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A. Quincy Jones: High and Low 

Modernist architect sought luxury on a budget

Wednesday, Feb 20 2008

Archibald Quincy Jones might have been the quintessential modernist architect. Like his contemporaries in the generation that followed Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, Jones worked with steel and glass and concrete and plywood. He designed to create an interplay between house and garden. He built modest homes, on a modest budget, for clients of modest means. But unlike the others, Jones operated on a massive scale. With his partner, Frederick E. Emmons, Jones designed the seminal Eichler Homes for northern California developer Joseph L. Eichler. Eleven thousand Eichlers were built according to Jones' conception of a small, open floor plan, with nearly every room open to the exterior and flooded with light. Triumphs of compression, the post-and-beam houses, which felt like one large room under one small roof, shaped the idea of postwar, subdivision American life.

(Click to enlarge)

click to enlarge Kenaston House, Laguna Beach (1949)
  • Kenaston House, Laguna Beach (1949)

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Kenaston House, Laguna Beach (1949)

What Jones sought to achieve was luxury living on a tight budget and a tiny plot of land. Luxury for Jones meant something other than a shrine to consumerism. It meant ease of living, sensitivity to the site, and elegant use of simple materials. Jones' own Steel House #2, which he built in 1954, is a model of his conception. The one-story, steel-frame house was partially prefabricated offsite and trucked in. Completed in just three months (and later destroyed in minutes in the Bel Air fire), it consisted of a superthin flat roof floating above glass walls. Dead simple; but then Jones took the interior space and rather than carve it up, he left it truly open. Only curtains closed off the living spaces from public areas. The living room doubled as a library, with a bed that converted to a couch. The kitchen was kitchen, family room and dining room all in one. "I have been convinced for a long time that the old flow patterns no longer make sense," Jones told the Herald Examiner. "We live much more informally than we used to. We can't afford servants that would shame us into formal living. Why walk through the front door to your bedroom if the bedroom already has its own 'front door' — a beautiful sliding-glass wall?"

Looking at the dozens of images Cory Buckner has assembled of Jones' work, it becomes clear that an expression such as "beautiful sliding-glass wall" was anything but glib. Jones understood his palette, and he knew with an instinct that can only be innate that spaces could be imbued with particular feelings through the concise use of things like exposed beams, concrete blocks and clerestory windows. The Griffith Park Girls Camp, completed in 1949, is a primer on using a tongue-and-groove ceiling and brick-and-glass walls to create intimacy and warmth and raucous freedom under a single roof. In the dining rooms, the ceiling is aloft, floating away on a sea of glass; in the bedrooms it tips down, seeming almost to tuck the campers into bed. Jones placed the posts that hold the roof up along the inside of the dorm walls — interior flying buttresses, in effect, that tie the room together with warmth and a height appropriate to children thrown together in a camp setting. Such perfect pitch is everywhere in Jones' work, from a church, such as St. Michael and All Angels Church in Studio City (1962), or a supermarket, like the King Cole Market in Whittier (1951), since demolished.

It is true, as Buckner says, that Jones had worked with "economy and simplicity, beauty and quiet reserve." But his concern was not solely aesthetic. While attending the University of Washington, Jones lived with Lionel H. Pries, his professor and mentor. Jones was a student boarder — a relationship of teacher to pupil that is all but impossible to imagine today, when condescension is the dominant mode of pedagogy. From Pries he acquired the conviction that architecture was not about the manipulation of historical styles, but was involved in "problem solving." In the postwar era of mass-produced suburbia, Jones believed the problem was one of community.

In his enormous project of 500 homes for the Cooperative Housing Group, a communal development initiated by four musicians in 1951 in the then-blank Crestwood Hills, north of Sunset Boulevard, he reduced lot sizes to make room for a nursery school, a park, a rec center, a grocery store and a doctor's office. In his proposal for Case Study House #24, Jones designed a building insulated by an earth berm — that would have connected to a larger, planned community with greenbelts, a shopping area and a community center. City officials rejected the plan, citing worries that homeowners might not maintain the greenbelt areas. A badly flubbed decision, stalling a design that was at least two generations ahead of its time.

Back then, Jones complained, "the city planner functioning independently of the architect can only reproduce chaos." The irony is that today's city planners make the same complaint about architects. The unsettling truth is that neither matters very much. Despite an abiding shortage of housing, especially for the poor, but for the middle class too, the kind of modernism Jones practiced — a measured, informed commitment to creating spaces with feeling from inexpensive raw materials, married to a firm belief in community building — is a thing of the past. Modernism, by and large, has been reduced to gobs of square-footage and costly sleek finishes, and is exclusively the realm of the rich.

The frontispiece of A. Quincy Jones shows the architect at his desk in 1953. His white shirt sleeves are rolled up. He has a pen and a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket. His hair is combed back, and his narrow red-and-gold-striped tie is crisply knotted. Jones looks comfortable, in himself and at the drawing table — triangle, scale ruler, bench brush at hand. He looks, in other words, classically 1950s, a man of his time. It is useful to recall that not that long ago it would not have been career suicide for an architect to propose that every family deserves "luxury living" in a 1,200-square-foot house with a park, a nursery and a doctor's office nearby. Modernism, and Jones, needs resurrection. Cory Buckner's book is a good start.

A. QUINCY JONES | By CORY BUCKNER | Phaidon | 272 pages; 307 B&W illustrations | $30 softcover

  • Modernist architect sought luxury on a budget

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