Los Angeles

“George Washington Smith and The Spanish Colonial Revival”

U.C., Santa Barbara

If, during the 1920s, one were to thumb through a stack of home magazines or profes­sional architectural journals, it would have been surprising not to have come across illustrations of the building of the Santa Barbara architect, George Washington Smith. In fact, by the end of the decade of the ’20s, his name had become synonymous with the Spanish Colonial revival movement.

The California pioneers of the “New Architecture,” Schindler, Neutra and later Ain, Harris, and Soriano had noth­ing but caustic comments to make about a movement which they felt had little to do with the ideals of their cen­tury. One can well sympathize with their view, for certainly the miles of the speculative builders’ adaptations of the Spanish Colonial revival houses which line so many of the streets of Los An­geles present the dreariest and most dismal of scenes. Then too even the best of these houses violated the very principles upon which the new archi­tecture was based: these buildings were flagrantly dishonest in the rela­tionship between esthetic form and the structure and materials. They were in­deed, as their opponents so often said, mere stage sets, not architecture.

Smith, and this is also true of several of his contemporaries—Walter Neff, John Byers, Reginald Johnson and Lillian Rice––looked back to the non-­architect designed rural and urban buildings of Spain for their source of inspiration, and using this inspiration as a base, they were able to develop designs which were both romantic in their visual recognition of source, and at the same time were highly intellectu­al in their total form.

The real concern of these Spanish Colonial revivalist architects was in the creation of a rather plastic series of related rectangular volumes in space. Like a sculptor they manipulated these volumes in relation to one another; they carefully weighed where each opening would penetrate through the wall surfaces. If they wished the wall surface to appear more fluid and plas­tic they would fake the thickness of the wall, project out simple pediments and buttress-like forms.

The interior space of these houses mirrored the underlying separateness of each of the exterior volumes which composed the building. Each of these spaces was highly independent of the other, nor was there a visual connec­tion between exterior and interior space. The purposeful effort to arrive at self-contained space is reflected in a device which Smith often employed, an interior stair-case ending on the second floor in an open air loggia off which were situated the bedrooms. The act of going out-of-doors to communi­cate between interior spaces empha­sized, all the more, the separateness of each of these elements.

Thus it is readily apparent that Smith’s work and that of his contem­poraries had very little to do with the development of what would normally have been thought of as modern archi­tecture 20 or 30 years ago. Any attempt to place Smith within this view of the modern tradition would be mere non­sense, and yet it is becoming increas­ingly apparent that Smith’s sculptural approach to architecture is disturbingly similar to that which underlies the lat­est fashionable approach of Aalto, of Le Corbusier or of Kahn. If this latest plastic approach to architecture is not an architectural aberration, but indeed within the mainstream of 20th-century architecture, then it is apparent that historians should hurriedly discard (or hide from view) their earlier total re­jection of the work of the Spanish Colonial revivalist.

––David Gebhard