PRINT December 1962/January 1963

The Governor's Mansion Competition

IN APRIL OF THIS year a jury composed of three architects, a museum director and a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy selected the winning design for a new Governor’s Mansion for the State of California.* Their selection was made from among ten finalists, chosen from an original group of 197 designs. Although the competition was restricted to architects of California, its underlying significance is national and even international, for the potpourri of entries provide an all too revealing, and in many ways depressing, picture of our present architectural scene.

All of the entries, to one degree or another, illustrate a breakdown and dissolution of those principles upon which the “new” architecture of our century has been based. The exacting puritanical discipline demanded by the close correlation of structure, materials and their form-expression, which has constituted the creative esthetic of modern architecture, has in these designs been replaced with a new rash of undigested eclecticisms and self-conscious exhibitionism. This obvious abandonment of fundamental principles in these designs is in no way restricted to the California scene, for it is to be found throughout the world, not only in the work of younger designers, but even in the buildings of some of its founders and pioneers. In Greece, Walter Gropius has surrounded the essential form of his earlier Bauhaus with a classic peristyle (to take into account, he has rationalized, the tradition of classic architecture), Phillip Johnson has made us forcibly aware that his real forte is history, not design, and even Le Corbusier has at long last abandoned the world of architecture for that of sculpture. 

In the case of the California Governor’s Mansion, the winning design of Wong, Tong, Namitz and Tong of Campbell and Wong has been produced by a firm whose name has long been associated with the best modern architecture of the Bay Area. In their domestic and other works this firm has been able to successfully couple elements of earlier California redwood vocabulary with post-World War II ideas gleaned from the International architecture of Europe, Japan and other sections of the United States. On the whole the buildings which have resulted from this synthesis have represented a tasteful, constrained statement. But recently in their work, as in that of a number of other architects, there has been a disquieting note, which seems to indicate a shift to a much more eclectic view. To a certain degree this eclectic borrowing has underlain much of their early designs, but now, instead of being absorbed in the totality of design, it has become the dominant principle. A good index of the present direction of this firm can be seen in a recent project for the San Francisco India Memorial Center which was described as evoking “the architecture of the Far East” through the use of “. . . repetitive columns and arched openings, plus a domed skylight . . .” At best this design is an embarrassingly shallow reworking of a few contemporary clichés with a smattering of details reminiscent of the Islamic architecture of northern India.

The same confusion of approach is revealed in Campbell and Wong’s accepted design for the Governor’s mansion. While one critic’s characterization of the design as McKim, Meade and White’s “Rest-room Roman” with a pinch of Bagdad may be a little severe, it does not miss its mark by much. Although McKim, Meade and White might have been a little unhappy with the lightness, almost femininity of the design, its classic, arcaded facades, its central atrium and its axial orientation would have warmed their hearts. For in its basic form Campbell and Wong’s design is a good example of the new Neo-classicism which seems to be the latest rage in architectural circles. It is the same Neo-classicism one experiences in the buildings of Yamasaki, Edward Stone and others.

With the exception of such Romantic escapists as Henry Hope Reed, most critics had assumed that Neoclassicism had been dealt a final and lasting death blow and that its resurrection was an impossibility. Having adroitly shed a few of its more blatant elements—the classic orders and details—it has now entered once more on the scene, to do battle with second, third or even fourth generation “modern” architects. Instead of being reminiscent of the baths of Caracula or the Renaissance and Baroque palaces of Italy, it now recreates the light, almost feminine architecture of the Near East.

The recent success of Neo-classicism is obviously bound up with many factors, some purely architectural, some in the world of changing fashions, and others in the pure realm of social psychology. To a considerable degree the resurrection of Neo-classicism is a direct outgrowth of an inherent limitation of the “new” architecture of our century—its inability to develop a monumental expression. Many of the post-World War II designs of Le Corbusier and Tange, to name only two, are indeed monumental, but they have been able to realize a certain monumentality only by sacrificing their existence as architecture. They are, in essence, magnificent and truly grand pieces of sculpture set in the landscape and enclosing space, but they are not, as a rule, successful in fulfilling the totality of functional (not only utilitarian) needs.

Perhaps though, before we lament the inability of modern architecture to create the monumental, we might well ask whether a monumental architecture is compatible with the needs and above all the democratic ideals of American society. It could well be argued that there is no need for monumental structures in a free society, and that the only society which has need of the monumental is one committed to a Baroque, totalitarian point of view. The present, popular desire for monumental forms in architecture provides a good clue to one of the many schizophrenic elements of American society: its psychological desire for stability as opposed to its democratic ideals of individuality and equality.

