Ray Kappe shaped Southern California architecture and design education

Ray Kappe, FAIA, the founding chair of the Department of Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona and the founding director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), died Nov. 21. He was 92.

Kappe left an indelible mark in Southern California. An internationally celebrated architect and a pioneer in architectural education, his career spanned more than six decades. His influence inextricably links the origins and the successful, albeit divergent, futures of two of Los Angeles County’s top five architecture schools.

Kappe received several national lifetime achievement awards in recognition for this commitment to architectural education. Among them are two top national awards from the American Institute of Architects: the Topaz Medallion Education Award and the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Cal Poly Pomona's Department of Architecture was established in 1968, and Kappe served as the inaugural chair. Two years later, the architecture department and the Department of Environmental Design, which offered programs in landscape architecture and urban planning, left the College of Agriculture to become the School of Environmental Design. It was renamed the College of Environmental Design (ENV) in 1988.

In designing his department curriculum, Kappe he sought to integrate the new school’s three programs, based on his belief in the importance of interdisciplinary learning. For Kappe, architecture had an active role to play in urban issues and application of new technologies. He valued practice, with theory helping to frame broader issues.

When recruiting faculty, Kappe looked for individuals “with experience in the field,” he told the Los Angeles Times in an April 1972 interview. Interdisciplinary learning, a curriculum that emphasizes the role of technology as integral to design solutions, and a faculty of practitioner-professors are cornerstones of Cal Poly Pomona’s architecture department today.

“With his passing, the Cal Poly Pomona architecture department again ponders the loss of Ray Kappe,” said department chair and alumus George Proctor (’89, architecture). “The department will honor his vision, and that of all Cal Poly Pomona's founding faculty, at our 50th anniversary celebrations in spring 2020. Ray Kappe, thank you for making our world more interesting, and for creating a place where architectural thought and creativity thrive.”

In 1972 a disagreement with Dean William Dale over the program’s direction and its rapid growth – in the previous year - its student enrollment had swelled from 25 to 350 – culminated in his removal as chair by then-President Robert Kramer over conflicting views on what Kappe described as a “nonstatic curriculum” in a 2013 interview with Tulane University architecture professor Benjamin Smith.

But Kappe and a group of faculty and students were already in serious talks about starting a new school, one that embraced creative and experimental practices free from bureaucratic constraints. By fall 1972, Kappe – along with faculty colleagues Shelly Kappe, Ahde Lahti, Thom Mayne, Bill Simonian, Glenn Small and James Stafford – left Cal Poly Pomona to establish SCI-Arc. Fifty of its first 75 students were Cal Poly Pomona architecture students.

“Kappe was a visionary who surrounded himself with other spectacular architectural minds,” Proctor said. “His entourage and their larger-than-life ideas about design were too much for a still very pastoral Cal Poly Pomona campus. The politics of the early 1970s were tumultuous, and Cal Poly Pomona was no exception. The constraints of a state school compelled Kappe and his associates to risk everything to leave and start a new school. SCI-Arc became an internationally recognized center of architectural thought and continues to pursue new ideas about architectural design, human environments, design technology, and design education.”

Meanwhile, Kappe’s commitment to the environment and sustainable design, and technological innovation continue to inform Cal Poly Pomona’s architecture department. In 1987, he received the prestigious Richard Neutra Prize for Professional Excellence, the highest honor conferred by the department he nurtured. In 2013, a group of ENV faculty included Kappe’s own Pacific Palisades residence (1967) in the exhibition Technology and Environment: The Postwar House in Southern California at the W. Keith & Janet Kellogg University Art Gallery. It was one of the exhibitions featured in Pacific Standard Time: Modern Architecture Los Angeles, a celebration of the region’s modern architectural heritage funded by the Getty Foundation.

“Ray Kappe and his wife Shelly helped shape the direction of postwar Southern California architecture – he as one of its seminal architects and she as one the region’s leading architectural historians,” said Interim Dean Lauren Weiss Bricker, an architecture historian and director of the ENV Archives-Special Collections. “The Kappes recognized two discernable trends in Southern California’s Modernism. One that was based on the steel-and-glass volumes associated with the Case Study House program. The other was more organic, responsive to site conditions and using technology to push the capacity of natural and man-made materials. R.M. Schindler and John Lautner were among the innovators associated with this tradition. Kappe borrowed from each of these trends, though he favored the latter.”

He was committed to the environment, incorporating passive solar solutions in the orientation of his houses, and new sustainable products, Bricker continued.

“He described his approach to design in an office prospectus: ‘Site, orientation, and views as well as response to environmental factors, are an essential aspect of our planning and design,’” Bricker shared. “‘To experience each tree to its fullest and to create an ambience sensitive to light and sound are prime goals.’ The Kappes’ own house in Pacific Palisades, completed in 1967, embodies his early expression of these values. Its virtually three-story space is created by massive glulams (engineered woodbeams composed of wood laminations) that are anchored in hollow concrete columns. Light filters through the trees surrounding the house, capturing the magic of a tree house.”

Kappe’s entry into the profession after World War II coincided with Southern California’s construction boom and the experimentation of residential and commercial design. He was an early proponent of environmentally friendly pre-fabricated homes in urban and desert landscapes.

Late in life he began to work with LivingHomes, a firm specializing in residential prefabrication. Kappe designed its first project, a 2,500-square-foot steel-frame house in Santa Monica’s Ocean Park. its green innovations include a passive cooling strategy utilizing a thermal chimney and cross-ventilation, and a 2.4-kilowatt photovoltaic array and solar hot water collector. Installed in eight hours and recognized by the United States Green Building Council as the first LEED® Platinum-certified home.

Another LivingHomes project, the Z6 House in Santa Monica, named one of the AIA’s Top Ten Green Projects in 2007, is admired for its strategic use of the area’s mild marine climate to minimize its “ecological footprint.”

"I'm no different in my mind than when I first started," he said on the LivingHomes website. "I'm doing the kinds of things now I would have done 50 years ago. I feel like a 25-year-old."

In lieu of flowers, the Kappe family encourages contributions to the Shelly and Ray Kappe Scholarship Fund at SCI-Arc.