Bill Krisel Interview - Page 2

Architect Bill Krisel talks about the Alexanders of Palm Springs and building San Fernando Valley

George was a pretty serious guy, and he wasn't well. He was making a lot of money. But the guy who really enjoyed life -- he liked nice cars, and he married a very beautiful girl who came from another builder family (her name was Helene) -- was Bob.

Q: Were you influenced by what Joe Eichler was doing up north?

WK: A. Quincy Jones [one of Eichler's principal architects] was a very good friend of mine, and his office was just down the street from us. We didn't talk about our work, but we knew about each other's work from the magazines. In Southern California we were first [with modern tract houses]. Up north Eichler was much more important. He didn't come down here too much, and the builders who were our clients didn't go up there too much.

alexander home in palm springs

Q: Did the tracts take up most of your practice?

WK: Yes, for a good five to six years. I really liked doing it because the people liked our houses and were buying them, and we got written up in all kinds of architectural magazines and newspaper articles. You'd meet people who lived in your houses and they said, "I bought one of your houses and I just love it." So there was a great satisfaction.

Q: How did your work in Palm Springs come about?

WK: Mr. Alexander senior had an illness, and he had to recuperate, so he went to Palm Springs. He felt much better living there, and he said to Bob, "You're getting a lot of competition in Los Angeles. Everybody in town is trying to copy your houses. Why don't you come down here where nobody has done tract houses to speak of?"

Q: Did the Palm Springs houses differ from those in San Fernando?

WK: Our approach in the desert was: 'this was your second home, not your primary home.' It was a totally different lifestyle than in Los Angeles. People who were very conservative were more free and liberal down there. People who dressed in button-down shirts and ties everyday started to wear sports clothes. People who drove hardtops bought convertibles down there.

So we created more informal living spaces, not where you needed household help to maintain it. Informal living. It was very successful.

When we did the houses up here [the Los Angeles area], we were just breaking into tract houses. We couldn't do what we really wanted to do. We had to do what you might call a 'transition' type of modern, so it wouldn't scare people. When we got to Palm Springs, and I was showing Bob what I would like to do, he said, "Let's do it." We felt that down there people would be more open to the more modern, which would be a butterfly roof instead of a gable. We did butterfly roofs and flat roofs, all things we wouldn't do up here.

After Palm Springs, we could do those kinds of houses here. Because you've got to understand -- a tract builder is like a sheep. He follows.

Q: Your firm designed so many thousands of tract homes. Was it hard overseeing all of them?

WK: You can bring me a picture of any of our houses, and I can tell you why everything is the way it is. I had my hands on every single design decision and did most of the drawings -- not the production drawings but the design drawings. We picked the hardware. When we laid out a subdivision, we picked the color of each house to coordinate, so you wouldn't have two houses painted the same across the street. We chose the placement of the palm trees. We did everything. It's what I call being captain of the team. We had total control.

People would ask, 'How could you do all these things?' We did them. My wife will tell you -- I was never home, I worked seven days a week. I didn't get home 'til late at night, and I went to work early. I enjoyed my work.

The attitude that I'm most disappointed about in the profession today, and I've been a fighter on this all my life, is the concept of the architect being the captain of the team. In my day, I had a very tough rule. All the consultants were under my control -- structural, mechanical, electrical, landscaping, interiors, color, security.

Today, a builder will start with a construction manager. He may pick an architect; he'll pick someone who does interiors, someone who does this or that. The construction manager is in control. He has the ear of the client. The architect has lost out. And I blame it on the profession, because they have abdicated that role. They didn't want that responsibility.

Q: Do you have any hobbies?

WK: My work.

Alexander home photo by John Eng; others courtesy William Krisel and Maxx Livingstone Modern Homes