William Wurster. Regional outlook and architecture as a process

Elisa Brusegan

The United States between regionalism and dogma of style
A historical plot made of contrasting tesserae and moments of rupture characterizes the United States between the Thirties and Sixties of the twentieth century.
After the economic depression of 1929, they are threatened again in 1937. Tightened by economic difficulties, unemployment and the looming war, they become more and more nationalist. The New Deal political and social measures for the country relaunch correspond to a conservative attitude for resources in the collective interest and nourish an environmental civic consciousness. The Civilian Conservation Corps engages over three million unemployed people to maintain parks and natural resources. The Tennessee Valley Authority plans the management of the Tennessee reservoir for electricity production and recreational uses.
The years of the world conflict follow. Millions of people move to major production centers to contribute to the war effort, and California is one of them. Between 1940 and 1947 the population of the west coast increases by almost 40%, becoming even more multi-ethnic. The San Francisco Bay becomes a huge shipyard. The development of the military and aeronautical industry also promotes the building sector, requiring not only constructions for military and production purposes but also temporary housing and services for the workers.
The localist and environmentalist attitude, typical of Roosevelt’s America, is also reflected in the architectural culture, finding a space alongside the International Style. The first works of the Bauhaus group in the United States have been realized, Walter Gropius teaches in American universities, Frank Lloyd Wright’s study is crowded, the New York World’s Fair of 1939 shows the Scandinavian architecture. There is evidence of a new cultural orientation, interested in anonymous architecture, the American identity of architecture and its regional characteristics.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York, an important center for cultural dissemination, is a litmus paper for architectural phenomena. In the decade 1937-1947, in a climate of widespread nationalism, he moves from a cultural program linked to the International Style to a regional look that shows the growth of American architecture and its relationship with the local context (Eggener 2008). It identifies its geographical hotspots in the cities of Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco with their respective schools of architecture. In particular, California is the richest territory of contemporary regional examples, especially around the San Francisco bay.
The regional view disseminated by the MoMA has an empirical basis and shuns theories, not making known to the public the complexity of the Mumfordian regionalist thought to which it refers. From 1948 the head of the Department of Architecture passes from Elizabeth Bauer Mock to Philip Johnson, who shiftes the interest towards the International Style, despite the regionalist sympathies of the architects at the end of the conflict.
The turning point corresponds to the socio-economic trends in the post-war years, a rather conservative period, dominated by the culture of consumerism and the growth of suburbs. However, the region remains a topic debated in architecture schools and within the American Institute of Architects.

William Wurster, the origins of an ethical approach to architecture
In the early 1940s, William Wurster (1895-1973) was a nationally established architect. His projects were widely published, were awarded and exhibited. He was referred to as the founder of a school of contemporary regional architecture.
The same age as Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), Wurster was the son of a banker from Stockton, one of the main cities of the Californian Central Valley. In 1919, after a period in the Navy, he graduated in architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, with a Beaux Arts study program. After some training experiences, in 1922 he had visited Europe. With him he had books on social studies, to investigate the reasons underlying architecture. The journey is a mean to understand the link between architecture and the system of forces that direct it. He observes the relationships that human artefacts establish with the natural element, noticing the English garden cities, the Italian Renaissance masterpieces, the rural architecture (Peters 1979, p. 37). He will comment in 1944: «To first read of a region and then see it in the field shows in the most direct way the dependance of architecture upon the forces which direct it. The geographic, social, economic and climatic phase become as much a part of architecure as its own façade» (Wurster 1944b).
Back in the United States, in 1924 after an experience in New York at Delano and Aldrich, he opened his own studio in Berkeley (Peters 1979, p. 37). The dozens and dozens of projects for residences, productive buildings and offices that he developed in the first fifteen years of his career are a sort of training, but do not present innovative or avant-garde architectural qualities. Instead, they show its firmness in resisting the flattery of the modern movement.

