This eye-opening, expertly handled documentary reveals the life and work of architect Lutah Maria Riggs, who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how much she contributed to the built landscape of Santa Barbara.
Is Lutah the most important architect in Santa Barbara history?
Santa Barbara has an apparently distinctive style of architecture: Spanish Colonialist Revivalist (SCR). George Washington Smith (GWS) is very well known for this style, and when Lutah Maria Riggs (LMR) worked in his office, she worked closely within that style (The Lobero). She also designed El Paseo (off De la Guerra Plaza) and the library at the Casa del Herrero.
However, after GWS’s unexpected death in 1930, she finished the commissions remaining in his office mostly in the SCR style, and developed a style where she combined modernism with SCR (the Von Romberg Estate). After that she employed Arvin Shaw in her office (1940s or so), who was a modernist architect, so it is evident her leanings were towards modernism later in her career. The fascinating thing for me is that she was able to move, apparently effortlessly, between these two styles, and, indeed, create her own style (Erving House, Vedanta Temple). She also created much more modest residences, such as the Stitches house in Isla Vista.
So was she most important architect in S.B.? That is not easy to answer because, as all brilliant people do, she built on the work of others to create new and different approaches to thinking about architecture. Yes, she is critical when thinking about S.B. architecture, but most important? I don’t think anyone could say that about anyone as the work of one generation of architects is inevitably dependent on the work of each previous generation, and also offers a nod to the work of newer ideas and architects. Her brilliance, for me, was that she combined a generosity of attitude with a close attention to the ways in which her clients lived their lives, something that is not always done. She also had a feel for designing buildings such that the built environment complemented (and complimented!) the rest of the environment — again, a wonderful approach to architecture. She was clear that architecture is a “shelter.” Below is the quote read out by Rose Thomas under the picture of LMR’s family when she was a baby: Lutah felt that architecture should be “Shelter from the elements, a place of retreat and rest, a place of happiness if possible, and that a home should have enough beauty to provide a lift for the spirit.”
Was it difficult to gain access to these homes?
The Lutah Maria Riggs Society (Leslie Bhutani and Gretchen Lieff are the executive producers of this film) were instrumental in allowing us access to the homes. It was not difficult, therefore, but only because they did all the preliminary work with the owners of the Von Romberg, the Erving House, October Hill, and Hesperides. And Melinda Gandara (consultant archivist) told us about the Stitches’ house on the beach in I.V. Gandara also offers a penetrating history of LMR’s early life, and, along with Dawn Ziemer, an insightful commentary on the Lobero Theatre design and LMR’s feelings about that public space. Daisy Weber (associate producer and researcher) made sure we had access and could film when we did by speaking at length with home owners, which allowed me to focus on filmmaking rather than on logistics. And Ryan Pettey did the fantastic cinematography. I feel so fortunate that I found such a terrific team with whom to make the film.
By the way, the initial idea for a film about LMR did not come from me. I had not heard of LMR as an architect until LB and GL wanted a film made about LMR — and approached me to make such a film. Initially, I was not convinced I was the best person, but after reading about her and hearing them both talk about her, I realized LMR was indeed an intriguing architect whose determination, deep sense of independence as a woman, and respect for all people (contractors, clients, women, men, religious people — of course many of these categories overlap!) all helped to fashion her work. Her quiet personality, combined with her refusal to worry about many of the more superficial aspects of life, meant that she is indeed an icon for all architects.
She seems to design with ecology in mind, prior to our sustainability fetish.
She was frugal; she asked her print shop, for example, to send all the invoices in one envelope to her so that postage would not be wasted (but, of course, this also saved on the use of envelopes); she used paper towel rolls taped together as the roller for her plans. Hideko Malis (print shop owner where Lutah had her blue prints made) told me: “I remember her coming into the shop with drawings where she had taped together the insides of paper towel rollers to make a roller for her plans.”
She was someone who seemed to know, well before it was stylish, that saving resources was one means of furthering her commitment to ensuring that the built environment and her buildings did not “trump nature.” (Vrajaprana at the Vedanta Convent said that). And the temple is a wonderful example of her approach to work and life.
How much do her clients deserve credit?
Her clients do deserve a lot of credit as they hired her knowing she was developing styles different than SCR. Women often approached her (e.g. Alice Erving; Emily Hall Tremaine) as did those who had a deep commitment to the aesthetics of living (Wright Ludington). You should also know that LMR often worked with many people who were not well off who needed a redesign of their homes — she was extremely generous in that way because of her feeling that “architecture is a shelter.”
Why don’t we know more about her?
Why indeed? Claudia Lapin says, “She was one of the vanguard to push [the] limits of being [a woman] into a different connotation, a different knowledge. After her, people knew a woman could be an architect.” And, I would add, people who are ahead of their time are often not seen until their contributions are put under the spotlight, especially independent women, who were not interested in achieving fame, and who were more interested in the lived experiences of humanity and, therefore, the loves and passions of the people with whom they worked.
In a way, I think of LMR as being in the same plane as Rosalind Watson (the woman who worked with Watson and Crick on the structure of DNA but is usually forgotten when their names are mentioned). Not many architects can lay claim to that philosophy.
People who are hidden from public history (and here I am thinking of people of colour and some white women such as LMR) are also agents of history.
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