Masters of Modernism — The Butterfly Effect
Alexander tract architect William Krisel says design is meant to last
William Krisel wants to clear up a misconception. “Whenever people see a house with a butterfly roof,” the 84-year architect says, “they think that I designed it.” But, he adds, “It’s not true.”
It’s an understandable error in Palm Springs, where the roof with two wings evokes one of the city’s best-known home designs — from the Twin Palms tract, which Krisel and then-partner Dan Palmer designed in the late 1950s. Eventually, Krisel created nearly 2,000 houses in a succession of subdivisions of the area popularly known as the Alexander Tract, described by historian Alan Hess as the largest Modernist housing subdivision in the United States. The stylish tract houses, which started at $19,500 in 1957, now fetch up to $1.3 million.
By his own estimate, Krisel has designed more than 40,000 residences across the country. Some he has never seen. “I just discovered a home that was built 45 years ago that I never heard of,” he says with amusement. But he does not feel frustration at not having observed construction to make sure it was built correctly. The contractor was experienced in building his designs. Besides, Krisel notes, his designs are extremely detailed, down to the cabinetry.
Krisel was feted last fall with a retrospective of his home designs and site plans at the Museum of Design, Art and Architecture in Culver City. He prides himself on his draftsmanship and his power to communicate the weight of architecture with a few well-chosen lines. He’s delighted that many of his presentation drawings were reproduced on brochures and advertisements, some of which have shown up for auction on eBay.
“Why should I have an artist do a rendering of my project when I can do it better myself?” he postulates. For Krisel, the hand-drawn image is a point of sale and a part of quality control. And while the black-and-white drawings are clearly of a different era, they retain the ability to engage the viewer with the potential of clean, no-frills architecture in a desert setting.
Krisel is a developer’s architect — and proud of it. Rather than designing individual homes, he has worked for a succession of production builders since the early 1920s. “Develop a relationship with a builder, do good work, and you won’t need to go ringing doorbells to get new clients,” says Krisel, a man with strong opinions who still speaks with the authority of someone who long ago operated one of the nation’s largest home-design practices. In the 1950s, it wasn’t enough for an architect to design well, he says. “You had to convince builders they would make money.”
In 1957, he was working for seven of the 10 largest home builders in the country, according to Architectural Forum magazine. In the early 1960s, his office employed 60 people and declined any commission for fewer than 50 houses.
His relationship with developer Robert Alexander was foundational. “I wanted to learn how a builder thinks, and I told him how an architect thinks,” Krisel says. “We put those together and went to work.”
For the Twin Palms houses, Krisel chose a square floor plan, because it was the most economical. The units were only 1,200 to 1,600 square feet in size, but Krisel’s skill in planning made the houses comfortable to live in; every unit had an open patio separating the house from the garage. Alexander and his wife, Helene, lived in a larger version of the butterfly-roof design until their untimely deaths in an aviation accident in 1965.
The pragmatic architect has a romantic biography: He was born in China in 1924, the son of a career diplomat, and learned Mandarin and the local Shanghai dialect. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, the family relocated to Beverly Hills. Krisel entered the architecture program at University of Southern California. When World War II started, he enlisted in the Army Reserve and became one of Gen. Joseph Stilwell’s Chinese interpreters. After the war, he finished his studies at USC and entered into partnership with Palmer.
Best known as a prolific designer of the postwar housing boom, Krisel can claim even greater significance as one of the few architects willing and able to bridge the home building industry with the ideals of Modernism. In its earliest form, Modernism stood for building in a practical, affordable way on a mass scale for ordinary people whose lives would be improved by good design. Along with several other pioneers — including Gregory Ain and A. Quincy Jones — Krisel was able to extend his practice beyond the prophetic prototype and see his designs realized as large-scale housing developments.
Although he has been retired for nearly 20 years, Krisel continues to receive telephone calls from owners of buildings he designed a half-century ago. He delights that he can remember the details of hundreds of different projects. “A young woman called me recently,” he says. “She said, ‘I am standing in the kitchen and the floor is warm. Does this house have radiant heat?’” No, replied Krisel, in that home model, the hot-water pipe runs directly beneath the kitchen, with the intent of warming the feet of housewives on chilly mornings. “That was 50 years ago, before radiant heat; but I knew how to do things like that,” he says.
Like Richard Neutra a generation before him, Krisel downplays the importance of style as an end in itself, emphasizing instead buildability and livability. Despite the fame of his butterfly roofs, “I don’t believe in style,” he says with characteristic bluntness. Nor does he believe in updating his design to keep pace with fashion. He deplores the attention-seeking work of people he calls “the star-chitects,” whose work he believes will quickly become dated. Real architecture, he says, “has nothing to do with time.”
Krisel gave a striking demonstration of his belief in the durability of his design language earlier this year when he completed five new houses based on the original Alexander tract designs. “We updated them for code and earthquake standards,” he says. “Otherwise, they’re exactly like the originals.”
He dismisses the idea that artistic development means changing his approach. “It’s my language,” he says of his architecture. “I spoke English before, and I still speak English.
“When you have the correct idea,” he adds, “there’s no need to change it.”