Connecting disciplines: Lewis Mumford, Catherine Bauer and Telesis
Wurster’s professional maturity is determined by a series of lucky relationships, which give him the opportunity to have a transversal look to the architectural object. This ability will lead him to play important institutional roles, filling his projects with new meaning. From 1944 to 1950 he is Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the M.I.T. of Cambridge, between 1948 and 1950 he is nominated by Harry Truman as President of the National Capitol Park and Planning Commission, from 1950 until his retirement he is Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of California Berkeley. In 1964 he is awarded a Laurea Honoris Causa in Law and in 1969 of the AIA Gold Medal. Eero Saarinen compares him to masters as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe (Saarinen 1953, p. 112-113).
In 1940, Wurster marries Catherine Bauer (1905-1964). Thanks to her influence, he begins to study town planning, sociology and other disciplines that place architecture into a larger picture.
Through Catherine Bauer, Wurster makes contact with Lewis Mumford1, then the most authoritative US sociologist and critic1. Mumford had been interested in regional architecture for almost twenty years. From the end of the Thirties his thought finds its maximum expression through the texts The Culture of Cities (1938), Reflections on modern architecture (1939), The South in Architecture (1941).
The more the reasoning of Mumford on the regional architecture takes shape, the more the architectural tradition of the Bay Area that Wurster represents makes its way to successive approximations - a sign that Wurster was certainly functional to embody it.
The most famous and controversial expoundation of Mumford’s architectural thought is represented by his judgments expressed in The New Yorker on October 11, 1947. He denounces the insufficiencies of the International Style, accusing it of having given functionalism too rigid an interpretation. He contrasts it with the architectural tradition of the Bay Area and Wurster’s work, which defines as “Bay Region Style” and to which he attributes the meaning of evolved, spontaneous and autochthonous modernism, which has passed the immature rigidity phase, combining modern forms with the regional qualities of the place. It is plausible that Wurster is cited not only for the exemplary value of his projects in the context of the reasoning Mumford is arguing and for the personal friendship that binds them, but also for the prestige and international fame he enjoys.
In addition to Bauer and Mumford, also the Telesis group is an indicative interlocutor of Wurster’s cultural maturation. It is a collective of young Bay Area architects, urban planners, landscape architects. Inspired by Lewis Mumford, they discuss a holistic approach to planning, defined as “environmental design” and oriented towards integrating humans into the environment. The group is founded by Thomas. J.Kent (1917-1998), it meet from 1939 and in 1940 it organizes at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art the exhibition A Space for Living dedicated to the renewal of slums, as well as to the preservation of a greenbelt and the promotion of regional planning. The exhibition gains the praise of Gropius, Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Goodwin and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Regional outlook and architecture adaptation
Increasingly involved in regional topics, in 1943, after having completed 5000 residential units in Vallejo for the workers employed in the war effort, Wurster moves to the East Coast. Here he follows specialized studies in architecture and urban design. In February 1943 he begins to study at the Regional Planning department of Harvard, where he stays for four months. In July he attends at the same time Yale University, as a critic of architecture, and M.I.T., where he studies City Planning. Thus, in less than a year, he experiences three universities, in addition to those he had known during his trip to Europe in his younger years. Although not having experience in teaching, this contact in adulthood with the university environment leads him to the academic career: the following year he becomes Assistant Professor of architectural design at the Yale School of Fine Arts and then Dean at M.I.T. and at University of California Berkeley.
The increase in his writings, due to the institutional roles he covers over the years, testifies to his cultural maturation and systematizes his thinking, allowing us to understand it ex-post. Notes, articles, interviews reveal a growing understanding of the territory as a regional entity and as a resource. He wrote in 1944: «All too oftern in the past has it [architecture] been thought of as the design of a single building with little consideration for its place in the community, functionally and economically. Architecture has broaden its base, just as science, and the problem is not only the proper design of the building, but an examination into all the reasons underlying it » (Wurster 1944a, 1945).
The architect extends his gaze to the search for a “total environment”, a concept that Wurster introduces in 1954 during the Boston Convention of the American Institute of Architects: «Many changes have occurred in the period between 1919 and 1954 in architecture and in the schools which give professional training. The greatest change of all is the acknowledgment of the total environment as compared to the care formerly lavished on the single structure without thought of all the buildings which surround it. [.. ] Of all the things that come out of our experience, it seems to me, the total environment is the thing that touches architecture with the deepest query and the deepest challenge» (Wurster 1948, p. 7).
In 1948, while he was Dean of Architecture at M.I.T., the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hosts the first exhibition of landscape architecture in the United States. In the catalog, Wurster is the author of an essay in which he writes: «Once again, architecture is considered as part of a larger whole, the region, so it becomes natural to consider it for the relations it activates in the physical context in which it is inserted» (Wurster 1948, p. 7).
The urban studies lead Wurster’s interest not on the formal outcome of the project but on the process that underlies it. The value of architecture lies in the relationships it activates by virtue of the process of adaptation to the site, to the climate, to the rules of the society that inhabits the place.
In particular, the social and climatic aspects are the most influencing on architecture (Wurster 1941, 1947, 1952). Land and sunlight is not just the title of a 1947 conference, but refers to the fundamental components that influence the project for Wurster.

