Susan Morgan

Susan Morgan discusses Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader

Left: Cover of Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader (2012). Right: Esther McCoy in the Bradbury Building, Los Angeles, 1953. 
Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission from Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10).

Susan Morgan is a Los Angeles–based writer and contributing editor at Aperture. With Kimberli Meyer, she cocurated the 2011 exhibition “Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design” at the MAK Center/Schindler House in LA. Morgan recently edited Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader, the first gathering of the diverse writings of Esther McCoy (1904–1989), a critic who significantly impacted cultural understandings of midcentury modern California design. The collection is the debut title from East of Borneo Books.

I MOVED TO LOS ANGELES just over twenty years ago. I’d always lived on the East Coast, in New York and before that in Nantucket, where the town council would meet to decide whether the pitch of a residential roof could be altered a few inches. When I arrived in LA, the variety of architectural styles seemed like a Whitman’s Sampler: a Spanish hacienda next to a Norman castle next to a concrete modernist structure. It was daunting and hard to read. A friend recommended Five California Architects and I immediately fell in love with McCoy’s writing. For any writer, the question of how to translate visual and spatial information to the page presents a real challenge; McCoy was able to do that successfully in a clean, direct, and evocative way. Her writing about architecture is very different from standard histories or theory-based discussions.

As I read more by McCoy, I was surprised that so many people didn’t know about her. People interested in midcentury design were familiar with Julius Shulman’s photographs but McCoy’s writing on the same subjects was often overlooked, eclipsed I suppose by Shulman’s flair for self-promotion and theatricalized images. Although she was generally recognized for having written about the Case Study House program, it was her subjects—the houses and architects—that became known. Even readers of her architectural writing were unaware of the incredible range of her work: novels, radio plays, short stories, and progressive journalism. McCoy is really a major social critic of the twentieth century. This book brings together articles, lectures, correspondence, memoirs—writing that had appeared before only in those more ephemeral formats.

Within an academic context, people tend to talk about “Esther McCoy and her project.” That strikes me as curious, because when you’re a freelance writer with no institutional affiliation—like McCoy was—you don’t actually have a “project.” What you have is your writing, and all you can do is try to find subjects that engage you and are compelling to think and write about. McCoy called Los Angeles “a place that was not taken seriously” and she wanted it to be taken seriously. Southern California became a fascinating and rewarding subject for her.

It’s the quality of McCoy’s writing, though, that makes what she writes about especially memorable. Reading her work is like looking over her shoulder and seeing what she sees. During WWII, she worked as an engineering draftsman for Douglas Aircraft—one thousand drafting boards and blueprint girls on roller skates delivering drawings—and later worked as an architectural draftsman for R.M. Schindler. In 1945, she published her first architectural writing, an article about Schindler. In 1987, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, McCoy wrote a terrific memoir about their first meeting and a fresh, sympathetic appreciation of his talent. She wrote: “He simplified everything, from the filing system based on vowels, storage of nuts and bolts, and an address book filled mainly with the names of plumbers and electricians and carpenters. He had simplified his life. He had simplified his design and made it more complex.”

McCoy closely observed how things come together and are constructed, whether a building or a story. She credited her childhood love of fairy tales as a major influence on her own concisely drawn modernist prose: No detail is arbitrary and every element of the story absolutely delivers.