San Diego — Labeling prominent local architect Robert Mosher a modernist, while valid, is only scratching the surface of his aesthetic.
In an interview with Keith York on Saturday, January 21, at the NewSchool of Architecture, Mosher, 91, enlightened the audience with his take on the movement and why he might not fit ever so neatly into a modernist box—if such a thing exists. Moreover, he considers himself a humanist who expresses his structures via a modernist vehicle.
Architectural historian and owner of the website http://modernsandiego.com, York led Mosher through a discussion covering the origins and evolution of the modernist movement as well as his involvement in the iconic iterations evidenced in various designs throughout the San Diego region. Mosher offered anecdotal insight into several of his more notable projects such as the Muir College buildings on the campus of UCSD and the transformation of the Irving Gill designed Scripps house into what is now the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.
To a rapt audience he recounted modernist origins in the early part of the 20th century as articulated in the Bauhaus and later establishing the principles of the international style. Luminaries the likes of Louis H. Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, brothers Charles and Henry Greene and Irving Gill spread the methodology westward. Mosher, a local boy, continued the trend cutting his teeth on his family’s Green Dragon Colony in La Jolla.
In Green Dragon, a mixed-use retail, restaurant and office space, his interpretation would express itself through his signature humanist leanings. Holding fast to the concept that structural designs should reflect the very nature of their building materials, wood is used intelligently so as to become more than mere substrate, but decorative and pleasing to the humans who inhabit the space. Whereas international style dictated crisp, hard edges fashioned of steel and concrete, the humanist side of modernism considered first “the scale and reaction of the human form to the space.”
Notably, he pointed out that modernism was only made possible with “the availability of sheets of glass.” These afforded a newfound relationship between interiors and exteriors, which he proudly evidenced in the restaurant space in Green Dragon. With the ocean clearly visible through the building from Prospect Street, what he terms “clear carpentry,” is exemplified. Thus the building materials remain integral to the expression of the structure.
In speaking fondly of Green Dragon, he choked up briefly when commenting that in his 65 years of practice, the now current redevelopment of those spaces signify professional bookends. While Green Dragon was his first project, simultaneously and ironically he claims it to be his last in his career.
With such a highly visible treasury of projects, Mosher exhibited refreshing humility as he readily offered professional credit to others, including his long time business partner, Roy Drew. On a recent tour of the lab buildings he originally designed for UCSD, he noted that the current remodels “made my work look so naïve and simple,” in comparison. It can be argued that that very essence of simplicity has played a distinguishing role in the longevity of his designs.
He maintains “architecture is problem solving,” and that in every project there are physical obstacles to overcome and a need for “just getting it done.” This concept clearly played into his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla, the west wing of the San Diego Museum of Art, and certainly at UCSD. The latter project was notable for what he perceived as an insensitive original design proposal rendered by Robert Alexander (a colleague and contemporary of Richard Neutra.) With plot lines drawn calling for four buildings placed two by two, punctuated by a tower and set along a Champs Elysee-style avenue, the concept was nothing new. In 1960’s San Francisco, Mosher commented that students were already rioting on the campus of UC Berkeley and discontent was brewing on the local level as well. Simply put, he felt the plans as drawn were not “going to fly,” and would likely be perceived as an insult to the attitudes of the time.
Through miraculous intervention, Mosher was able to gather university decision makers at a retreat at Warner’s Hot Springs in San Diego’s backcountry, and propose a less formal, less “fascist” design. Perhaps it was the humanist surroundings at Warner’s itself that helped influence the attendees. What is clear however is that revisions were accepted showcasing a new master plan that rearranged the concrete buildings. Now surrounded by a landscape plan by noteworthy designer Joe Yamada, soothing gardens and courtyard spaces ensued and remain signature to the campus today.
The buildings of Muir College demonstrate how “architectural features are integral parts of the programmatic solutions. By their very nature these features furnish part of the solution and read as decorative and express exactly how it’s built.” By contrast, he explained that modernism “is not just being tricky.”
When queried as to how modernism and humanism may have changed over time, he responded that what remains constant are “rationally, intelligently and technologically expressed structural systems.” Material uses and needs change over time, and thus so will the expression. However, “if done with integrity, it will endure.”
As for humanism? While value systems, ethics and aesthetics may change, the “reaction of the human form to space is unchanged.” A humanist considers our responses to climate and the way in which the human figure relates to the structure. Mosher always drew five and six foot human figures into his architectural plans “to check the atmosphere for sensitivity.”
Design solutions that delight us with their decorative nature and structures that shelter us with their sensitivity. One conceptual dance partner may lead and the other follow; their roles may momentarily shift then circle back to center. Clearly Robert Mosher’s body of work demonstrates that a relationship between modernism and humanism indeed exists. Not only does it exist, it endures.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Gildred