The Curious Case of Craig Ellwood

In a period spanning the early 1950s through
the mid-1970s, modern architecture gave rise to one mysterious yet flamboyantly
creative designer in California, Craig Ellwood. Without ever achieving the appropriate
architect’s license, Ellwood’s talents in inspiring great design and promoting
himself helped establish his agreement with Mies van der Rohe’s International Style.

Attending nightly classes in structural engineering at UCLA, his natural drive for
architecture and design was encouraged as he gained knowledge in building in
steel and plastic sheet before advancing to study further architectural theory.
His understanding of steel construction was later evident in his many projects,
particularly in the three houses he designed for the Case Study Houses compilation
supported by Arts & Architecture magazine. Prior to this, his work as a competitive
cost estimator for a modern-house builders practice by the name of Lamport, Cofer,
Salzman, Inc., allowed him his first big break into architecture with the
Lappin House in 1948. However, he gained much greater fame due to the Case
Study Houses, bringing him clients attracted by his talents in ‘the use of exposed,
lightweight steel or timber framing and floating wall planes separated by a
shadow-line’ (Sennott, S. 2003) and passion for industrial materials in
residential building construction, disregarding
the fact his own construction company had previously failed. However, how successful
was his style in accordance with the contemporary era of Modern buildings?

In accordance with Kenneth Frampton’s Modern
Architecture (2007), Ellwood also defined the International Style as a
‘little more than a convenient phrase denoting a cubistic mode of architecture’
which ‘generally favoured light-weight technique, synthetic modern materials
and standard modular parts…as a rule towards the hypothetical flexibility of
the free plan’. One such famous example is the Case Study House 16 (The Henry
Salzman House) of 1952, the one structure still intact and surviving today out
of the three houses, which displays a rational and modular design from a combination
of steel, glass and concrete. With the inventive use of exposed steel framing
and space-dividing glass walls, great views would be offered from the interior
in a spacious plan, as this one-storey residence was situated on a level area on
top of hills in Bel-Air.

The subsequent Case Study Houses 17 (The Hoffman House) and 18 (The Fields
House) have been remodelled since being built but all three houses had one
thing in common: minimalism. Ellwood kept the designs for the Case Study Houses
basic with very little decoration and more uses of steel and glass and therefore,
flexible. The flexible open plan coupled with pre-assembled glass and beams structure,
highlighted Case Study House 18 as ‘a perfect example of what the Case Study
Houses Program was trying to achieve: an architectural model for affordable and
modern housing’ (Mid-Century Home, 2015). For instance, dividing the
rectangular shaped plan into separate sections with the bedrooms, the lounge
and the various other rooms on one side while the kitchen, and the sheltered
entryway on the other. Translucent glass panels continuously protected each house
from the street-view although allowing some light to filter through but maintaining
a sense of privacy for the people inside. Ellwood really ensured flexibility was
one of the modern houses’ main qualities by fitting many electrical outlets
around the houses to help owners to remodel the spaces as they preferred.

During this stage, Ellwood undertook projects such as the Hale House completed
in 1951, which he believed truly started his professional career as a successful
designing architect. Requested by one of Ellwood’s early clients most of who
were educated, young individuals who were fascinated by modern architecture and
interested in his services for building small, custom-built homes. The modular,
cubic design of the house was a continued style even here. Ellwood emphasised
that his designs essentially used only crossing horizontal and vertical planes,
along with some solid materials and some glass fitted in. Ellwood designed all
the walls in the Hale House to meet with projecting edges or overhanging roofs.
This created a dark shadow line that was already a reoccurring component of
Ellwood’s designs. Similarly, to the Case Study Houses, the exterior of the
house consisted of glass, steel, and concrete while the interior featured more
natural materials such wood ceilings, always displaying his own interpretation
of a sleek modern house.

Carrying his own interpretation of the International Style concept into other
residential architecture, similarly to aesthetics the in Rohe’s commercial buildings,
Ellwood welcomed more clients after the Case Study Houses program with several
notable projects by his firm ‘Craig Ellwood Design’ which never became a profiting
enterprise during its run. Nevertheless, it could not stop the successful
trajectory of his career, along with his particularly questionable lifestyle
for an architect in his era. Elwood’s later works included developments in his designs
which usually included a slightly elevated floor plan, or a second storey altogether
and even a bridge spanning over two walls of a canyon. Although a great number
of the designs with these newer features were never realised, due to complications
and Ellwood apparently not giving his associates and project architects the
credit they deserved (as he himself was still not a licensed architect by then),
The Nicolas and Virginia Daphne House completed in 1959 was a beautiful example
of an elevated square plan house. With the rooms divided similarly to his
earlier houses with ceiling-to-floor glass walls, Ellwood wanted to remind the
look of much of his earlier modern houses. The Kawahara House, finished in 1970
designed by Ellwood’s office, is a two-storey steel and glass cubistic style
house which is entered by a glass bridge. The design for these buildings were gradually
reached when he decided to advance to plans with more complexity as he no
longer built his modern houses on flat plain land, rather pushing towards
designs such as the Bridge House (unbuilt) and The Smiths House of 1958. The
Smiths House being a raised platform on a strengthened steel framework,
towering over a hill, along with glass panels flaunts a modern look within the
house’s natural surroundings.

1968 saw Ellwood’s The Weekend House being completed by his own students in a
class he taught. He collaborated with them to realise this roofed bridge that crossed
over a canyon. Initially an attempt by Kaiser Steel (now Kaiser Ventures) to experiment
with their new oxidising steel, Cor-ten, this was only a teaching project by Ellwood,
but this really opened the doors for him to bridge houses.

Aided by his early knowledge in structural engineering and his trade in steel
construction, Ellwood established the structural device of an exposed warren
truss that which could span big distances. This gave him the confidence in designing
his final professional project from his firm: The Bridge Building at the Art
Center College of Design. Prior to this, Craig Ellwood “dreamed of building a
house that suspended across a canyon like a bridge for almost two decades
before a client with the perfect site came to his office” (Los Angeles
Conservatory, 2016). The project turned out to be his perfect modern building
as the college admired his reputation for designing Modern buildings which were
typically completed within tight budgets, due to his previous experience in
cost estimating. Furthermore, Ellwood himself was quoted about the Bridge
Building as his ‘favourite among non-residential completed buildings’ and the
one he ‘feels most proud of’ (Los Angeles Conservatory, 2016). The structure
and placement of the bridge occurred to be a very cost-effective solution to
the canyon site of the college, as levelling the land would have would have
required an expensive and difficult foundation. However, Ellwood had already
gained enough experience in scheming bridge-like structures on uneven land. The
floor plan is of a two-storey stretching out over a scenic landscape, measuring
out at roughly 264 metres by 44 metres (Socks, 2013), a fully robust exposed steel
structure, reminiscing of any other bridge as cars pass below it. Being more
different than ever to his earlier works, Ellwood showed his change in thinking
on modern buildings through the Bridge House, but his overall success in modern
architecture coming after adapting his style through various forms of buildings.

‘Building comes of age when it expresses its
epoch. The constant change in technology demands a continuously maturing
expression of itself. When technology reaches its fulfilment in perfect
equilibrium with function, there is a transcendence into architecture.’