No surprise, I expect, to anyone following these little essays that Archibald Jones (A. Quincy Jones by trade) long ago secured a spot among my top-ten Mid-C architects. And of the eminent ladies and gentlemen on that list1 he’s only one who — occasionally, anyway — designed buildings affordable for shifty types like me and the Lesser Half. In keeping with his demotic leanings, Jones had accepted a commission from California developer Joseph Eichler, to contribute to Eichler’s innovative, ultra-modernist — and ruthlessly modular — re-jiggering of American post-war life. (If everyone likes to point out that Joe took his cues from Frank Lloyd Wright, it was the Usonian Wright, the people’s Wright, to whom that debt was owed, not the self-mythologizing iconoclast in the cape and porkpie.) Below is a photo I took with my phone a few days ago. It shows the Jones house that we’ve lived in, wonder-struck, for six years now.
Over the last few weeks I’ve put my back into restoring our front landscaping. (Literally: simpler it looks, harder the physical work, since errors of judgment or laziness won’t get hidden in foliage, in random contours. Where a right angle or a level surface — or whatever — is the point, then a minor deviation is going to look pretty bad. Even the placement of features intended to deviate, like plantings or stones or borders, will be of greater consequence, since they’ll relate intrinsically to areas surrounding them, which architects refer to as “voids.”) Mainly this job has amounted to refurbishing the decorative river rock that predominates. Having saved as much of the original batch as possible, I blended into this — reasonably discreetly — three cubic yards of similar gravel from a new source. My fresh stuff, which appears slightly paler at present, will eventually darken anyway, as its silty residue gradually dissolves away in the next rainy season. If I were impatient I could stand there blasting it with a hose for three hours.
Back in the 60s, I’m told, this gravel, the original gravel, would have been harvested a few miles north of us, from the banks of the Russian River, between the Moscow Road bridge and the town of Monte Rio. The connection is nostalgic. It was on picnicking holidays to this bucolic setting, during more or less those very same years, that my blitzed dad, doing his best blitzed Édouard Manet, would paint lubricious nudes of my blitzed mom and her blitzed girlfriends. If you were to see these paintings now, you’d almost certainly intuit my presence, just out of frame, ignoring them, playing at the water’s edge — a four-year-old wearing cardboard Arthurian armor, scooting Matchbox trucks through alluvial shingle. Nor a silent presence: there would have been sound-effects — my squealing tires, my famous guttural down-shifts, my ostinato diesel engines.
Finally, the yard looks pretty damned close to its first blush in 1962, when the only other family to have occupied the property took possession. (Streetside, that is; the backyard, our next project, remains in disarray.) To judge from faded Kodacolors in the Silvermans’ old album, which I got to riffle through briefly when we bought our Jones, the only notable difference is that line of rectangular pavers — visible in my photo — where, previously, pebbled disc-shaped ones had been. These, probably just loosely laid out along the ground rather than pressed securely into leveling ballast, had eventually cracked under the rocking and wobbling of a half-century’s footsteps. Unable to track down credible replacements (newer ones seem both cruder and less pebbly) I gave up trying and opted — at least temporarily — for the inexpensive granite slabs that you see. That’s hardly a snub to Jones’s preference for austere landscaping, either at our place or elsewhere, which tended to be unusually minimalist for residential applications. At a few of his houses simple, unadorned lawns were planted, separating sidewalk from front entryway. But a lawn was about as lavish as he’d countenance. Maybe a deciduous sapling, small groupings of ferns. A philodendron here or there2.
Of those first risk-taking buyers who remain, still inhabitng Eichlers that they moved into in the late 50s and early 60s, many — even most — seem to have lost the modernist plot somewhere amid the ensuing decades. Classically derived atriums — compact inner courtyard areas that were a signature of Jones’s and other Eichlers, all designed as tranquil, spare, rectilinear spaces — were the first casualties. Open to sky and cloud, their private, light-filled volumes had been intended as outdoor extensions, projections through plate glass, of similarly spare interiors. Now, when front doors are ajar, you’ll catch sight of shade trellises, swarming topiary, bench-swings, gazebos, Jacuzzis, faux-barn sheds, ping pong tables, and truck-sized barbecue units. Even front elevations, fully visible to a wincing public, have in some cases been crammed in with baroque fountains and pergolas and fake-Deco sconces. Far too often these houses have become unrecognizable as experiments in mid-century restraint.
