[logo mirror effect]

August 5th, 2005

Pierre Koenig

An article in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times describes the efforts of a local architecture afficianado to complete the last design of Pierre Koenig. It made me recall the brief period of my life in which he played a significant part: My architectural education at USC. He was not only a groundbreaking Modernist architect but a wonderful educator as well.

How does one truly measure the legacy of an architect like Pierre? Is it the architecture that he designed and built? Is it the students that he taught and quizzed? Is it the family that he loved and raised?

I had the honor of being Pierre Koenig’s student not once but on three separate occasions. Yet I had actually met Pierre months before becoming his student — at his home, for an Alpha Rho Chi Rush event. (Pierre was a Brother of the Fraternity.) Surrounded there by his own steel-and-glass monument to the Modern lifestyle, Pierre had a presence that was at once both humble and authoritative. It was like he had all the answers but didn’t want to spoil the adventure of those around him. In many ways he did have all the answers, as anyone who has stood in the living room at Case Study House #22, cantilevered over the city below, is likely to tell you.

I believe one of the reasons his designs are so successful — why they tend to elicit such a strong emotional response in both their inhabitants and their casual observers — is their careful attention to even the smallest of details. Pierre had a fascination with details. My classmates and I discovered this as we spent most of a semester learning how to detail wood construction, not only in drawings but also in full-size models of post-and-beam connections. At the time, we all thought this was a strange thing coming from someone like Pierre Koenig — shouldn’t we be learning about steel connections? — but I’ve come to an understanding of his rationale.

You see, Pierre was a great aficionado of music. And just as the most complex symphony is merely a collection of simple notes, so too is the most complex architecture merely a collection of simple details. Pierre saw this, saw the importance of simple, honest details forming the underlying structure of simple, honest architecture. Beautiful details are honest details — honest to the material being used. Steel is steel, wood is wood, glass is glass; each has distinct properties. (To paraphrase Louis Kahn, a brick likes an arch not a cantilever.) He wanted his students to understand how the material used in a design could and should influence the design itself — how the physical nature of materials created natural limitations as well as inherent design strategies. Though such concepts may seem elementary to architects today (or not?), Pierre was promoting them when they were seen as revolutionary.

After his passing, several architectural critics in the press seemed to dwell on Pierre’s supposedly stubborn adherence to Modernism, even when, as they put it, it “fell out of fashion.” However, it seems he had the last laugh: At the life celebration in his honor at the USC School of Architecture, one of the speakers noted that Pierre had managed to live long enough to be popular twice.

Yet this elitist view of architectural styles — that Modernism is somehow old-fashioned, or that it is a failure — neglects the reality around us. Few architectural movements have had such an impact on everyday life as the Modern movement. A quick look around reveals many of the hallmarks of Modernism fully integrated with today’s society: the open plan that maximizes usable internal space, the honest expression of structure and materials, and the constant desire to blur the distinction between inside and outside. While the Modern movement may have failed to completely convert the architectural desires of the greater public — a Herculean task if ever there was one — it wildly succeeded to illustrate futuristic possibilities that have forever changed the design landscape of the profession.

And Pierre was there, essentially from the beginning, revealing to the world the wonders of the Modern way of life, one building at a time.
One student at a time. He will be deeply missed, not just as an educator, but also as a visionary architect and a truly amazing human being.

This entry was inspired by the speech I gave on February 28, 2005, at the opening of the Pierre Koenig Memorial Library at the Andronicus Chapter House.

Filed under Flights of Fancy