For an undergraduate hell-bent on becoming a black Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, or Buckminster Fuller, a young man coming of age in a mid-1970s raging still with the hormones of Camelot-era idealism, it was a defining moment. For 19 years, under-talented overachievers, dreamers, dullards, nerds, jocks, wannabes, prodigies, big egos, and true geniuses had mobbed to register for the University of California Berkeley lectures and workshops of James Libero Prestini. The man, born in 1908, was one of an Italian-American stonecutter's three sons, who grew up in New England poverty but had made a career practicing and teaching art and design, the ensuing riches of which may last for generations still to come. It was the spring of 1975, the bittersweet end of a professorial and mentoring career that directly connected Berkeley's department of architecture and College of Environmental Design to modern architecture heroes like Prestini's friends and Bauhaus tradition masters Mies van der Rohe, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Herbert Bayer.
As a parting blessing on the eve of his retirement, Prestini invited about 20 of his favorite students to have dinner with him. For months, whatever their race, religion, or background, these young acolytes had hung on every word uttered by a man whose 2,000-volume personal library included books on regional, cultural, and national architecture, as well as classical, Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, and 18th-and 19th-century architectural history. He had over 150 volumes on 20th-century architecture, many on postmodern architecture.
What's more, his lectures waxed eloquent about home site plans, elevations, floor plans, the larger topic of housing, house buying, construction, housing research, and housing policy. He was also fluent on the issues and history of city planning, its philosophy, its execution in England, Finland, Italy, and other countries, and various aspects of the American city planning movement.
Too, Prestini was a creator, craftsman, and engineer. His wood-turned bowls and plates and latter-career metal works of sculpture grace contemporary art museums worldwide. Just as Prestini's friend van der Rohe's proclamation, “Less is more” became one of his lifelong guidelines, Prestini's words were his students' gospel.
Imagine the reaction of Prestini's last crème de la crème of proteges that evening in the spring of 1975, in a lovely dining room atop Berkeley's Budd Center, overlooking San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. “Architecture is dead,” he said in his toast to their futures. “They're no longer the creators or designers but only assemblers of 2-by-4s and 4-by-8s, who do what other people tell them to do.” In that one instant, he redirected at least one man's hopes and dreams.
After growing up dreaming of becoming just like Frank Lloyd Wright, young Horace Hogan heeded Prestini's words that evening and designed himself a fresh set of career coordinates, heading to a Harvard master's in planning with a concentration in real estate development. “I decided that night I didn't want to be the guy who got told what to do by the developer,” says Hogan, who as president and COO of The Brehm Co. ranks as high as any black executive in the home building industry today. “I decided I wanted to be the developer who gave the creative ideas to the people who'd go and execute them.”
Prestini died in 1993 at the age of 85. At a memorial service, a friend observed, “The modern movement for him was a revolutionary way of getting back to basics: not a new style but a new way of thinking. He tended to tell his students that the thinking was most important, that he would provide them with no solutions, only an approach to problems of design.”
“New thinking” is still most important. This Black History Month, we salute Horace Hogan, TOUSA's Cora Wiltshire, and scores of other executives who have spent the past 25 to 30 years mapping out a future for black leaders in home building.