March 4, 2016

William Wurster: A Quiet Modernist Master

A side benefit to doing a story on Pietro and Tony Belluschi for the Spring 2016 issue of Preservation magazine was that I got to learn more about one of my favorite Modernist architects, William Wurster. The San Francisco Bay Area-based Wurster had a straightforward design style that influenced his friend Pietro, especially regarding houses.

Built mostly between the 1920s and the 1950s, Wurster's residential work (such as the Gregory Farmhouse in Santa Cruz, California, built 1926-29 and shown above) features low-key wood exteriors and interiors that would delight a Shaker and horrify a Rococo painter.

“I like to work on direct, honest solutions, avoiding exotic materials, using indigenous things so that there is no affectation and the best is obtained for the money,” he once wrote.

Wurster graduated from architecture school at the University of California, Berkeley in 1919 and wound up at the prestigious New York firm of Delano & Aldrich in 1923. He made his way back to the West Coast the next year and established his own practice in Berkeley. In 1940 he married Catherine Bauer, a respected advocate for public housing.

Along with an estimated 200 beautifully simple houses, he also designed larger-scale buildings such as the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He preceded Pietro as the head of architecture at MIT, and remains a beloved figure at UC Berkeley, where he served as architecture dean from 1950 to 1963 and oversaw the consolidation of the architecture, urban planning, and landscape architecture schools into the College of Environmental Design in 1959.

Star architects aren’t always known for wanting to share credit for their designs, but Wurster insisted on making sure his staff and collaborators got credit for the work they did. Though he never became a household name, his residences continue to resonate in today’s design community. They incorporate timeless forms drawn from regional farm buildings, as well as gracious outdoor rooms for enjoying the mild Northern California climate.

Photos: William W. Wurster/Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons Collection/Environmental Design Archives/University of California, Berkeley

Meghan Drueding is the managing editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee table books about architecture and design.


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