Spotlight on Irving Gill: La Jolla Historical Society exhibit frames visionary architect

The Irving Gill Photographic Project at the La Jolla Historical Society is a tribute to both a pioneering master architect and to three contemporary photographers who are masters of their art. The three were commissioned by the historical society to capture the essence of Gill’s philosophy as they photographed his buildings and houses, some more than 100 years old.

The result is a unique perspective of a man who was unmatched in his time. The exhibit, which opens Sept. 27, “is part of our strategy to bring history to contemporary society in a meaningful way,” explained Heath Fox, executive director of the historical society. It focused on Gill for two reasons.

First, Gill was a progressive figure during his time in La Jolla and the greater San Diego area.

Second, he’s now more appreciated as a proponent of early modern style, which also included Rudolph Schindler and Frank Lloyd Wright, and eventually, led to the mid-century modern movement. “His ideas still inform contemporary society,” Fox said.

Gill was born near Syracuse, New York to Quaker parents. The son of a farmer and carpenter, he never attended college or had a formal architectural education, but developed an early interest in landscape and building design and worked as a gardener and draftsman.

He moved to Chicago, eventually joining the firm of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan (father of the American skyscraper). There, he also worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and was introduced to modern design and materials. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, builders preferred more fireproof materials, such as concrete, which later became a favorite of Gill’s.

At 23, Gill moved to San Diego and set up his own architectural office in the downtown area.

At first, his style was an eclectic one, reflecting what was popular at the time, including Tudor Revival and Arts and Crafts/Prairie School.

But Gill had a passion for simplicity and a vision of how houses and buildings should reflect their landscape and be enjoyed by their residents.

He loved the beauty of California’s skies, canyons, rolling hills and the old California missions, whose simple lines, natural colors and graceful arches blended with the surrounding countryside.

He designed his houses to be easy to clean (no ornamentation to catch dust) and to take maximum advantage of sunlight and outdoor views with skylights and integrated gardens and courtyards.

Overall Gill designed and created more than 100 houses, churches, buildings and other projects throughout San Diego and Los Angeles counties, many of which are still standing.

In La Jolla, these include early buildings at The Bishop’s School, Ellen Browning Scripps’ home (now the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego), La Jolla Woman’s Club and La Jolla Recreation Center, which will be 100 years old next year.

The three photographers who focused on Gill’s work for the exhibit — Philipp Scholz Rittermann, Suda House and John Durant — are all fine art photographers from San Diego. “We wanted a creative approach from a fresh perspective,” Fox said. ”We didn’t just want to send them out, but to interpret Gill’s philosophy on a deep level. Nor did we want to restrict them. We let them choose their own sites.”

The three photographers chose three very different approaches.

Scholz Rittermann is a “time traveler,” according to Arthur Ollman, professor of art history at SDSU, who wrote the introduction to the exhibit’s catalog. For the exhibit, Scholz Rittermann created 13 pieces by photographing seven Gill buildings (or sites) and then superimposing transparencies of old images over his new ones. The result is that “the new is seen through an older window in time,” Ollman writes.

Suda House photographed two buildings in La Jolla focusing on archways, shadows and foliage in 12 black and white pieces. “Her manner of working is one that Gill would have deeply respected. It echoes his sense of purity and close observation,” Ollman writes.

John Durant tells stories with his eight photographs of eight Gill buildings. Each photograph features a person who has in some way interacted with or been influenced by the building — as an architect, landscaper, writer or surfboard designer.

The Irving Gill Photographic Project

■ When: Noon to 4 p.m., Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 27 to Jan. 25, 2015

■ Where: Wisteria Cottage Galleries, 780 Prospect St.

■ Admission: Free

■ Contact: (858) 459-5335

■ Website: LaJollaHistory.org

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