A new look at the architecture of John Yeon, unsung master of Pacific Northwest modernism – Los Angeles Times

The course of American architecture in the 20th century may be traced by following the line that divides Philip Johnson’s profession from John Yeon’s.

Each males had been born early in the century in cities removed from New York glamour: Johnson in 1906 in Cleveland, Yeon 4 years later in Portland, Ore. Each got here from cash. Each had been homosexual. Each educated themselves as a lot by touring and making the proper social connections as by sitting in school rooms.

However as Johnson gravitated to Manhattan, the place he grew to become the founding director of the architecture and design division at the Museum of Trendy Artwork earlier than launching his personal follow, Yeon put down roots in Oregon. Johnson appeared to Europe to form his — after which America’s — understanding of the fashionable motion in architecture, first with the 1932 MoMA present “Trendy Architecture: Worldwide Exhibition,” which he organized with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, after which along with his personal 1949 Glass Home in New Canaan, Conn.

Yeon, equally precocious, designed a small however influential group of homes impressed by the landscapes and vernacular architecture of his dwelling state. Johnson tried on new architectural kinds as in the event that they had been garments, perfected the artwork of self-promotion and relished his function as an influence dealer. Yeon devoted the lengthy second half of his profession to curating and designing museum reveals in addition to defending some of Oregon’s most vital landmarks and open areas.

The opening room of
The opening room of "Quest for Magnificence: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon" (Portland Artwork Museum)

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The Yeon who emerges in “Quest for Magnificence: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon,” an excellent retrospective at the Portland Artwork Museum, is a homegrown polymath, a regional determine in the most consequential of phrases. (The present’s curatorial group was led by Randy Gragg, for 17 years architecture critic at the Oregonian in Portland and now government director of the John Yeon Middle for Architecture and the Panorama at the College of Oregon.) Largely self-educated — there have been architectural apprenticeships and a two-month stint at Stanford, however as Yeon put it in 1944, “the solely diploma is from a Sunday faculty” — he was by his early 20s producing remarkably mature proposals for homes and a pair of Mt. Hood ski lodges. He designed a backyard with low, sweeping brick partitions behind his mom’s Portland home in 1934 that (in typical Yeon trend) is tough to pigeonhole, its relatively formal composition reflecting Japanese, French and native inspiration.

In 1937, the 12 months he turned 27, he designed a home in Portland for his pal Aubrey Watzek, who like Yeon’s father had made a big fortune in the timber enterprise. In response to Yeon, Watzek was “a skier and mountain climber with a deep curiosity in the native panorama” who requested a home that was “easy and with a taste of each this area and this age.”

That’s precisely what Yeon gave him. Like a painter comfy transferring between figuration and abstraction, he produced a design that mixed conventional and vernacular components — pitched roofs, outstanding moldings and a front room that historian Marc Treib has in comparison with an English baronial corridor — with the lean musculature of reducing-edge modernism. The home, U-formed in plan, was additionally unusually properly-in-built eight-inch tongue-and-groove Douglas fir, with an consideration to element bordering on perfectionism that set it instantly aside.

Walter Boychuk's 1938 photograph of the Watzek House set against the peak of Mt. Hood helped boost Yeon's national profile.
Walter Boychuk's 1938 of the Watzek Home set in opposition to the peak of Mt. Hood helped increase Yeon's nationwide profile. (Walter Boychuk / Portland Artwork Museum)

The 12 months after it was completed, a photographer named Walter Boychuk occurred to drive by and take an image of the home that might dramatically increase its — and Yeon’s — profile. The picture reveals the windowless western facade of the home because it faces the driveway, the clustered triangles of its complicated roofline set in opposition to the snow-topped peak of Mt. Hood. The made a strong argument that fashionable architecture was flourishing in Oregon and locations prefer it; that it may develop richer, relatively than much less genuine, by taking cues from its setting; and that it didn’t at all times require a flat roof.

The picture quickly made its method to MoMA, the place curators included it in the 1939 present “Artwork in Our Time,” marking the museum’s 10th anniversary. (Johnson, who’d met Yeon on one of the youthful architect’s earlier journeys to New York, had left the museum by then.) That present was meant to complicate, or at least increase, the definition of fashionable architecture Johnson and Hitchcock had specified by 1932. It was additionally half of MoMA’s try, which might speed up in the 1940s, to provide American architects extra curatorial consideration. The choice to incorporate the Boychuk photograph in “Artwork in Our Time,” as Barry Bergdoll writes in the “Quest for Magnificence” catalog, “swiftly made the Watzek home right into a reference level in nationwide discussions on regionalism, supplies, modernism, and way of life.”

In the years that adopted, Yeon designed a quantity of homes, largely in and round Portland and largely counting on the similar mixture of wooden and strategically positioned expanses of glass. These he divided, considerably tongue-in-cheek, into two classes: Barn Fashion (in the modestly scaled however bold spirit of the Watzek Home) and Palace Fashion (grander, extra eclectic and traditionally minded in its influences). Although just one Palace was ever executed — the Shaw Home of 1950, which Yeon stated had a “Mozartian gaiety” and in comparison with a “Chinese language pavilion” — it might rank as one of Yeon’s most vital designs. Almost all of his homes, that are in some way each smaller and extra highly effective in particular person than pictures counsel, favored discrete rooms, typically organized alongside one or two dominant axes, over the open plan of Worldwide Fashion orthodoxy.

The living room of the Watzek House
The lounge of the Watzek Home (Jeremy Bittermann)

After which by 1955, at age 45, Yeon was executed designing homes. And shortly after executed with architecture nearly fully, transferring as an alternative right into a second profession as a curator, exhibition designer, collector, museum trustee and outstanding conservationist. (“Quest for Magnificence” explores all these roles.) In 1965, he purchased 78 acres in the Columbia River Gorge, immediately throughout from Multnomah Falls, and — returning to the ability in panorama design he’d proven in the backyard for his mom — reshaped it right into a choreographed collection of areas, with a bermed amphitheater at its coronary heart, that he referred to as the “Shire.”

In simply 20 years of energetic residential follow — he by no means earned a license and relied on colleagues to log out on his work — Yeon managed to equally reshape seemingly inflexible definitions of fashionable architecture and our understanding of how that motion would possibly relate to area, web site, panorama and custom. There are hints in his work of architects and designers together with Alvar Aalto, Bernard Maybeck, Hans Wegner and Bruno Mathsson. His closest counterpart in bringing humanism and a vernacular depth to West Coast modernism was most likely William Wurster (1895-1973), an architect who labored largely in Northern California.

But Yeon’s work, as the Portland exhibition makes clear, deserves to face by itself. His profession is a singular if idiosyncratic instance of what's to be gained by staying in place and — in the spirit of Voltaire, Johnson’s relentless standing-looking for be damned — tending our personal gardens.

Constructing Kind is Christopher Hawthorne’s weekly column on architecture and cities. Search for future installments each Thursday at latimes.com/arts.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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A new look at the architecture of John Yeon, unsung master of Pacific Northwest modernism - Los Angeles Times