Once upon a time in America, the future seemed bright. Original ideas in art and architecture existed in abundance. Industrial innovation, superimposed upon the blank slate of a humbled post war world, provided a new blueprint for living. American cities were being re-imagined in steel, glass and light. Homes were to be functional but happy, uncluttered cradles within which the new generation would thrive. Amid the blooming ideals of modernism, a brighter and more harmonious future for humankind seemed guaranteed. Sixty years on, hope has devolved into uncertainty — but modern architect Ray Kappe, for one, has yet to lose his optimism.
Nearing his 90th birthday, Kappe is one of the last living architects to have practiced during the birth of mid century modern. And he’s still building modern homes, expanding on the vision he first established in the 1950s and 60s, when he took the clean steel lines of his predecessors — Frank Lloyd Wright, Neutra, Schindler —and crafted them in wood, lending a uniquely Californian warmth to the modern era. Challenging natural sites, precipitous canyons in particular, were his forte. Not as acts of man’s dominance over Mother Nature — rather, Kappe’s hillside homes pay homage to Nature’s complexities, echoing her elegant geometry.
The most notable example is his own home, the Kappe Residence (1967), a 4,000 square feet redwood and glass structure camouflaged among the mature oaks and eucalyptus of a steep hillside in Los Angeles’ Rustic Canyon. A warm, luxurious tree house, with interlocking levels connected by Escher-like stairs, it miraculously hovers above a natural spring. To this day, the water bubbles beneath the house, feeding into the Rustic Canyon channel and then the Pacific, a permanent, natural monument to Kappe’s fondness for solving impossible problems. Hell for Kappe is a flat plot of land — and that’s why we chose to sit here, at the midpoint of man and nature, ground and sky, with Kappe and his wife Shelly for some smoothies and talk of the future.
“Whatever you do, enjoy your life, don't make it difficult,” says Kappe, unpretentious and warm as his home. He’s dapper-casual in a charcoal shirt open at the collar, tan pants and a gray goatee. Sitting on a royal blue chair beneath a midcentury steel lamp, Kappe says wise things that apply to both architecture and life, waving his expressive hands as his speaks, his voice a low, friendly rumble.
“You know, I never found architecture difficult,” he says. “I never felt like I was suffering through this thing, never worked nights like so many others. Yes, it was very rare if I worked a night or a weekend. I didn't do any of that, because you get there just the same. I used to tell my students, if you finish a project early, good — go to the beach. Sometimes the more you work on something, the worse it gets.”
Case in point—it took him just two weeks to design the Kappe Residence. Maybe less. The resulting structure is “one of the most magnificent houses in Los Angeles” according to the LA Conservancy, one of the top ten houses in LA, according to the LA Times in 2008, and “a landmark of nature-friendly modernism,” according to the New York Times magazine, which described Kappe as "the only architect who truly signifies the seamless combination of Modernism and canyon vernacular.”
Well, two weeks plus some modern ideals can go a long way.
Ray Kappe was born in Minneapolis in 1927, the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania. His grandfather was a cabinet maker and contractor who built Craftsman-esque homes and barns all over North Dakota. “I liked him a lot,” says Kappe. “He bought me my first bicycle. I used to ride all over with that little bike.” Kappe loved Minneapolis, with its Scandinavian influences, tree-lined streets and pristine lakes. When he wasn’t outside, he wished he could be. He spent most of his childhood staring out of the windows of rented apartment buildings — his father, it seemed, had an unusual aversion to the American dream. “My dad never wanted to own a house, and he liked renting,” says Kappe. “What brought that on, I’m not sure. I never could quite understand. Maybe it was the idea of having to keep up maintenance?” To this day, Kappe’s homes, no matter how ambitious, are known for their sturdiness, practicality and energy efficiency. Dad would have been proud.
When he was 10 (13? fact check), the family packed up and moved to California, taking a long road trip across the northern states to get to their new home. Kappe remembers a lodge they stopped at in Glacier National Park in central Montana — the big skies and rustic structures, expansive yet cozy, inspire him to this day. “I can still smell the big fireplace. I can feel the scale of it. The whole thing. Those things stay in your subconscious.” His eyes water up as he remembers.
