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Kaufmann, Gordon Bernie (1888–1949), architect, was born on 19 March 1888 at Leiningen Villa, Lowther Hill, Forest Hill, Kent, the son of Gustav Kaufmann (b. 1849), an immigrant merchant from Bavaria, and his wife, Matilda May, née Isaacs (b. 1850), from Margate, Kent, and of Scottish descent; though his mother's maiden name was given as Isaacs in the census of 1911 it was entered as Cook on Kaufmann's death certificate. Kaufmann's second forename at birth, Beni—which he later changed to Bernie—reflects his father's Jewish origins. Little is known of his early years, and his own record is not wholly reliable. His parents moved regularly between England and Germany, poignantly naming their successive Surrey residences Homeville. In 1896 Kaufmann's name appears in the rolls of the Hansa School in Bergendorf, outside Hamburg, and he entered Whitgift School, Croydon, in 1903, albeit for a shorter time than he later stated. At Whitgift he apparently struck up a strong relationship with the chief science master, Walter Cross. Cross must have recognized his talent and potential, since two years later he was apprenticed to the architect A. W. S. Cross, Walter's eldest brother, chiefly known for his design of public swimming baths. Kaufmann studied at the London Polytechnic and the Royal Institute of British Architects, gaining his studentship in 1908.

According to informal comments to his friends and associates Kaufmann next spent time in continental Europe, some of it working in architects' offices in Germany. In 1910 he emigrated to Canada and worked for architectural practices in Montreal and Winnipeg. In April 1912 he married Eva St Denis McFarland (b. 1888), from Winona, Ontario. By 1914 he had decided to emigrate again, this time to southern California, purportedly for reasons of his wife's health. Immigration records show the Kaufmanns, travelling with a son, Kenneth, who was born before their marriage, and a very young daughter, Cecil, disembarking in Vancouver with a destination of Pasadena. In Los Angeles he had trouble finding work, and was employed as a gardener before being taken on as a draughtsman in the partnership of Reginald Johnson and Roland E. Coate, known for their Spanish colonial revival designs. In 1920 he became an associate of the firm and quickly made his mark. He was approved as a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1921, and became a partner of the firm in the following year. During the early 1920s he contributed to many high-class residential commissions, as well as public buildings, including All Saints Episcopal Church, Pasadena, and St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Los Angeles (dem. 1980), both influenced by English styles. He also co-operated with Paul Thiene and Frank Lloyd Wright (responsible for landscaping) on the Ben R. Meyer residence, where he made his mark ‘as a virtuoso interpreter of Mediterranean traditions’ (Watters, 75).

In 1924 the partnership with Johnson and Coate was dissolved—amicably, according to Kaufmann, who now set up his own practice. With money and skilled craftsmen available, this was a prosperous time and many southern Californian architects experimented with the Mediterranean style, which they considered naturally appropriate for their region. In 1924 Kaufmann was appointed to the design committee of Bel Air, whose developers encouraged designs drawing on the region's Spanish heritage. Kaufmann was responsible for several fine residences, including the Arthur S. Bent house (1926), and Il Vescovo (‘The Bishop’, 1927, for William T. Bishop), where he used patently Italianate styles to fashion a distinctly Californian mansion. One of his most significant commissions was for the Isadore Eisner house, Hancock Park, which won him his first AIA award in 1926, and which, with its multiple courtyards, became the prototype for his later work at Scripps College. In 1928 Kaufmann put forward the Eisner house as a model for the restoration of domestic privacy for clients seeking to escape the city (‘A house of Tuscan inspiration’, Arts and Decoration, Feb 1928).