Architectural regional characters
The reflection on the integration and adaptation of architecture in the region, which Wurster develops in his writings of the Forties, is already set at the design level in the previous decade and it is reflected in precise formal and typological strategies, which put its architectural language into practice.
Wurster’s typological contribution is local or “topical”, because it draws from the context morphological materials, being at the same time essential and simple, as the pioneers log cabin. The project follows the rule of expressive frugality, its parts are necessary and seem inevitable.
Some formal materials are taken from the International Style: regular proportions, absence of axial symmetry and applied decoration, a composition focused on volumes and not mass. However, the search for an ethical approach - the regional one - allows to fall neither in style, nor in manner or caricature. Wurster basically simplifies Bernard Maybeck’s composition through pavillions and works by dislocation and grouping. It uses simple volumes which are deep as a single room, articulating them by slip, rotation or linear progression. Their placement follows the site topography and, together with the variation of their internal height, allows the distinction of functional hierarchies. The built parts have a modest and discontinuous size, which modifies the skyline by discrete points, with the result of reducing the perception of the artifact. The base and the roof become thinner, but clearly distinguished from the main volume, consciously declaring the weakness of the upper and lower limits of the architecture. The roof is modeled with projections more or less pronounced according to the solar geometry.
Along with this geometric clarity there is sometimes the irregularity in the facades layout, which show an unclear principle, referring almost to a vernacular randomness.
Wurster prefers two specific residential types that maximize contact with external spaces: linear or patio compositions. The reduced depth of the built volumes makes openings on two or three sides possible. The physical and visual relationship with the exteriors is not concentrated in a few points but involves the whole building, in relation to functional areas. Architecture becomes a permeable diaphragm.
The outdoor room is Wurster’s architectural language paradigm. It is an open space whose physical limits between the inside and the outside are designed as temporary, permeable to the eye, or completely absent.
Depending on its location and the intensity of this limit, it becomes a courtyard, a terrace, a porch or a multi-purpose space. It is generally conceived for staying, but it can also be a place of transit. It plays a substantial role in the architectural fact, of which it constitutes the compositional fulcrum.
The porch is a diffused declination of the external room. Its use made by Wurster is an interesting contribution to the tradition of the “American porch” (Brusegan 2013). In the early projects it has functional autonomy: it’s a living room, a distribution path, or even a place for night sleeping. Over time it acquires a conscious climate value, expressing more clearly the adaptation to the site physical conditions. Architecture is not just a fragment of the region, but it is also a device that allows the user to relate to it in different ways and scales. The voids are the strategy to strengthen the relationship between the landscape and the architectural dimension. Thus the region participates in the design.

