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Curbed LA Interviews: Ray Kappe

The latest in our occasional but continuing series of interviews with LA's architects, planners, politicians and thinkers who shape this city. Someone must have misinformed Ray Kappe, architect, academic and founder of SCI-Arc, about the importance of Curbed LA because he actually answered our emails and thoughtfully responded to our interview questions. Below, find his thoughts on sustainable architecture, the future of SCI-Arc, and why he rejects the "living legend" label.

[Image provided by Ray Kappe]

So, let’s start with the big question: what’s it like to be a “living legend”?

I have been fortunate and have enjoyed successfully practicing architecture for fifty-three years, with recognition, publication and design awards locally, nationally, and internationally; as well as having been involved in education for forty-four years, having been Founding Chairman of Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona in 1968 and Founding Director of SCI-ARC in 1972. The living legend “label” is generous and flattering but …”a living legend” is in the minds of others.

Your generation, the generation that founded SCI-Arc, and the first generation of graduating students from SCI-Arc were great believers in activism and cooperation. What would you say is the future of SCI-Arc when it moves further away from being a co-op school of architecture towards a more conventionally competitive school of design like the GSD or Columbia?When an endeavor like SCI-ARC begins, it is only natural that it generates activism and cooperation in order to survive. During the first few years, the school was a true exploration into the social and behavioral aspects of the architectural education process. I also encouraged a large amount of pedagogical experimentation as well. By 1976 most of the founding students had graduated and SCI-ARC was accredited. It already had an excellent national and international reputation. As our graduate program grew, we became more competitive with other graduate schools. By the time I stepped down as Director in 1987, after 15 years, our graduate program had grown to 125. Today it is 250, but competitively it is about the same as it was in 1987. Early on, it was rated, and continues to be, with the top schools of Architecture in the world. When one visits SCI-ARC today, one still feels the creative energy. We have just gone through successful accreditation visits from WASC & NAAB – collegiate & professional accrediting groups. Enrollment is up. Our program of European Studies at our villa in Vico Morcote (Lugano), Switzerland is being re-vitalized. So, I would say, with confidence, that the future of SCI-ARC looks excellent.

From this point, I would like to answer most of the remaining questions in the two primary categories. First, I will discuss Los Angeles and related questions, and then I will address those questions related to architectural design and my involvement with prefabrication, energy and environmental concerns, and sustainability.

Curbed LA asked a series of questions on sustainable housing, predictions for the mainstreaming of pre-fab and what the Kappe dream house consists of. Kappe preferred to answer these questions less formally than some of our other victims subjects. And who are we to argue? Next, we let Kappe go Krazy with our questions

I came to Los Angeles as a teen-ager and attended Emerson Junior High, designed by Richard Neutra, which made an impression on me, and University High School. After my time in the U.S. Service, I attended and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in Architecture. I was married to my wife, Shelly, who became an Architectural Historian and a member of the SCI-ARC Founding Faculty. I worked in an architectural office in San Francisco, as I finished my last year at the University. In 1951, we returned to Los Angeles, and after working two valuable years with Carl Maston, I have been in my own practice since 1953.

I chose to return to Los Angeles because I felt it had more architectural vitality than the Bay Area. I thought it would offer greater opportunity for experimentation and exploration for both architecture and urban design. And I was correct. I had a very busy small practice for 15 years before forming a larger partnership and at the same time dedicating myself to education, as the first Chairman of Architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and later as the founding Director of SCI-ARC. In 1963, I became involved with the AIA / LA Urban Design Committee, worked on many advocacy projects, and wrote several publications with my colleagues, Herb Kahn and Rex Lotery, who in 1968 became my partners.

I was also active with the Goals Council of the City of Los Angeles, chairing the Housing Committee as well as writing a paper for the Council on Communication and Transportation. At the state level, I chaired the Environmental Committee of the California Council /AIA. At the National AIA level, I served on the Education Committee and the Fellows Committee, choosing those members to be honored with Fellowship in the Institute. In my practice, our partnership continued to do housing, commercial, industrial and institutional architecture, but half of our practice was devoted to urban design and planning. We did work for the City of Los Angeles and most of the surrounding incorporated cities.

Throughout my architectural career the house and housing has been a vital part of my practice. In San Francisco, I worked with the firm of Anshen & Allen on the first Eichler Homes. The major part of my early practice was housing, which was typical of most small firms in Los Angeles. Southern California has always been the nation’s leader in modern housing. One of my goals from the beginning was to develop repetitive modern housing for the “masses.” My earliest work was comprised mostly of small wooden post and beam houses, and I completed 50 of these homes in the first ten years. By 1964, I had designed a modular prefab complex for a large student housing project at California State University, Sonoma. When this did not get built, I spent the next 10 years exploring the potential of this system in my custom residences. I was interested in the possibility of diversity within a common system both in terms of plan relationships and spatial qualities.

