William Krisel, Architect Who Helped Define California Modernism, Dies At 92 : The Two-Way Krisel is particularly known for the scores of tract homes he designed in Palm Springs, which featured open floor plans, "butterfly" roofs and enough variation so they didn't look cookie-cutter.

William Krisel, Architect Who Helped Define California Modernism, Dies At 92

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/531751099/531789965" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


William Krisel brought mid-century modernism to the masses. He might not be a household name, but the silhouettes of the homes he built in the post-war years are instantly recognizable. Krisel was an early innovator of tract housing. He died Friday at his home in California at the age of 92. Matt Guilhem has this remembrance.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: William Krisel's homes had open floor plans and walls of glass with even more windows above them. His designs were the harbinger of what came to be known as California living. In a 2016 interview, Krisel said there are real benefits to what good design can do.


WILLIAM KRISEL: First of all, it makes you aware that it's a beautiful day or a dark day because the outdoors comes in. Secondly, the space that you're in is not held in by four walls. Your space goes as far as your eye can see.

GUILHEM: As modern as his designs are, William Krisel grew up in the Far East in a bygone age.


KRISEL: In Shanghai, we had a very big house. And we had a staff of 12 or 15 servants, so we didn't have to do a thing. So we had a life that I don't think anybody can match today.

GUILHEM: Krisel's father worked as the sole film distributor to Asia for all of the big Hollywood studios. But the young Krisel was interested in architecture. When he was 11, he drew sketches of the proposed family home in Southern California. His father sent the drawings to the architect.


KRISEL: She said, well, he shows talent. He ought to become an architect.

GUILHEM: While he had a knack for drafting and a love for drawing, he didn't find his vocation until joining the Army in World War II and chatting with his fellow soldiers about what they would do after the war.


KRISEL: Everybody had an idea of what kind of a home they wanted and whatnot. And so I made up my mind that when I got out and I was going to go back and finish architecture, I was going to try to be a specialist in housing.

GUILHEM: While he designed high-rise condos and apartment buildings later in his career, it's his early tract homes built by the Alexander Construction Company in Palm Springs, Calif., that earned him a reputation with buyers and builders. The small homes could be built quickly, efficiently and, most importantly, affordably. Buyers in the late 1950s got...


KRISEL: A hundred-by-hundred lot all fenced in, landscaped, modern design, air condition, swimming pool, all for $29,900.

GUILHEM: Krisel varied the setback from the street, changed the rooflines and employed a complex schedule of paint schemes so no two tract homes next to each other looked remotely the same despite all having one basic floorplan.

HEIDI CREIGHTON: We are talking about a tract house, and most people, when they hear the word tract, it's kind of a denigrating term.

GUILHEM: Heidi Creighton lives in a Krisel-designed home in Palm Springs and co-edited a book about him.

CREIGHTON: He cared about the way people were going to live in these places. He was able to do extraordinarily creative things within a very narrow framework. And that's the sign of a true artist, I believe.

GUILHEM: Krisel's tracts did more than bring revolutionary design to something once viewed as below serious architects. His meticulously planned neighborhoods elevated mass-produced housing to the realms of respectability and admiration among those in the profession and beyond.


KRISEL: I've had a very happy and successful career, and I've achieved what I set out to do when I was a very young architect - that I wanted to create housing for the masses that they could afford and that would change their way of living and make life more enjoyable.

GUILHEM: The number of lives his buildings have touched can't be calculated, but by William Krisel's own estimation, more than 40,000 housing units based on his designs were built. For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.