How a Le Corbusier Design Helped Define the Architecture of Southern California

How a Le Corbusier Design Helped Define the Architecture of Southern California

We all know that in architecture, few things are truly original. Architects take inspiration from all around them, often taking ideas from the designs of others to reinterpret them in their own work. However, it's more rare that a single architectural element can be borrowed to define the style of an entire region. As uncovered in this article, originally published by Curbed as "Le Corbusier's Forgotten Design: SoCal's Iconic Butterfly Roof," this is exactly what happened to Le Corbusier, who - despite only completing one building in the US - still had a significant impact on the appearance of the West Coast.

Atop thousands of homes in the warm western regions of the United States are roofs that turn the traditional housetop silhouette on its head. Two panels meet in the middle of the roofline and slope upward and outward, like butterfly wings in mid-flap. This similarity gave the "butterfly roof" its name, and it is a distinct feature of post-war American residential and commercial architecture. In Hawaii, Southern California, and other sun-drenched places, the butterfly roofs made way for high windows that let in natural light. Homes topped with butterfly roofs seemed larger and more inviting.

Credit for the butterfly roof design often goes to architect William Krisel. He began building single-family homes with butterfly rooflines for the Alexander Construction Company, a father-son development team, in Palm Springs, California, in 1957. The Alexander Construction Company, mostly using Krisel's designs, built over 2,500 tract homes in the desert. These homes, and their roofs, shaped the desert community, and soon other architects and developers began building them, too—the popularity of Krisel's Palm Springs work led to commissions building over 30,000 homes in the Southland from San Diego to the San Fernando Valley.

© Elizabeth Daniels

But the story of Krisel as inventor of the butterfly roof is actually "not true," as Krisel himself notes. While he did make the feature a Southern California mid-century trademark, it was another architect who first developed the butterfly roof. Twenty-eight years before Krisel designed tract homes for the Alexander Construction Company in Palm Springs, Swiss-French architect and Modernist pioneer Le Corbusier first came up with the soaring architectural feature.

Originally born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in Switzerland, Le Corbusier moved to France in 1917, gave himself the new moniker, and began associating with singers, sculptors, writers, and other artists. With his minimalist modern architecture, Le Corbusier sought to create a better functioning, more equal society (in fact, Le Corbusier was a supporter of both Communism and Mussolini). His designs put him at the opposite end of the spectrum from traditionalists and from much of the architecture in his adopted country. Le Corbusier was always ahead of his time—particularly so in 1930, when he designed the very butterfly roof for which Krisel would later get much of the credit.

© Elizabeth Daniels

Le Corbusier's first attempt at the butterfly roof took place in Chile, where he was commissioned to build a vacation home in Zapallar for Eugenia Errazuriz, heiress to a Bolivian silver mining fortune and wife of Jose Tomas Errazuriz, whose father and grandfather had both been President of Chile. Eugenia was a grand patroness of the avant-garde; in addition to the modern cliffside summer home she commissioned, Eugenia was a friend to and avid collector of Picasso. Eugenia's taste for modernism and minimalism was widely known within her circles. Mutual friends of Eugenia's and Le Corbusier's thought the two to be of one mind; fellow Swiss-French citizen and Modernist writer Blaise Cendrars introduced the two.

The vacation home, Maison Errazuriz, was set to overlook the Pacific Ocean from a remote spot that presented challenges for Le Corbusier. He met them with his trademark mix of organic design and modern innovation. Le Corbusier planned to build with a rustic mix of stone and wood—materials that were local to the area and would help combat and stabilize the uneven terrain. A combination of fieldstone and large boulders would serve for the floors and exterior, respectively.

© Elizabeth Daniels

Large cut tree trunks were planned for interior support columns. Kenneth Frampton, another Le Corbusier biographer, notes that Maison Errazuriz "gave rise to what would soon become his characteristic neo-vernacular. An expression both archaic and modern."

The other site-specific aspect of the project was, of course, the unique roof of the Maison Errazuriz: a broad, off-center V "resembling two unequal wings of a gigantic bird in flight," writes Weber. Where the two wings met about one-third of the way along the home, a gully formed, from which the large, winged expanses swept upward. The wings were to be covered in Spanish tiles. This striking design was a distinctive departure from the flat roofs that had become characteristic of the 1920s.

Read the rest of the article at Curbed.

Photos of butterfly roofs throughout southern California by Elizabeth Daniels.

About this author
Cite: Marni Epstein-Mervis. "How a Le Corbusier Design Helped Define the Architecture of Southern California" 03 Jan 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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