‘A colorful, adventurous spirit’: Historical reviews bring artist and architect Judith Munk new attention

Artist and architectural designer Judith Munk
Artist and architectural designer Judith Munk was actively involved in the design of her and husband Walter’s La Jolla home and the Judith and Walter Munk Laboratory at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
(Courtesy of Kendall Munk)

With recent developments regarding historic designation for late oceanographer Walter Munk’s house in La Jolla Shores and the Munk Laboratory at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the name of Walter Munk (known as the “Einstein of the Oceans”) has returned to the spotlight.

So has the name of Judith Munk.

She may be known to many as Walter’s former wife, but she was an architectural designer and artist in her own right and was actively involved in the design of both of those celebrated properties. Yet her involvement has been largely in the shadows.

Born Judith Horton, the Los Angeles-area native was encouraged from childhood to pursue creative endeavors, and she did until her death in La Jolla in 2006 at age 81.

Her daughter Kendall Munk said she had “a colorful, adventurous spirit and a talent that was very apparent to those that knew her. She was gifted from the beginning.”

From the time Judith was 9 or 10 years old, she would draw and sculpt, her daughter said. “She said she liked to play with mud or call her work a mud pie. She tended to play down what she did,” Kendall said.

A drawing by a teenage Judith Horton, who became Judith Munk.
(Courtesy of Kendall Munk)

When Judith attended Bennington College in Vermont, she worked under architect Richard Neutra and received degrees in arts and architecture. Soon after, however, Judith was stricken with polio, which would affect her the rest of her life. After her diagnosis, she moved to San Diego to live with her grandmother.

In San Diego, she studied with sculptor Donal Hord and was responsible for bringing a Hord statue to the UC San Diego campus.

In 1951, she was hired as an illustrator for what is now Birch Aquarium in La Jolla. She soon met the man who would be her husband, Walter. The two were married two years later and together had Kendall and her sister, Edie.

As Judith’s health worsened, her mobility declined. She went from using a cane to a walker to a wheelchair.

Nevertheless, she and Walter traveled constantly, Kendall said. “As my parents got older, they always wanted to travel together. They went around the world many times. One time, she wanted to climb a mountain in Greece, so she was tied to a donkey. She was inspired by other cultures in terms of art and architecture.”

She also studied acoustics and amphitheaters in other countries for an amphitheater project she was devising.

According to her obituary, Judith was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for the design of an amphitheater for lower Girard Avenue in La Jolla. The project failed but later became “The Folly” amphitheater at the Munks’ home, named Seiche.

“When it became harder to navigate aisleways, she decided to bring the theater to her” and constructed an amphitheater at Seiche, Kendall said. “She had a ‘why not’ attitude. There was nothing that stopped her from doing what she wanted to do.”

While in her wheelchair, Judith often would wear elaborate hats — one with a taxidermy squirrel — so people would have something to look at when they looked down to see her.

Judith “always saw another way of doing things that no one thought of,” both in life and design, Kendall said. “She was feng shui before that was a thing here. She had a knack for scale and how humans felt comfortable in scale and how it created flow and energy. I think that came naturally to her.”

Judith failed the mathematics requirement for becoming a member of the American Institute of Architects. But she was later voted to be an honorary member of the San Diego chapter.

In 2008, she was inducted posthumously into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame.

Historical spotlight

The Munk family name has returned to the forefront with the historical reviews of Seiche and the Munk Lab.

The house that Judith and Walter built was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 12, against the wishes of Kendall and Edie.

Scripps Oceanography’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics Judith and Walter Munk Laboratory was recommended for the National Register by the State Historical Resources Commission on July 30.

Seiche, the landscaped former home of the late Walter and Judith Munk, is in La Jolla Shores.

When the state commission reviewed whether to recommend Seiche, Judith’s place in the process was brought into the spotlight.

In crediting Judith as a “prominent artist and architectural designer,” state historian Amy Crain said the house was designed in the Modern architectural style and that “despite alterations, the property retains all aspects of integrity to convey its significance.”

The announcement comes shortly after the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

July 20, 2021

More recently, when the San Diego Historical Resources Board reviewed the IGPP lab on whether to support its historic listing, Judith was brought up again.

Walter’s widow, Mary Coakley Munk, said the nomination should “properly recognize” Judith’s role in the lab’s “siting, development and design, as well as her other contributions to UCSD campus design.”

La Jolla architect Ione Steigler noted “how important Judith Munk’s role had been in the arc of modern architecture in San Diego and how little women are recognized for their role during this time period.”

She said Judith “had an amazing ability to bring together artists, architects and landscape and helped mold the whole thing to help the scientists really get the most out of this research facility. … Letters were written from when the building was built by scientists acknowledging her role specifically.” ◆