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Architecture Misfit #2: Irving John Gill

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Irving John Gill [1870–1936]

Irving Gill had no formal education in architecture and never attended college. His father was a builder who, according to William Curtis’s “Modern Architecture Since 1900”, “had a knack for finding short cuts in construction”.  Curtis goes on to say that

Gill himself was an early advocate of reinforced concrete in domestic design, especially using ’tilt-slab’ techniques, and like Perret thought that the material required a simple rectangular vocabulary.

You can see where Irving Gill’s career is going already. The tilt-slab technique happens to be very cost-effective and efficient way of making buildings. This is not the stuff of Architecture, especially when you are a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright for most of your working life. Irving Gill believed in simple shapes because they were easy to make in concrete, and probably made the mistake of saying so, rather than justify them, for example, in terms of De Stijl or fancy European notions of art. This is his Dodge House in California designed in 1915, six years after Wright’s Robie House.

Irving Gill did not believe in ornament.

“We should build our house simple, plain and substantial as a boulder, then leave the ornamentation of it to Nature, who will tone it with lichens, chisel it with storms, make it gracious and friendly with vines and flower shadows as she does the stone in the meadow. I believe also that houses should be built more substantially and should be made absolutely sanitary. If the cost of unimportant ornamentation were put into construction, then we would have a more lasting and dignified house.

This is an extraordinary statement for the time, and very much in line with the approach of Hannes Meyer a decade later. Eager to proceed onto his next chapter dealing with “Responses to Mechanization: The Deutscher Werkbund and Futurism,” Curtis dismisses Gill by saying

“The significance of stripped simplicity in his work was therefore partly moral, but very far in its meanings from the machine idolization of the avant-garde in europe who were to create the modern movement of the 1920s.” … “It so happened that Gill anticipated some superficial aspects of the white, geometrical architecture of the 1920s, but his work was virtually unknown in Europe and his outlook quite different.”

Grrr. What annoys me about historians in general and Curtis’ book in particular is that he is blind to the worth of anything that doesn’t connect to this thing called Modern Architecture that he intends to champion. Gill did not “anticipate the superficial aspects” of anything. He was just trying to make buildings as decently as he could according to criteria he thought were important. This, to Misfits, is what making buildings is all about. It is the history of everything else that is superficial, peripheral.


“If the cost of unimportant ornamentation were put into construction, then we would have a more lasting and dignified house.”


Irving Gill, Misfits salutes you!


  • says:

    check out ;
    Architecture of the Sun, Thomas S. Hines, Rizzoli
    whole chapter on” the stone in the meadow”_65 pages of wonderfulness, written and imagery
    precursors to many of the masters…………………
    although discusses the extent of publication of his works. Curtis’s dismissal is pointedly summary

  • says:

    American architectural history is under undue influence of the promulgation of Johnson’s definition “modern architecture” through heroically trumpeting Gropius, Breuer, Mies et al, the leaders of a new freedom in the leader of the free world. Other than FLW, of course. These could no wrong.

    The centring of this on the North East, most particularly Harvard, of the USA effectively cast aside everywhere else. Highly influential schools travelling a different road, such as the nearly neighbouring Princeton, where effectively pushed to the periphery.

    This established an evolutionary line.

    This coupled with his every strengthening autocratic stranglehold of the New York media machine powerhouse to maybe a zenith 30’s meant everywhere else either toed the line or was excluded. There were the obvious exceptions who where more tolerated than considered equal. Saarinen jnr welcomed into the fold later, particularly as he practiced in New Haven, Saarinen snr only tolerated.

    Unfortunately this doctrinaire cannot be expunged sufficiently to allow a greater appreciation of all things architectural. Not read his tome, but I wonder who much credence is given to people like Marion Mahoney.

    Gill is almost a forgotten. He is not on the line, can therefore be dismissed.

    Keep up the good work.