellised courts and roof decks extending the living spaces into the landscape providing `as much individual choice (sun or shade; openness or intimacy: view or enclosure) as possible.'(10) The objective of the other, with its enclosed garden courts opening off each living and bed-room, was `to give the maximum indoor and outdoor living space under the restriction of a small lot.'(11) Modular and inexpensive, built of stock pieces and supported by a lengthy series of standardised details and specifications which Drake had prepared on sheets of 300 x 300 mm tracing paper, the concept was well suited to the speculative market but the market was not ready. The commissions for the other houses Drake had hoped to build never materialised so in the autumn of 1949 he went on up to San Francisco to share an office with the landscape architect Douglas Baylis who had worked with him on the Mesa House. Here he continued to explore ways of working with architecture and landscape, many ideas being published in Sunset, the Magazine of Western Living. Under Walter Doty's editorship the emphasis of the magazine was, as it still is, on living with nature. Between articles on travel, food and gardening, Sunset showed buildings by Harwell Hamilton Harris, William Wurster, john Lautner and Pietro Behuschi, as well as making much use of landscape architects like Tommy Church, Garret Eckbo and Drake's friend Douglas Baylis. It was through these designs, often published anonymously, that Drake finally reached the average unknown client. For the vacationing Californian he drew `Designs for cabin living',(12) flexible and inexpensive schemes for beach, riverside and mountain sites. For those who remained at home he provided `Good ideas for your garden dining room'(13) and showed How tomorrow's Western kitchens will extend to the out-of-doors.'(14) He even published ideas for modular screens with which `you can build almost any garden structure.'(15) And then at the end of 1951 Drake moved into Lawrence Halprin's landscape office.

Gordon Drake completed his last two buildings in 1951. The Unit House, designed with Douglas Baylis and built in the East Bay near Oakland, was a combination of his own first house and the river cabin he designed for Sunset. a simple, almost single-cell building, based upon a 1800 mm grid with the possibility, as its name suggested, of modular expansion. As if conceived for Sunset readers, it was a very Californian house, offering a series of five terrace spaces for outdoor living - sunny, shaded, sheltered, roofed and, for the kids, supervised. Redwood gave it warmth and clerestory and gable lights softened its lines.

These techniques were used again at the Robert S Berns House at Malibu, where a variety of terraced spaces combined to form a gentle and progressive entrance sequence, and the glare of the ocean was softened by screens of stretched muslin, burlap and rice paper. When Drake's friend Julius Shulman photographed the house in 1953, he caught Esther McCoy, who was to write so much about modern Californian architecture, sitting on the seafront terrace.

Early the next year Drake took a few days' holiday to go skiing near Lake Tahoe with a New Zealand architect, Warren Radcliff, and another friend, Betsy Roeth, whom he might have married had he lived longer. On 15 January he went out on his own after a heavy lunch and, not being a very good skier, fell heavily in the fresh snow and, vomiting, choked to death. In his wallet was a half-sheet of writing paper with a few pencilled lines copied from John Donne's Devotions.(16) `No man is an island, entire of it self;' he had written, `Every man is a peace of the continent, a part of the main.'(17) The quotation continued with words which could have been his epitaph: `Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.'
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Title Annotation:review of architect Gordon Drake's designs
Author:Jackson, Neil
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1996
Previous Article:Spherical interludes.
Next Article:About the House.

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