Teaching architecture as a synthesis
One of Wurster’s fundamental contributions concerns the transformation of M.I.T. and of the University of California Berkeley from Beaux Arts schools to modern institutes able to put different disciplines in synergy (Peters 1979, p. 36). Also in academic programs architecture enlarges its base.
While Harvard had placed a mentor like Walter Gropius at the head of the Graduate School of Design, the M.I.T. implements a different strategy based on the choice of a facilitator. A figure who did not intend to spread a dogmatic vision but to promote the exchange of knowledge.
This approach is espresse through Wurster’s refusal towards a teaching body with the same mentality, in favor of a group of personalities with contrasting points of view, inducing a “controlled disorder”. Alvar Aalto, Henry Russell Hitchcock, Kevin Lynch, Gyorgy Kepes, but also the Italian Ernesto Nathan Rogers are some of them. Wurster writes: «I don’t pretend to be a great teacher myself, but I know good teaching when I see it, and I can try desperatelty to make a surround for good teachers so they can do their work unimpeded» (Peters 1979, p. 36).
Wurster modifies the academic programs by substituting a type of detached, elitist and graphics based teaching with a multidisciplinary and close to students one. At M.I.T. he transforms the studios - until then evaluated by correspondence - into collective classes. At the University of California Berkeley, he introduces new courses on the perception of space, along with others related to the disciplines that interface with architecture, shifting the center of interest from the drawing to the knowledge of the whole design process. In 1959 the fusion of the three departments of Architecture, City and Regional Planning and Landscape Architecture into a single administrative entity is completed. Wurster calls it College of Environmental Design, becoming its first Dean.
The teaching of architecture opens transversal perspectives towards other fields of knowledge. «Today the architect’s meat and drink must be the whole field of human environment and the entire process behind it – or he will starve» Wurster wrote in 1944 (Wurster 1944b).
Enclosing the built environment in all its aspects expresses the concept of prevalence of the process on the form that he adopts in his projects (Wurster 1944b). Architecture is taught as an art, whose ethical component includes social sciences, economics, finance, geography and political science. Through all this the architect reaches the awareness of the habits that rule life and the processes to modify them. By interfacing with non-usual areas, he can contribute in a direct way, promoting design thinking and anonymous design even in the most common situations (Wurster 1949, p. 1-4).

William Wurster in perspective: architectural history interpretations
In the light of this discussion, Marc Treib’s summary of Wurster’s legacy appears pertinent: «I would suggest that William Wurster’s legacy – in addition to his educational contributions at both Berkeley and MIT, of course – does not concern the style or the precise compositions of his dwellings. He bequeathed the view that architecture is part of a greater designed environment and also left a lexicon of architectonic elements that have been absorbed into the California home of today» (Treib 1995, p. 74).
Criticism alternates the popularity of Wurster’s work with disapproval or skepticism, towards an architecture that does not present distinct formal radicalisms, nor a particularly avant-garde cultural commitment.
The Californian architectural tradition is considered one of the most interesting movements in the contemporary architecture panorama. Those who believe it, like Talbot Hamlin, are not interested in the form per se, and those who reject it, like Henry-Russell Hitchcock, highlight its formal contradictions.
The value of the Bay Area architectural tradition and Wurster’s work have been clearly described posthumously by local scholars. According to John Beach, they do not represent a style, but a process of synthesis and transformation. Paolo Polledri describes them as an approach of interaction between man and nature, whose Puritan aesthetic is formed in the wake of the great crisis of the Thirties and the efficient spirit of the WWII.
The most ardent defender of the Bay Region Style is Wayne Andrews. He disseminates Wurster’s projects for residences and offices of the early 1940s, highlighting the absence of formal dogmatism, the ability to integrate internal and external spaces and to reveal the material richness of local wood.
Others consider Wurster’s contribution but do not devote particular attention to it. William Jr Curtis defines the Bay Region Style a regionalist spot led by Wurster and Kenneth Frampton includes the Bay Region Style in the repertoire of critical regionalism, without examining it in depth (Frampton 1982).