It was 1940, and America was about to go to war. Kappe, exempt from combat because of his age, enrolled at Emerson, a junior high school in West L.A. which just happened to have been designed by leading modernist, Richard Neutra. Accustomed to the claustrophobic brick and mortar confines of his Minneapolis school, the bright clean lines and light-filled hallways of Neutra’s school were a revelation to Kappe, who had obviously inherited his grandfather’s fascination with construction. “Walking the long corridors was a whole new experience, for me. The openness, the light.” He visited a Neutra house as a teenager, and, around the same time, read an article about architecture as a profession. His mind was made up. He knew exactly what he was going to do with his life. A gifted student, he worked hard so he could gain a place at UC Berkeley to study architecture.
“When I went to Berkeley, you didn't have to go to class,” he recalls. “My last year, I didn't go at all. Actually, no. I would always go once, the first class, and then five weeks later we would turn in our projects and I would always score high. That gives you a lot of confidence as a young man, especially when it happens time and again.”
Confident, pragmatic, and inspired by the mid century architecture of Neutra, Schindler, John Entenza's Case Study houses, Lloyd Wright’s block houses, Kappe entered adulthood very much a modern man in a modern world. Only thing missing was the girl.
Shelly Kappe brings over some bright green smoothies that match the color of the carpet. She’s wearing a pant suit and flip flops. She loves living in their house, fifty years after moving in.
“It’s always very uplifting to be so open to nature,” she says. “That’s the whole philosophy of his design — the indoor-outdoor idea. Whatever is happening outside, we know about it because it feels like it’s happening inside also,” adding “we’re friends with squirrels, until they eat the tender leaves on the trees. They really do some damage.”
Even after seven decades of marriage, it’s obvious the Kappes are still very much in love.
“We met at UCLA, on the library steps,” she recalls. “Somebody introduced us, a mutual friend. It was a lucky day.”
It was 1947. Shelly was 18, and studying design at UCLA. Ray was 19 and teaching surveying to soldiers returning from the war. “He was a handsome and lovely guy, but I thought he was going with someone seriously. Turns out, it was not so serious.”
They fell in love, married, and settled in LA where sunshine, cheap land and low interest loans had set the scene for a housing boom. The city had been flooded with people working on military production lines, and now they needed places to live. So, with his partner Carl Maston, Kappe set about building for America’s future. They completed their first apartment building in 1954. Before long, the single family home became the crucible of Kappe’s experimentation, even while the Case Study program was being blocked by LA City Councilmen who thought it was a Communist plot, because of the shared gardens.
It took a few years before Kappe’s grand vision — borne of growing up by the lakes, visiting that lodge in Glacier, and the airy work of Neutra — was given form as the home we sit in today, the home that established Kappe as one of the most important voices in American architecture. The house showcases his unpretentious mastery of light and space, his deep love of nature. His two sons, Ron and Finn, also became architects. How could they not, growing up in a house like that?
“It’s very measured this house, always the same measurement from one place to another,” Kappe explains. Seven feet from the car port to the first laminated beam. Seven feet from the floor to the ceiling. Everything in the house is divisible by or a factor of seven — except the joints, which are based around the number 18. “I can’t remember why,” he says. He likes the number three, too, “because it comes up in nature a lot.”
His next house, the Gould Jacobsen House, was just as challenging, dropping 42 feet down a slope, and jutting out into a canyon, suspended in mid air. The Sultan/Prince House in Santa Monica Canyon (1972/1976) is the largest of Kappe’s homes — 7,000 square feet, four floors, with seven mezzanine levels, supported on eight redwood towers, built in a wooded estate, with decks built among the treetops. Filled with grand gestures, Kappe’s homes often face south, and feature lofty ceilings so they can trap the heat of the winter sun. In the summer, trees shade the glass. Kappes’ homes are nothing if not Modern Midsummer Nights’ Dreams.
When California limited glass to 20% of a building’s floor area as a way to save energy during the oil crisis, Kappe was outraged. Not only is glass at the core of the California aesthetic, in his opinion, he also knew that all you need to do to see energy is combine the glass with high ceilings. In fact, his homes were significantly more energy efficient than those that met the new glass code — something he proved to the legislature. When Reagan cut NASA’s budget, Kappe’s designs for an experimental house whose glass skin changed from opaque to clear depending on the weather fell sadly by the wayside.
