Jan Lubicz-Nycz: The Tale of an Underrecognized Shooting Star of California Modernism
Architectural history is replete with visionaries, those creatives with the singular capacity to conceive and represent visually the default tension of the discipline to constantly reformulate its own norms. Their function is as structural for the evolution of the field as it is statistically bound to yield minimal built results. Nonetheless, in the absence of such speculative investigations, architecture would lose its push forward, stagnating in the regurgitation of formulaic architectural production.
The extraordinarily rapid ascent of Polish-born American-based Jan Lubicz-Nycz (1925–2011) and his equally precipitous descent into oblivion falls squarely into this singular dynamic. His remarkable story is a paradigmatic example of an individual capable of conceiving radical as well as factual solutions to real problems, whose revolutionary content, however, was significantly ahead of his time to the point of neutralizing the possibility of its actualization in the real world. The post-war society he designed for awarded his highly ingenious visions with prestigious recognitions and monetary prizes yet deprived him of the opportunity to see his schemes ever realized.
The central concern of all Lubicz-Nycz’s output was the conviction that architecture, taught, narrated, and practiced as an activity devoted to the conception and execution of singular projects of canonical import, failed to address in a substantive way the fundamental interconnectivity of all the components shaping the built environment. He detected an impoverishment of the urban fabric following the epochal changes the Industrial Revolution brought about in the modern city. The shift of focus from a unified conception of settlements, already present in Western and Non-Western traditions belonging to the pre-industrial past, had given way to a much narrower concentration on the single architectural object. Such a stance bestowed on a building alone disproportionate importance as an agent of influence for the vital functioning of its surroundings at a structural level. For Lubicz-Nycz, this was a fatal mistake directly attributable to the process of modernization, a collective error of judgment whose toll was manifested in the qualitative decline of the built environment of the twentieth century. Reacting to such conviction, he made the urban habitat the target of his design thinking. The schemes that he entered in the numerous international competitions earning him top awards were rooted in a new notion of space, which he labeled urbatecture. He wrote:
… the design process transcends the scope of architecture or urban design and transforms itself into an art or skill that I will call “urbatecture”. The realm of this art is the creation of an environmental concepts of an urban habitat, not in terms of separate building, but in terms of a harmonious scape, whether landscape, seascape or airscape, making its edifices out of
concrete and brick
trees and asphalt
glass and flowers
crowds of people
sounds of birds and foghorns
textures and colors
snow and winds
rising and setting sun
fusing all these into new forms of human habitat.1
Formulated during the sixties, when system thinking was occupying much of the architectural debate, this point of arrival in his intellectual development was rooted in his formative years in Europe.
In 1944, Lubicz-Nycz participated in the Warsaw uprising and after its fall became a prisoner of war in Germany. Following the liberation by the British Army, in 1946 he enrolled in a five-year program at the Polish University College School of Architecture in London, earning a diploma with a thesis on hospital design. From 1951 to 1958, he gained practical experience in four different firms working on a variety of project types at various scales. Also in 1958, he was registered as an architect and became an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Already at this early stage of his career, he invested significant effort in entering competitions structured around ambitious program briefs invariably connected to the larger question of the quality of the public realm. His 1957 entry to the Enrico Fermi Memorial Competition was a notable case in point.
At the beginning of 1959, he moved to San Francisco, working for six months each in the firm Stone, Marraccini, Patterson and in the office of John S. Bolles. He opened his solo practice in 1960 and entered a string of contests whose results catapulted him from unknown young designer to the limelight of the national and international stage. Lubicz-Nycz’s propositions emerged in the climate of collective interests in megastructures—that is, large-scale interventions in the city that merged the infrastructural layer of city living with the residential demands of communities increasing in density. Over the years, he developed a sequence of remarkable plans for rather large sites, each time offering an environmental totality responding thoroughly to both program requirements and the symbolic demands of the post-war age hungry for a cogent environmental identity.
