By David Gebhard

After the Post Modern doldrums, Santa Barbara architects and designers are at last returning to the roots--and creating buildings better than anything since the 1930s. A top expert explains why and picks five stand-outs.

For close to 100 years, Santa Barbara has been known for its Hispanic architecture, and in the 1920s this tradition was greatly admired in California and nationally. Later, with the embracing of Modernist architecture in the 1930s, Santa Barbara's commitment to the Hispanic appeared to America's architectural establishment as a regrettable, child-like error that would eventually correct itself.

To the dismay of the Modernists, however, Santa Barbara continued on its quirky course. One would assume that, with the toppling of Modernist architecture in the late 1960s, Santa Barbara would once again have been in favor with the architectural establishment--and indeed a handful of national figures, such as architects Charles Moore and Robert A. M. Stern, spoke warmly of the tradition. But on the whole the Post Modernists were still uneasy with it.

With Post Modernism in fashion, a number of Santa Barbara's younger architects sought to maneuver the Hispanic image in their buildings so they would be read as Post Modernist. But this updated Hispanic, like the Modernists' earlier attempts, did not on the whole work. As a group, the architects simply took over the Post Modernist vocabulary of square windows, gabled and pyramidal roofs, and stucco walls without understanding the conceptual bases of either Post Modernism or Traditionalism.

Most Santa Barbara clients in the 1970s and 1980s wanted traditional buildings. And while they were generally not as familiar with the European originals as were clients in the 1920s, the clients are certainly not to blame for the rash of poorly designed Hispanic buildings in Santa Barbara in recent years. That responsibility lies with the architects, who, in contrast to the Beaux Arts-educated designers of the 1920s, were simply not trained to design traditional buildings. Earlier architects had looked intensely at historic building along the Mediterranean and in Mexico, making sketches and measured drawings and thus forming an understanding of the proportions and important details of these buildings.

During the past few decades, architects such as Grant Pedersen Phillips Architects, Seaside Union Architects, Brian Cearnal Associates, Robert Easton and James E. Morris, to name only a few, have all fashioned Hispanic/Mediterranean buildings that have substantially contributed to Santa Barbara's Hispanic/Mediterranean tradition. But never has that tradition been more creatively alive than today. Five Santa Barbara architects/designers whose work exemplifies that vitality are Paul Gray (of Warner and Gray), Geoffrey Holroyd, Henry Lenny, Thomas Bollay, and Michael De Rose. All of these designers have worked to revitalize the Hispanic/Mediterranean as a creative living tradition, and their designs argue strongly that the community's central tradition is perhaps healthier than at any time since the 1920s and 1930s.

Happily, there is every reason to think, as we conclude this century and plunge into the next, that Santa Barbara's quirky, often out-of-step architecture will remain will remain very much with us.

Of these designers, Thomas Bollay (Thomas Bollay Associates) comes closest to the revivalist atmosphere of the 1920s. His own house in Montecito of 1990-1992 and two Edward Hindelang-Michelle Berger houses in Montecito (Grant Castleberg Assoc., landscape architects for all three projects), capture the flavor of the earlier buildings of George Washington Smith, Reginald D. Johnson and Wallace Neff. He is especially close to Johnson's domestic work of the 1920s with its romanticism countered by a degree of coldness and rationalism.

Bollay's success is based upon a close study of the revivalist buildings, as well as their original sketches and working drawings. He has traveled to Europe, consciously trying to experience the original prototypes as the architects of the 1920s would have. His plans start with revivalist schemes but reflect current uses and how we react to indoor and outdoor spaces. His terraces generally become, almost as in Modernist designs, out-of-door living and dining spaces quite different from terraces of the '20s. In his own house, rooms and their interconnections are picturesque- but at the same time exhibit a low-keyed, Modernist sensibility.

In his residential work in Montecito--the Isola Bella Gatehouse (1986-87) and Hahn House (1989)--Michael De Rose has looked to rural Italian rather than Iberian houses as his point of departure. De Rose, like Bollay, has paid close attention to details such as windows, doors, and molding from the 1920s. The Isola Bella Gatehouse, with its front terrace and elegant gate posts and gates, is so "correct" that one has to look twice (or more) to realize it is not from that period. He has retained the broad and simple horizontality of wall surfaces and low hipped roofs so characteristic of the houses of Gordon B. Kaufmann and others of that decade.