In the final analysis it can be claimed that it is not the task of the architect to attempt to reform society (a point which such pioneers as Sullivan, Wright, Gropius and Le Corbusier would emphatically deny). If one is willing, at least for the sake of argument, to grant that California needs a governor’s mansion, and that such a building must be both a monumental symbol of the state and an amenable place to live, then we might well see how successful the present scheme is.

As indicated in the jurors’ remarks concerning the Campbell and Wong design it is obvious that in part it was selected because it “. . . respects California’s architectural tradition . . .” That any group of intelligent individuals would still believe in the Hollywood myth that there is a single architectural tradition in California is really unbelievable. That the provincial Spanish-colonial architecture of California is any more a legitimate tradition than the Queen Anne and Shingle forms of the ’90’s, the redwood board and batten and the California bungalow of the early 1900’s or the Neo-Rational forms of Irving Gill and others, or the “Bay style” of the 1930’s and early ’40’s is intellectually absurd. In part the Campbell and Wong design admits this, with its rather handsome Japanesque entrance gate, reminiscent of the work of the Greene brothers, and in its simple and direct bath house which mirrors the best of the Bay tradition.

One might go a step further and admit that there was a need for the usual Spanish Colonial stage set; but the Wong design does not even evoke such an image. While it is true that there were two-story porches in the Monterey style of the 1850’s and ’60’s, these were always of wood. There is no Spanish Colonial tradition of a two-story colonnaded peristyle building in California. The image which the governor’s mansion evokes is not that of traditional architecture of California, but of such current buildings as Stone’s American Embassy in New Delhi, Phillip Johnson’s Art Gallery at Lincoln, Nebraska, and Harrison and Abramovitz’s Philharmonic Hall in New York.

This commitment to classic formalism has forced the architects to compromise a number of features which were set forth in the original announcement of the competition. For example, this building entails an almost complete negation of the twentieth century ideal of closely relating indoor and outdoor space. The placement of sets of double doors and windows is identical to that of many nineteenth century buildings. The loggia itself, plus the podium upon which the structure is placed, effectively prevents any real rapport between indoor and outdoor space. In no area of the plan can one casually enter any of the surrounding courts and gardens. Always one would be forced to enter and exit through one of the five or six sets of stairways.

The symmetry and scale of the design has led to numerous other inconsistencies and difficulties. The relation of the garage and its connecting sheltered passage and stairs to the house is at best embarrassing, and the need to place windows and doors into the symmetrically balanced wall openings produces the usual difficulties which one always discerns in any building where outward form emphatically denies the workings and spatial arrangement of its interior space.

The only really complimentary comment which one may make concerning the building is that its overall concept is far more successful than that of any of the other nine finalists. The one story scheme of Herbert D. Kosovitz of San Francisco is an indigestible eclectic salad containing features from Maybeck, the Greene brothers, Irving Gill, etc. The design of William Garwood of Palo Alto reaches the height of pure exhibitionism with its arbitrary and misunderstood Wrightian plan and its Paul Rudolph-like structure topped with a Victorian, Moorish  Tower. The only project which comes close to the Wong design, and in certain respects of detail is more successful was that produced by Raymond Kappe of Los Angeles. The totality of its visual impact is too much of a forced Wrightian mannerism, yet its plan, and above all the spatial connection between the enclosed space and the various gardens and court yards, mirrors the twentieth-century California domestic tradition far better than that of Campbell and Wong.

In the end, though, one’s discouragement with the results of the Governor’s mansion competition is not the lack of a distinguished building, for to have obtained a brilliant and significant public building is a rarity in America, but rather that this building and a number of the other projects were produced by architects who would seem to have been fully committed to the concepts of modern architecture. The apparent ease with which these principles are abandoned casts a disturbing shadow not only over the contemporary architectural scene, but over the whole of our architectural future.

David Gebhard



* The jurors were Pietro Belluschi of M.I.T.; Gardner Dailey, the pioneer modernist of the Bay Area; Lutah Maria Riggs, the talented architect of Santa Barbara; Frank Kent, Director of the Crocker Art Gallery; Stephen C. Pepper, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, and William W. Wurster of Berkeley, the professional architectural advisor.