craig ellwood, art center college of design, pasadena, california, 1970-1976.

craig ellwood, art center college of design, pasadena, california, 1970-1976.
craig s list
Image by seier+seier
art center college of design, pasadena, california, 1970-1976.
architects: craig ellwood associates, craig ellwood (1921-1992) with james tyler (design), stephen woolley (project architect), and alfred caldwell (landscape design).
structural engineer: norman epstein

in a conversation about st. catherine’s college, I learnt from knud holscher that the work of craig ellwood was studied at jacobsen’s office around 1960. it should have come as no surprise, ellwood was studied all over the world at the time. by some for his playboy lifestyle which set new standards for architects (the license plates of his ferrari said vroom, his women made men give off similar sounds), by most for the way he made mies easy. he took the high-strung out of mies’ steel constructions, made turning corners simple, relaxed plans to make room for the everyday, combined materials freely – all without losing the modernist cool of the case study house program he was associated with.

"relaxed" might not be the right word for the pasadena art center, though. a late work in ellwood’s brief career, he retired at 55, it is a true miesian monument, a horisontal adaptation of mies’ black steel towers in chicago; a groundscraper, if you like.

the exposed trusses shown here form a bridge which crosses a man-made ravine, all part of the project landscaping by which you arrive at the site driving under the building. a great way to dramatize what is otherwise a quiet monument, but not quite what you sometimes see the art center presented as: a singular, horisontal line of a building, spanning a natural landscape. the ravine simply wasn’t there to begin with.

what has recently overshadowed his great buildings has been the disclosure that ellwood the architect never really existed, that he was in some ways as fictional a character as howard roark, only with sounder values. craig ellwood was initially only a company name, four guys back from the war naming their construction start-up after a liquor store across the street from their office. one of the four, jon nelson burke, took the name for himself in 1951 and made a name for himself with it.

burke had the ambition, the entrepreneurship, the taste and charm to become the leader of a successful architect’s office, and his personal reinvention, dropping his name and his past, was not all that unusual for california when you think about it. what was unusual was the fact that he was not a trained architect and even if he knew construction well, he relied throughout his career on hired hands to do much of the designing. architecture students at first, trained – and brilliant – architects later.

burke/ellwood represented the company, spent his time on clients and lectures, being hailed as one of america’s most significant architects while the actual design work was done anonymously back at the office. to a great many architects, this situation will sound familiar simply because many successful companies are run that way today. we have come a long way from asplund who sat at his desk when his employees arrived in the morning and who signed all drawings personally. ellwood merely arrived early.

the photo is a slide from june 1997. I had some cash from a student competition win, my new girlfriend had a driver’s license and a trip down highway 101 was decided. everything was improvised, as it has been ever since when we travel, with only a mental list of coveted buildings to guide us.