Kaufmann's reputation spread quickly and he took on many ambitious and high-profile contracts. In 1927 he executed the original design for the Beverly House, later owned by William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. His most famous commission in this decade was perhaps the sixty-seven-room Greystone Mansion (1928), built for the oil baron Edward Doheny, with its English Gothic exterior and eighteenth-century English interior set in more than 400 acres of grounds; the house, which features prominently in the works of Raymond Chandler, remains a popular location for film-makers. Called extravagant and disproportionate by some critics—and possibly the subject of Edmund Wilson's uncomplimentary reference to a ‘pocket-size replica of heraldic Warwick Castle’ (E. Wilson, American Jitters, 1932, 226)—Greystone ‘reflected Kaufmann's deft ability to combine elements of different periods in compositions that were subtle, classically proportioned, and seemingly of a single style’ (Watters, 226). This assignment was followed by two prominent structures of enduring appeal, Scripps College, Claremont, and the La Quinta Inn, Desert Springs. A commission for the Royal Laundry, Pasadena (1927), brought out Kaufmann's underlying interest in technology and its relationship to design, and he also started experimenting with art deco influences. Nevertheless the traditional projects continued. In 1928, the year in which the architect Harris Allen first defined the notion of the eclectic ‘California architecture’, Kaufmann designed the Athenaeum at Caltech—truly more suggestive of the Italian Renaissance—and then built his own house at Holmby Hills in authentically California Mediterranean style.

By now Kaufmann's marriage was failing. He sold the Holmby Hills house in 1931. Some time after this Kaufmann married Elsie Bryant (1890–1968), and he was happy to let the official records state that this was his only marriage. Though demand for large-scale residential projects declined during the depression, Kaufmann continued to accept prominent residential commissions like the Malcolm McNaghten house (1933) in Holmby Hills—acquired by Bing Crosby in 1943 and later demolished by Aaron Spelling—in addition to other work in Pasadena and La Quinta. However, he also turned to commercial and industrial work, including an art deco styling of Santa Anita racetrack, which opened in 1934 and for which he was awarded a bronze medal at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937.

As president of the AIA's southern California chapter (1930–32) and head of the California state chamber of commerce, Kaufmann's reputation continued to grow and he used his connections well—mixing as easily with the bohemians of Jake Zeitlin's circle as with the bibliophilic Zamorano Club and industry and cinema magnates. The years 1932–3 also saw a dramatic shift from his Mediterranean phase to modernism. His Los Angeles Times Building is an imposing slab design, decorated with classical reliefs, which dominates its surroundings and symbolizes the power and influence of the newspaper's publisher, Harry Chandler. Commissioned in 1931 and completed four years later, it was awarded a gold medal at the Paris exhibition. In 1931 Kaufmann was also selected by the US Bureau of Reclamation to design three buildings for dam workers in Boulder City, a project that led to an invitation to assess plans for the Hoover Dam itself. Without any relevant experience he was then selected to design the dam (known until 1947 as the Boulder Dam), perhaps his most magnificent and famous construction. Many observers believe that Chandler, an advocate of the development of new water sources for southern California, must have helped Kaufmann win these commissions. Certainly the Hoover Dam project—situated on the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada—gave him a remarkable opportunity. Kaufmann's designs, based on a preliminary sketch published in January 1933, reshaped the dam's crest, intake towers, spillways, and the powerhouse at the foot of the structure. Here Kaufmann was able to display his talent for integrating modernism and art deco in a design that married functionalism with elegance, creating what he described as ‘a visual scheme that would complement rather than clash with the engineer's design’ (‘The architecture of Boulder Dam’, Architectural Concrete, 2/3, 1936). His hand is also evident in the dam's coloration and interior design, and he similarly oversaw the competition to select the dam's ornamental monuments. Among recent commentators Wilson has suggested that Kaufmann's scheme was influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis—and also possibly by the Italian futurist Antonio Sant' Elia, and Tony Garnier's designs for dams in Une cité industrielle—while Starr notes the influence of The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929) by the architectural illustrator Hugh Ferris. Kaufmann's achievement was to transform the previous inelegant drawings for the Hoover Dam into a far more impressive concept that highlighted the underlying technology while bringing the structure into closer harmony with its environment. Success on the Colorado River also led to his involvement in the design of the Parker, Grand Coulee, and Shasta dams. Later examples of Kaufmann's modernism, with strong echoes of his designs for the Hoover Dam, include the Salisbury Investment Company Building in Salt Lake City (1935) and the Aluminum Company of America Building in Vernon, California (1938).

