8 Great Modern Masters - Page 6

Mid-century architects whose efforts gave Northern California its characteristic look and meaning
8 Great Modern Masters
8 Great Modern Masters
Roger Lee and the Wilkinson house, Orinda (1956).


Lee proved to be one of the most prolific and financially successful Bay Area architects of his generation because of his ability to design elegant, livable homes inexpensively, and because of the variety of his work, and its adaptability.

Lee (1920-1981) designed more than 100 homes in the Bay Area before moving to Hawaii in the late 1960s, where he designed more. He also designed apartments.

Architect Beverley Thorne, who worked for Lee early in his own career, said Lee's ability to build a house for "no money at all" influenced his own path. "He was deciding to design a decent little building for people who had no money," Thorne said.

Lee's work proved influential, winning many awards and earning much press, both in professional and popular publications.

Lee likely learned about economy and speed of construction in World War II, when he was with the Army Corps of Engineers in Hawaii designing bunkers and other military structures.

Lee's post-and-beam homes were modular, with windows and wall panels the same size. For his small homes for people with small budgets, Lee often provided plans for later expansion. His homes are generally long and low, with distinctive banded windows. Exposed ceiling beams project outside, often holding trellises.

Lee's courtyards, sometimes surrounded by the living area of the house, are as much part of the house as the indoor rooms. Interiors and exteriors are generally clad in redwood, or in Eichler-style scored plywood siding. Like Eichler, Lee often used mahogany plywood paneling.

The kitchen in a Lee house often strongly resembles an Eichler kitchen, with the same stovetops and similar hanging cabinets with sliding doors.

If it sounds like Lee would have liked to design modern tract homes, that is likely. One of his designs, shown in an Oakland exhibit in 1952 and built in El Cerrito, was called a moduflex house, for 'modern' and 'flexible.' The home was designed to be replicated. Lee also designed several mini-subdivisions, with three, four, or more houses.