So many of the great architects and developers responsible for changing the face of California in the mid-1900’s are no longer with us. Joseph Eichler died in 1974, followed by Cliff May in 1989. William Krisel, at 89, remains with us, and continues to be active as a speaker and forensic architect, providing expert testimony in cases involving other architects. In addition to updating existing designs, he has also paired with Maxx Livingstone to create environmentally friendly replicas of his designs.
Krisel’s mark on California is huge: he designed over 40,000 homes in southern California, as well as low income housing in San Francisco and commercial structures scattered throughout the state. His influence is particularly felt in Palm Springs, San Diego, and the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. While the open, flowing feel of his homes, complete with floor-to-ceiling walls and radiant heating systems, is found in other mid-century designs, you can usually spot a Krisel by looking for butterfly and folded-plate roofs.
Krisel was born in 1924, roughly a quarter century after Cliff May and Joseph Eichler. Unlike Cliff May, whose architectural roots are found in his family’s adobe home, Krisel spent his first 13 years in Shanghai, China, where his parents worked for the U.S. State Department. He attended Beverly Hills High after his family moved to California in 1937.
Like many of his generation, Krisel’s education was interrupted by World War II. However, while his years at the University of Southern California were temporarily disrupted by a long stint as an army translator, he completed his formal training as an architect. His time at USC is marked by several formative jobs. During the summer of 1946, he apprenticed with architect and designer Paul Laszlo, who specialized in residential designs. This association was rapidly followed by work with Victor Gruen, who specialized in commercial properties. At Gruen’s Krisel met Hungarian native, landscape architect, and future partner Dan Saxon Palmer.
Krisel’s career flourished after graduation, as he formalized his partnership with Palmer, calling it Palmer & Krisel. Palmer & Krisel’s first offices were in the basement of the Falk Apartments, on a step hill in Silverlake. Realizing the unfeasibility of this arrangement, Krisel’s father intervened, springing forward with rent money for a more orthodox location in Westwood. By 1950, Krisel had his architect’s license, and by 1954, his landscape architect’s license. Palmer & Krisel’s first project was a pergola (a shaded walkway through an garden) and deck, which appeared in the 1951 Sunset Magazine. This pergola is a living testament to their work, as it remains standing more than 60 years later.
Commissions came fast and furious, including a ten-home tract in the San Fernando Valley. It was this project that first caught the attention of the Alexander Construction Company, owned by Bob and George Alexander, who commissioned Palmer & Krisel to design the Corbin Palms development. Completed in 1955, Corbin Palms was their first major development; it still stands, located in the San Fernando Valley. This relationship with the Alexanders helped Palmer & Krisel ride the wave of post-war construction, building roughly 20,000 Southern California homes throughout the 50’s and early 60’s.
A few of the projects with the Alexanders include the Ocotillo Lodge, Twin Palms Estate, Racquet Club Estates, and the Sand Piper condominiums, all in the Coachella Valley. Other Palmer & Krisel projects include Canyon View Estates, Kings Point, Las Palmas Estates (Vista Las Palmas), and the “House of Tomorrow, the honeymoon home of Elvis and Priscilla Presley.
Palmer & Krisel ended in 1964. After working solo until 1969, Krisel partnered with architect Abraham Shapiro. Krisel-Shapiro projects include Colonado Shores, a condo development in San Diego. Krisel remained with Shapiro for ten years.
Krisel’s asthetics are embodied in his oft-quoted line, “I’m a firm believer that good modern design can make your life happier, more productive and more enjoyable.” This sensibility fostered the comfortable yet affordable post-war housing designs that reflect the informal California lifestyle. This sensibility underlies the renewed interest in these homes. Krisel acknowledges this resurgence of his work, saying “when I was doing it, I had no idea that it would have this cachet or adulation. It is really heartwarming to know that the public has come to appreciate it.”
Today, Krisel laments the loss of the primacy that an architect once had. At the peak of his career (and that of Cliff May and Joseph Eichler before him), the architect called the shots, picking contractors and other vendors. Today, however, Krisel says the power structure is fragmented, with clients choosing from a variety of vendors, whose work may or may not advance the architect’s vision.
Krisel’s vision is sure to continue, as the Getty recently acquired his archives from 1935 through 2012, including 54 boxes, 376 flatfiles and 34 boxed rolls. These materials are sure to be plumbed by homeowners, as well as scholars and architects, all seeking a vision of California.