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Ray Kappe, LA’s trailblazing modernist architect, has died

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During a career that spanned decades, Kappe designed more than 100 stunning residences and, as an educator, transformed the Los Angeles design world

Architect Ray Kappe at his home in Pacific Palisades in 2007.
Photo by Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Ray Kappe, one of LA’s most influential modernist architects and founder of the prominent architecture school SCI-Arc, has died.

The school’s spokesperson, Stephanie Atlan, confirmed the death. He was 92.

“The world of architecture would not be what it is without him,” SCI-Arc director Hernán Díaz Alonso said in a statement. “His legacy as an architect, city planner, and educator is absolutely unparalleled.”

During a career that spanned decades, Kappe designed more than 100 stunning residences, many of them tucked into LA’s canyons and hilltops. A progenitor of the post-and-beam style that would come to define California modernism, Kappe employed textures and materials borrowed from LA’s natural surroundings, marrying the region’s warm Craftsman aesthetic with the glass and steel of the modernist movement.

“He had a very quiet dignity, and that was reflected in his personality—and in his work,” said Linda Dishman, president of the Los Angeles Conservancy. “He used materials in a way that let them speak for themselves. He used a lot of wood, a variety of textures of wood, as opposed to stucco or brick that other architects of that same period used.”

A late 1960s photo of Kappe’s house taken by Julius Shulman.
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Born in Minneapolis in 1927, Kappe grew up visiting parks, lakes, and national parks, according to the conservancy. He and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1940, and he attended Emerson Junior High, which was designed by Richard Neutra and made an impression on him. In Los Angeles, he developed a deep understanding and appreciation of LA’s light—and how to capture it, Díaz Alonso said.

“His view of modernism was... much more based on a human dimension and observation,” Díaz Alonso said. “It had a level of coziness, a level of humanity, a level of everyday life. It was a different breed of modernism.”

Kappe earned an architecture degree from UC Berkeley in 1951 and, for a stint, designed homes for developer Joseph Eichler, as an apprentice with San Francisco-based Anshen and Allen. He returned to Southern California and established his own practice in 1953.

“I chose to return to Los Angeles because I felt it had more architectural vitality than the Bay Area,” he told Curbed in 2006.I thought it would offer greater opportunity for experimentation and exploration for both architecture and urban design. And I was correct.”

Kappe’s first homes, according to city records, were open-plan suburban homes in the foothills of the San Fernando Valley. Later, he experimented with modular and prefab systems while designing custom homes.

His best-known work was perhaps his own home, a breathtaking masterpiece he completed in 1967 based upon that system. The 4,000-square-foot home, which was named a city of Los Angeles landmark, straddles a creek on a Rustic Canyon hillside in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood.

Kappe and his wife Shelly graciously welcomed visitors into their home, ranging from classes of architecture students to curious design fans who gathered the courage to knock on the door, ushering them onto the living room’s blue-upholstered seating, also designed by Kappe.

Visiting it was a “transformative” experience, said Díaz Alonso. The conservancy hosted a tour of the home a few years back, and people still talk about it, Dishman said.

“The house still seems to touch most people... at the time it was built the house served as an inspiration for aspiring architects and I hope that those who experience it today have a similar response,” Kappe told the New York Times in 2004.

A 1973 photo of Kappe’s Gertler house in Santa Monica by Julius Shulman.
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)
Kappe’s Tempo House photographed by Julius Shulman.
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Film producer and architecture enthusiast Michael LaFetra met Kappe when he purchased the Gould house in 2003. Kappe designed the spectacular three-story residence in 1967 on a sloping lot on Canna Road in Brentwood, cladding it in Douglas fir, mahogany, teak, and glass that framed dramatic views of the ocean. He filled the interiors with built-in furniture, incorporating cobblestone pavers and two cement chimneys.

LaFetra ended up restoring the home under Kappe’s “watchful eye,” then he purchased and restored the Gertler residence, which Kappe designed in 1970, composing it of eight redwood “towers” around a eucalyptus tree in Rustic Canyon.

“His work is never ‘cold’ or formal or difficult,” LaFetra said. “There was an ease, an informality, a casualness that imbues all of Ray’s work. Even people who didn’t get it got it.”

Kappe’s impact as an educator also transformed the role that Los Angeles played in the architecture industry. After founding the architecture department at Cal Poly Pomona, Kappe left the university in 1972 to start a new type of school for architects.

Gathering a group of teachers and students including Thom Mayne, Jim Stafford, Glen Small, Ahde Lahti, and Bill Simonia, Kappe opened SCI-Arc, an independent, experimental architecture school, in Santa Monica. The school later moved to Downtown LA’s Arts District where it has become an important civic anchor for a changing neighborhood. It is considered to be one of the most influential architecture schools in the world.

“He and a group of outlaws decided to challenge the status quo of what was architectural education, and changed the world of architecture forever,” Díaz Alonso said. But, he added: “Ray was the really the one with the vision.”