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Irving Gill, father of modern architecture

A new symposium seeks to bolster the case that a San Diego architect foreshadowed Modernist design

Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Gropius…. and Gill? A new symposium taking place in San Diego on October 20th, “Irving J. Gill and the Chicago School,” presents new scholarship connecting American architect Irving Gill’s experience in Chicago with his later designs for “buildings of amazing modernity” in early 20th century California, as well as the broader Modernist movement.

While much of the clean-lined modern design of the 20th century has been attributed to European innovations and influences, this event traces the lineage of modernism back to Chicago, making the case for Gill as a pioneering modernist architect who connected and realized early innovations and ideas.

Gill, who was born near Syracuse, New York, in 1870, briefly worked in Chicago during the early years of his career, then settled near San Diego, was well-known during his lifetime for his streamlined forms and flat roofs, but fell out of favor after his death in 1936. While he’s been credited as a pioneer before, this event seeks to make more explicit connections, with new scholarship connecting the Chicago School with this precursor to Southern California cool.

Architect James Guthrie, who spearheaded the upcoming symposium, organized by the Irving J. Gill Foundation, discussed Gill’s history, why he’s under-recognized, and makes a case for him as a pioneering modern architect.

Ahead of his time

Irving Gill’s work in the 1910’s was ahead of its time. In 1916, he wrote an essay, Home of the Future, that outlined his design philosophies years before many of the pioneering modernists began designing homes and buildings. He had already developed his architectural vocabulary before the wave of attention paid to Modernist architecture in the ‘30 and ‘40s.

The history of modernism, at least in the middle of the 20th century, was written by Europeans for the most part, says Guthrie, and Gill, who was covered by American architecture critics and publications during his career, wasn’t connected with the growing scene overseas.

His philosophy was shaped by the Chicago School ...

Gill’s incredible career trajectory includes stops in two areas considered crucibles for American modernism. His first stop was in Chicago, where he worked from 1890 to 1893, including a multi-year stint with Adler & Sullivan during a peak time for this iconic architecture duo. He was surrounded by, and influenced by innovation that would shape modern architecture. But Gill took those ideas one step further.

Sullivan has been quoted numerous times for his statement about reducing ornamentation in design, a thoroughly modern concept that informed much of his work during Gill’s time in Chicago. In his 1892 essay, Ornament in Architecture, he wrote:

“I take it as self-evident that a building, quite devoid of ornament, may convey a noble and dignified sentiment by virtue of mass and proportion…I should say that it would be greatly for our aesthetic good if we should refrain entirely from the use of ornament for a period of years, in order that our thought might concentrate acutely upon the production of buildings well formed and comely in the nude…”

“Gill took that idea and ran with it,” says Guthrie. While Sullivan never completely avoided ornamentation in his work, Gill, “stripped architecture of external ornamentation, and used nature as his ornamentation. Louis Sullivan was an early modern theorist, but Gill got the buildings built.”

… But it was realized in Southern California

Gill’s move to Southern California in 1893 helped him revolutionize his craft. Eventually, his work in San Diego and other parts of California would reflect the environment, a landscape that would also become a key element shaping postwar Modernist buildings.

Gill’s first job in Syracuse was as a gardener, and his later work in California shows his sensitivity to the land. He created homes that were cream-white, stucco structures, with no roofline, set against the clear, blue sky.

“San Diego and Southern California influenced Gill the way that the prairie influenced Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Guthrie. “Gill used the geography of canyons, looked at them as an architectural element. He captured the breezes, sunlight and views. He look at his work as bigger than the building itself, which is a very modern approach.”

In addition, Gill briefly mentored Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler during his later years, connecting with some of the architects who would help shape midcentury California design.

He experimented with new materials and ideas

Gill felt that there needed to be a new aesthetic and architecture, that the 20th century was a new period in human history, an new epic, and needed its own design. Gill played around with concrete walls in 1918, well before it became a modern trope.

“I think Gill was obsessed with permanence and lasting architecture,” says Guthrie, “and that led him to concrete.

The result was an incredible version of nature-inspired modern residential design

Gill is known, and rightly so, for streamlined buildings such as the La Jolla Woman’s Club (1914) and the Dodge House (1916), but Guthrie says he has a number of modern homes worth investigating. One of his favorites is the Ellen Browning Scripps residence, now the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. A box-shaped design that was built on a La Jolla cliffside, it over a glassed-in front porch that overlooks a hillside and a minimal, edgy facade.

“I can show you a picture of that house and Corbu’s early work, and you’d think it was the same architect,” says Guthrie. “It’s an incredible house.”

Gill would describe his homes as Cubist, a reference to the art movement. It may be hard to think of architecture embodying that school of work, but Guthrie says the comparison is apt.

“His buildings are dynamic,” he explains. “As you move around them, they change shape and proportions, because he was breaking up mass into shapes and cubes. You’re looking and experiencing things from different angles.”