In 1937 Kaufmann was elected a fellow of the AIA and from 1939 to 1940 he was a co-designer of the Arrowhead Springs Hotel, in the Inland Empire region of southern California. In 1940, with accurate premonitions of public opinion, he published an article on the equitable distribution of architectural commissions during wartime. Kaufmann had taken American citizenship in 1934 and in November 1941 left his architectural practice to join the chemical warfare service in Washington, DC, with the rank of colonel. He received the Legion of Merit on his discharge in November 1945 and returned to architectural work in California as senior partner at Kaufmann, Lippincott, and Eggers, concentrating on modernist and international styles, including offices for the Shell Oil Company at Shell Point (c.1944). Photographs from this period show him to have suffered a rapid deterioration in health. After several months of illness he died from lung cancer on 1 March 1949, at his home, 627 South Carondelet Street, Los Angeles, and was buried at the Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, California. He was survived by his second wife, who, following her death on 7 June 1968, was buried next to him. At his request his architectural papers were destroyed.

The recognition that Kaufmann now enjoys as an architect was, for several reasons, relatively slowly established. A modest and unassuming man, he did not boast of his achievements or promote himself strongly. His age was dominated by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose character was the direct antithesis of Kaufmann's, and by the mostly fruitless debates about traditionalism and modernism. In March 1949 the AIA awarded its gold medal to Lloyd Wright (who was not a member, and who disapproved of the organization); Kaufmann received a one-line death notice in the association's journal a year later. Subsequently his name has often been misrepresented (as, for example, George Kaufman) in popular books on architecture. Furthermore, architectural taste in the United States was for a long time determined by an east-coast élite sceptical of Californian designs.

It was not until the 1970s that critics and historians made serious appraisals of work by Kaufmann and his fellow southern California architects. His domestic architecture has been praised by Clark for its clean exploitation of space and integration of multiple influences into a recognizable Californian style, with Kaufmann bringing ‘a generosity of approach which was partly personal and also part of his inheritance, a peculiarly British sensibility about the house and about public work’ (Clark, 1). Kaufmann certainly brought a sense of proportion to a Mediterranean style often prone to excess and eclecticism, and the lessons he had learned in Britain and continental Europe—from the École des Beaux Arts and from Edwin Lutyens—led him to build dignified and memorable homes alongside the more expansive designs for which he was commissioned. Nevertheless his most famous legacy remains the Hoover Dam. Writing in 1937 J. B. Priestley considered Kaufmann's design worthy of the description ‘a work of art; as if something that began with utility and civil engineering ended somewhere in the neighbourhood of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony’ (Midnight on the Desert, 1937, 111), while to a later commentator Kaufmann converted the dam's ‘banal, warmed-over classicism … into a vibrant symbol of modernity’ (Wilson, ‘American modernism’, 312). However, his diffidence regarding the dam—coupled with his wish (recounted to Clark) that he had made the Los Angeles Times Building ‘more modern’—suggest that Kaufmann was more at ease with his more modest public projects and his domestic designs.

Antony Percy


R. G. Wilson, ‘American modernism in the west: Hoover Dam’, Images of an American land, ed. T. Carter (1997), 291–320 · J. F. Muntz, ‘Gordon B. Kaufmann: Californian classicism’; R. G. Wilson, ‘Gordon B. Kaufmann and modernism’; and S. Polyzoides, ‘Gordon B. Kaufmann, Edward Huntsman-Trout, and the design of the Scripps College campus’, Johnson, Kaufmann, Coate: partners in the California style (1992) · K. Starr, Material dreams: southern California through the 1920s (1990) · K. Starr, Endangered dreams: the great depression in California (1996) · A. Clark, ‘The Californian architecture of Gordon B. Kaufmann’, Society of Architectural Historians, Southern California Chapter Review, 1 (1985), 1–8 · S. Watters, Houses of Los Angeles, 1920–1935 (2007) · R. G. Wilson, ‘Machine-age iconography in the American west: the design of the Hoover Dam’, Pacific Historical Review, 54/4 (1985), 463–93 · Los Angeles Times (2 March 1949) · New York Times (2 March 1949) · Whitgift School, Croydon, archive · journals and records, American Institute of Architects, Washington, DC · RIBA BAL · US census and immigration records · census returns, 1851, 1911 · b. cert. · d. cert.


photograph, repro. in Los Angeles Times (2 March 1949) · photograph, repro. in Johnson, Kaufmann, Coate