Temple of Steel

Daphne Residence, Craig Ellwood, Designer

by Pierluigi Serraino

Current Photographs by Scott Mayoral unless otherwise noted

Completed in 1961, this single family house designed by noted designer Craig Ellwood (1922-1992) today is as pristine as it was when first finished. Its grand presence is felt upon arrival from Madrone Place. Raised on 32 steel columns, it floats majestically on a small half acre site facing a golf-course on its north side. Each zone of this project has a specific functional and symbolic role. Approaching the front door alone is a ritual of uncommon refinement. Due to the confined nature of the narrow lot, the car is parked a few feet away from the main structure in a detached carport. From there a crescendo of discoveries builds up to an interior climax utterly undetectable while getting closer to the entry despite the stated transparency of this volume.

That industrial technology is a cornerstone of Craig Ellwood’s architecture is a known fact, and in the design expression of the Daphne Residence that reference is even more obvious. What is less so is the inherent classicism of its layout and massing. Steel is a mighty material with superior load-bearing capacities. It affords long spans, has negligible deflection, and retains its form virtually forever. Adopting it entails opening the project’s interiors – whether a house or a commercial structure- to its immediate environment. Nature and light become active agents of change in the architecture experience. Furthermore steel design typically relies on modular construction, prefabrication, and fast assembly- three critical traits of modern architecture. The Daphne Residence has all that (the steel frame was erected in just three days), but there is much more to it than either a story of technological exquisiteness or judicious adherence to a particular artistic movement. Resting on a flat site, the utilitarian association tied to the steel cage is in this project willfully purged to be replaced with a design statement of lyrical purity. This is an architecture of nobility; a place of still contemplation and nurturing silence. The mystical dimension of its interiors is unmistakably there and inescapable. Its stillness is awe-generating and emotionally impactful; its aristocratic sophistication memorable throughout the ages.

With the structural columns pulled out of the building enclosure, the eye is caught into a rhythm of mathematical sequencing that is as enthralling as it is logical. The California light does the rest. Each reveal, each joint, each fastening punctuates the building skin as the sun travels its path showcasing the unparalleled elegance of its construction.

Ellwood wrote: “. . . great architecture is primarily technique, and therefore a building must clearly reflect the order- the discipline – the measurable aspects of its being.” Order here is a spiritual affair. The aspirations of his designer are recorded in this luxurious artwork to be inhabited and internalize. Being a spatial absolute, this architecture remains self-contained, surrounded by an aura of necessity and inevitability. In modern architecture steel became white with the Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois, by Mies van der Rohe completed in 1951. Dark grey was the default color of the manufactured steel sections and much of the imagery of steel architecture share that manufacturing origin, evocative of steel mills located in the Rust Belt. Turning that material into white sanitized it and, even more, aestheticized it. Ever since Mies’ masterpiece painting the steel frame white has become an option among modernist hardliners and amateurs alike. For Ellwood the Daphne Residence was the first white steel house, although not the first building. The ideological appeal of Mies had become irresistible by his own admission and decisively informed his output from the late 1950s on, where the quotations of the source became at times a little too literal. But while the Miesian tribute is unapologetic, open, and unambiguous both in the tectonic principles and philosophical attitude, Ellwood took a qualitative leap in situating the abstracted space of Mies to the California condition. There are but a handful of residential designs the German master did for Northern California – all towers – and all left on paper. And even in the United States the residential examples – built and unbuilt – the venerable architect designed are confined to a few areas chiefly around Illinois and the Northeast. Ellwood took upon himself the challenge of landing the universal prototype of Mies’ architectural cosmology.

The body of water marks on the ground the underlying axis determining the internal arrangement of the house and makes a majestic space out of that symmetry. It penetrates the square along a central spine and extend out to become the plane from where the entry pavilion reposes. That extension alone is first as well in Ellwood’s design idiom: it is as paramount as a plastic object as the interior pool. While there are multiple steps to access the garden on two additional sides of the house, the rise on both sides of the elevated platform from the ground plane to the plane of the dwelling is a metaphorical threshold and invitation to become part of a world of immaculate rigor. Its formal distinction is magnified against the natural background filled with grown trees and long branches casting shadow patterns of kaleidoscopic beauty. Upon stepping beyond the glazed front door, a mute long wall with two openings at each endstill affords privacy. Only upon walking along a right along does the full magnitude of the interior void reveals itself.

Pools are standard amenities in Southern California architecture, modern and traditional alike. Much less so, though, in Northern California where the climate is temperate and outdoor living is a more measured experience. But in the Daphne Residence the pool, effectively indoor even if uncovered, is the true centerpiece, a focus never fully inhabitable unless in the water, with the eye level matching that of the ground. The presence of the pool is everywhere to be felt once inside, but invisible coming from the access road. That the pool is an interior amenity is the result of sliders closing off that area of the house from the nearby golf course.

The water plane brings further order and lightness to this architecture. Reflections reach the glazed surfaces and trigger mirroring effects of powerful luminosity in its interiors. The position of the pool presents an ambiguity of plan interpretation both when looking at the drawings and when experiencing the space: is this a square-box with a deep incision to bring light and water into the center of the house? Are these two glassed bars connected with a bridge going over the water? Maybe an H-plan? Or a binocular composition? In all cases, the perception is of a closed system of spaces. The steel columns mark each corner making clear that the glass box is neither eroded nor questioned. As abstract as it is, there is never loss of orientation as users and visitors navigate inside, its organizational principles legible at first sight. Once in the house, Ellwood’s determination to create a total work of architecture, consistent with his embrace of Mies van der Rohe’s design philosophy, is fully realized. With that objective in mind, the office designed all the interiors and the garden, thus retaining complete control of the design and execution of the project.

