Travel along the coastal route of the El Camino Real and explore the rich, diverse cultural and artistic identity of San Luis Obispo County.
This installment in the series celebrates the mavericks, pioneers, and experimental thinkers of the county.
"I think you are an authentic genius! People are fearful of genius because they have seldom experienced the direct, creative contact therewith!!"
-- Ansel Adams to Mark Mills
In 1967, legendary photographer Ansel Adams wrote the architect Mark Mills expressing his admiration for Mills' Hass House (1969) at Otter Cove design: "It is magnificent in several domains - concept in relation to site, relationship of the round pointed arch... a certain magic of space which I feel but cannot verbalize upon, and a sense of flow and direction to the elemental fact of the rocks and surf towards which the structure is oriented," wrote Adams. "All structures, when first built have a raw desolate feeling; the surrounding land seems a bit shocked as it were. The gradual blessings of trees, grass, flowers, moss, lichen, sea spray, and people make buildings come alive --- good buildings, that is!"
Designing primarily along California's Big Sur Coast, Mark Mills was a rarity and a genius as Adams recorded. Mills was an experimental architect of structures of an organic quality with emphasis on modern elegance was informed by the building sites' natural landscape. "Carmel and Big Sur provided Mark with clients who had unique ideas about how they wanted to live," noted his widow Barbara Mills. "Some of these clients allowed him to design structures on seemingly unbuildable sites. In addition to the wishes of his clients, he had what he called 'the silent client.' This was the site itself. He respected it. His structures fit gracefully into their natural surroundings. They preserve, not violate, the environment. Often, they seem hidden until one comes close to them." Mills was an architect of an individual subtlety, rarely repeating designs. Each structure is unique and tailored to the landscape and the client.
Mills attended the University of Colorado, where he received a BS in architectural engineering. Upon graduation he moved to Arizona and worked briefly as a draftsman for the architecture firm Lescher and Mahoney. Mills interviewed with Frank Lloyd Wright in 1944 for an apprenticeship at his firm, Taliesin West. Mills spent the next four years working under Wright and learning about design and building from the ground up. While at Taliesin West, Mills became acquainted with Paolo Soleri. Both left their apprenticeships under Wright to branch out on their own and received their first commission for a small desert residence in Cave Creek, AZ. Dome House (1950) as it came to be known, was primarily a concrete cave dug into the desert floor with a large dome over one section. The glass panels of the 'umbrella' could be rotated to follow the path of the sun, thus providing passive solar heating and cooling. After building the Dome House, Mills and Soleri parted ways. Mills headed west to San Francisco and eventually settled in Carmel, where he started his own practice. He worked alone from his home in Carmel for the next 52 years, until his death in 2007.
Housed at California Polytechnic State University's Special Collections at Kennedy Library, Mark Mills' archive--comprised of architectural plans, elevations, sections and details documenting his extensive career dating from 1950 to the mid-1990s--was recently made publicly available for scholarly study by students and researchers. Although Mills had no direct connection to Cal Poly, he admired the university's Architecture Department and the students' talent. It was out of this respect, as well as Special Collections' ability to steward public access to the papers, that the Mills collection was donated in 2011.
Recent Cal Poly graduate in architecture, Cailin Swarm helped library archivists catalog the collection, serving as the primary processor. "The first time I saw the collection as a student assistant in Special Collections, I was amazed at Mark Mills' precision in his hand-drawing," recalled Swarm. "So much of what I did as a student was on the computer. It was eye-opening to see all the tiny details that he put into every drawing with such precision--the elevations, the floor plans, and specs of how to actually build it. I view them as pieces of art, not just a working document. They are awe inspiring." No sketches are found in the collection because Mills' design methodology was to "draw in his mind." Primarily working with a mechanical drafting pencil and a basic red pencil, Mills would put down the design on delicate trace paper in one shot. There are no erasure markings on any of his drawings and his reverence for his own work was evident in his careful storage of the drawings, which were never folded and always stored flat. Simplicity was key in his designs, even in the labeling of his projects--Mills' title block in some cases did not give the client name, but instead identifies the client by a geometric shape reflecting the overall floor plan of the design: heptagons, octagons, and silo-shaped markings.
Of the over 70 projects in Mills' job list, Mills served as designer-builder for five of the projects, drawing at night and building by day. In Carmel, three of these Mills-designed homes share a hillside, and what is most striking is his predominant use of wood and natural stone culled from Big Sur. Barbara Mills recalled the repurposed timbers from the old northern San Francisco bridge used in the framing and for a built-in table. "The timbers were first growth with hardly any knots. Mark used these timbers in three of the houses he built and for another client." It was during this time Mrs. Mills recalled how Philip Farrar wandered up the drive as they were building the first of the three Carmel houses. "A man came up the long drive looking disheveled and wearing dirty jeans. Mark assumed he was looking for work and we didn't need any hired-hands, but actually Farrar had read about Mark in a magazine and he wanted something unusual and different and was seeking Mark out to design a home for him."
The aforementioned houses form a tiered triptych and were designed softly into the hillside. Mrs. Mills shared some of the engineering tricks implemented by Mills, including reinforcing the walls of one of the homes with large recycled oilcans. An additional underappreciated small detail, but characteristic of Mills' minimalist aesthetic, is the absence of any visible light switches or outlets. Mrs. Mills' home was the last of the three to be built, and displays handcrafted elements of regional artisans as well as mosaics by her mother, Big Sur artist Louisa Jenkins. The lower-tiered home exhibits triangular pyramid-shaped windows, built-in seating and recessed planter boxes.
The most memorable Mills design, and the one that reinforced his reputation as a maverick architect, was the Copper Spine House (1966) designed for Philip Farrar and dubbed "Far-A-Way," house a play on his name. The house was located on a rocky point in the Carmel Highlands and was memorable in both its design and in the unsuccessful fight to halt its demolition in 1995. In a letter of protest to the proposed demolition of the house, the Helsinki design duo Marja-Riitta Norri and Timo Tuomi voiced their objection to the demolition and likened the protection of the home to an UNESCO World Heritage site. "The Copper Spine House belongs to a group of buildings which form the most important architectural heritage of the 20th century. It is both aesthetically and technically brilliant proof of the inventiveness of the best architects of this century."
In his typed one-sheet specifications found in his records at Cal Poly, Mills described the purpose of the Copper Spine House design: "The violent exposure of this site to storms and pounding areas required a building with mass in which one could feel secure, and in which storm sounds and vibration could be minimized." The home's marked characteristic is the roofline with a large jettisoned roof angled precariously close to the ocean; again outlined by Mills in his specifications for the home: "An arched beam roof framing member introduces a curvature and a warped roof surface to relieve the angularity of the concrete structure. This beam projects below and above the roof deck." Exposed structural elements, such as beams and unique combinations of materials, shape many of Mills' structures, which also play with axial direction.
Architectural biographer Janey Bennett wrote an eloquent introduction to the Mills Papers at Cal Poly, capturing the spirit of Mark Mills in one short paragraph. "There was a humility about Mark that meant he didn't promote his practice the way big city architects did. If clients found him, fine. If not, well, someone else would. If clients wanted a simple house, he designed what they wanted, bringing only his vocabulary of modest and local building materials used in a humble but ethical way. But if a client wanted to engage an interesting site, and wanted to give Mills free rein, the resulting buildings were amazing."