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USC architecture alum gives modernism to the masses

The USC alumnus is best known for his post-and-beam Alexander homes. (Photo/James Schnepf)

Architect William Krisel ’49, and a handful of others, including the late Edward Fickett ’37, made their names by bringing innovative style to tract developments — a part of the business shunned by the architecture establishment. And lately these prolific modernists have been getting the attention they deserve.

Best known for Alexander homes, the post-and-beam houses built in Palm Springs, Calif., during the 1950s and ’60s by the Alexander Construction Co., Krisel designed tens of thousands of graceful, light-filled modern homes that ordinary people could afford. By the late 1950s, he and the late Dan Saxon Palmer had formed an architectural partnership and were working for seven of the 10 largest homebuilders in America.

Fickett, who died in 1999, designed so many homes in Los Angeles that historians sometimes called him “the creator of the San Fernando Valley.” He won awards for large projects, such as the Port of Los Angeles, but he never received the recognition given other USC-affiliated architects such as Pierre Koenig, A. Quincy Jones and Richard Neutra, partly because he designed tract homes for developers.

Until recently, Krisel shared the same fate. But over the past 15 years, Krisel-designed Alexander homes have been embraced by preservationists, spawning hundreds of individual renovations, a book, a documentary film and two Alexander Weekend celebrations in Palm Springs.

It isn’t all nostalgia, either. Six new Alexander homes were recently built in Palm Springs, thanks to a Canadian firm that hired Krisel to update one of his mid-1950s dwellings to today’s building standards.

The role of architects in creating mass-produced housing in the post-World War II era has been overlooked, according to James Steele, professor at the USC School of Architecture who is writing a history of the school. That’s because “most architects turned their backs on providing housing for the postwar baby boom, and developers filled the gap,” Steele said.

“But Krisel, Fickett and a very few others saw it as an opportunity for architecture to solve a social problem,” Steele continued. “They brought good design to developments.”

William Krisel believes that an architect should take full responsibility for a home’s total design, handling both interior and exterior aspects. (Photo/Courtesy of Chris Menrad)

In 2010, a full-length documentary, William Krisel, Architect, was released that illustrated how Krisel’s work “has become synonymous with mid-20th-century Southern Californian design,” according to director Jake Gorst.

The film highlighted Krisel’s unusual background: Born in China, the son of an American diplomat, he and his family left the country after Japan invaded. He started at USC in 1941 but, after Pearl Harbor, enlisted in the Army Reserve, where his Chinese language skills were spotted. He landed on Gen. Joseph Stilwell’s staff as an interpreter and interacted with world leaders during top-level gatherings.

After returning to USC and graduating with a degree in architecture, Krisel worked in LA with Paul László, the influential interior and furniture designer. Krisel later joined Victor Gruen Associates, a major planning firm, before partnering with Palmer.

The Krisel documentary has been screened at the Getty Center, at film festivals and during Modernism Week in Palm Springs. This year at Modernism Week, the film audience erupted in two standing ovations for Krisel, who answered questions from noted architecture historian Alan Hess.

Krisel told the audience that he first developed housing for the masses while at USC.

“To me, the smaller the house, the lower the budget, the bigger the challenge,” he said. “I like problem-solving.”

At the time, he said, the American Institute of Architects frowned on mass-produced housing, considering the work “not prestigious enough.”

“But I wanted to do a small house that had the feel of a bigger house,” Krisel said. “I wanted people to walk into a house and say, ‘How many square feet? 1,500?’ And I’d say, ‘No, 900.’ ”

Square footage doesn’t matter, Krisel continued. “Volume and architecture make a space feel like it feels.”

In an interview, Krisel described USC in 1945 as “a very modern school.” It was at USC that Krisel’s Alexander partnership began. He became friends with Bob Alexander, whose father, George, owned the homebuilding firm. Bob showed Krisel’s designs to his father and suggested they build some of them.

George Alexander was hesitant. In an era of ersatz colonials and shingled ranch homes, modernism seemed risky. Alexander indulged his son by giving him 10 lots in the San Fernando Valley but was certain the project would fail.

Krisel and Palmer proved him wrong, pioneering efficient construction techniques that allowed the houses to be built economically. The development, Corbin Pines, not only sold well but also provided good returns to the construction company.

After the Alexander Co. moved from LA to Palm Springs in 1955, it built more than 2,500 modern homes in the desert — most designed by Krisel. They forever changed the look of the northern Coachella Valley.

The living room of the William Krisel-designed Menrad House, built in 1956 in Palm Springs, Calif., as one of the tract houses in Twin Palms Estates (Photo/Courtesy of Chris Menrad)

Unlike the better-known Levittowns in the eastern United States, Alexander tracts were not lined up in cookie-cutter rows. Krisel varied the exterior elements, adding decorative screen block, ironwork, patterned bricks and applied rock. Although the floor plan for each house was identical, his platting system rotated each house’s location on the lot. Rooflines alternated between flat, center or side-vaulted, or butterfly-shaped. All of this variety meant that no house looked like its neighbor or the one across the street.

Another Krisel hallmark: He always designed more than the actual building. He created berms, steps, walkways and other hardscaping to balance and enhance his structures. He also personally selected all plant material.

Handling both the architecture and landscape architecture fits Krisel’s philosophy that an architect should take full responsibility for the total design.

At the screening of the Krisel documentary in February, Hess asked the architect if he could explain why modern design has flourished for more than half a century. Krisel made it clear that modern design will continue to do so.

“Modernism is not a style, it’s a language,” Krisel declared. “And languages don’t die out; they adapt.”

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