After a career of achievement — which, for Kappe, includes the AIA/ACSA 1990 Topaz Medal — his restless mind continues to produce new work. With LivingHomes, Kappe has designed the first modular, prefabricated LEED Platinum house, built in 2006. Other Kappe designs for LivingHomes have followed. He has also taken part in Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right” program for the Ninth Ward in New Orleans.Ask who has built the essential Southern California house, and the answer for many California architects will be Ray Kappe. His own 1967 home in Pacific Palisades consists of seven levels perched on a hillside with a running stream, capturing the air and light of a green canyon sited blocks from the ocean. I met the 1951 graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and his wife Shelly on a spring day to talk about Kappe’s remarkable career, which has combined residential architecture, urban design, education, and the pragmatics of design and construction.
Kappe has served as a mentor to generations of California architects through his role as a teacher and educational leader. Despite not having planned to become a teacher, he founded two architectural programs: California Polytechnic State University at Pomona, where he started the architecture department in 1968; and SCI-Arc, the Los Angeles school that he initiated in 1972 and headed until 1987.

(The following interview was edited by contributing editor Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, who expanded the transcript after follow-up telephone talks with Kappe.)

In this excerpt from a documentary by the Checkerboard Film Foundation, revered California architect Ray Kappe takes us on a tour of his house.

Click here to view a larger version of this video.

Architectural Record: Was prefabbing the LEED-Platinum house your idea, or was it part LivingHomes’ concept?

Ray Kappe: The prefab and modular ideas were mine. We’ve got another dozen houses, similar to the one in Santa Monica, ready to go but held up by planning agencies.

How do you reconcile modular prefab designs with your art and with being an urbanist who wants each building to fit its unique site and conditions?

When I started doing modular design 40-plus years ago, it was to fit buildings into difficult, usually hilly sites. Using modular prefab construction, I could transport ready-made units to the site and crane them in place onto vertical columns. It avoided having to disturb the site or dig a foundation.  So far, all the designs I’ve done have been customized to the site.

I’m not interested in style or making myself important. I was doing what I cared about.

What about the Santa Monica house’s costs? They seem pretty high.

I only do the preliminary design. Someone else calls around for materials, which I incorporate into my design and approve. According to LivingHomes, the eco-friendly features added about 20 percent to the $250-per-square-foot cost of the house. The costs of land, land preparation, and transportation were extra. But the prefab construction reduced stick-built building costs by 20-to-30 percent.  Prefab also offers savings in construction time, which means money. The site work takes about three months, as does fabrication; the two processes can overlap. The house was assembled on-site in a day.

The only way prefab can become really economically competitive is if you build in large volumes, which isn’t likely to happen. Developers now prefabricate sizeable portions of their houses, but they’re Tuscan or Georgian or whatever. After World War II, developers built modern housing tracts, and they sold. It hasn’t been tried lately.

People are beginning to equate prefab and green construction? Is prefab inherently green?

When you build in the factory you have much less waste of materials than in on-site construction. It’s possible to have better quality control, and there can be fewer risks to the laborers.

How did you first become interested in modular design and the ability to replicate architecture?

Structuralism is a key part of the way I think, and modern architecture was much about structuralism. I was always interested in multiple housing, and so when I started my own practice in 1953, it was about trying to figure out systems that would be more economical. I was just building responsible architecture.  That’s the way I always felt about it.  I was one of a group of young architects who were out to change the mentality of people after World War II. We were more interested in doing new things than competing with each other. Those were different times.

I was more involved with construction than many architects, and with subcontractors. I was doing design-build at a time when the AIA frowned on it, arguing that if you handled both design and construction you couldn’t give the client adequate service. I thought just the opposite.  Design-build places you closer to the process.

Early on, didn’t you also design prefabbed multiple housing?

During the early ‘60s, I and my eventual partners, Herb Kahn and Rex Lotery, were working with the AIA’s Urban Design Committee trying to develop ways of building that avoided cutting paths and cutting up the land. We did the planning for a demonstration project of modular housing units for the city of Sierra Madre in which we bridged hillside sites. We put the services in vertical core units, which we spanned with laminated beams, and we inserted prefabricated living, dining, and bedroom areas. The project never happened because the condo market dried up. We also did a prefab modular student housing project for Sonoma State University. That too wasn’t built for reasons that had nothing to do with design.

From about the mid-‘60s. I tried various modular systems. I did a beach house with a series of frames that we laid on the ground and craned up into place. I was always trying systems that would speed up the process.

How did the environmental movement of the ‘70s affect the design of your houses?

Under the prescriptive standards here in California, initially you could only have a 20 percent ratio of glass to floor area. My houses had 60-to-70-percent glass and hardly any insulation. As a test, I asked some of the owners to save energy bills for a year, and I found my houses were more energy efficient than louver houses with much less glass.

