First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.
David Cabin in Idyllwild, California
Date completed: 1958
Getting the Gig:
A pink bungalow wrapped in distorted planes of sheet metal and chain link fence, Frank Gehry's remodeled home in Santa Monica was a provocation and prediction when it was unveiled in 1978, the equivalent of dropping Pee Wee's Playhouse in the middle of the critical discourse. Celebrated and praised by the cognoscenti—some in a backhanded manner, like Philip Johnson, who said Gehry's work doesn't please the eye but provides a "mysterious feeling of delight"—it's the first Gehry project many think about when they trace the evolution of his unique, sculptural style. But it's far from his first project. That distinction belongs to a small summer home he built in the town of Idyllwild, California, a project rarely noted and largely forgotten. The David Cabin, named after client Melvin David, came at a time when Gehry was beginning to shift directions, starting an evolution that would turn him into one of the defining architects of his time. He had just returned to Los Angeles from Harvard after studying city planning, and was working once again for Victor Gruen Associates, a successful local firm founded by an Austrian architect (and mall design pioneer). While attempts to contact the initial owner and architect haven't been successful, Gehry's own statements from interviews about that period of his career suggest he was feeling restless. Perhaps this single-family vacation home was a side project; regardless of its intent or impact, it was built at a time when the young architect wanted to experiment, and felt that, as a project manager, he had little design input. Soon afterwards, he would leave for France to study with architect Andre Remondet.
Description and Reception:
According to local realtor Steve Taylor, the home blends in well in Idyllwild, a community perched in the San Jacinto mountains near Palm Springs that's been called one of LA's hidden escapes. The 2,200-square-foot, four-bedroom summer home, clad in redwood siding and set on a sloped wooded lot 6,300 feet above sea level, fits in with a neighborhood filled with cabins and vacation homes. A straightforward design hidden from view in this alpine village, "you have to dig deep" to recognize it's a Gehry design. It's also near another famous cabin by a noted architect, the Pearlman Cabin, which John Lautner built on Middle Ridge a year prior.
Impact On His Career:
Rarely mentioned in books or collections of Gehry's work, this project didn't have much of a lasting effect on his career. At the time, Gehry was starting to get more involved in the local art scene. Co-workers at Victor Gruen, such as Marion Sampler, a painter, and Fred Usher, who previously worked in the Eames Office, began to introduce him to more artists and take him to gallery events. Gehry would soon start mixing in these social circles and draw important lessons and influences from their work; he's said the art scene "led to his own language and made things possible," innovations such as his Wiggle Side Chair, fashioned from corrugated cardboard.
Famous Future Works:
Gehry Residence (Santa Monica: 1978), Vitra Design Museum (Weil am Rhein: 1989), Dancing House (Prague: 1995), Guggenheim Bilbao (Bilbao: 1997), Experience Music Project (Seattle: 2000), Walt Disney Concert Hall (Los Angeles: 2003), Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge (Chicago: 2004), 8 Spruce Street (New York: 2011), Biomuseo (Panama City: 2014)
While it's certainly not exemplary of what's considered the traditional Gehry style, it's even less recognizable as his own work after previous owners added a series of decks and tiki huts that have obscured the exterior. The home recently sold in 2012 for $265,000. Current owner Matt Norris, who loved the house right away and appreciates its extensive storage space, says previous owners clearly made a few changes. But he still feels the cabin has a very modern look for something built in 1958.