Finally, some historical treatises consider the Bay Region Style a minor experience, alternating an ideological refusal with a limited analysis, which do not provide the reader with adequate justifications, nor do they disclose the most significant projects made by Wurster. For example, until the Fifties, Sigfried Giedion omittes the Bay Area architectural tradition and all regionalism2, while Vincent Scully expresses disdain.
For him, the Bay Region Style is only an embryonic form of architecture that, by virtue of its own hermeticism and difficult contingenties, such as economic depression and war, will never be able to open up to broader social programs (Scully 1967, 1969).

William Wurster’s echo in Europe
William Wurster has been published in Europe since 1937 (the year of his meeting with Alvar Aalto), when his works are included in Swedish and French architectural magazines. He reaches the Italian public at the end of the Second World War, especially thanks to Bruno Zevi (1918-2000), Ernesto Nathan Rogers (1909-1969) and Enrico Peressutti (1908-1976).
Zevi attends the United States in a historical moment of exceptional fervor and rediscovery of regional architecture. He establishes a close friendship with Lewis Mumford (Mazzoleni 1998, p. 22) and becomes one of the main interpreters of his thought. In the first edition of Towards an organic architecture of 1945 he explains that the heart of American artistic life develops along the Pacific coast, around the Great Lakes region and in the South (Mazzoleni 1998, p. 124). In particular, in California there is a movement that goes beyond the production of a vast number of good buildings, providing the basis of a new authentic architectural culture (Mazzoleni 1998, p. 135, Zevi 1975, p. 354, Zevi 1950). The first Italian edition of the book is published without illustrations and in the chronological tables Wurster is mentioned only for the 1941 war housing. In the first English version of 1950 the topic is treated quite comprehensively. The link to Mumford’s thinking is evident, but also a personal interpretation emerges. The Bay Region Style is called a vernacular and the most significant precedent of the organic movement. It is the most significant American architectural tendence of the 1930s and 1940s and converges with Swedish empiricism in the response to international polemics for the overcoming of rationalism. William Wurster is described as shy, modest, a figure in the shadow who has gained security since the mid-Thirties thanks to his friendship with Alvar Aalto and his marriage to Catherine Bauer. (Zevi 1975, p. 354).
According to Zevi, the Californian tradition main merit lies in having released America from the European cultural yoke, allowing the development of an autonomous expressive research, which is an evasive complement of a capitalist society centered on the metropolis accumulation (Zevi 1975, p. 361-362).
In the article he writes for the attribution of the Gold Medal to Wurster, Zevi interprets Mumford’s preference for Wurster as the possibility of unlocking an architectural situation ensnared in the Wright-Le Corbusier dilemma: «Wright was a solitary giant, his creative impetus was so overwhelming to instil fear. His message could not be conveyed  balancing the rationalists influence. The impasse had to be overcome» (Zevi 1971, p. 771).
The Bay Region Style has also been treated by other Italian historians. Leonardo Benevolo mentions Wurster in his History of Modern Architecture, about the war housing. He defines him a formalist, without examining why (Benevolo 1960).
Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co briefly treated the Bay Area architectural phenomenon in History of Contemporary Architecture. First they circumscribe the Bay Region Style to the decade 1945-55; then they insert it within a broader framework, which expresses the rejection towards all the ideologies identified with the war horrors, and which also the English New Towns, the Scandinavian neoempirist movement and the Italian organic movement represents. Post-war slogans move towards humanization, attention to psychological factors, the expressive use of materials, an interest in local traditions, as well as integration with the environment and adherence to the site. The artificial rediscovery of nature is part of a neo-humanistic reassuring myth, in contrast with the metropolitan alienation associated with war conflicts. The authors write: «It is an appeal to a reassuring ritual, rich in consolatory qualities, not compromised with the ideologies of the avant-gardes put in the index; and, above all, of an anti-technological and neo-humanistic, anti-rhetorical myth, aimed at achieving a positive relationship with the public, on the basis of empirical and confidential languages» (Tafuri, Dal Co 1976).

