21 March 2023
Please note this session starts at 11 AM EST / 16 CET

From “California the Beautiful”
to “Strange Menacing Beasts”:
Changing Perceptions of Southern California Nature in Two Houses by Thornton Abell

UC Santa Barbara

Respondent: Rebecca Carrai, KU Leuven

Thornton Abell, Abell House detail; Richard Fish, photographer, Abell, architect, Siskin House. Thornton M. Abell papers, Architecture and Design Collection. Art, Design & Architecture Museum; University of California, Santa Barbara

This paper addresses two Los Angeles houses and gardens designed by little-known architect Thornton Abell: Abell’s own house (1936-37) and the Marshall Siskin House (1961-66). The designs of Abell, an avid gardener and president of the Southern California Iris Society, throw new light on postwar Southern California modernism’s supposed integration of indoors and outdoors.
I argue that the Abell House “exteriorizes the interior” by bringing domestic activity onto terraces, sundecks, gardens, and screened porches. It thus foregrounds (a comprehensively designed version of) the outdoors. This design chimes with the late-19th and early-20th century notion of “California the Beautiful” where, based on the exclusion of Indigenous peoples and massive diversions of water, settlers lived an idealized bucolic life in tune with nature.
The Siskin House, on the other hand, “interiorizes the exterior,” domesticating the landscape as a decorative element that is viewed safely through glass walls. I suggest that this change is due to postwar American environmental anxiety about what György Kepes called the “strange menacing beasts” of atomic radiation, pollution, oil spills, sprawl, and urban protest, driven in large part by the Southern California defense industry.
Ironically, contemporary publications presented the Siskin House as an ecologically conscious design for clients who identified with the nascent environmental movement. But instead of a deeper engagement with nature, the Siskin House represents a defensive isolation from its surroundings. My analysis of Abell’s oeuvre thus suggests that postwar Southern California modernism’s promotion of indoor-outdoor living concealed a hardening of the line between inside and outside, house and nature: isolated homes for nuclear families in the atomic age.


Landscapes of Obsolescence:
Opportunities for Reimagining
The Relation between
Architecture and Nature

University of Liverpool and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University

Respondent: Claudia Nitsche, AA School of Architecture

Landscape is a concept resulting from a social and cultural construct, therefore everchanging and evolving depending on site specificity and historical time, but also boundless and diffused, which allows a new perception and interpretation of its significance. But landscape is also a discipline that has developed its techniques and tactics in the understanding of the elements of nature that structure how landscape produces space, but at the same time, everchanging and responsive unable to bind its practice to a specific set of consolidated formulas. On the contrary, the landscape is dynamic, divergent to disciplinary practices and actively performing to the environmental conditions of its territory.
The conditions of change that our society, therefore our habitat, is inevitably leading the way to a new transition period that requires rethinking how space is used. Obsolete productive space is emerging everywhere; it goes beyond industrial obsolescence. Therefore, it is fundamental to define such spaces in which obsolesce acquires a meaning of possibility. Obsolete Productive Spaces defined as spaces no longer useful in their current state have historically been the protagonist of drastic redefinition of the relations between nature and architecture. These spaces are often undefined by physical borders and scalar definitions, but they have the capacity to be changed and transformed by innovative approaches that meet the ever-changing needs and requirements of contemporary cities.
The recent challenges our cities have and keep facing have forced us to reconsider the ‘normal’; a sanitary crisis as a pandemic has the power to require reconsiderations beyond the contingency. Pivotal historical points have demonstrated the opportunity for change and transformation they bring along a crisis and can be looked at as paradigmatic cases to study. In the current time, more than ever, the relationship between architecture and landscape needs to be addressed. Therefore, landscape principles offer essential insights to propose new ways of spatial organization and nurturing a more sustainable relationship between the built environment and the natural ecosystem.

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