Monday, January 2, 2012


Last time, we looked at the careers of Frank Lloyd Wright, Addison Mizner, and Cliff May, all renowned architects who were never formally trained or licensed.  Today we’ll touch on a few more architects who made an undeniable contribution to the profession, despite their lack of formal credentials.

Carr Jones, a designer-builder who practiced in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost half a century beginning in the late teens, was a pioneer in green architecture if ever there was one. Jones fashioned lyrically beautiful homes out of used brick, salvaged timber, and castoff pieces of tile, slate, and iron, often wrapping his dramatically-vaulted rooms around a landscaped central court.  Perhaps because he was trained as a mechanical engineer and never traveled abroad, Jones was all but innocent of architectural pretension. Instead, he built on unvarying principles of comfort, conservation, and craftsmanship.  And unlike many trained architects whose style changes with every faddish breeze that blows, Jones’s convictions remained uncompromised right down to his death in 1966.

R. Buckminster Fuller had no architectural training either, and indeed was expelled from Harvard during his freshman year for "irresponsibility and lack of interest".  His first job was working as an apprentice machine fitter.  Yet over the course of his long and wide-ranging career, Fuller’s architectural innovations included not only the geodesic dome--his best-known invention--but also the gleaming, steel-sheathed Dymaxion House, a dwelling meant to be mass produced in a factory and installed on the site as you might bolt down a lamppost.    
In the context of today’s fussy, retrograde home designs, Fuller’s visionary proposals for the geodesic dome and the futuristic Dymaxion House may draw smiles, but this reflects more on the glacial pace of architectural progress than any flaw in Fuller’s thinking.

Not surprisingly, Fuller dismissed conventional architects, saying: “They work under a system that hasn't changed since the Pharaohs.” During his lifetime, the onetime Harvard dropout received exactly 47 honorary doctorates from universities the world over, and today is deservedly included in practically any general survey of twentieth-century architecture.  

One highly influental non-architect had creative skills of another kind.  Craig Ellwood was the celebrated Southern California modernist whom one critic called “the very best young architect to emerge from the West Coast in the years following World War II.”  A brilliant self-promoter, Ellwood (who was born Johnny Burke and took his tonier surname from a local liquor store) parlayed some minor development experience into a career that reached the highest echelon of modern architecture.  So skilled was Ellwood at presenting himself that despite being barely educated--his entire formal training consisted of night classes at UCLA--he was twice considered for the deanship at Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology.  

Understandably, Ellwood took pains to hide the fact that he was unlicensed from his elite clientele, and he relied heavily on a gifted staff to carry out his basic concepts.  That he was able to enrapture critics, editors, and clients alike despite his lack of education can only increase one’s admiration for his skill.  And in the final analysis, nothing can detract from the breathtakingly elegant steel-and-glass creations that are the legacy of the Ellwood office.

Next week:  The common thread among great architects and great non-architects alike.

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