De Rose's most Andalusian exercise is an office-residence currently being designed for Richard Suding's downtown site at the corner of Laguna and Canon Perdido streets. Though the design is rich in detail and the play of volumes, De Rose has succeeded, as many architects of the 1920s did, in keeping the doors and windows and other details subservient to the sweeping stucco walls.

Henry Lenny (Mahan and Lenny; now Henry Lenny, Arch.) has been highly visible due to numerous commercial designs, community involvement with design review, and generous design contributions to the new City Hall gates, the Hwy. 101/State Street bridge--and now tiny Storke Plaza (with Katherine Masson, 1987-1992), the public passage between De La Guerra Plaza and State Street. The plaza was originally planned to house the bronze statue of King Carlos III, celebrating Spain's presence in 18th and 19th century Alta California. Because of the objection of Native Americans and other groups, however, the king's statue will find a home elsewhere, and the plaza's high base intended to support it instead will be part of a fountain design. The accompanying pavement patterns and plantings intriguingly mingle Spanish formality (via the Moors) and the informality of 1920s Santa Barbara landscape architecture.

Lenny's 1986 remodeling of the Valencia Building for F.J. Kanofsky on State Street is one of the few recent buildings one could describe as "delightful" and "charming", two terms so frequently employed in the 1920s. This tiny building seems at one moment a mere fragment, a leftover of some larger structure, and then at another a playful folly one might come across in an 18th-century English garden. Its entrance plays at being monumental but isn't, and the small domed tower seems to belong to a distant building. Often in Lenny's buildings the viewer is transported into an engaging fairy tale world in which the architect plays with scale, as did many of the architects of the '20s.

In the designs of the English-trained Geoffrey Holroyd (Holroyd Design: Geoffrey Holroyd, June Holroyd, Nils Holroyd and Sam Holroyd), one senses his background in 1950s English Modernism and his sympathy for the turn-of-the-century English Arts and Crafts movement. One can aptly refer to his Villa Rosea (Montecito, 1988-89) as "beautiful"--a term long out of fashion over these years of Modernism and Post Modernism. The house's proportions seem just right, and the historical detailing emerges naturally. The interior here and in such smaller buildings as the Patty Look Lewis Studio (Montecito, 1986-87) exhibit a low-keyed, restful atmosphere, rather like the interiors of Smith's and Kaufmann's Italian and Spanish houses of the 1920s. Like them, Holroyd introduces just a few historic references--a fireplace or a pedimented door--and otherwise defines spaces with simple surfaces and sparse detailing.

Holroyd's latest design is a house on Middle Road in Montecito, just south of George Washington Smith's first essay in the Andalusian mode, the Heberton House of 1916. It is apparent that Holroyd looked closely at Smith's building, but his design is his own, and it addresses functional issues quite different from those that confronted Smith. The small lot and other restrictions have encouraged Holroyd to create a series of walled courts, out of which project the simple tile-covered volumes of the house itself. The walled courts reduce traffic sound and create usable out-of-door rooms.

The strong sense of the abstract in the designs of Paul Gray (Warner and Gray) is not surprising considering his years of work exploring the Southern California version of the Modern. His 1984 Carol Valentine House (Isabelle C. Greene & Assoc., landscape architects) in Montecito bears striking similarity to the work of the early California Modernist, Irving J. Gill. Gill took turn-of-the-century Mission Revival architecture and reworked it, until in his hands it became an early version of the Modern; Gray has proceeded in the opposite direction, maneuvering the Modern so it abstractly suggests the traditional Hispanic. His Valentine House is a highly sophisticated visual game, between the precise right-angle geometry of the Modern and the informal stucco volumes and wood pergolas of the Pueblo tradition.

Gray's two most openly readable Hispanic/Mediterranean designs are his 1989 unbuilt scheme for an addition to the Thatcher School Library at Ojai, and his Park Wing addition to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (1982). The original Thatcher School Library (1927-1931), was a small Spanish Andalusian building designed by Carleton M. Winslow; so it was natural, in these days of contextualism, for Gray to employ a similar vocabulary for his addition. He also turned slightly to the 1930s Art Deco in his proportions and in such features as the gable end at the entrance.

At the art museum, the existing building reflected two historic sensitivities: the original Spanish Renaissance Post Office building of 1914 (Oscar Wenderoth, Francis W. Wilson), and its 1941 remodeling into a museum by the Chicago architect, David Adler. Gray's Park Wing comments effectively on the original building with a symbolic replica of one of the arches of the State Street entrance, and the exterior massing and interior two-story lobby closely mirror Adler's simplicity of design.

İArchitect.com - All Rights Reserved (except for works under copyright by others as noted)