Sunday, July 12, 2009

Workmanship, then and now

NOTE: Thanks to a December 2011 email from Lorna Auerbach, this entry has been revised.

Throughout a decade or more of poring over architecture and interior design literature, I've read numerous passages extolling the virtues of prewar workmanship in the building crafts, with the writer inevitably adding an unfortunate cliché: that it is impossible to find this kind of workmanship today.

To take one local example, in an article on Wallace Neff's legacy in the March 18, 2004, L.A. Times Home & Garden section, David A. Keeps says that Neff provided his clients
"a visual grandeur that it is unobtainable with modern construction techniques."

Not so fast, Mr. Keeps.

Luckily, Wallace Neff's 1926 Los Pavoreales just went on the market (as reported here by Curbed L.A.) and provides a good case in point when compared visually with the Auerbach residence in Pacific Palisades, completed in 2003 and designed by developer/designer Lorna Auerbach (with architect Richard Landry). The photographs of this house are by Erhard Pfeiffer.

The entryways to both houses are beautifully articulated. Neff admits neoclassical Italian renaissance motifs to his mostly Spanish design, while Ms. Auerbach sticks to a more authentic Andalucian style, including impressive tile work. I'm not so sure I'd want to enter my house through that massive defense gate, but you can't deny the quality of the design or the workmanship.

I haven't seen Los Pavoreales, or its namesake peacocks, but I did tour the Auerbach house during a fortunate show house event a few years ago. The iron work, woodworking, Venetian plaster, and other finishes are absolutely top-quality.

A visual grandeur unobtainable by modern construction techniques?

While it is certainly true that the level of workmanship overall has dwindled today to the point where skimpy, unarticulated walls, off-the-shelf doors from The Home Depot, and a dozen of prefab aluminum-framed windows can constitute what might (generously) be called a "house," the truth is that there are artisans who maintain the same standards as their prewar forebears, and those of their 18th and 19th century predecessors.

And there are also architects keen to employ them. The's contractor for the Auerbach project was Tyler Development Corporation of Calabasas; they obviously keep the craftsmen needed to build a house of this quality on speed-dial.

ADDENDUM: I recently discovered this passage in an essay by Quinlan Terry, which confirms my take on this matter:

"People ask, 'How can you find men to do your class of work these days?' as if men no longer can or want to produce skilled work. The truth is that whenever there is good work to be done there are men to do it. We have never had difficulty in obtaining first class joinery; we prepare full size details and specify the quality, and provided a reputable builder is doing the work it normally needs no further explanation. The same goes for plasterers, bricklayers, slaters, stonemasons and even woodcarvers and coppersmiths. Generally, I find that the more intricate the detail, the more willing the tradesmen are to take on the work."


  1. The designer/developer of the Auerbach home including all the hand painted ceramic tile work and wood and iron gates is Lorna Auerbach. Her tiles are available through Antigua Del Mar Tile in Santa Monica. The photographer is Erhard Pfeiffer.

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