On June 7, 2019 the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP), Harrison Design, the City of Santa Barbara and Downtown Santa Barbara co-hosted a timely symposium titled, “Santa Barbara: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.” The symposium provided a space for informed dialogue about the future of Santa Barbara’s urban development including the challenges and opportunities our community faces as we consider the best path forward.
Dennis P. Doordan, Ph.D. is an architectural and design historian and museum consultant. He is the author of Twentieth Century Architecture and co-editor of Design Issues, a journal devoted to the history, theory, and criticism of design. Dennis is a professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. He was the Associate Dean of Research, Scholarship and Creative Work at the Notre Dame School of Architecture. He has a Ph.D. from Columbia University and a B.A. from Stanford University. Dennis recently retired and moved to Santa Barbara with his wife in June 2019. Dennis’ brother John Doordan serves on SBTHP’s Board of Directors. The following article was published in La Campana, Summer 2019 .
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Santa Barbara: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
by Dennis Doordan, PhD.
Santa Barbara is a special place with a distinctive setting, a fascinating history, a genial climate and a rich architectural heritage. Residents know this well, of course, but because of the architectural and urban quality of Santa Barbara this special place is also an important model for students of architecture and urbanism. Indeed, as an architectural historian, I have taught and written about Santa Barbara throughout my career and I want to explain why.
In the late 1990s I was commissioned by an academic publisher to write a history of twentieth-century architecture.1 There is an unforgiving economy of words involved in writing a survey text that is established by the publisher’s strict limit on the number of words and illustrations. For every building included, others must be left out; every illustration chosen means one less somewhere else in the book. So I selected buildings that allowed me to make multiple points about architecture in the twentieth century. I included the Santa Barbara County Courthouse (1927-29) because it allowed me to tell several stories simultaneously. The Courthouse documents the enduring presence of historical revivalism in twentieth-century architecture. It also illustrates the ongoing dialogue between regional and national versions of government architecture in the United States. And finally, it is a superb example of the art of architecture. Good architecture addresses multiple themes.
“Spanish and Mediterranean themed architecture had, by the early 1940s, impressed upon Santa Barbara its distinctive identity as a New Spain in America.”
I am hardly the first to note the quality of architecture in Santa Barbara. Anyone who studies Santa Barbara builds on the solid scholarly foundation created by historians like Harold Kirker and David Gebhard.2 Their work provides the outline for the master narrative of what Gebhard called “the creation of a New Spain in America.” Writers, artists, and architects all contributed to the creation of an exotic image for the region. An early example of this is Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona.3 Published in 1884, Ramona is set in California after the Mexican-American War and was instrumental in popularizing a romantic image of Mexican California. California State Pavilions at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 and the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego promoted the Spanish Colonial Revival style in architecture and design. In the skillful hands of architects like James Osborne Craig, George Washington Smith, Myron Hunt and others. Spanish and Mediterranean themed architecture had, by the early 1940s, impressed upon Santa Barbara its distinctive identity as a New Spain in America.
In Southern California the Spanish Colonial Revival flourished alongside the rise of Modern Architecture. For David Gebhard, the simple massing, white-washed walls and courtyard plans typical of Spanish Colonial domestic designs shared an affinity with early modern architecture and, in a seminal 1967 article, he argued that there was a meaningful give and take between the two architectural styles. In the end it could be suggested that the Renaissance of modern architecture which occurred in California during the 1930s was due in no small measure to the fact that the visual leap from the Spanish Colonial Revival building to the modern was not a great one. Ironically, the modern movement found its “historic” roots not in the distant past but in the very tradition against which it was supposedly battling.4
It may not have been a “great leap” for Gebhard, but for many others it was a controversial one. The role of historical precedent combined with the materiality and solidity of Spanish Colonial Revival buildings was frankly incompatible with the prevailing Modernist architectural culture that privileged novelty over precedent, volume over mass, and preferred simplicity to decoration. In the 1970s and 80s, as the debate between Modernist and Postmodernist architects regarding the role of historical models in contemporary design intensified, Santa Barbara’s experience, conveyed through the work of historians like Gebhard, made it an intriguing and important point of reference in contemporary discussions of architecture.
