California rejections of Snelling: was Seidler involved?

Posted by Davina Jackson 8 March 2014

On his quest for high status (as the elegant child of English working class parents in provincial New Zealand), Douglas Snelling desired friendships with California's leaders of modern culture.

His glamour and creativity naturally were appreciated by those he met in image-conscious Los Angeles – yet he was rejected by at least three influential LA architects between the late 1940s and the late 1950s. This was the critical first decade of his attempts to establish credibility as an architect.

Why was Snelling initially accepted but later cold-shouldered by his 1947 employer Douglas Honnold, then John Entenza, the globally influential editor of Arts and Architecture magazine, and finally Richard Neutra as leader of a private club promoting scientific approaches to environmental design?

Here are some observations by Snelling's biographer, Davina Jackson (editor of this blog):

Douglas Honnold

Douglas Honnold (1901-1974).

Douglas Honnold (1901-1974).

Using Ray Leighton's photos and magazine publicity of his 1945-47 interiors in Sydney, Snelling won a job with Douglas Honnold's architectural practice in Beverly Hills shortly after he arrived in LA around October 1947.

Perhaps Snelling and Honnold had earlier met in 1937-38, when they both worked on the MGM film lot. (At that time, Honnold and MGM chief designer Cedric Gibbons were co-designing a classic white Art Deco house for Gibbons' wife, film star Delores Del Rio.)

But according to Snelling's first wife, Nancy Springhall, who accompanied him on his 1947-48 trip to California, Douglas lost his job with Honnold after only a few months. She thought this was because he did not have basic training in architectural design, skills in technical drawing or knowledge of California building laws and construction techniques.

When Snelling worked at the Honnold office, a design leader there was John Lautner, a former apprentice and collaborator of Wright's, who worked with Honnold on several street-corner retail pavilions in the geometrically flamboyant style that became known as 'Googie'. Lautner (who was romancing Honnold's then-wife, Elizabeth Gilman) would have seen the photos and drawings of Snelling's Googie-esque Sydney shop interiors of 1945-1947.

Another LA architecture star, Craig Elwood (a pseudonym), led his team in an office two doors away from the Honnold premises on Santa Monica Boulevard. In different ways, Snelling was influenced by both Lautner and Ellwood – not by Honnold's more traditional approach. Is it also possible that Honnold did not enjoy Lautner's influence over both his wife and the new Australian designer? Both Lautner and Snelling left the Honnold office around the same time in 1947.

After Snelling lost his job, he and Nancy took a road trip through America's south-west deserts, visiting notable works of architecture, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in Arizona, which influenced some of his later house designs. Fifteen years later, in the early 1960s, Lautner mailed Snelling technical advice on how to build Australia's first infinity pool.

John Entenza

John Entenza (1905-1984).

John Entenza (1905-1984).

In April 1949 and January 1950, two articles on Snelling's first house designs, with photos of the cardboard models and inked drawings, were published in California's internationally influential Arts and Architecture magazine, during the central years of its long ownership (1940-1962) by John Entenza.

From 1950 until July 1966 (when one of Snelling's two articles on Angkor Wat was published in A+A by one of Entenza's successors as editor), the magazine ignored Snelling while regularly highlighting Harry Seidler's Sydney buildings and unbuilt projects.

One of the Snelling buildings notably overlooked by Entenza was the Kelly House 1, which won the 1955 House of the Year Award from Melbourne magazine Architecture and Arts (strongly inspired by the California periodical).

Jackson's interpretations (from her experience editing national architecture and design magazines): Entenza knew Seidler well during the 1950s. He would have recognised the superior quality of Seidler's architecture and the quality of his education and experience. Entenza would not have wanted to publish very much Australian architecture – just a sample of the best works. But most editors would want diversity in their presentations to readers: so Entenza seems to have determined (permanently) that Snelling's architecture did not match A+A's standards, even if Snelling was author of an Australian House of the Year. To reach such a firm conclusion, Entenza almost certainly took at least one other opinion, and probably condoned Seidler's comments to close friends, such as (NSW government architect) Andrew Andersons, that Snelling 'wasn't a real modernist'.

Another negative opinion about Snelling may have come from – or to – Entenza's friends Charles and Ray Eames. According to Nancy Springhall, Snelling once received a letter from Eames threatening legal action for plagiarising an Eames design. (This would have related to a Snelling-designed early 1950s modular storage cabinet/room divider system that was briefly sold by his furniture company, Functional Products. The design of this system, and its advertising graphics, clearly were inspired by Eames' innovations, but the Snelling frames were timber not metal.)

Richard Neutra

Richard Neutra (1892-1970).

Richard Neutra (1892-1970).

Richard Neutra seems to have been Snelling's main hero among 1950s architects based in California. Born in Austria and briefly an intern of Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, Neutra set up his own practice in Los Angeles in the late 1920s and gained international applause for his Lovell (Health) House in 1929. After more than 25 years of career success  – with outstanding projects like the Kaufmann house in Palm Springs completed during the 1940s – Neutra began to promote his theories of a nature-responsive system of design science.

Beginning with his 1954 manifesto Survival by Design (published by Oxford University Press and reprinted regularly), Neutra went on to establish a small club of invitation-only supporters of his concepts.

Snelling's senior associate from 1956 to 1960, John Hunt, has recalled Douglas applying to join Neutra's club in the late 1950s. After sending a portfolio of his Sydney projects to Neutra, he was 'very disappointed' to be rejected.

One of Neutra's key biographers, Barbara M. Lamprecht, recently suggested (from her perusal of this website), that Snelling did not appear to share Neutra's serious approach to natural sciences and their importance for the future of architecture and environmental planning and management. (Jackson agrees with Lamprecht.)

The Seidlers were friendly with Richard Neutra during the 1950s. Did they influence his reluctance to relate to Snelling? Jackson believes this is likely – from her own experiences with the Seidlers' attempts to collapse her contract roles and credibility as a writer on Australian architecture.

Harry Seidler

Here are several relevant extracts from Helen O'Neill's 2013 biography Harry Seidler: A Singular Vision (Harper).

—"It took me a long time, a difficult time, to get building materials and I really was as green as could be,' he (Seidler) said. Advertising for builders keen to learn modern architectural techniques had proved fruitless, so he leaped upon recommendations from 'kindred spirits', local modern architects Sydney Ancher, Arthur Baldwinson and Douglas Snelling. ...

—Jack Woldin arrived at Black Mountain as a disciple of the American modern architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 'Harry and his friends from Harvard – they really made fun of me, claiming I was following a nineteeth-century architect, because they were following the newer thing.'

—On his way to Australia in 1948, Seidler met John Entenza and 'walked away with the words 'send me back the work you do' ringing in his ears. ... Harry Seidler's 'architect's studio' at 4 Wolseley Crescent appeared in the influential pages of US Arts & Architecture within six months of his stepping off the plane in Sydney, a remarkable feat by an Australian-based practitioner. ... The architect had arrived.'