Elements of William Wurster’s legacy
Several factors contribute to limiting the dissemination of Wurster’s approach to architecture and teaching.
The pragmatism and modesty of his approach - combined with an early retirement from the scenes in 1963 for the alzheimer followed by the loss of his wife in 1964 - make his thinking difficult to access.
His non-conformist figure also appears uncomfortable to those who focus on mere form, without investigating the cultural matrix that underlies it. In an article on Casabella Continuità published in April 1960, Wurster describes his architecture as popular, not particularly dramatic or revolutionary. It does not represent intellectual theories but bears the signs of the reality in which it has fallen and is considered as an effective and recognizable architectural response by people. He refers to a “regional language” that arises from the response to human needs related to the culture of society and is conditioned by available resources and climate. If examined in its objectivity, his work does not present particular spatial tensions. It is more interesting to consider it in relation to what surrounds it and to the process that has influenced its development. Wurster writes: «From the point of view of design, perhaps he will disappoint. But if architecture is understood as a social art in a democratic society, it will be recognized as valid» (Wurster 1960, p.13).
Although widely disseminated, Wurster’s works have often been presented in a simplified form and divorced from his cultural approach, which he revealed only after several years, becoming therefore subsequent to many projects.
Lewis Mumford himself, to whom Wurster owes much of his thinking and who contributes to his notoriety, uses Wurster in an instrumental way, helping to shift the focus to marginal aspects. He does not motivate his judgments and the very definition of “Bay Region Style” has an unfinished taste, which gives rise to purely ideological interpretations. Its assumption as a model of regionalism demonstrates the existence of inaccuracies in the definition of the concept, in the use of the term “style”, in the identification of artifacts to which refer. Perhaps these critical points indicate the limits inherent in the regionalism topic, which is slippery and elusive even for an intellectual such as Mumford.

The main interpretations advanced by Italian intellectuals towards the Bay Region Style are influenced by cultural and temporal distance and are also influenced by personal approaches to architecture. The Bay Area architectural experience oscillates between the Wrightian derivation (in the case of Zevi) and the legacy of the Shingle Style (in the case of Tafuri-Dal Co).
Ultimately, judging Wurster’s works for its architectural composition is of partial utility. On the contrary, his contribution to the project and to the teaching of architecture is the shift in the value of architecture towards the relationships it establishes throughout the context by virtue of the process that generated it. It’s a universal principle that is valid even now, a historical moment in which responsibility for the use of resources has turned central in the cultural debate.
 «I am a regionalist to the extent that I believe all buildings are on a specific site, subject to the customs and norm or that site» (Riess 1973). This is how Wurster describes himself, once again bringing architecture to a problem of relationship with the place.


1 See the correspondence between Lewis Mumford and Catherine Bauer (dal 1938) and between Lewis Mumford and William Wurster (since 1942) kept at University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg Rare book & manuscript Library, Lewis Mumford Papers, ca. 1905-1987 and the correspondence between Mumford and Wurster (dal 1946) kept at University of California Berkeley, Environmental Design Archives, Wurster Dean Collection, Box 7.
2 In 1941, “Space, Time, Architecture” he dedicated a brief paragraph to the American architecture of the 1930s without mentioning the Bay Region Style, nor Wurster. The 1951 text “A decade of new architecture” presents a selection of projects all over the world, from 1939 to 1945. Wurster is mentioned only for the Stern Dormitory of the University of California Berkeley. In 1958 in “Architecture, you and me” (known in Italy as “Breviario di architettura”) Giedion theorized a “new regionalism”, similar in content to Mumfordian ideas.


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