But why? That “restraint” was never of the monastic, sense-denying kind. It was never shrill and abstemious, never hectoring. In elegant coffee table books depicting that inspired heyday, everything looks like a tableau of ease and clean style — through which must waft the cool, low-slung monaural of Brubeck and Gilberto. Young wives in Audrey Hepburn sunglasses serve hors d’oeuvres with acrylic tongs, while husbands named Bud or Mort or Stan shuffle prime cuts on tiny tripod grills. And children — unsupervised for the last time in human history — gallop about on broomstick ponies, firing water pistols at uncomprehending toddler siblings. There is no gingham anywhere, no wrought-iron. No arbors or tufted club chairs or oak-faced cabinets. It’s all quite sleek and squared off, tapered, edge-on. Simplicity of line, simplicity of form. You see — that is, see — unfussy materials like concrete and aluminum and Masonite.
As I slogged through my two weeks’ worth of manual labor — shoveling fresh gravel and sifting old, pick-axing though hard clay and roots to revive old drains, laying in new sheets of weed-cloth — affable old-timers, “settlers” in their jokey, self-mocking label, would inch down the sidewalk. Some wore safari jackets and blue-blockers, walked yorkies with matching limps. Always they waved, these passing settlers, and said hello. There were chatty quips, too. Heck, was I digging for China? Say, where’s the rest of the chain gang? One commented on my meticulous diligence. Political correctness having passed him by — yet kindly and polite despite cringe-inducing platitudes and stereotypes — he spoke slowly and loudly in case I might be a hired-in Guatemalan, possibly hard of hearing. “What PLANTS, what … QUE PLANTOS will GO INTO the, the … EL YARDO?”
“Only that one there,” I answered, cocking a straw sunhat toward our single manzanita shrub (seen at the left of my photo) and hanging tough with my mid-Atlantic inflections that remind people of William Powell’s in The Thin Man movies. “Why, I popped that into the ground this morning, at the crack of noon, between martinis.” (Okay, I didn’t really say that; but I suspect he’d have howled had I done so.) In fact this very manzanita appeared, though slightly smaller, in one of the Silverman family snapshots. Same as today, no other significant plantings could be seen nearby, apart from — if I remember correctly — three potted geraniums along the façade. In their absence we’ve placed three immature echeverias — in terra-cotta pots nearly identical the old, unsalvageable broken ones. These cactuses, all but invisible at the moment, will double in size over the next year or so and should thrive amid the new bleak climate.
And there in the carport, ah! — the ’64 Aston-Martin DB5 you keep hearing about, looking surprisingly like an ’04 Honda Civic, and on whose back seat I frequently sleep when I’ve been behaving badly, viciously quoting Gombrowicz or Cixous or some such during an argument with the Lesser Half. As to what we’ll have argued about on any given occasion, who knows. I tend to forget the second I curl up for the night. In our most recent row — I think — I savaged Orange Is the New Black. (“An egregious fantasy,” I had said, “designed to mollify the guilty consciences of the entitled heteronormative suburban classes.”) And before that? Something to do with dirty dishes left in the sink. I’m not saying by whom.
- In no particular order (and who’s counting anyway?): Luis Barragán, Jane Drew, Raphael Soriano, Louis Kahn, Richard Neutra, Harry Siedler, Denise Scott Brown, A. Quincy Jones, John Lautner, Pierre Koenig, Beverly Thorne, Lina Bo Bardi.
- And as a sort of coda … I’m not necessarily knocking contemporary landscaping upgrades. If push comes to shove I guess I’d prefer the rugged, drought-tolerant arrangements currently in vogue to blowsy, fenced-in demi-Edens where they don’t belong and never did. But to my eye many of the new, dialed-in, “naturalized” setups look like high-desert dioramas that not only share little with local ecosystems but are often frighteningly busy. (And don’t get me started on remodeling fiascos that employ pretentious materials and floor plan reconfigurations while presuming to “respect” — that’s always the word that gets trotted out — the founding concept of this movement. The Eichler agenda was democratic, egalitarian, swerving toward Marxist; its stated remit, though ostensibly emerging from avant-garde manifestos like Adolf Loos’s “Ornament and Crime,” was, almost uniquely for that time, nondiscriminatory — a fact that came to be represented from the outset in diversity that was diversity, rather than a fond word masking ethnic malice. And its targeted demographic was the typical beneficiary of the G.I. Bill, which had leveraged post-Depression middle and lower-middle classes to economic self-sufficiency. The Eichler’s simple mass-produced kitchen cabinets, for example, with their painted box-compartments, their sliding doors whose “handles” were grooves routed directly into Masonite, were categorically modernist in Loos’s sense: beauty defined as an embracing of commonplace, nearly unadorned materials. To swap out such cabinets with something hand-crafted of birch and fitted with stainless hardware may also, by purely superficial criteria, partake of modernist aesthetics. That doesn’t mean that the two are fungible. One is cabinets; the other a statement about money. I can’t fault people for wanting fancy, app-controlled fridges and artisanal countertops and translucent polycarbonate garage doors. But I can call such choices — all of which will soon feel dated — blithely profligate. I can say, too, with some confidence, that Joseph and Archibald would have screamed.)