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Craig Ellwood (1922-1992)

Charting the hedonistic trajectory of the Californian architect’s career

Craig Ellwood: cool Californian clothes horse, vain self-publicist, driver of yellow Ferraris, scourge of accountants, serial womaniser, sex addict, party animal, a man who played fast and loose with credit of all kinds, neglecter of children, dreadful abstract painter, retiree to Tuscany, professed ‘nonsensualist’ (!) and not even an architect; yet author of one of the finest houses of the 20th century (Case Study House 16), even ambassador for Mies van der Rohe; architecture’s Cary Grant.

Although from Texas, and originally Johnnie Burke, ‘Craig Ellwood’ has achieved, long after his death in 1992 at the age of 70, in both his seeming straightforwardness of approach and larger-than-life character, a perfect representation of Los Angeles’ genius loci: the beguiling chimera of flickering lights, all solidity melting into air. California in the 1950s, when Europe was at its most pompously solid, was a harbinger of one of those great shifts in architectural culture, as modernity moved under blue skies and palm trees, driving west on Sunset to the sea, away from mundane questions of function to those of lifestyle.

The shift was crucial and inevitable, anticipating David Adjaye in fashion as much as Danny Libeskind in showmanship. Everything JK Galbraith was pondering at the time − The Affluent Society (1958) that dissolved luxury and necessity under the rubric of advertising − was coming home to roost before his very eyes: in Domus, actually. Ellwood thought it was more stylish to borrow his staff’s wives and girlfriends for photo shoots and send the pictures to the Italian publication for kudos. Now he fills vast volumes of Taschen. Julius Shulman’s photography brings vibrancy, cocktails at five, JAX clothes, Bang and Olufsen and sex to the architectural interior, its patio and even its shrubbery. Yes sexual intercourse, famously not invented for the English until 1963. Together Ellwood and Shulman brought to houses what Marilyn Monroe brought to Lucille Ball.

Biography

Craig Ellwood
1922-1992

Real name
Johnnie Burke

Education
Structural Engineering UCLA Night School,
self-trained as a cost estimator at ‘Craig Ellwood’ and Lamport Cofer Salzman

Big break
Case Study House 16, Salzman House (1953)

Buildings
Case Study Houses (1951-58)
Smith House, Los Angeles (1955)
Scientific Facilities, California (1969)
Art Center College of Design, Pasadena (1976)

Quote
‘In architecture, structure is the only clear principle’

Ellwood began his architectural career as a cost estimator, before which he was in PR for the Hollywood Bowl. Estimating skills would be reflected in his refinement of structure − the use of what seems impossibly thin two-inch hollow sections, once railway tracks, to save money on tricky ground − and also in the expression of that structure, shadow gaps and lack of cover strips in the forgiving Californian air. Huge windows, vestigial walls, dislocated fireplaces that spin out as barbecues to the periphery of the plan of CSH16, layers of semi-opaque glass around the master bedroom shouting peekaboo from within. That spectacle you can never actually see, because it’s always shrouded in shrubbery and security cameras. The kitchen even features a conspicuous cocktail glass cooler − I repeat, a glass cooler, to cool your cocktail glasses. This is 1953.

Despite the branding, CSH16 was actually a commercial development, acquired (like several others) for the Case Study House Program by publisher of Art and Architecture Magazine John Entenza. Entenza promptly gave it a number and rubbed out the rather cramped site boundary to give it more general significance, thereby deceiving us for years, since its very specificity explains that opaque glass trickery. It was privately bought on completion and lived in for life, a rarity indeed, for in general, Craig Ellwood’s houses lasted as long as their owners’ fashion sense. As John Chase admirably points out in Glitter, Stucco and Dumpster Diving (2000) what do you expect? Remake and remodel is the very modus operandi of the place. You really shouldn’t be surprised if the non-progressive freshly-appointed studio executive suddenly decides to plaster your lithe contemporary modern in Doric columns and fit a brand new kitchen. This happened absolutely on cue to Ellwood’s CSH18, much to the horror of progressive enthusiasts yet in total fulfilment of that genius loci.

