Roger Lee: Bay Space's modern architect for the common man – Curbed

In postwar California, in the event you lived in the East Bay with modest means and midcentury desires, Roger Lee could have been your finest guess for constructing the dwelling you at all times needed. A pioneering Chinese language-American architect, Lee made his mark on native structure throughout the ’50s and ’60s, creating greater than 100 properties in cities like Berkeley, Kensington, and El Cerrito, whereas serving to to refine a crisp, easy, and charming Bay Space type of residential design.

“He did nice modern design for the lots, beginning at the identical time Joseph Eichler was doing work,” says Chris Olson, a Bay Space real estate broker who usually sells Lee-designed properties. “Whereas Eichler approached it from the enterprise aspect, Lee was extra of an artist, making an attempt to design customized properties for everybody, regardless of their earnings degree. Individuals discover that sort of idealism interesting.”


Born in 1920 in Oakland, California, Roger Lee studied at the College of California, Berkeley, graduating with honors in 1941. He could have picked the excellent time to review at Berkeley, based on structure author Dave Weinstein, since his research not solely related him with the mental leaders of an evolving regional design motion, but in addition positioned him to benefit from the postwar constructing growth.

Exterior of the Wilkinson Residence, Orinda, California, 1955.
by Ernest Braun/Courtesy of the Braun Archives/Roger Lee Assortment, Environmental Design Archives, College of California, Berkeley

His academics—together with William Hays and William Wurster, a pioneering California modernist who would go on to design considered one of the Case Study homes that outlined California modernism—had in flip been influenced by Craftsman-period Berkeley pioneers Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan.

“Berkeley in the ’40s put him in contact with this rustic, very Bay Space superb,” says Weinstein. “He realized that you could possibly design regional, modern properties with out essentially having to be utterly Worldwide Type.”

Like lots of his technology, Lee’s profession took a detour throughout World Struggle II. Serving in Hawaii between 1941 and 1945, the place he met his spouse, Lee labored as an assistant engineer in the U.S. Engineers workplace designing publish workplaces, bunkers, and protection initiatives, which gave him first-hand expertise with new supplies and modular development. He wouldn’t return to the Bay Space till 1947, after transient stints at a couple of corporations in Los Angeles.

Working underneath the title Roger Lee Associates, he rapidly started to make a reputation for himself designing easy however elegant properties for the lots, with Architectural Discussion board highlighting a few of his early dwelling designs in El Cerrito in 1949.

Darryl Roberson, a founding principal at the agency Studios Architecture who labored with Lee in the early ’60s, praises Lee’s easy, wooden-framed model of modernism—and factors out that his low-slung, unpretentious properties with flat roofs, simple designs, and low budgets normally price round $25,000 (California’s median dwelling worth in 1960 was $74,000). His give attention to affordability got here from engaged on smaller homes, Roberson says, and have become a promoting level with shoppers.

Lee continued to design properties all through the bay in the ’50s and ’60s, using different regionally well-known architects, together with Roberson, Fred and Lois Langhorst, and Beverley Thorne, one other Case Research architect. Lee often took commissions in Nevada and even Hawaii, and would ultimately broaden his focus and design apartment buildings—a few of which received AIA awards—in addition to church buildings and the occasional business venture. In the late ’60s, he moved his observe to Hawaii, the place he would ultimately shut the agency and retire.

Youngster’s bed room in the Wilkinson Residence, Orinda, California, 1955.
by Ernest Braun/Courtesy of the Braun Archives/Roger Lee Assortment, Environmental Design Archives, College of California, Berkeley

Buildings to know

Lee’s plethora of initiatives round the Bay Space showcase the sleek type that made him so well-liked with householders. Generally clad in redwood shingles, most had been easy publish-and-beam initiatives, with a grid of metal beams creating open, ethereal interiors bounded by glass partitions that many describe as rhythmic. Even inside the modern context, Lee’s designs had been minimal, designed to be modular and simply expanded by householders.

Weinstein nods to 2 standout initiatives: firstly, Lee’s 1949 Berkeley residence, which received the America’s Finest Small Homes award the yr it was constructed and helped make a reputation for his agency. The William Wilkinson Residence in Orinda, California, was in-built 1956, and was later acknowledged by the AIA’s Houses for Higher Residing program. The latter does indoor and out of doors house in an particularly compelling method; Weinstein says the courtyard, so effectively entwined with the remainder of the home, “seems like one other room.”

Legacy and popularity immediately

Lee’s work is treasured by homebuyers immediately, who pay a premium for his easy, streamlined work, full of open public areas and pure supplies. Since he labored with shoppers at quite a lot of value factors, his properties, even with the midcentury premium, are nonetheless accessible to a variety of patrons. A lot of his as soon as-reasonably priced properties hit the markets for upward of $800,000 or extra. A 3-bed room dwelling in Orinda sold earlier this year for $.56 million.

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Roger Lee: Bay Space's modern architect for the common man - Curbed