Before Reyner Banham, Mike Davis and Joan Didion there was Esther McCoy. Banham himself said that “No one can write about architecture in California without acknowledging her as the mother of us all.” In our digital age where scant few papers retain architecture critics, it’s hard to comprehend how much sway they once had. Most major newspapers had an architecture writer, and their reviews held great authority. It’s equally hard to imagine a time in which California modernism and west coast architects such as Neutra, Schindler, and the Eames were relatively unknown. Architecture writer Esther McCoy was largely responsible for popularizing west coast modernism. While she was not a staff writer for a major paper, she wrote for many different publications, including the LA Times, and published several books. Her best known book, “Five California Architects” brought California modernism to the attention of the architecture establishment, which was firmly rooted on the east coast, where Mies, Gropius, Breuer and other European architects dominated.
''It was she, almost single-handedly, who awakened serious scholars to the extraordinary richness of California architecture,'' Paul Goldberger, NY Times 1975
The pre-eminent Writer of California Architecture
But Esther McCoy didn’t just bring attention to new architecture coming out of California, her evocative descriptions of her adopted hometown of Los Angeles were some of the first
non-fiction writing devoted to the city itself. Prior to her glowing descriptions, Los Angeles wasn’t seen as worth writing about. A wealth of writers followed in her footstep to great acclaim. Mike Davis’ City of Quartz became an instant classic that is still on almost every first-year architect’s reading list. Which makes it even more surprising to learn what an uphill battle it was for Ms. McCoy. In contrast to the immense success of those who followed her, she was denied a Guggenheim research grant while writing "Five California Architects" and led a pretty thrifty life. (She bought the bungalow in Santa Monica that she lift in until she died for $1500.00)
Esther McCoy started out as a writer in New York City, publishing fiction in The New Yorker and other major publications but a nasty bout of pneumonia in 1932 forced her to re-locate to the sunny southern California coast for recovery. At some point, in Santa Monica she caught the architecture bug and attempted to apply to the architecture school at the University of Southern California but was discouraged due to her age (she was 40) and gender. But she didn’t let that stop her. She found work as a draughtsman in the office of Rudolph Schindler from 1944-47, through her friend Pauline Schindler, who was divorced from her husband at the time but living in the same house. (A future post) Esther went on to become one of Schindler’s biggest proponents. In fact, Schindler helped her “renovate” their bungalow, although according to historian Emily Bills, he never really finished the job. (A familiar refrain voiced by many Schindler clients.)
Case Study Homes
“In Los Angeles, there was an extraordinary amount of provocative architecture within easy reach. Some of its specific lessons were that a good house can be made of cheap materials, that outdoor living was as valued as indoor spaces, that a dining room was less necessary than two baths and glass walls, and other things so commonplace it was hard to believe they were ever thought innovative enough for lending agencies to object to.” Esther McCoy, Blue Prints for Modern Living 1989
From 1950 until 1989, Esther McCoy wrote regularly for the Los Angeles based magazine
Arts & Architecture, run by John Entenza which funded the iconic experimental housing movement called The Case Study Houses. She linked the movement to the Werkbund exhibitions in Vienna, showing its evolution from the European low-cost modern housing movement. While we Modernists now take this type of housing with flat roofs and casual indoor/outdoor living for granted, it was a tough sell at the time. After all, in 1953 House Beautiful described Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house as a “communist-inspired effort” to supplant traditional American styles”. (Don't even get me started on our out going president's attempts to codify a 'classical architectural style' for US federal buildings..but I digress) Thanks in part to the writing of Esther McCoy and the glossy images shot by Julius Schulman, these homes have now come to define the architectural style known as mid-century modern. Her straight forward and clear writing style made it easy for non-architects to understand not only the project but the importance of architecture in general to the joy of living, and to the public realm.
Thirsty for More? Get the recipe for the refreshing Palm Springs cocktail here
Sources/Notes Frances Anderton Interview with Kimberli Meyer, Susan Morgan, Emily Bills for KCET, 2012
Elizabeth A.T. Smith edit. Blueprints for Modern Living, The MIT Press 1989