Irving Gill: the Greatest Architect You’ve Never Heard Of

Last week I met up with a friend in San Diego, where I lived for ten years in the 1990s. I took a long walk between downtown and the neighborhood where Kelly and I shared an apartment, Hillcrest (home, incidentally, of the world’s greatest dive bar, Nunu’s). Along the way I kept spotting houses and apartments designed by the less-famous-than he-should-be early 20th century architect Irving Gill.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Gustav Stickley promoted Gill in the pages of the Craftsman Magazine. But many of Gill’s buildings fell prey to the rapacious and indiscriminate mid-twentieth century wrecking ball and he fell into obscurity.

He’s often thought of as a kind of proto-modernist but I’m not so sure. His buildings also have a neo-primitive quality, like a mashup of adobe missions, vernacular Greek architecture and a de Chirico painting. More than any other architect I know he understood the Mediterranean climate of Southern California and designed buildings appropriate to the climate.

I don’t know why we don’t have more courtyards like this one designed by Gill.

He pioneered concrete tilt-up construction and was a master of the multi-unit bungalow court.

Most of all I think he understood form and proportion. That’s how you can spot his elegant buildings.

If one were to write the Southern California version of William Morris’ News From Nowhere, I think our local road not taken utopia would have been built by Gill.

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  1. I lived in San Diego for 8 years. While I had heard of the name, I wasn’t familiar with Gill’s work enough to spot it on the streets. I do know Hillcrest to be full of lovely buildings and this is surely part of why! Thanks for sharing this.

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