What is it about California that cultivated and continues to foster great architects and architecture? A temperate climate that inspires compelling relationships between indoors and out? Vast agricultural lands that supplied a blank slate to design visionaries? A collection of architecture schools that honored the house as a worthy endeavor? Maybe it was a little magazine called Arts & Architecture, sponsor of the Case Study program, or an enlightened developer/builder named Joe Eichler. Even the considerable constraints of seismic codes and environmental regulations have served as catalysts to good design. Whatever the causes, the results speak for themselves: a tradition of excellence in residential architecture.

For this year's Leadership Awards, the editors of residential architect chose three exemplary Southern California firms: Kappe Architects Planners, Hall of Fame; Koning Eizenberg Architecture, Top Firm; and Jonathan Segal, FAIA, Rising Star. For 50 years, Pacific Palisades-based Ray Kappe has practiced his own brand of modern residential design, and it's taken that long for others to learn what he's known all along: Modern architecture can be warm, earth-friendly, site-sensitive, and very livable. Transplants to Los Angeles, Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg had no reason to believe interesting architecture couldn't also be affordable. They proceeded to prove good design is indeed within reach. In San Diego, Jonathan Segal didn't see the kind of rental housing he wanted to live in, so he designed it, built it, and managed it himself.

These are three trailblazing firms that have made the path much smoother for those who come after. They are indeed true leaders and fine examples for us all to follow.

hall of fame: ray kappe, faia

Ray Kappe, FAIA, is an enormously accomplished architect with a vast portfolio of diverse achievements. But after 50 years of enviable professional successes, there's one task he hasn't yet pulled off: He can't seem to fully retire. Well, you see, people keep knocking at his door with interesting projects in their pockets. There's a prefab community in the California desert and a Modern house in Mexico. And there's a client whose house merits a 25-Year Award because she's kept Kappe working on it for nearly that long. The house is so gorgeous, it's in constant demand as a backdrop for television commercials. Still, it's a work in perpetual progress. So, too, is Ray Kappe.

The Los Angeles-based architect has never been one to rest on laurels, even though his collection is ample. Among them are lifetime achievement awards for himself and 25-Year Awards for his house from both the American Institute of Architects California Council and AIA's Los Angeles Chapter. AIA National and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture honored him with their Topaz Medallion for his work founding and directing the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). And the walls of his house are chockablock with design awards. He certainly deserves to sit back and enjoy the accolades, and he fully intends to after he finishes these few projects on the boards. Yes, indeed.

against type

Kappe started experimenting with housing in the early 1950s, the height of mid-century Modernism. Some architects of the time zeroed in on a style and proceeded to hone it over a lifetime, but Kappe has continued to experiment, always excited to try something new. That's why he eschews the label of Modernist. He doesn't wish to be pigeonholed by a word that now represents in the public mind a fixed period on the architectural timeline. He doesn't mind being called a modern architect, however, with that lower case "m" signifying an ongoing desire to try innovative ideas, technologies, and materials.

With his disdain for typecasting, Kappe hasn't attracted as much attention for his design work as some other Los Angeles-based architects have enjoyed. He's also designed largely in wood and has done a few pitched roofs, no-no's for some Modern purists. "Some of my clients wanted pitched roofs, so I experimented with long, low gables. And most of my clients didn't want steel," he says. Despite the trespasses, his houses are just as beautiful as those Case Study tours de force, perhaps even more so because they're far more livable. They marry Modernism's love of open floor plans, indoor-outdoor connections, and manipulations of space for dramatic effect with a deep respect for the site and the intimate relationship between human beings and their built environments. "You know, architecture doesn't have to do it all. The natural layer should show through too," he says.

After graduation from the University of California, Berkeley in 1951, Kappe cut his housing teeth working for the San Francisco firm of Anshen + Allen, a designer of Eichler houses, and Los Angeles-based architect Carl Maston, with whom he designed apartment buildings. But he soon hung out his shingle as a solo practitioner, eager to tap the post-World War II housing boom and its remarkable tolerance for new ideas. He settled in Sherman Oaks and built his first houses in the San Fernando Valley. They were open-plan, post-and-beam suburban houses designed to exploit Southern California's temperate climate. Bedrooms were small, with most square footage applied to living areas that opened to patios. "They were all about getting as much feeling of space as possible," he says. "As a kid, my mother would find me sitting in the open window of our apartment building. I've always sought out the edges, the views, and a feeling of expansiveness. That's the common denominator in my architecture."

home schooling

Kappe has completed some 100 single-family houses over the years, but his tour de force is his own house in Pacific Palisades. Built in 1968, it's the best example of his strength as an architect: his ability to answer complex design problems with inventive, beautiful buildings. The biggest problems on the project were a steeply sloped site and a running stream. His answer was a series of six concrete tower supports and a bridgework of laminated beams. The house tiptoed over the site, sparing trees, stream, and the delicate beauty of the topography. "Developers at the time were cutting hills to make pads. I'd been working on the idea of a system of modules to get buildings above grade," he says. "Many of my houses ended up using this system because it required the least amount of foundation."

Throughout his career, Kappe has explored many avenues of interest to his inquisitive mind, all the while continuing his residential practice. He was especially drawn to urban planning and co-founded a collaborative, Kahn Kappe Lotery Architects Planners, to work on those projects and others. He taught design at the University of Southern California and in 1968 founded the architecture department at California Polytechnic State University at Pomona (Cal Poly). After a falling out with Cal Poly's administration three years later, he left with a few of his teachers, some of his students, and his wife, Shelly, also a teacher and his great partner in life, to start SCI-Arc. He directed the school--which quickly became famous for its free-thinking and freewheeling creativity--until 1987.

Somehow during his trailblazing work in architecture education, Kappe still found time to design houses. "I think it's easier to do a lot than a little," he explains. "You use your support better. And I always designed quickly. Houses were a great laboratory for experimenting with design and construction ideas." Over the years, he's employed and trained many SCI-Arc students who've gone on to make names for themselves, among them his sons Ron and Finn, both residential architects. And today he works on his own again, a one-man shop just as he was in 1953. "I'm no different in my mind than when I first started," he says. "I'm doing the kinds of things now I would have done 50 years ago. I feel like a 25-year-old kid."