Interview with Marc Appleton

An enchanting presentation about Florestal, his grandparent’s multi-fabled estate in Santa Barbara, designed by George Washington Smith in 1925, led to Marc Appleton’s invitation to become a national ICA&CA board member. Shortly thereafter, the Southern California Chapter was founded in 2004 by Marc and David Cohen with support from Suzanne Rheinstein.

With an English literature degree from Harvard and an Architecture degree from Yale, Marc apprenticed with architectural firms in San Diego and Los Angeles before starting his own practice in 1976. Much of Marc’s early training and work was based on modern and postmodern trends, but he was drawn to the classic forms in architectural history and desired to do new traditional work; a rarity at that time as most architects sought contemporary directions. He also welcomed remodeling and restoration projects, where the subtle challenges of being respectful to original building contexts were attractive.
Here he speaks to Bret Parsons about the ICA&CA, its Southern California Chapter, academic mentors, his proposal for The Nixon Memorial Library, the relationship between residential architecture and psychotherapy, and other engaging opinions.

Bret Parsons: It’s remarkable that one presentation led to the creation of ICA&CA’s Southern California Chapter.

Marc Appleton: In 2001, the Institute was looking for a local architect or designer to give a talk at the Hotel Bel-Air as part of a California tour. I volunteered! I had been, briefly, an interested member of Classical America around 1970 when I was in school. I had no idea such a renegade notion would survive and morph into such a credible organization today.

BP: What about your architectural education and early start as a practitioner?

MA: Although I had drawn and painted through school, the earliest formal design classes I took in the mid 1960s during college were at Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center in Cambridge, with strong residual influences from the Gropius era and Jose Luis Sert, who was dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. We were force-fed Gyorgy Kepes’s “Vision and Valve” books and a healthy serving of what turned out to be pseudoscientific aesthetics.

Following college, I was admitted to the Yale School of Art and Architecture, where Charles Moore had become dean. Yale provided a more fertile atmosphere where architects as diverse as Phillip Johnson, Kahn, Sterling, Moore, Bucky Fuller, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, younger New York architects such as Eisenman and Graves, and others, vied for our attention. Fortunately, and thankfully, Postmodernism was enjoying a brief heyday! Yale was where I also met and became friends with Allan Greenberg. It was, in retrospect, a fantastic experience. Remember, too, this time frame was the height of the Vietnam War, the Black Panther movement, and a fair amount of political and social unrest. Prior to Nixon’s resignation in 1974, a friend and I put together a proposal for The Nixon Memorial Library on Alcatraz and sent it to every member of Congress, stamped “Top Secret.”

I moved back to California to apprentice in San Diego with two wonderful guys from Kahn’s office, David Rinehart and Jack McAllister. Later I worked with Tim Vreeland in Los Angeles, and finally, Frank Gehry from 1973-76. Looking back I feel lucky that the experiences were so rich and varied.

BP: When did your work focus on a more classical, traditional, and regional, rather than contemporary, vein?

MA: When I left Frank’s office, few firms were hiring, so I thought it was time to start my own practice. I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to pursue the kind of career represented by most contemporary architects I was familiar with: careers that seemed to involve a relatively egocentric and competitive preoccupation with creating original or innovative work.

When I thought about the Southern California architecture I most admired, much of it had been created by classically-trained architects from the early 20th century: Bertram Goodhue, Arthur Benton, Myron Hunt, Reginald Johnson, Julia Morgan, Gordon Kaufmann, George Washington Smith, and others. What I appreciated most was these folks seemed flexible and adept working in varied styles, without imposing an overriding personal stamp on their buildings. This appealed to me, and, coupled with the fact that as a young architect I began with restoration and remodeling of older buildings sent me off in different directions. I became an amateur of local architectural history and still am. I also continue to restore, remodel, and add onto existing structures. I think it’s the most challenging responsible and elegant work an architect can do.

 

BP: Was this change in focus immediate?

MA: Not really. One of my first jobs was restoring and adding onto a Richard Neutra house for the original clients. I became fascinated with Neutra’s conceptual detailing and, ironically, found myself defending the original architecture of the house against my clients, who were arguing with each other about the changes. It all worked out in the end, and to this day my clients credit me with saving their marriage. On that project I quickly learned that the residential design process can oftentimes have a reluctant relationship to psychotherapy. I didn’t give up on the modern vocabulary I had been trained in, I just found it limited, and soon I began doing more and more traditional work. At the time there was a market for it, but few architects were interested in doing it. It was a productive time for me, but a lonely time as well.

BP: How so?

MA: In the late 1970s almost my entire peer group, along with the AIA membership, seemed consumed by the kind of self-conscious, iconoclastic contemporary design I was turning away from. In Los Angeles there were fewer and fewer people with whom I shared ideas and direction. I felt certain that the language of modernism was a dying movement, that the derivative building it spawned had undermined the individual identities of most cities, and surely this would change. I was wrong. In fact, the modern language has persisted well into the 21st century and is louder and ever more bombastic. For me, architects like Lebiskind and Zaha Hadid are essentially speaking in the same modern language; however, they’re shouting it now, and, with just as much egocentricity and paranoia about being original and making an individual “impact” as their forebears. Only in the last 10 or 15 years have there been significant signs of change.

BP: In Los Angeles, is the popularity of the Southern California Chapter indicative of that change?

MA: I’d like to think so. When David and I started the Chapter, we weren’t sure anyone would be interested, especially in LA. I suspect that many of us were working quietly on our own and looking for some kind of forum outside the establishment to give us a voice. I am delighted that our Chapter now has over 200 members with an active program of lectures, courses, and events. I have never experienced such a diverse yet compatible design community as the one our chapter embodies.

BP: What’s the relationship between national and the local chapters?

MA: There are fourteen different chapters now, and they have various relationships with national relative to their age, size, and location. The Southern California Chapter was one of the first and largest ones, and we are obviously pretty NY ex-centric. We espouse the essential classical principals and identity as national, but we are also focused on the regional and local design and architecture that characterize the classical and traditional influences on California’s history. To me, perhaps a good analogy is that the chapters are like new colonies that the empire is both enthusiastically supporting but finding difficult to control. We are, after all, in our infancy, so we shall see. Let’s hope it doesn’t lead to revolution and the War of Independence!

Bret Parsons is a Los Angeles-based realtor, author, and ICA&CA/SCC board member.

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