Modern Architecture in Balboa Park: Modeltown, 1935
During the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park, the Federal Housing Administration hosted an exhibit within the Palace of Better Housing that included cutting-edge modernist design. In an effort to revitalize real estate development and the mortgage industry, hit hard by the Great Depression, the locals behind our Better Housing Program sought to highlight new design ideas by staging an exhibit where visitors walked through a model community.
Fifty-six scale models, three-foot tall each, represented a variety of architectural approaches and construction methods. More importantly, “Modeltown offered case-study homes as visual representations of rationalized home design…” according to author Matthew Bokovoy. He also offered, “The modern-home ideal promoted through display and mass advertising, no matter how optimistic or unbelievable, set standards for housing that contrasted sharply with existing conditions.”
Among the scale models reflecting Ranch, Mission and Santa Fe styles were also designs interpreting “…the social concerns of European modernist architecture and community planning… Modeltown showcased other invented American regional styles and International Style…,” according to Bokovoy.
In close proximity to traditional, vernacular designs by Leland Fuller, H. Roy Kelley, and Reginald Johnson were non-traditional approaches. Bokovoy offered, “…Modeltown designs stressed experimentation and innovation, both structurally and aesthetically. These designs signaled the fusion of social modernism with vernacular building styles whether “invented” or more “traditional.” There were numerous examples of European modernism among the standardized designs, which used new “machine-age” materials such as steel-frame construction…”
All of the scale models in Modeltown were designed by Southern California
architects. The modernist designs came from Richard
Adams, Gordon Kauffman and the team of Kenneth Messenger and Lloyd
Ruocco (Models 50-55).
Pitman also offers, “Using a shortened version of his middle
name (Lloyd Pietrantonio Ruocco), Antonio Ruocco teamed with architect
Kenneth Messenger to form the only local San Diego firm to participate
in this program. Ruocco was dedicated to concepts of flexibility and
efficiency in design; spaces should be adaptable to their inhabitants.
Further, Ruocco believed in economy; new materials like plywood could
greatly reduce construction costs. Ruocco, like the elder Neutra, believed
that California's mild climate could provide endless possibilities
in the form of indoor-outdoor connections to enliven and enlarge even
the most modest of homes. Sleeping porches, rooftop gardens and bedroom
courtyards were considered integral to the design. Ruocco provided
six designs for this exhibit. His designs included large panels of
floor to ceiling glass as well as rooms that could be divided by curtains
allowing for flexibility of space. Ruocco would go on to champion these
concepts throughout his entire career.”