(This is Part 1 of a three-part series. See Part 2: Freethinkers advance architectural frontier and Part 3: Architecture schools push testing, not practice.)

Though some of my colleagues might cringe to hear it, non-architects–those who lacked either the formal schooling or the license to legally use the title “architect”–have had a huge impact on American architecture over the past century. If they weren’t architects in the legal sense, they more than lived up to the title’s original meaning of “master builder.”

Why not start at the top? Frank Lloyd Wright’s only formal training consisted of a year of engineering classes at the University of Wisconsin.

Thoroughly bored, he dropped out in 1888 and headed for Chicago to find a job. He quickly found one, first apprenticing with the Chicago architect J. Lyman Silsbee, and later and more famously with his “lieber Meister.” Louis Sullivan. In 1893, after a falling out with Sullivan over taking outside work, Wright left the firm and opened his own office, where he was able to use the title “architect” only because his practice predated the Illinois licensure requirements by four years.

Wright nurtured a lifelong disdain for traditional architectural training, which eventually led him to found the Taliesin Fellowship, a unique school in which apprentice architects learned largely by doing.

But Wright is only the best-known example of brilliant architects with unconventional or even nonexistent educations. In another vein entirely is Addison Mizner, the California-born, Guatemala-raised, Florida-polished raconteur who improbably rose to become the top society architect of Palm Beach during the Roaring Twenties. Mizner despised school, and accordingly his only architectural training was a three-year apprenticeship with San Francisco architect Willis Polk. The happy result was a personal style that drew more from his childhood knowledge of Spanish Colonial Guatemala than from the copybooks so beloved by his contemporaries.

Nevertheless, his academically trained colleagues considered Mizner’s romantic, antiquarian villas vulgar setpieces. It probably didn’t help that he also ran a business manufacturing mock-antique furniture and building materials, which he used liberally in his own work. Mizner’s career was spectacular but brief; he died in 1933. Today, his surviving Palm Beach work ranks among the finest Spanish Revival architecture in the nation.

On the opposite coast, Cliff May, the San Diego architect widely considered the father of the California Rancher, started his career building Monterey-style furniture. When he began designing Spanish Colonial-style houses for speculative builders in the early 1930s, academic architects dismissed him as a purveyor of kitsch. Yet over time, May’s rambling, site-sensitive designs metamorphosed into the rustic and low-slung homes that Americans came to love so well. All told, May built his Ranchers in 40 U.S. states, and their spiritual heirs went on to become the dominant style of the postwar era. Genuine May-designed Ranchers, not to mention his earlier Spanish Revival designs, are now celebrated and studied by architectural connoisseurs.

Despite these formidable accomplishments, May received only late and grudging acceptance from his licensed colleagues–or as he rather poignantly put it, “It took real architects a long time to let me into the club.”

Next time: We’ll look at a few more outsiders who changed the course of architecture, and see what they all had in common.


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