It was the entry for the Golden Gateway in San Francisco, designed with John Collier and Philip Langley, that first put Lubicz-Nycz on the media map. His scheme, one of eight highlighted in the press, was deemed by Minoru Yamasaki in the expert panel “a daring and imaginative solution.”2 Following Lubicz-Nycz’s presentation of his project, Louis I. Kahn, also a member of the expert panel, reacted: “A very provocative design that would have an immense influence in the architectural world.”3 Kahn added: “He has devised a unit from which growth outward can develop.”4 Together with a shopping center, a bowling alley, and a recreation center, the scheme featured twelve apartment blocks, amounting to 2,135 units all endowed with a balcony, arranged according to a cruciform plan. Their silhouettes, conjuring a futuristic skyline, were profoundly advanced for the time and anticipatory of much later developments in high-rise design as well as in land management. Stacking took a curiously organic turn in the Polish émigré’s hands. Sloping terraced towers with narrower floorplates as they rise in height became the hallmark of a design vocabulary never seen before. Kahn further commented on his entry: “… you never know what beautiful and satisfying building will be like until a man with his [Lubicz-Nycz] make-up comes along and makes you know what it is.”5
That same year, he entered another competition for the design of the Liverpool Cathedral in England in association with architect Mario Ciampi, whose school projects in Daly City had given him nationwide exposure. While their entry failed to receive any awards due to insufficient information on the drawings, it was still lauded for the imaginative qualities illustrated. From a one-story modular podium, a gigantic roof structure of gothic vertical proportions spiked up to create the dominant image of this landmark. Although Lubicz-Nycz abandoned the Cartesian geometry in sub-subsequent projects, he did put forward a grandiose formal ambition of portentous undertaking calibrated to jumpstart a new spatial culture wherever he intervened. From his early works, the belief that the deep investigation of form was a pre-requisite for an architecture of historical identity within the genealogy of modernity was the constant of all his architecture.
The clamor the Golden Gateway scheme provoked in the local community provided the impetus for the talented designer to enter more competitions in partnership with already established local figures. Still with Mario Ciampi, and two other architects, Lubicz-Nycz submitted an entry to the 1961 competition for the Red Rock Hill Housing, Diamond Heights in San Francisco. His scheme was awarded first prize, an honor shared with three other teams, under the auspices of an Architectural Advisory Panel composed of John Carl Warnecke and Ernest J. Kump, among others. The bold concept comprising 990 units allocated in seven free form high-rise towers yielded “organic unity” in the jury’s praise, acknowledging its constructive efficiency and impressive monumentality as well. Leveraging the distinct topography of the site located in a prominent position within the San Francisco Bay, the team designed an ascent of levels of space-age flavor. Landscape, architecture, and infrastructure merged into one spatial continuum of noteworthy impact even for the era of utopian dreaming.
The following year, together with Robert Marquis and Claude Stoller, younger brother of legendary architecture photographer Ezra Stoller, Lubicz-Nycz entered a scheme to the Ruberoid/Matico Urban Renewal Competition for 5,000 dwellings, receiving a National Merit Award. The jury applauded the proposal for the ingenious sculptural skyline the six high-rise Y-towers generated as they grew out of the ground. The membrane-like quality of these structures and the formal handling of the terrain captivated the attention of the architectural circles. This novel approach, a sort of landscape urbanism of sizable dimensions displaying biological geometries, was utterly unprecedented even for the frontier ethos shared among the protagonists of the late phase of California Modernism. Yet, despite its groundbreaking content, there was a remarkable degree of engineering credibility in this project. The vertical thrust of his skyscrapers, a hallmark of his urban visions, would find tectonic resolution in the receding floorplates as the superstructure rose, attending even to the imperative of the real estate marketplace with the upper units available at higher prices than those below for the unobstructed views. Testing the mix-use development on sites as diverse in character as the cities where these ideas would be applied was the common thread of Lubicz-Nycz’s design contribution to architectural discourse. The concept was the same elaborated in many different versions: a tissue of buildings rather than an atomized sequence of individual structures disconnected from each other. This spatial continuum hosts the enmeshment of all living functions, a biological mix-use development of sorts: one large organism—literally an architecture of the size of a city—contains the richness of contemporary life as it happens.
