Modern Design with – Esther McCoy

In 1960, architecture historian Esther McCoy published a lively and accessible look at the architecture of mid-century southern California. Her book, Five California Architects, a study of Irving Gill, Bernard Maybeck, R.M. Schindler, and brothers Charles and Henry Greene, is considered a classic in the field. Architectural critic Reyner Banham famously observed of her, "No one can write about architecture in California without acknowledging her as the mother of us all."

Born in Arkansas in 1904 and raised in Kansas, she moved to New York and, along with her essays and stories, began writing architecture reviews for various publishers - the beginning of a lifelong passion for the art of building. McCoy settled in Santa Monica, California, and having been advised not to join USC’s school of architecture (too old and female) she became a draftsman for R.M. Schindler in 1945.

She continued to write novels, short fiction, and screenplays while immersing herself in the west coast modernist movement. A piece published in an east coast journal, “Schindler: Space Architect,” is a close-up view of Schindler’s practice and his use of space and movement in his architecture. She wrote, “His houses are wrapped around space.... a Schindler house is in movement; it is becoming. Form emerges from form. It is like a bird that has just touched earth, its wings still spread but at once part of the earth.”

McCoy combined her experience at the drafting table with exacting research, and her sensibility for story and character. The result was writing about architecture and form that was as fresh and modern as the buildings themselves. In her 1950 film script for a documentary short called Architecture West she wrote, “The West meant freedom, freedom from the East, freedom from Europe. Simple necessity produced forms from contemporary experience…”

She lived in her Santa Monica bungalow creating wide-ranging work, including a detective series, until her death at 85.