With the resurgence of modernism in the last twenty years, many have tried to imitate the originals; it’s par for the course, says Kappe. “An excellent architect will always have people trying to copy him; some may do it well and the rest probably won’t. Bottom line, you can’t be what someone else is. If it isn't within you, I don't think you can just copy somebody and have it come out the same way. Your criteria are different, for starters.”
The idea of criteria is pivotal to Kappe’s modern philosophy, not just for architecture, but for life. Criteria provide a manifesto, a code of conduct, a general philosophy extends beyond an architecture practice and into all your choices and broader aesthetic. This emphasis on authentic self knowledge, on getting to know your own individual criteria, formed the basis of his teaching at SCI-Arc, the world-renowned architecture school he co-founded with Shelly and several other teachers in 1972. He started the school with fifty students and a handful of faculty from Cal State Pomona, where he had founded the architecture program before being asked to resign for being too experimental. With SCI-Arc, he launched one of the most cutting edge centers of design education in the world, espousing a radical pedagogy in which traditional hierarchies of teachers, administrators and students went out the window. Originality of thought took precedence over established ideas. Self-discipline and vision, not grades, were what mattered.
He recalls when Frank Gehry joined the SCI-Arc faculty. They taught a class together. In the classroom, the divergent “criteria” of Kappa and Gehry, now California’s best known living “starchitect”, made themselves apparent. “I would give a rational critique of a student’s work and try to get them to think through the possibilities in a Socratic way. Gehry would come around and his crit would be “fuck it up”.
Kappe was the socially-conscious Joni Mitchell to Gehry’s punk showman Malcolm McLaren. Some argue that Kappe’s dedication to social betterment through teaching, rather than his own fame, cost him the kind of stardom that Gehry would later attain with his high profile projects like the Guggenheim Bilbao and Disney Hall, as Gehry became a poster child for the fragmented, individualistic Postmodern aesthetic that flourished in the 1980s and 90s.
Kappe disagrees that teaching got in the way of his career, in fact, he says the opposite is true. “Teaching helps your practice,” he says. Truth is, when post modernist thought briefly replaced modernism as the paradigm du jour, rather than hop aboard the gravy train, Kappe just shuttered his practice. That seemed preferable to him than “adapting” to a set of criteria fundamentally abhorrent to him. To this day, the very term “post modernism” seems to irritate Kappe. As does some of the work of his former colleague.
“Disney Hall, is a handsome building, but it is built horribly,” he says. “The way it’s constructed is insane as far as structure is concerned - huge beams going all different ways to hold up a very lightweight skin? That makes no sense to me whatsoever.” He adds that he does consider Disney Hall to be an interesting building, “and a lot of parts of it are quite good; I just wish he would have had a little more sense, structurally. Unfortunately, you see a lot of this in schools now, students doing these beautiful things, but they don't have the slightest idea how to hold them up. It’s all skins, all external…”
When modernism entered its latest revival in the early 2000s, a new generation of architects and clients clamored for the clean, intelligent lines of the midcentury aesthetic. Including developer Bob Ghassenian, who bought a 1957 Kappe house in the Hollywood Hills in 2005. Who better to restore the modern property than the modern man who built it himself? Kappe agreed, and the project was such a success that in 2010, when Ghassenian imagined a bigger home for his growing family, he brought Kappe, then 83, back on board to build his dream house from scratch.
Kappe’s authentic analogue process—he still draws everything by hand (and passes the drawings on to his sons to draft to CAD)—and his quasi-spiritual understanding of materials, add a je ne said quoi to Kappe’s structures that is missing in much of today’s neo-modern architecture, says Ghassenian, developer of the Mr C hotel in Beverly Hills. “Many times, the challenge with some of the contemporary modern architects I see today stems from the materials they use - luxury stone and glass, and sometimes they can feel a little bit cold. Ray uses wood, concrete and stone, all of which are generally cold materials, yet his work is very, very warm. Honestly it’s magical, what he brings.”
In the 21st century, with the modern aesthetic re-born in an era that is markedly less optimistic than the era in which it first came to be, Kappe represents a living link to the past, as well as a guiding light into the future — a future filled with uncertainty about the survival of the planet amid the greatest technological strides ever seen. In these times, the best thing that architects—and people in general—can do, he says, is find their criteria and respect Mother Nature. “Remember if the architecture is ahead of the trees, then the trees tend to move around you.”