8 Great Modern Masters - Page 8

Mid-century architects whose efforts gave Northern California its characteristic look and meaning
8 Great Modern Masters
8 Great Modern Masters
Beverley Thorne (left) with jazzman Dave Brubeck and the Brubeck house, Oakland (1954).


A bit of an outlier among Bay Area architects, Thorne won fame not for his woodsy designs that fit in among the live oak trees unassumingly, but for big, bold, cantilevered designs using steel girders.

They made for great photos and won Thorne much fame, starting with the second house he designed—in the Oakland hills for jazz pianist and bandleader Dave Brubeck, just as Brubeck was emerging as a major star.

Thorne, who was born in 1924 and often simply signed his plans (and the rare article he wrote) 'Thorne,' designed between 200 and 300 houses—"not many," he said in an interview. He used steel in almost all of them, using it as the primary structural material in about half.

Steel was being trumpeted as the material of the future, with Thorne a chief trumpeter. "Remember," Thorne wrote in a 1961 article, "we are dealing with a material which is over ten times as strong, and 20 times as stiff, as wood."

Steel never did replace wood in home construction—though, especially in Southern California, many progressive architects created steel-framed houses, and even houses with steel walls and ceilings. One such was A. Quincy Jones, Eichler's architect, who even got Joe Eichler to experiment with steel.

Thorne became one of the few Northern California architects to design and build a steel house under Arts & Architecture magazine's Case Study House program. Another house he designed, in Oakland, won fame when a helicopter landed on its roof on its opening day.

But Thorne was no steel obsessive. Often the steel framing—he used it to span creeks at times, and provide stability on steep hills—was out of sight, or played up subtly, the girders tapering to an elegant point. His walls were often of wood.

He used steel to solve problems, Thorne says. But he enjoyed the aesthetic impact of both steel and structure.

"Foundations and substructure of the steel-framed home," he wrote,  "can be as beautiful as the home they support."