The narrative arc described above carries us from the earliest interest in Mission and Spanish motifs in Southern California through to the emergence of a Postmodern sensibility in architecture that once again projected Santa Barbara squarely into professional debates about what constitutes good architecture and urban design. I want to suggest a parallel story worth considering, one that focuses on the principles of Beaux Arts Classicism rather than the romance of the Spanish Colonial Revival. Once again, the great fairs in Chicago (1893) and San Diego (1915) provide the starting point. Both fairs were important models for American urban design. Both fairgrounds were laid out with axes and cross-axes that struck an artful spatial balance between the solids (the buildings) and voids (the spaces in between). The designers of these fairs created clear spatial hierarchies and provided a variety of spatial experiences ranging from grand formal vistas to more informal picturesque courts. Building on the success of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 the City Beautiful Movement began to spread across the country. Cities large and small looked for opportunities to reconfigure themselves as efficient and modern urban centers enriched with classically inspired buildings. Large cities like Chicago produced plans that sought to integrate transportation networks, civic and cultural institutions and urban parks on a grand scale.5 Smaller cities worked on a more modest scale, one building, park or fountain at a time.
In architectural terms, the Civic Classicism associated with the drive to improve and beautify cities in the early twentieth century drew upon the vocabulary of classical architecture and the principles of Beaux Arts design. Noteworthy examples in Santa Barbara include the Santa Barbara Club by Francis Wilson (1903-04), the Charles Caldwell Park Watering Trough and Fountain on East Cabrillo at Channel Drive, also by Francis Wilson (1911) and the band shell in Plaza del Mar on West Cabrillo at Castillo (1919). The design of these structures is clearly rooted in an alternative architectural tradition to the Spanish Colonial Revival. Moving beyond the consideration of individual buildings, progressive architects and planners associated with the City Beautiful Movement urged communities to consider streets and the buildings that fronted onto them as unified wholes. It is at this more urban scale that one can detect attempts to integrate an aesthetic sensibility rooted in the Spanish Colonial Revival with progressive planning efforts. During the 1920s, various groups beginning with George Washington Smith and Lutah Maria Riggs in 1923 and, in the wake of the 1925 earthquake, ad hoc design groups like the Community Drafting Room, the Associated Architects of Santa Barbara and the Allied Architectural Association of Los Angeles, produced proposals for the treatment of entire blocks along State Street.6 Varied in detail, these plans demonstrated a common commitment to the principle of the street as a unified whole defined by buildings that created a continuous street frontage and shared the same stylistic sensibility.
“In architectural terms, the Civic Classicism associated with the drive to improve and beautify cities in the early twentieth century drew upon the vocabulary of classical architecture and the principles of Beaux Arts design.”
A word about drawing is in order here. Now in the collection of Art, Design & Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara, these wonderful renderings served an important role as tools of communal imagination. They were intended to help the community conceptualize what did not yet exist but could exist. This is, after all, what imagination is: the ability to conceive alternatives to the status quo. Today the array of visualization tools available to communities to help them imagine what does not yet exist but could exist has vastly expanded thanks to the advent of digital software packages and the development of alternatives to conventional zoning such as form-based codes.7 But the role of imagination remains critical if the people who are charged with caring for places like Santa Barbara are to exercise forethought and control over the city’s future instead of merely reacting to the flow of events.
The story of Santa Barbara I have so briefly sketched here is woven from multiple threads: buildings inspired by the Spanish Colonial Revival along with designs rooted in the classical language favored by the City Beautiful Movement. How can reflections on Santa Barbara’s past help us in the present to think about the future of this special place? The answer involves focusing on shared principles rather than different architectural styles. When you distill the experience of Santa Barbara you arrive at a set of principles for good urban design. These principles are not unique to Santa Barbara but have been inflected in unique ways by the particular history of this place. It is possible to identify four key principles.
” When you distill the experience of Santa Barbara you arrive at a set of principles for good urban design. These principles are not unique to Santa Barbara but have been inflected in unique ways by the particular history of this place.”
Urban Design is political. Today politics is often described as a divisive force within society pitting neighbor against neighbor. There is an original, more authentic meaning we need to heed. Politics is the art of living together and promoting the general welfare of the community. Good architecture and sound urban planning promote the general welfare. Community wellbeing is not fully possible without a coherent legible physical framework.
