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Meet Inventive Modernist Architect Whitney R. Smith

Written by Kelly Weimert on Thursday, January 16th, 2020 at 10:05am.

Source: mcmdaily.com

Born in Pasadena in 1911, Whitney R. Smith was a pioneer in postwar modernist architecture. He earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Southern California in 1934 but because it was difficult to find architectural work during the Depression, Smith took a position as a movie set designer shortly after graduation. 

After a few years of movie set design, Smith finally began working with several different architects, including Harwell Hamilton Harris, a modernist whom Smith said had a heavy influence on his work. In 1941, Smith opened his own architectural firm before meeting his soon-to-be partner, architect Wayne R. Williams, in 1946. The two formed an official working partnership shortly thereafter, establishing architectural firm Smith and Williams, and would spend the next 24 years collaborating on the designs of residences, schools, community buildings, and recreational facilities. 

The same year that Smith partnered with Williams, he joined a group of L.A. architects and designers to participate in the now-famous Case Study Houses program. Participants in the program were tasked with designing affordable and functional homes for the average middle-class family, resulting in several design innovations that would become the norm in popular modernist housing, such as open floor plans and the integration of indoor-outdoor living

Smith designed two houses for the program, and although neither of them was built, they were widely considered some of the most innovative and experimental in the program. According to Elizabeth A.T. Smith, author of Case Study Houses: The Complete Program, “…one of the primary characteristics of Smith’s designs not only in these [case studies] but throughout his career was the synthesis of experimental materials and structures with a real sense of appreciation for nature, the climate in Southern California, and the landscape. And he was able to fuse these concerns to create very sensitively designed works of architecture.” 

Around that same period, between 1946 and 1950, Smith and Williams partnered with architect A. Quincy Jones and engineer Edgardo Contini to design a series of tract houses in Crestwood Hills called the Mutual Housing Assn. development. The houses featured design elements that would become standard Southern California style, including butterfly roofs and large glass windows that merge the indoors and outdoors

For the next several decades, Smith and Williams went on to design a variety of residential and commercial buildings, incorporating signature elements like post-and-beam construction, soaring ceilings, and expansive open floor plans. Smith ultimately retired in Sonoma in 1987 and passed away in 2002 at the age of 91, though his experimental designs live on. We showcase several of our favorite Smith creations below. 


Pilot House

The Pilot House A. Quincy Jones and Whitney Smith
Source: mcmdaily.com

Smith and A. Quincy Jones designed this home as a case study for the aforementioned Mutual Housing Assn. development. It features post-and-beam construction and walls of glass that blend it with the surrounding scenery. 


Case Study House No. 6

Case Study House No. 6 Whitney Smith
Source: socalarchhistory.blogspot.com

Case Study House No. 6 was one of the designs Smith created for the above-mentioned Case Study Houses program. Though the house was never built, it gained acclaim for its experimental use of materials and harmony with the outdoors


Community Facilities Planners Office

Community Facilities Planners Office Whitney Smith
Source: pacificstandardtimepresents.org

Smith and Williams designed this office space together in 1958. Though a commercial building, it features many of the duo’s signature residential design elements, including post-and-beam construction, large glass windows, and expansive, open floor plans.


If you love this signature architectural style as much as we do, be sure to check out our curated list of all active Mid-Century Modern homes for sale. 

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