The articulation of the building skin is meticulously calibrated to make the load bearing role of the structure clear and the non-structural nature of the infill panels legible in the architecture. Pentelic white marble and white plaster characterize the exterior opaque surfaces, recessed 7 inches behind the columns. The limited color palette of grey glass (replaced today with clear glass) and the ubiquitous whiteness of the enclosure leaves no room for any textural effect. By showcasing the machine precision of its building components, Ellwood suspended the sense of time in experiencing the space. Just like in other projects by the same designer, the Rosen House in West Los Angeles being the closest example, the structure sits on an island of pebbles – imported from Mexico for their dark color and texture – varying from 2 to 6 inches in diameter. The floor is concrete slab on stilts and cantilevers 3 feet beyond its footing to produce the deep shadow further dematerializing the glass box.

In contrast with the even treatment of the exterior, its interior offers a detailed articulation of its functions grasped all at once everywhere within the house boundaries. They are a textbook case of how extensive the floor-to-ceiling approach to both finishes, doors and windows opening can be followed. All the walking surfaces are white terrazzo, giving a sense of flow and continuity throughout. Walnut infill panels are the only planes where the organic imagery of wood is displayed. Everywhere else, technology, spaciousness, lightness, and uncluttered void promote a soothing response not unlike a Japanese traditional house. The zoning diagram is as intelligible as exterior volume. An entire wing is devoted to the sleeping quarters- master bedroom suite at one end facing the golf course followed by an enfilade of bedrooms. The kitchen is directly in axis with the pool and right behind wall facing the vestibule at the entrance. The open plan was selected for the public wing located at the opposite side. A fireplace built out of solid tubular steel sections provide a permeable separation between living and dining areas with a small portion of the floor area devoted to a studio closed with a plastered partition. Each view is meaningful, each corner controlled, each space intentional with neither leaks nor slippages in the precise location of each element.

To many, it will come as a surprise that this was a family residence, under the same ownership for more about 50 years. Here the Daphnes raised four daughters – noticeable the absence of railing around the pool ordinarily prescribed for safety – and performed the routines of daily life. And the fact that the house did not undergo any alteration beyond basic maintenance is testimony of the felicitous union of two visionaries – Nicholas Daphne, the patron/client, and Craig Ellwood, the designer. Two willful individuals with similar convictions about what architecture can do to enhance the human condition.

Daphne was a wealthy undertaker with a passion for modern architecture. He was familiar with the Case Study House program and he personally visited some of Ellwood’s residences as part of that initiative. In the Bay Area his name is associated with the Daphne Funeral Parlor, a project initially commissioned to and designed by by Frank Lloyd Wright, but eventually planned and executed by Los Angeles architect A.Q. Jones of Jones & Emmons in the Castro district in San Francisco.

That building, opened in 1953, was at the center of a bitter controversy in the late 1990s between preservationists’ desire to rescue the structure from being bulldozed and developers’ interests in maximizing the value of the land due to changed market conditions and make room for housing units. In the end the latter won and the mortuary was demolished in 2000. But the fate was much more favorable for Daphne’s own residence. An enlightened second owner bought the property from the family in 2010, understood the value of Ellwood’s design and committed significant resources to upgrade the building systems as well as refinishing surfaces worn out by use, all this in the spirit of bringing the house back to its original glamour.

The meteoric ascent of Craig Ellwood in the elite group of the modernists took place in less than 10 years. Introduced to modern architecture while apprenticing in a contractor’s firm bidding on houses by Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, and Charles Eames, he understood the expressive potential of steel construction transcending technology to a transformational experience filled with mysticism. He opened his office in 1948 and slowly found a voice in the rising chorus of post-ward architects in the region. He made a name for himself through the Case-Study House program, where he designed three steel frames residences- #16, #17, and #18- in Los Angeles. Legendary critic Esther McCoy saw in him a leading voice of his generation. An important professional ally in the firm from 1953 till 1962 was Jerry Lomax (1927-2014), who is credited as the designer-in-charge of a number of key projects, the Daphne Residence among them. This was a golden period in this key figure of California Modernism. It is during this time in fact that the Smith House in West Los Angeles, the Hunt House in Malibu, and the South Bay Bank in Manhattan Beach, three landmark buildings in Ellwood’s trajectory, were produced while the association with Lomax was most creative. It is unclear where Ellwood’s hand ends and Lomax’s starts. Furthermore when they parted ways each personality gave a distinctive imprint different from each other in their subsequent work.

To his credit, Ellwood remained true to the same course for his entire career, where the ramifications of steel constructions were explored, expanded, and resolved in a variety of building types. And it is a curious fact that for a designer steeped into an approach to architecture design based on the invariants of the industrial world, all his output is in California. Under the southern sun, Ellwood’s work exudes Apollonian beauty, not unlike a Greek temple bathed by Mediterranean light. They stand in aristocratic isolation against the landscape, unmarred by urban blight and secure in the ordering principles underlying their very making.

Mies van der Rohe said: “Success is just the by-product of good, simple, and honest work. And this simple and honest work, I think, is the essence of civilization.” If that is true, the Daphne Residence is one paradigmatic example of the essence of 20th century civilization.

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