Another leap forward in architectural stardom was the second prize his competition entry received for the redevelopment of the central area (Jaffa) in Tel Aviv, Israel, of 1963. Louis Kahn, who was once again a jury member in this new contest, praised this project, done with Donald P. Rey as a consultant. The brief required a radical idea to connect the historical urban pattern of Jaffa with the new city of Tel Aviv, operating on a large portion of the metropolitan area destroyed during the 1948 war. In this grand town planning exercise, the architect organized along a vehicular axis a large residential grouping of varying types: towers, randomly distributed low-height living blocks, and a pair of symmetrically laid crescents, all served by a level of parking of territorial scale. The result was a heroic sight conjuring images of fluidity, velocity, and modernity.
It was in 1964 that the first built accomplishment demonstrated in physical form the true talent of Lubicz-Nycz. Although the architect of record was John Bolles, the actual scheme for the McGraw-Hill West Coast Distribution Center was by Lubcz-Nycz. It was designed in 1964 and completed in 1966 in Novato, conspicuously visible from Highway 101. The compound, still standing, is comprised primarily of a 130,000 sq.ft. warehouse with a small office building and a cafeteria. The distinguishing features of the project were the hyperbolic paraboloid concrete shells with a 62-foot span forming the undulated roof. Admired to this day, this essay in concrete technology, designed with noted structural engineer Raj Desai, gave a hint of the uncommon capabilities that would single out Lubicz-Nycz from peers of his generation.
In the wake of such a winning streak in international competitions, the Italian architectural historians and critics—both Jewish incidentally, as the architect was—Bruno Zevi and Manfredo Tafuri took notice of his work. Zevi published repeatedly the architect’s projects and ideas throughout the 1960s in the magazine L’Architettura. Cronache e Storia.6 In an in-depth article that appeared in Casabella, Tafuri read Lubicz-Nycz’s proposal for Tel-Aviv as a mix between “surrealismo urbano di sapore avveniristico” (urban surrealism of futuristic flavor) and “tensione espressionista” (expressionistic tension).7 Furthermore, he detected the clashing of a novel morphology for the city, while at the same time trying to recapture the texture of the existing city—an insight virtually applicable to all the competition entries the architect would fashion through the decade.
Despite the enthusiastic endorsement of the most acclaimed architects of his time and the press around the world, none of his competition-winning entries were ever built. Already in the mid-1960s, the architect’s bitterness was mounting. Realizing that despite the glory, no prospect of getting actual contracts to build his projects was on the horizon, Lubicz-Nycz’s sour taste was palpable. “I have reached the critical point,” he is quoted.8 Disappointment notwithstanding, he continued to enter competitions. He earned first prize in the international competition for Hotel/Apartments/Commercial complex, San Sebastian, Spain (1964–66). His entry for the international competition for the redevelopment of the central area of Varna, Bulgaria (1967), was purchased by the client that promoted the context. He submitted an entry for the design of an International Headquarters and Conference Center, Vienna (1969). He was invited by the Principality of Monaco to participate in a limited architectural competition (1969).
To supplement his intermittent income as he continued his attempt to turn the tide with competitions, the architect started teaching architectural design at various universities across the country: UC Berkeley (1961–63), University of Virginia (1964–66), M.I.T. (1966–69), California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (1970–73). He received his California license to practice architecture on October 17, 1967 (and let it expire on May 31, 2001), but following his latest teaching appointment, his work history appeared scattered. He collaborated for three years with Mario Ciampi (1973–76) working on urban and architectural projects, none of which were built. He later moved to Los Angeles, working for a year or two as a project designer for various firms, to then return to San Francisco in 1983. Although he continued to occasionally submit proposals to open competitions (Les Halles, Paris, 1979, and Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, New Delhi, India, 1986), he progressively and quietly disappeared from the scene.
The precipitous plunge of Jan Lubicz-Nycz is an astounding case study in architectural history. This individual of universally acknowledged talent, featured in history books, hailed as the new promise in the development of a new, and more adequate, vision of the city was totally disposed of from the very system of professions that had initially welcomed him. His gradual fading from criticism is equally astonishing, especially at present, since a great many current urban visions and architectural fantasies propose the same identical formal world that this maverick had proposed sixty years prior. This twentieth century Piranesi, forced by circumstances to see his design dreams remain on paper, is a stark reminder of the contingent nature of the construction of historical memory in architecture, a process imbued with a complexity of human dynamics proportionally similar to the vast problems Lubicz-Nycz’s projects were attempting to tackle and resolve.