Beyond Buildings


John Carl Warnecke

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The summer I worked for John Carl Warnecke, who just passed away at age ninety-one, I was asked to find some examples of past work the firm had done for a presentation. I went rooting through the archives and kept coming upon, amid a great deal of rather mediocre projects this huge firm had produced, beautiful designs filled with natural light that ran across sensuous white forms. I started pulling these images until my supervisor told me to put them back. They were all designs by Bill Pedersen. I was told the story, which I cannot verify, that one day Gene Kohn, the firm’s rainmaker, went to Warnecke and told him that he wanted to be a partner. “There is only one name on the door,” the imposing former Stanford football star said; “And that’s me.” The story continues that Kohn walked out with one arm around Pedersen and the other around his Rolodex to found Kohn Pedersen Fox, which within weeks had stolen most of Warnecke’s clients. By the time I arrived in the summer of 1982, what was once one of the country’s largest firms was trying to revive its fortunes through joint ventures with Michael Graves (they did the Humana Building together) and Frank Gehry. Steve Harris, the man who introduced Michael Graves to poche planning, was there designing a city in Saudi Arabia. None of it lasted.

Warnecke retreated to his ranch on the Russian River, leaving the firm to limp on for another decade or so. Gone were the glory days when he was Jackie Kennedy’s favorite architect, designing buildings for the Feds all over the world, including an office building right next to the White House and JFK’s gravesite. What Warnecke still had was great stories, and I am glad to hear that he finished his memoirs before he passed away.


Hawaii State Capitol
Hawaii State Capitol


I am sad to say that Warnecke stood for the worst in American architecture in some of its worst decades. He started in the 1950s by designing beautiful school buildings in the Bay Area, and was one of the first designers to try to adapt the abstractions of modernism to local traditions and climates, both there and in Hawaii. It was the reason he won the White House commissions in the first place. By the 1980s, however, he was creating such monstrosities as the AT&T Long Lines Building in Lower Manhattan, a windowless behemoth whose mass he accentuated, rather than attenuated, through an attempt to sculpt its top. Much of the work was a kind of weakened modernism that combined bombast with bad proportions.


Long Lines

AT&T Long Lines Building, Manhattan


It was especially difficult to see because, first of all, he was such a charming man and, second, few other architects with large-scale commissions knew what to do. Postmodernism was teaching us that we had to refer to and learn from history, but nobody knew how to make columns work at the scale of a skyscraper (they don’t).  Kevin Roche—whose brilliant early efforts when he continued Saarinen’s office were brutal, but clear and clean—was trying, and the results were worse than the products of Warnecke’s offices. Even Skidmore Owings and Merrill had lost the gridded path.

I had fun in the office, and worked on some projects I wish had been built. Jack Warnecke was always supportive, not only of me, but of many young designers and critics who passed through his office and orbit. I prefer to remember him as the man who had an eye for talent such as Pedersen en Harris, who was earnest and concerned about architecture’s role, and who was a raconteur who knew how to live his life with gusto. I hope that life and those intentions, not his buildings, will be what we remember.



Comments (3 Total)

  • Posted by: Helene Holl | Time: 12:36 PM Tuesday, February 15, 2011

    You may be interested to know that we purchased a home designed by John Carl Warnecke. It is located in Ross, California and was one of a very few private residential commissions that Mr. Warnecke undertook. The home was designed for his friends Mr. and Mrs. Hayden as a wedding gift we are told. The home was built in 1948 in the International Style and is situated on a wooded hillside with a full view of our local mountain Mt. Tamalpais. We were lucky enough to have Mr. Warnecke and his son (a landscape architect who had done some work on the property) visit us about 6 or 7 years ago. He was a formidable figure even then and quite outspoken about a subsequent wing that was added to the property in the 1980's (by his own firm, I might add, although he was no longer involved with it). He thought the addition took away from the original flow of the structure and we believe he was right. In any case, he walked around the property, assessed it with a knowing eye and left us quite determined to preserve the property as best we could. The property has been on the market on and off for the last four years as it is now too large for our needs, our children having all left the nest, but we are appalled at the lack of appreciation for the structure. It appears that most potential buyers are hell-bent on taking down the house to replace it with the usual run-of-the-mill "spec" house. It would be a tragedy in our mind and would definitely break my heart. Yes, there have been some unfortunate additions and alterations but overall there are enough elements of the original structure to be worth putting some effort into restoring it. It is a gracious home, filled with light and of an elegance that one rarely sees. I would be happy to send you some photos if you are interested in having a look at it for interest purposes. Warm regards, Helene

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  • Posted by: BCarpenter | Time: 1:55 PM Wednesday, May 19, 2010

    After seeing the big buildings he designed, I am wondering if my house was desinged by his father. It's a lovely home that brings in the light and the elements. I feel like I am out in the garden in almost every room.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:44 PM Wednesday, May 19, 2010

    I live in a house that my mother told me was designed by Warnacke. I still have the blue prints. It is in Danville, California and was desinged as a summer home for a Dr. Coates in the early 40s. I have not remodeled it because I don't have the heart to cover up the heart redwood tongue and groove paneling and replace the old windows yet. I feel sad to hear that he lived so close to me and I never met him.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.