The skill Ellwood displayed with CSH16 was to be sadly eclipsed when he moved on to bigger things. As a struggling sole practitioner, Ellwood stayed afloat with the help of his second wife, a Hollywood actress. He moved on to a former Miss Delaware, and finally to his youngest wife when he was 62. As the publicity made him more successful, he perhaps became more unfortunately self-conscious, with his adoption of a more uptight, conspicuously Miesian language. It’s hard to imagine Ellwood and Mies together. Ellwood was definitely in awe, and they both conveniently loved cocktails and dirty jokes. Otherwise they were worlds apart. Ellwood certainly did not crave solitude.

His son Adam went to the trouble of sending a bitter note to reviewers of Neil Jackson’s excellent biography of Ellwood (2002), to say that he remembers his father telling him he was ditching his mother in a Paris hotel bar aged 13. His brother Jeff can be found offering reviews of his father’s work on Amazon, and this territory is evidently and publicly raw. Jeff, Adam and Erin were disinherited when Ellwood married last. We all join in this gossip, you can find it on the blogosphere when you search for the Ellwood Associates entry for the 1975 Long Beach Grand Prix with Miss Delaware perched on the fairing (go faster stripes by Ellwood naturally). We all wish we could have joined in the fun.

Ellwood taught at Yale in the same period as James Stirling, lecturing somewhat perversely on ‘Nonsensualism’. With a bigger office, and still not an architect himself, Ellwood suffered the delights of delegation by all accounts poorly, yet his disciples certainly found their voice, even if this is only belatedly recognised in the also excellent (if now prohibitively expensive) default catalogue raisonné: Craig Ellwood, In the Spirit of the Time by Alfonso Perez-Mendez (2003). The Rosen House, for instance, as well as being even more structurally mean than, say, CSH16, features the most oppressive of Neo-Classical plans.

It is tempting to give it a Farnsworth House for kids strapline, and miserable kids at that. Of the bigger buildings, Pasadena’s Art Center grabs the headlines as a building as a bridge, but that’s about all it seems to be, despite all of Ellwood’s protestations. Xerox Data Systems attempts to make a box interesting but fails. Both evoke alarming associations with embryonic British High-Tech. Whatever the case, the subtlety simply goes, and by this stage he was bored and so are we. It is fitting that the gregarious Craig Ellwood hung out with some fairly dubious pals. It is also fitting that by the late 1970s the architecture business, the agents, the new job developer, the superstructure and general la-di-da got to him. This is one of those remarkably real and honest moments in such a hyper real career. If you were any good in California in the ’70s you were bound to acquire some lively pals at some rollicking parties. If you didn’t you’d be sort of missing out.

Latterly, he was still knocking girls’ socks off, but he preferred to do it near Ambra in Tuscany in a 16th-century farmhouse, with his old buddy John Entenza even fixing him up with a Graham Foundation grant to paint. However, with Ellwood there is always a tale, and according to one of my students his pictures were often painted by Miss Delaware (who, incidentally, went off into the personal growth healing thing). However, that is from a most unreliable source.

Reputations

This article is part of a series of essays that follow the trajectory of various well known and less well known architects. Read more at architectural-review.com/reputations

Illustration: Jessica Fortner

Readers' comments (2)

  • I find this article and its tone flippant and disrespectful. This is written almost exactly 20 years since Craig's death. The bitterness of some of the people Craig left behind saddens me. I was married to Craig for the last seven years of his life and during this time we were rarely ever apart. I only knew him to be very hard working, generous, loving, giving and sincere. He was a perfectionist and worked doggedly for most of his life. He did like to portray the image of success and was very skilled at this. This image of success was what brought him more success and he did work very hard at this, but was also a perfectionist in whatever work he put his name to. To suggest that "Miss Delaware" painted his painting is rediculous, as is Niel Jackson's entire premise that the architects that worked in his practise designed all the buildings without Craig. He would have never allowed that to happen. He was a perfectionist to a fault. He was also a loner and extremely shy. At the parties he threw, he would sit off to the side happy that everyone was having a good time, engaging with no one. He was considerate and kind to all, whether it was the petrol attendent, the post office worker, the banker or a senator. He "disinherited" his first three children as they were fully grown and their mother had at least 75% of all the money he had ever made. He still had a three year old daughter at the time of his death to look after and all he had was a house and a few shares. He had a wonderful life and earned whatever joy he got from it. He was a great man and I do believe a great architect.
    Leslie (Ellwood) Phillips

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  • I dreamed I lived in a city called Craig Ellwood. The work speaks for itself.
    James B. Michael, Jr., AIA

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