My own “dream house” (your term) for my family, was based upon this system, designed in 1965, and built on an uphill site, with underground springs, in Rustic Canyon, Pacific Palisades, in Los Angeles. It has been visited by thousands of students and architects from all over the world and was designated an Historic Cultural Monument by the City of Los Angeles in 1996.

Since 1975, when the Energy Code was introduced in California, I have continued to explore the architectural potential of passive and active systems. Presently, I have completed the first LEED Platinum home in the United States which is also a prefabricated, steel–framed, modular home based upon the system that I designed 40 years ago for the student housing project. This house was designed for LivingHomes, a new company building prefabricated homes with modern design and sustainability as a primary goal. I have designed an additional eight models for them with 2-3 variations for three of the models. Most of this material can be viewed on the website, A time-lapse film of the erection of the model house can be seen on the website as well.

Presently there is tremendous interest in prefabrication and sustainability. LivingHomes has a multitude of new customers who have seen the first model house published in one of the articles which have appeared in some 35 publications of various architectural and consumer magazines, on TV or on Home Tours, since the erection of the first model home in Santa Monica this year.

This first group is enthusiastic about the fact that the design of the first model does not look like a modular, prefabricated home even though the construction process is exposed. They view it as an upscale, spatially exciting, architecturally designed modern home. Beyond this, customers are primarily excited about the reduced construction cost and the building time factor. For many the sustainability factor is primary. LivingHomes’ goal is to provide “green,” affordable, modern designed housing and community planned projects using prefabrication, and eventually encourage developers and homebuilders to include a percentage of these prefabricated homes in their developments. Steve Glenn, the CEO of LivingHomes believes that the market for his homes will be thoughtful people who prefer modern architecture, buy organic food, avoid noxious chemicals, and worry about global warming.

Sustainable architecture is about buildings that can sustain themselves by providing their own electrical power, heating and water supply. If they are hooked up to a water supply system, they are able to recycle gray water and rain water. They also use sustainable, recycled and non-toxic materials. LivingHomes’ goals are zero energy, zero water, zero carbon and zero emissions.

I do not feel that materials drive my design, although glass has always been an extremely important element. My architecture is about resolving problems related to the site, the client’s program, structure and construction systems, environmental response, progression through space and space itself. In my early years, I tried most plastic materials that came on the market, but was dissatisfied with most of them. Most of the materials in the LivingHomes model home are recycled conventional materials. However, there are also countertops of recycled paper and glass, as well as polygal, a multi-layered plastic which is also energy efficient. Photovoltaic panels, which have become more affordable, were used as well.

Where are all the developers with a sense of adventure in LA? How can we encourage them? I have always felt that urban planners are envious of architects because architects are physical planners and urban designers. Urban planners are usually policy-makers. When I was chairman of the Architecture Department at Cal Poly where we had the three disciplines of Planning, Landscape Architecture and Architecture, whenever we had a combined studio of the three disciplines, I noticed that the planning and landscape students always let the architects lead the design process. I would encourage the other two disciplines not to do this because I felt it would lead to the resentment to which you are referring, upon their graduation. Most housing developers always take the path of least resistance that will provide the most profit. They follow successful developments, and they mostly do the same thing. It is rare to find a business person like Steve Glenn, CEO of LivingHomes who has vision and ideals and appreciates quality modern architecture.

Our most vexing question: Why is there such a proliferation of faux-Tuscan architecture in LA?Faux-Tuscan “McMansions” seem to appeal to people who enjoyed visiting that part of the world, have delusions of grandeur, and want to live-out their Italian fantasies. The developers are happy to build these decorated boxes and sell them at a huge profit. Hopefully, education, more arts education in the school system, and exposure are the answer. The consumers and the developers need to go on more Modern Architectural Home Tours and discover that modern designed homes can lift the spirit, live in harmony with nature and can also be elegant as well as “warm” and welcoming.Preferred mode of transportation?My preferred mode of transportation is the automobile, like the rest of the people in Los Angeles. However, I would prefer an in-city personal transit system of small electric cars capable of transporting one person, with options for additional attachments for more persons and storage. Ideally, these vehicles would be computer controlled or at least use existing radar systems that can increase the loads of the freeways. I designed this system forty years ago, and it was published in West Magazine. It could easily increase freeway capacity ten-fold without traffic problems or pollution. Fixed rail will never totally work for LA. The city is too dispersed.How does a growing city like LA balance between the need for more housing and development with a need to preserve parts of its architectural history?The parts of LA that some people might feel are important to preserve can usually be saved by citizen groups and the Los Angeles Conservancy. Important individual architectural structures are also usually looked after by the Conservancy. However, there is a need for change in the city and as the population grows, it is necessary to densify and create mixed-use neighborhoods, especially near transit stations. Within this densification, it is also necessary to provide affordable housing.For the aspiring architect in Los Angeles, where do they begin, what should they expect, and is there any place better than LA at the moment to be doing architecture?My advise to the aspiring architect is: after you complete your education, get your working experience in the real world, get to know yourself – who you are and your goals, get your first client, get the contract signed, do a great job, promote yourself and, as I have told graduating classes, “Never stop dreaming dreams!”


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