California’s Mid-Century Modern: An Architectural Roadtrip

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270 Tramway Gas Station
Palm Springs, CA: Tramway Gas Station, Albert Frey & Robson Chambers, 1965Photography by Darren Bradley, Courtesy of Phaidon

The West Coast of the USA is studded with architectural gems, from glass-walled pavilions to the historical Salk Institute, and a new book from Phaidon goes some way to documenting them all

The West Coast of the USA is a something of a goldmine when it comes to experiments in architecture, the towering results of which are nestled amongst Redwoods, beside highways and atop cliffs. These structures were built with both an experimental eye and sleight of hand, conceived of by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Rudolph Schindler and Frank Lloyd Wright – so it's of little wonder they're among some of the best known examples of the mid-century modern design in the world.

Unconventional buildings merged indoor with outdoor and innovation with democracy. Their legacy within modern architectural practice is one that celebrates both style and substance; one of starting over, embracing the future, and the belief that design and technology could overcome nature’s hardships, social ills and human suffering. Here, to celebrate the release of a spectacular new book by Phaidon entitled Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide, we chronicle some of the key examples of modern architecture on the California coast.

Palm Springs: Miller House by Richard Neutra, 1937

Richard Neutra developed the Miller House – a 1,100 square foot property that functioned as both a compact home and exercise studio - on a rather limited budget for socialite Grace Lewis Miller, after a year of letters sent back and forth discussing her habits and daily routine. Miller would use the house in winter, often alone, in an empty desert. This was besides the guests who she would receive for classes in the avant-garde therapeutic movement technique The Mensendieck System, which she had discovered whilst on a cruise in Sweden. 

The modern pavilion is a testament to the potential of intersecting the interests of occupant, architecture, and environment. As the first modern desert property, the Miller House remains an archetype for responsive and responsible architecture.

Los Angeles: Casa de Cadillac, San Fernando Valley, by Randall Duell and Philip Conklin, 1949

Randall Duell was both an architect and Hollywood set designer and the drama of the Casa de Cadillac – with its exaggerated, cursive letters, stucco tower, terrazzo floors and tropical plants – makes it as much a temple to cinema as the car culture of 1950s Los Angeles. The Casa is a classic example of “Googie” (the mid-century movement popular in Southern California and particularly influenced by automobiles, space exploration and the atom bomb) that has since been catalogued under the umbrella term of "mid-century modern". Its cinematic scale, with swathes of glass that draw in light and emphasise the crests of the low riders, hasn’t gone amiss; with the Casa appearing in various films, sitcoms and game shows.

San Francisco: Wild Bird, Big Sur, by Nathaniel Owings and Mark Mills, 1957

Teetering on a rocky outcrop above the cliffs of Big Sur, Nathaniel Owings and Mark Mills’ Wild Bird balances precariously as a structure caught between land and sea. The concrete A-frame house has an almost sacrificial quality, with nearly all of its edges laid in glass and open to the whim of its surroundings. Owings had previously been known for his work in corporate architecture, while Mills was renowned for experimental and organic forms; but after moving into the Wild Bird he played an active role in limiting commercial development in the area, and has since been remembered with a Redwood Grove at Big Sur.

San Diego: Salk Institute, La Jolla, Louis Kahn and Luis Barragán, 1963

Jonas Salk, developer of the Polio vaccine, founded the Salk Institute in 1960. His aim was to attract the world’s best minds in scientific research, through a programme focused on neuroscience, plant biology, molecular biology and genetic research. Equally, his goal was to create a facility that would be “worthy of a visit by Picasso”. The laboratory complex, designed by Louis Kahn and Luis Barragán, is framed by two mirror-image, winged structures lined up before the vista of the La Jolla peaks. Split by a central, treeless path - intended as a “facade to the sky” - the complex is lit by sunken wells and traversed along floating bridges. Nobel prize-winning scientific research continues at the institute to this day.

Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: West Coast USA is out now, published by Phaidon.