The Journal of San Diego History
Spring/Summer 2000, Volume 46, Numbers 2 & 3
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Video Reviews

Fundamental Truths: The Architecture of Irving J. Gill. Video.

Produced by Barbara Ruland. San Diego: KPBS-TV. 56 Minutes. $24.95

Reviewed by Donald Patrick Covington, Professor Emeritus, Department of Art, Design and Art History, San Diego State University.

During his lifetime, Irving John Gill was the frequent subject of magazine articles including several that appeared between 1912 and 1916 in Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman magazine. After Gill’s death, his architecture was occasionally the subject of photographic collections including the definitive one of Marvin Rand. However, it was Esther McCoy’s essay, published in the catalogue of Rand’s 1958 photographic exhibition of Gill’s architectural projects at the Los Angeles County Museum, that first undertook a serious study of his work. That essay became the much-quoted chapter on Gill in her subsequent book Five California Architects. Since the appearance of Miss McCoy’s seminal essay, Irving Gill has been the subject of several monographs and one notable book, Irving J. Gill, Architect by Bruce Kammerling.

Now comes a video that lifts the subject off the silent page and out of the two-dimensional frame. In this biographical film, Gill’s work is presented not only in drawings and flat photographs but also in movement through and around the buildings as they currently exist. The majority of buildings selected for analytical description and visual examination are pivotal examples of Gill’s unfolding exploration of form, structural method, and material.

Cinematography allows us to see the architecture in changing natural light and from a moving point of view. The producer does not ignore still pictures, but they are used to evoke the local scene as it appeared at various moments in the four decades of Irving Gill’s residency in Southern California. Photographs drawn from the archival collections of the San Diego History Center, the San Diego Public Library, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, and other institutions, enliven the presentation and give it a perspective of time and place. In addition, at times the cameraman used techniques to add movement to otherwise still photographs.

The well-written and spoken narrative of the production follows Gill westward from his birthplace outside Syracuse to Chicago, where as a young man he worked in the office of Louis Sullivan. In 1893, weakened by a case of food poisoning, Gill moved to San Diego to recuperate. He never returned to Chicago. The story line traces Gill through his successive partnerships with William Sterling Hebbard and Frank Mead to his later practice as head of a successful architectural firm, and his collaboration with major clients, George White Marston and Ellen Browning Scripps. Later years are examined for the sources of his decline as a practicing architect, and the narrative closes with a summary of his influence upon San Diego architecture following World War Two.

The straightforward story line and visual details offer an entertaining interlude. However, the intellectual stimulus and true lasting value of the video lies in the thought-provoking analysis made of Irving Gill’s life and work by a host of historians and architects. Among them are Hugh Davies, Iris Engstrand, Rob Quigley, John Reed, Kevin Starr, Raymond Starr, Robert Venturi, and Ted Wells. Primary topics examined by them are Irving Gill’s character; the influences upon him and his buildings; the characteristics of his structural innovations; and, the enduring significance of his architecture.

Several of the analysts cite Gill’s Quaker upbringing as the chief determinant of his search for simplicity, economy and efficiency in his architecture. The Progressive Movement of the early twentieth century with its emphasis upon social and political reform is suggested as having contributed to his search for a more rational architecture for the working class. Also, Gill’s lack of formal architectural education is offered as a probable reason for his interest in the details of construction techniques and materials.

Finally, several of the analysts summarize Irving Gill’s importance as an American architect. The historic importance of Gill’s work is ascribed to its radical reform of building techniques and the fact that it was the first truly modern architecture in America. The enduring significance of his architecture is said to lie in its sensitivity to site, orientation, and natural light.