Buildings create the shared public space of a community. They define the civil, commercial and social domains of the community and give visual form to shared values. Buildings can enhance a sense of community. They can also damage a sense of community. When a building that is too massive, too out of character, too dismissive of its neighbors gets built, something more than that street or block is damaged. The sense that citizens have that their concerns and experiences matter is damaged and that is not good for any community.
Landscape and urban spaces exist in a dynamic relationship; they are not separate spheres of experience. Santa Barbara is a vivid example of this truism. The urban forests of Santa Barbara are fascinating. Alameda Plaza, for example, boasts an urban forest that includes 316 trees representing seventy-eight species drawn from six continents. As historic weather patterns change and environmental events alter the landscape, the way we manage the relationship of the environments we build, the parks and gardens we cultivate and the wilderness areas we love to visit will prove critical to the sense of place people seek to preserve in Santa Barbara.
The Past is an important part of the Present. The preservation of historic buildings and spaces contributes to the visual character and cultural identity of any city. The Historic preservation does more than keep the structures and environments of the past available for our education and enjoyment. Encoded in the buildings and environments we preserve, like an urban DNA, are important lessons about place and place-making, lessons tailored to the specific circumstances of Santa Barbara. For example, one of the distinctive features of the urban morphology of Santa Barbara are the paseos or pedestrian passages that penetrate city blocks; James Osborne Craig’s El Paseo (1921-23) and Myron Hunt’s La Arcada (1926) are two of the most famous examples.
It can be challenging to argue that we should learn from the past when a consensus about the past is hard to achieve in the present. As any historian will admit, the past is as messy and complex as the present. Today, the story of Santa Barbara as a New Spain and romantic images of its colonial heritage such as Daniel Sayre Groesbeck’s famous murals in the Courthouse are not accepted as uncritically as they once may have been. There are members of the community who do not share the romantic and idealized version of the past they so often see around them. Recently, scholars and museums have made efforts to build a more nuanced and critical understanding of how the past has been used to celebrate the power of some groups and suppress the stories of others.8 In this context it is important to note that even in the past, there were voices that told more honest and complex stories. Earlier, I mentioned the role of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona in creating an interest in California’s Hispanic past. In addition to a story of ill-fated love, Ramona is a scathing indictment of the Americanization of Mexican California and an unsparing portrayal of efforts to drive Native American people off their ancestral lands.
I began this article by trying to explain why the story of Santa Barbara is of such interest to students of architecture and urban design. But Santa Barbara has a future as well as a past, a future filled with challenges as well as opportunities. In addition to changing environmental conditions such as sea-level rise, the city faces a mandate to add over 3000 new units of housing by 2023.9 Today architects and planners have an impressive set of visualization tools that can support exercises in what earlier I called communal imagination. What, for example, would lower and upper State Street look like under different development scenarios? What are the discernable impacts of three versus four story buildings in different parts of town? How do townhouses alter the character of residential streets? How do different strategies for building resilient neighborhoods affect established living patterns? A city thrives when its citizens can imagine a desirable future, understand the urban DNA of their city, and apply the principles of good urban design to making informed choices from among a variety of options. Architects, environmentalists and planners will continue to follow developments here because Santa Barbara has been teaching lessons to people who care about cities for more than a century.
1. Dennis Doordan, Twentieth Century Architecture (London: Laurence King, 2001).
2. Harold Kirker, California’s Architectural Frontier: Style and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (San Marino: Huntington Library, I960). David Gebhard, Santa Barbara: The Creation of a New Spain in America (Santa Barbara: University Art Museum, UCSB, 1982).
3. Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1884).
4. David Gebhard “The Spanish Colonial Revival in Southern California (1895-1930)” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 26, no.2 (May 1967): 147.
5. Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett, Plan of Chicago (Chicago: The Commercial Club, 1909).
6. Gebhard, Santa Barbara: The Creation of a New Spain in America: 21
7. For an excellent introduction to form-based codes see: Daniel Parolek, Karen Parolek and Paul Crawford, Form-Based Codes: A Guide for Planners, Urban Designers, Municipalities and Developers (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Dons, 2008).
8. See for example: Wendy Kaplan and Staci Steinberger, Found In Translation: Design in California and Mexico, 1915-1985 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2017).
9. Joshua Molina, “To Meet State Mandates, SB Must Build 3,083 New Housing Units by 2023,” Noozhawk April 7, 2019.