“I’ve always sought out the edges, the views, and a feeling of expansiveness” in building, says architect Ray Kappe. And when asked what he thinks are the ten most important principles that helped make him “a successful architect, planner, and educator,” one of the things he says is to “always be willing to explore, experiment and invent. Do not accept the status quo.”
Kappe’s work is evidence of that.
Whether building planar constructions that appear to float in space or glass houses that hang perilously off cliffs, Kappe has—over a 6 decade career—managed to do what many modernist architects did not…make geometric, minimalism warm and inviting.
Scheimer House (Image: Mayoral-Photography)
Kappe has a firm grasp of Walter Gropius’ motto for the Bauhaus, which stated “Art and technology, a new unity,” as he is one of the earliest pioneers and advocates of modular home construction; exploring prefabrication, passive energy and active solar systems; incorporating these ideas in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing.
Kappe is the Founding Director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC), having founded the school in 1972. He is a recipient of the Richard Neutra International Medal for Design Excellence and an AIA fellow. And in an a recent conversation, he reflected on his beginnings in architecture, speaking as well to his moral compass as a builder, also offering advice to students aspiring to have careers in architecture and urban design
Max Eternity: How did you become interested in a career as an architect?
Ray Kappe (RK): During my junior year in high school, I read an article about the profession of architecture. I always liked to draw, and in junior high and high school, I took several drafting courses, one of which was architectural drafting. I was also strong in science and math, and thought that I might select engineering as a profession, but after I read the article on architecture, I felt that it would best combine my strongest attributes. So it was a very rational decision, not a romantic one.
Shapiro House (Image: Ray Kappe)
ME: What is the appeal of the Southern California region, where so many of your homes have been built?
RK: After graduating from Berkeley and working in the Bay Area, I felt that Los Angeles might provide a more stimulating environment for architecture, urban design and planning. It seemed more progressive and active for development. There were more urban issues to solve. This all appealed to me.
ME: In a video I saw recently, you made the comment that your work could be seen as a parallel to Paul Rudolph. How so, and did you have a connection to Rudolph?
RK: My work was always concerned with the interaction of horizontal and vertical spaces. I enjoy multiple levels, where appropriate, and floating planes. I was also interested in modular construction, [and] felt that these were some of Rudolph’s concerns, as well. He was on a design jury for the AIA that I chaired, spoke at SCI-ARC when I was director, and visited my home.
He made a statement during that visit that all students should experience my home in order to understand the use of plan and section in the development of vertical volumes, with horizontal extension that incorporates nature.
I also had the opportunity, last year, to stay at his apartment in New York, and I have visited much of his work…since the early sixties.
ME: In discussing modernism, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus often come to mind. Any thoughts or experiences with Gropius and/or other former members of the Bauhaus school?
RK: I have not had any interaction with either. I always appreciated Gropius’ social values and collaborative mentality, and I certainly admired the Bauhaus and its influence upon architecture.
ME: George Smart Jr., the founder of Triangle Modernist Houses, which has the largest collection of data and images of modernist homes in the US, wants to know where can we find a project list of all your homes?
RK: I can provide that information, but much of the work prior to 1998 is in the appendix of the book Themes and Variations, House Design by Ray Kappe, written by Michael Webb and published by Images Publishing in 1998.
Scheimer House (Image: Mayoral-Photography)
ME: If this is something that you’ve considered, how would you say architecture contributes to quality of life and/or civic cohesion?
RK: I have considered this question a great deal and spent most of my life trying to accomplish these concerns for individual clients and society as a whole. Quality of life in housing and the house is easier than developing civic cohesion. I have been involved with the latter since 1963 as a member and chair of the LA/AIA Urban Design Committee, working with the Goals Council for the City of Los Angeles as housing chairman and also chairing the AIA/CC Environmental Committee. My partnership, KKLB Architects Planners, from 1968 to 1981, focused largely on urban design and planning studies for many Los Angeles communities, and the people mover for the City of Los Angeles. We also completed several civic projects.
ME: And, what are you working on now?
RK: Since 1980 I have operated as a single practitioner, working primarily on residential projects. Since 2004, I have been designing prefab modular, sustainable housing for Living Homes. We actually completed the first platinum LEED home in the United States. I still continue to do private commissions, as well.
ME: Do you have any advice for students seeking architectural careers?
RK: Architecture is a wonderful profession that can provide a great deal of personal self-satisfaction. It takes a strong commitment and dedication. It is not a career one chooses for financial success, although it is possible to do reasonably well, money should be the residual of work, not the goal. What is most important is to know oneself and keep one’s work consistent with who one is, and maintain good moral and social values.