In discussions of mid-century California architecture, the name Edward A. Killingsworth doesn’t elicit the same round of respectful nods as Richard Neutra or Charles and Ray Eames. The fame-shy architect’s fans must consider this a great injustice, but UAM’s current exhibition of Killingsworth’s fascinating work, both built and unrealized, does its part to bolster the reputation of this lesser-known master of modernism.
Despite his relative obscurity, even viewers who’ve never heard his name will recognize some of Killingsworth’s achievements. Several of the images come from the camera of Julius Shulman, the celebrated documenter of the Southern California building who knows well-crafted modernism when he sees it. Whether the project was a cutting-edge (for 1960, that is) Hawaiian hotel, a state college campus, or his very own family home, Killingsworth stuck to a handful of elements that, employed with care and respect, lent his buildings an iconic look without receding into the haze of the era’s architectural trends. His sharp lines, post-and-beam construction, and vast panes of glass look surprisingly fresh even today.
This show succeeds by placing Killingsworth’s completed projects, both still standing and now-demolished, next to a wide array of plans for buildings that never were. Conceived in 1959, the striking “House of Tomorrow” is, unlike the kitschy Jetsonian playgrounds envisioned back then, a simultaneously gigantic and almost immaterial residence consisting mainly of towering glass walls. A below-ground high school exemplifies the sort of technocratic flights of fancy common in the 1960s. Early, elaborate plans for Killingsworth’s own house stand aside images of the final product, downscaled somewhat by budget but elegant nonetheless.
There’s one conclusion that’s very easy to draw from A Beautiful Nothing: this Killingsworth fellow sure had style. This is the portrait of an architect who, faced with the tedious tasks and compromised visions that characterize the profession, still gave aesthetics all the focus and effort he could muster. His dedication comes through in American houses, Indonesian resorts, and the sharp, meticulous, and vaguely comic drawings that give a direct line to his mind’s eye.