I experimented with building environmentally responsible houses that were almost opposite from the one-mentality type you find in New Mexico and Arizona where they built into the ground with thick walls. They all looked alike. I was building on different terrain; I rotated various portions and used active solar ingredients with a passive solar system. In some houses, I used single glazing but with European shading devices and a lot of mass that would collect heat during the day and feed it back at night. Designing energy conserving buildings didn’t really change the look of my buildings.

Did systems thinking and environmentally responsible design figure strongly in your academic career? Tell me about launching the architecture program at CalPoly and founding Sci-Arc.

I had been teaching at USC for a couple of years by 1967 when Bernard Zimmerman, a landscape architect at CalPoly, asked me to start an architecture program there. I figured I’d be there for five years; I had no intention of making a career of education. I’m a pragmatist. I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating what I’m going to do next. I just liked the idea of setting up a program and seeing what would happen. CalPoly was an environmental design school and I really cared about landscape and urban planning and thought I had the smarts to put together a program.

The program, as I set it up, had landscape planning in architecture and we taught the two disciplines together. I thought architects should understand the land and the environment better. I brought Thom Mayne and Jim Stafford on to teach that approach. Later, when we were moving in that direction, Thom insisted you can’t do good design and energy stuff at the same time. Today, of course, he’s come full circle. I guess I always cared more about the environmental aspect of architecture than about anything else. I think of myself as a problem solver.

You left CalPoly in a dust-up with the dean in ’72 and founded SCI-Arc. What were your original goals for SCI-Arc? 

When the dean asked me to resign from CalPoly in ’72—after I called him a liar and worse—it caused a brouhaha at the school. The faculty had meetings with the students and decided, ‘Why not start our own school?’ It was like a happening. Of the 350 students, 150 signed up for what we at first called the New School. Once the parents got wind of things, that number dropped to 50, but by the fall 25 more students—who were interested in a free, open school—had signed up.

I wasn’t a crazy maverick. I wanted to encourage invention, exploration, and criticism so that students would create better projects. I threw out the usual curriculum and tried to see what it would be like if we started wide open. The original seven faculty members and students were believers in activism and cooperation. During the first few years, the school explored social and behavioral aspects of architecture and architectural education.

Could you practice during those years?

We formed our partnership the year I began at CalPoly. My role in the practice was primarily in design and planning. I always gave the school first priority and it was only five minutes from our office. I didn’t find it hard to combine the two. I guess I have a natural ability for management and finances at that level.

Did the school evolve from the original goals?

I’d say that in two years it evolved back to a fairly normal program. I found that people go back into their old ways. I didn’t want to have the usual overseeing board. The seven original staff members served as a board until I found that was illegal for accreditation purposes. So we changed it to a 4-3 board.

Did the school reflect your interests?

I thought I had a group that could become interested in the things I cared about: urban issues, number one; technology, of course; and environmental response concerns. And that worked great for about eight years until postmodernism started to dominate architecture. Some of our faculty, Eric Moss and Thom Mayne, jumped ship, and then it became a battle because I wasn’t willing to go that way. By the late ‘80s, I felt I wasn’t going to win the fight and didn’t want to head a school that I no longer believed in, so I stepped down as director. I continued to teach there and at USC, which was more interested in urban issues than SCI-Arc.

Looking back on your career today, do you have regrets, unfulfilled desires?

I’m essentially, totally content. If I weren’t I’d be crazy. But timing is everything, and unfortunately for our firm, 1980 was a killer. Our city took a turn away from planning and urban design toward just wanting implementation. So as a planning firm, we no longer had work. We’d done a gymnasium for Loyola University, which was also stopped. That project would probably have moved us into bigger scale work. And by 1980, we broke up the firm. I could do houses on my own, but I was never able to get the one building type I wanted to do, community buildings. 

As an observer of the current architectural world, do you see any great failings?

I don’t think we’ve ever had as great designers as we do now. But in a capitalist society, I don’t think you can get great planning.

I wish we had the hand of a strong planner to create cities that are just slightly differentiated yet have an excitement about them. That’s something they do well in Holland and the Scandinavian countries. Thom Mayne is doing some planning stuff at UCLA, but the solutions are like the old Soviet Union.

We’ve got two streams today: systems thinking and form-making. What’s your thinking about the latter?

To me, form without all the other aspects isn’t total architecture. What bothered me about postmodernism was not that it criticized modernism, but that its responses weren’t good enough. Now, we’re going through a similar process. It’s too much “me, me, me.” Everyone wants to be a prima donna, to have a big idea, because who pays attention to small ideas. I think that’s our biggest problem. Frank Gehy is what I call an additive formalist, by which I mean he does a dumb building inside and attaches a piece of something on the outside. Why would you want to create huge waste just to make a building do odd formal things? Buildings like his just don’t grab me the way those of masters like Corb, Wright, and Aalto do.

Forced by necessity, the world is coming around to your way of thinking again. You’ve been able to fuse form-making and environmental concerns. What advice would you have for young architects today?

You have to find your own center. It’s important to do architecture that’s comfortable for you, that you feel is a part of you, not what someone else is doing. The green thing should be a given in the design process. The dollar shouldn’t be the driving force of your work; it should be a residual.