Forum speaker dispels myths of urban sprawl


The architecture critic for the San Jose Mercury News discussed “Historic Sprawl: A History of California Suburbia” at a Morning Forum of Los Altos appearance Dec. 3.

Architect and historian Alan Hess was a fellow at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and earned a master’s degree in architecture from UCLA.

“We think we know the 20th century, but we don’t,” Hess said. “There is so much more. It takes original research to understand who we are and to prepare for the future. Suburbia is one of the topics that have not been given full attention.”

According to Hess, myths remain about suburbia, including that it is entirely car dependent, features no fine architecture and is an unplanned, random sprawl.

Cities had become crowded, without parks, dirty and polluted, Hess said. But a love of nature and a desire for backyard patios, gardens and a place for children to play safely drove suburban development. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright originated suburban architecture with his designs of more horizontal and decentralized architecture that reflected how families were actually living.

Julia Morgan and the Green brothers were among the first architects to move away from traditional designs and begin using natural building materials, Hess noted. Individual, custom-designed houses are part of modern suburban architecture, he added, with materials from wood to steel, including pre-stressed concrete, reflecting the wide range used for building. Ranch houses with outdoor courtyards reflected the original Spanish adobe houses.

A housing crisis followed World War II and the ranch house was the savior, Hess said.

David Bohannon developed the technique of building mass-produced houses that were affordable. He built entire communities in the Bay Area, including the infrastructure, such as San Lorenzo Village. He also built the Stonestown Shopping Center. Irvine is a 90,000-acre community in Southern California that grew over a period of 50 years employing progressive planning.

Hess noted that Joseph Eichler, the mid-century builder of modern homes, had lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

Eichler hired architects to design houses using the modern architectural concept of indoor-outdoor design with sliding glass doors, which could be mass-produced.

Hess’ presentation touched on several such buildings in the Bay Area, including Stanford Hospital.

“We forget what we were, and every time we tear down or alter these good designs we lose,” he said. “Instead of tearing down Stanford Hospital, adaptive uses should be considered. We have this heritage of good design and should not throw it away.”

The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church. For membership details and more information, visit

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