MID CENTURY ARCHITECTURE AND A CITY CELEBRATED

This week on arts and entertainment observed on public radio 99.1 KBU and select websites, it is architecture, and a new and attractive book, entitled “Mod Mirage.” Written by preservationist Melissa Riche and resplendently photographed by Jim Riche, the book’s focus is the singular desert city of Rancho Mirage, a seasonal retreat, of, 17,000 plus.

It is a pleasant place to live, according to its boosters, if you like dry, hot weather, and can afford its lifestyle in this day and age of increasing income disparity in a declining democracy.

What distinguishes the city for me and is celebrated in “Mod Mirage,” is its wealth of the very livable Midcentury Modernist architecture, a distinct inviting style marked by economical post and beam construction, minimal support walls, and the maximum the use of glass, exposing the surrounding landscape.

The flair for flat cantilevered roofs, creating a light, horizontal   machine look, reflects its severe predecessor International Style, out of the pre war European Bauhaus movement, and heralded by the condescending design fraternity. But Midcentury was more.

However loosely labeled, the style extols Southern California benign climate and casual culture, and deserves prominence in the pantheon of design. The unabashed appreciation for the architectural style and affection for Rancho Mirage by the book’s author wife and photographer husband makes for a coffee table must for Midcentury fans, which include many in Malibu

Lending a welcomed perspective is an exuberant foreword by Brad Dunning, who observes that, “since most homes in the desert (in the 1950s) were second or seasonal homes, they represented not only leisure, relaxation and health, but also debauchery and frivolity. It was only natural the more flamboyant and joyous architecture mirrored the association.”

No doubt another book can be written on that theme, given the host of celebrities that frolicked there, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and the Marx brothers, to name just a few.

To be sure, being in the entertainment business, the celebs also obviously had an appreciation of architecture as a stage set of sorts for their lifestyles, and employed a host of distinguished designers of the day, encouraging them to be inventive.  These included Wallace Neff, Richard Neutra, Paul Williams, Quincy Jones and William Cody. They were very much up to the task, as the Riches document in a descriptive text and exquisite photograph, in an elegant design for Gibbs Smith publishers. Glad to see they are still doing architecture books.

“The budgets, the clients, the views, and the unique environment all encouraged architects to think differently, “ writes Riche. “The result was an unparalleled collection of modernist designs at its most refined.” And a modest, desert city like no other.

Kudos for all who have rallied to preserve the distinctively styled architecture in Rancho Mirage, and also to Melissa and Jim Riche for faithfully documenting the history.

 

 

MOVING SAM MALOOF

For my pubic radio commentary this week, an unusual topic involving an uncommon craftsman and a distinct historic landmark, chronicled in singular book by an adroit architect.

It makes for an interesting read, especially for historic preservation buffs, and prompt a visit to Rancho Cucamonga. You will not be disappointed.

The topic is the diligent relocation of a two woodworking studios, a hand crafted residence, guesthouse and 20 odd mature trees out of the path of a planned freeway to a protected site three miles away.

The book title tells it all: “Moving Sam Maloof,” with an explanatory sub title, quote “Saving an American Woodworking Legend’s Home and Workshop,” end quote. Revealing also was that it was written with empathy by Ann Kovara , who not incidentally was the relocation project’s construction manager.

You usually do not get this literary quality from a practicing architect or perspective from a writer.

Packing the contents, taking down several detailed structures, uprooting a score of select trees, then moving it all a short distance on local streets, and reconstructing and replanting it all, is not your usual dramatic subject for an engaging book.

But “Moving Sam Maloof,” surprisingly is, especially if familiar with the original bucolic compound and a friend and admirer of the owner.

When I got to know Sam he already was an acclaimed woodworker, a true California Living Legend, indeed the first craftsman to receive a MacArthur Foundation so called genius grant; his exquisite furniture was in demand, back ordered for years, and workshop thriving.

Nevertheless, he always found time to open his shop and beguile my students venturing out of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Those days for me ran into evenings and relaxed meals with him and his lovely wife Alfreda and children at an accommodating nearby restaurant. He also gave his time freely for several TV segments I produced.

Kovara captures that spirit of Sam that was truly tested when the State made clear its intention to run a freeway through his 5 acre compound of 45 years.

Tough negotiations followed, during which time preservation grants became available, the overseeing bureaucrats became sympathetic, and the elaborate relocation details were resolved, with all involved bending a little, not unlike a rare pliable hardwood.

Sam witnessed the move, which took 3 years, from 1998 to 2001. He sadly passed, in 2009, at age 93.

The relocated house and studio is now under the care of the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation, and can be toured. Contact the foundation for days, hours and other details.