William Krisel, Architect Who Helped Define California Modernism, Dies At 92 | WYPR

William Krisel, Architect Who Helped Define California Modernism, Dies At 92

Jun 6, 2017
Originally published on June 6, 2017 6:14 pm

William Krisel, a pioneering architect who brought his vision of modernism to Southern California tract housing, died Monday at age 92.

Tract housing often implies cookie-cutter. But in Palm Springs, Krisel varied homes' rooflines, paint schemes, and setbacks from the street so no two tract homes next to each other looked the same — despite all having one basic floorplan. He also popularized the "butterfly" roof.

His homes featured open floorplans and clerestory windows to bring in even more light.

"First of all, it makes you aware that it's a beautiful day or a dark day — you're aware of the weather because the outdoors comes in," Krisel told NPR last year. "Secondly, the space that you're in is not held in by four walls, that your space goes as far as your eye can see."

Krisel grew up in a big house with staff of servants in Shanghai, where his father was the sole film distributor to Asia for all of the big Hollywood studios. At 11, he drew a sketch of a proposed family home in Southern California; his father sent the drawings to the architect.

The architect told Krisel's father that the boy had talent and ought to become an architect — and that's just what he did after leaving the Army. He served during World War II and said he often chatted with his fellow soldiers about what they would do after the war.

"Everybody had an idea of what kind of a home they wanted and what not, and so I listened to all this and made up my mind that I was going to try and be a specialist in housing," he said.

He's best known for the 1,200 middle-class homes in California that he designed from 1957 to 1963, when he worked with the builder-developers George and Robert Alexander, according to the Los Angeles Times. The partnership revealed Krisel to be a pragmatic architect, attracting buyers with appealing architecture at a price that made the developers happy.

The Alexanders' "main interest was to make money," he said, according to the Times, "and my interest was to do good design. In order for them to do my work, I had to come up with a design that was less expensive than the dingbats they were building."

Krisel told NPR that in the late 1950s, buyers could purchase one of his small homes on "a 100 x 100 lot, all fenced in, landscaped, modern design, air condition, swimming pool — all for $29,900."

The Times notes that Krisel also was a talented artist, whose three-dimensional drawings also sold buyers on the appeal of a home in Palm Springs or elsewhere. Krisel himself wasn't sold on the desert life, though: "I wouldn't like to live there," he said, "but I like it as a locale for my architecture."

Krisel later designed residential buildings like high-rise apartments and condos, as well as commercial projects such as offices, shopping centers and hotels, according to the Getty Research Institute, which houses Krisel's archive.

The publication of a book about his work spurred a fresh wave of interest in Krisel homes last year; Palm Springs renamed a street after the architect in February 2016.

More than 40,000 homes are thought to have been built from his designs, according to the Getty.

"I've had a very happy and successful career," he told NPR. "And I've achieved what I set out to do: create housing for the masses that they could afford and that would change their way of living and make life more enjoyable."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

William Krisel brought mid-century modernism to the masses. He might not be a household name, but the silhouettes of the homes he built in the post-war years are instantly recognizable. Krisel was an early innovator of tract housing. He died Friday at his home in California at the age of 92. Matt Guilhem has this remembrance.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: William Krisel's homes had open floor plans and walls of glass with even more windows above them. His designs were the harbinger of what came to be known as California living. In a 2016 interview, Krisel said there are real benefits to what good design can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM KRISEL: First of all, it makes you aware that it's a beautiful day or a dark day because the outdoors comes in. Secondly, the space that you're in is not held in by four walls. Your space goes as far as your eye can see.

GUILHEM: As modern as his designs are, William Krisel grew up in the Far East in a bygone age.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISEL: In Shanghai, we had a very big house. And we had a staff of 12 or 15 servants, so we didn't have to do a thing. So we had a life that I don't think anybody can match today.

GUILHEM: Krisel's father worked as the sole film distributor to Asia for all of the big Hollywood studios. But the young Krisel was interested in architecture. When he was 11, he drew sketches of the proposed family home in Southern California. His father sent the drawings to the architect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISEL: She said, well, he shows talent. He ought to become an architect.

GUILHEM: While he had a knack for drafting and a love for drawing, he didn't find his vocation until joining the Army in World War II and chatting with his fellow soldiers about what they would do after the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISEL: Everybody had an idea of what kind of a home they wanted and whatnot. And so I made up my mind that when I got out and I was going to go back and finish architecture, I was going to try to be a specialist in housing.

GUILHEM: While he designed high-rise condos and apartment buildings later in his career, it's his early tract homes built by the Alexander Construction Company in Palm Springs, Calif., that earned him a reputation with buyers and builders. The small homes could be built quickly, efficiently and, most importantly, affordably. Buyers in the late 1950s got...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISEL: A hundred-by-hundred lot all fenced in, landscaped, modern design, air condition, swimming pool, all for $29,900.

GUILHEM: Krisel varied the setback from the street, changed the rooflines and employed a complex schedule of paint schemes so no two tract homes next to each other looked remotely the same despite all having one basic floorplan.

HEIDI CREIGHTON: We are talking about a tract house, and most people, when they hear the word tract, it's kind of a denigrating term.

GUILHEM: Heidi Creighton lives in a Krisel-designed home in Palm Springs and co-edited a book about him.

CREIGHTON: He cared about the way people were going to live in these places. He was able to do extraordinarily creative things within a very narrow framework. And that's the sign of a true artist, I believe.

GUILHEM: Krisel's tracts did more than bring revolutionary design to something once viewed as below serious architects. His meticulously planned neighborhoods elevated mass-produced housing to the realms of respectability and admiration among those in the profession and beyond.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISEL: I've had a very happy and successful career, and I've achieved what I set out to do when I was a very young architect - that I wanted to create housing for the masses that they could afford and that would change their way of living and make life more enjoyable.

GUILHEM: The number of lives his buildings have touched can't be calculated, but by William Krisel's own estimation, more than 40,000 housing units based on his designs were built. For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.