Before I moved to Los Angeles from London in 1991, I had not heard of architect Ray Kappe. At the time, design buffs overseas were interested in quirky, anti-establishment West Coast architecture by people like Frank Gehry and Eric Owen Moss. But after arriving in L.A., I found myself looking for a route into the real architectural life of the city. Following up on countless recommendations, I met Ray and Shelly, his wife and partner. I also had an opportunity to visit their house, designed by Ray in 1965 and located in a canyon in Pacific Palisades.
“Giddy” is how LivingHomes founder Steve Glenn recently described feeling upon first entering a Ray Kappe–designed house. Giddy is how I felt, too, standing on the flying walkways of Ray’s own residential wonder: A controlled explosion of space, the house spills out over multiple levels, intersected by vertical planes of glass, wood, and concrete. Natural light pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows. In all directions there are views of the lush hillsides. The space and materials—and the light and the setting—all somehow act in perfect union.
I soon learned that everyone who has seen this house has been similarly transported. I also learned that Ray Kappe was a titan, albeit a soft-spoken one, of the Los Angeles design world. He founded the renegade school SCI-Arc in 1972, actively participated in dialogues about architecture and urban planning, and served as a mentor—or simply an influence—to many. But by the early ’90s, Kappe was taking it easier—still advising SCI-Arc and doing one or two projects a year, but nonetheless cooling his engines. Fast-forward to Ray’s 80th year, in 2007, and he had become man of the hour. There has been a surge of interest in his work, and he is busier than he’s been in a very long time.
Ray was born in Minneapolis in 1927 to Romanian immigrants. In 1940, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Ray got his first taste of California modernism, at his own junior high school: Emerson Middle School, designed by Richard Neutra. He went on to study architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. After his final year of school, in 1951, he worked as a draftsman on Eichler Homes for the admired Northern California firm Anshen + Allen. He then moved back to L.A., where he worked for two years with Carl Maston, one of the region’s lesser-known but highly skilled modern architects. In 1954, they each designed a six-unit apartment building side by side on National Boulevard in West Los Angeles, before Ray opened his own practice. The new firm was never idle, designing around 50 apartment buildings, commercial projects, and private houses in its first decade alone. These were mostly post-and-beam constructions organized around a single module. Ray chose to experiment with modules because he was looking for a system of construction that could be prefabricated. Modules also permitted the open plans and spatial fluidity that characterize his buildings.
“What I wanted to do as an architect,” he says, “was to continue what had been laid out by the early modern architects.” He thought people should “come out of cooped-up houses and enjoy nature and space, and live in houses that were more of their time.” In response, Ray designed split levels, terraces forming roofs, and flying walkways with multiple vantage points. “Manipulation of space is very important in his architecture,” says Shelly.
Nowhere are these principles expressed more eloquently than in his own house: 4,000 square feet distributed over seven levels and attached to six concrete towers, built on a mere 600 square feet of land (leaving the hillside and its creek undisturbed). The house was the result of a problem: “He had designed another house,” explains Shelly, “but when we discovered how much water there was and that it was impossible to dig ordinary footings, he developed the tower system, and the six towers go down to bedrock. It was all very experimental.” The family moved there in 1967, and Shelly, with the three children, outfitted it with the softly colorful pillows, fabrics, and furnishings that add greatly to the house’s feeling of completion. But what’s most striking is the spatial quality. For Ray, the home marked the point in his career when he felt he had “something to say. When I had finished my house, I felt I had combined the best of rational and intuitive design.”
As far back as architecture school, Ray had also been interested in planning and the provision of modern design to a far larger public. “I was an idealist early on, and modern architecture seemed more democratic to me,” he explains. “We felt it was going to change society to some degree.”
His other preoccupation was with architectural education. In 1968 Ray became the founding chairman of architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. He brought in young teachers, among them future Pritzker Prize–winning architect Thom Mayne. This helped to create a thriving department where students could learn to design rationally while maintaining an intuitive approach. By 1972, however, Ray was having a difficult time with the dean of the college. Finally, he recounts, “We said, ‘Well, to hell with it.’” Ray and six of the teachers—Shelly, Mayne, Jim Stafford, Glen Small, Ahde Lahti, and Bill Simonian—quit. They decided simply to start a new school. In the spring of 1972, Ray found a building on Berkeley Street in Santa Monica and wrote the first rent check. That fall, classes started. “My recollection is there were 50 local students and 25 from around the country,” Ray says. “We sat on the floor, and the first project was: Let’s build our place.”
SCI-Arc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture, fast became internationally recognized for its open, experimental attitude and teaching methods, with alumni such as Shigeru Ban (one of the early students and a protégé of Ray). But as postmodernism flourished internationally, SCI-Arc moved away from Ray’s interest in the union of the rational and intuitive toward the idiosyncratic and irrational. He left his post as director in 1987.
Twenty years later, tastes have come full circle. A younger generation is again interested in prefabrication and modernist architecture, especially in its potential for sustainable design. In 2003, Steve Glenn asked Ray to produce a line of prefabricated, sustainable houses, to be called LivingHomes. Ray has since designed about 15 houses for the company. The second, the Wired LivingHome, was completed last year in Brentwood, Los Angeles.
For Ray this was the realization of a long-held ambition. “I had done quite a few projects where we cut and predrilled members for the site, and, going back 40 years, I was doing a modular system on some student housing, using wood, but those projects were never realized. When we finally did this project,” he says, speaking about the first LivingHome, “it was somewhat modeled on that set of ideas, except that this time we used steel.” The modules were delivered and erected in one day. “The day it was installed,” he says, “was a great day.”
While many of Ray’s earlier buildings warrant as much attention as the LivingHomes have received, he didn’t seek the press, nor did he ever shape his work to current trends. Instead, he has maintained a commitment to a set of architectural principles—principles that found expression in a prolific career, the school he founded, and houses that can make you feel giddy.