Discovering Irvine

The midcentury master plan of Irvine, California, was not so much a radical alternative to suburban design as a boldly rationalized refinement.


I moved to Irvine on purpose.

This was 2004, and after five years in Detroit I was house hunting for a move back to Orange County — that part of the great Southern California megalopolis south of Los Angeles. My realtor took me on a tour of the sun-drenched coast, from midcentury developments like Costa Mesa to the southern areas around San Juan Capistrano, home of the historic Franciscan mission. At the end of a long day, we dropped in on an open house in Irvine’s University Park, one of the first subdivisions built after the master-planned city opened in 1965.

I’d known of Irvine since my graduate studies in architecture at UCLA, and I had lived in two nearby master-planned cities, Laguna Niguel and Rancho Santa Margarita. Despite Orange County’s reputation for laissez-faire sprawl, I knew there were attractively planned communities. But this visit was a revelation.

At the center of the townhouse was an open-air entry atrium connected by a passageway to the street. Two-story glass walls put the interior stairway on display, blurring the line between indoor and outdoor space as you expect in California Modern. I walked upstairs to the master bedroom and out onto a small deck that looked over a broad greenbelt and, on the other side, a row of similar townhouses. Trees planted forty years before were now handsomely mature. In a flash I realized that the scene before my eyes embodied most of the theories about good planning that I’d learned in three decades of studying and observing architecture.

Within a ten-minute walk along the greenbelt you could reach the library, elementary school, playground, recreation center, community pools, and soccer fields. Five minutes further was a shopping center with a market, restaurants, hardware store, banks, coffeehouse, and barbershop. Every townhouse had one face turned to the street, another to a small private yard and the spacious communal greenswards and pathways. Cyclists could travel from the foothills to the ocean on safe bike paths. The housing mix — townhouses, detached single-family homes, clustered homes, and apartments — encouraged socioeconomic diversity.

Walking along Inner Ring Road, Irvine. [Ned Raggett]
Walking along Inner Ring Road, UC Irvine. [Ned Raggett]

Here were all the progressive fundamentals taught at architecture and planning schools since the 1920s (earlier if you count Ebenezer Howard): superblocks, pedestrian paths, mixed uses, integrated landscaping, public amenities. Here were concepts championed by Catherine Bauer, Lewis Mumford, Clarence Stein and other reformers, in the decades when suburbs were not yet reviled as soulless bedroom communities. And here was this vision built, lived in, mature, and thriving. Even as I remembered the intellectual planning history, my reaction was primarily emotional. Before me was not a theoretical treatise, but a real neighborhood with real architecture rooted in good principles: logically planned town organization, the useful integration of nature, multifaceted community, variety of choice. Its pleasures were obvious.

No one had told me about this Irvine.

Rise of the Mass-Produced Burb

Irvine’s reputation as an American ur-suburb (as it filtered down to me in architecture school) reflected a common academy attitude toward suburbs in general: garish commercial strips, monotonous pink stucco houses, authoritarian Homeowner Associations enforcing bland conformity of color, landscaping, and lifestyle.

The contradictions inherent in these attitudes should have tipped someone off: mindless sprawl or tyrannically regimented hell? Libertarian market run wild, or fascist state with a smile? Orange County is often used as a confused metaphor for everything supposedly wrong with suburban development. I wasn’t surprised, for example, to read that the chair of the Mill Valley Planning Commission praised a proposal in that suburb north of San Francisco by contrasting it with Irvine, which she dismissed as “too planned, sterile … beige.” Her fellow commissioners went on to commend the “non-Irvine” alternative for its “variety,” “mixed-use projects,” and “pedestrian-friendly” environments — all of which are in fact prevalent in Irvine. 1 Widespread misperceptions like this reveal the easy biases that color many critiques of suburbia in general, and Irvine in particular.

Townhouses in Irvine's Turtle Rock neighborhood reflect the abstractly sculpted geometries, asymmetric organization, and landforms of the 1970s. [Alan Hess]
Townhouses in Irvine’s Turtle Rock neighborhood reflect the abstractly sculpted geometries, asymmetric organization, and landforms of the 1970s. [Alan Hess]

I moved into my Irvine house within a year — not that first townhouse, but a mass-produced single-family tract house built in 1974. Architect Walter Richardson (of Richardson Nagy Martin) and builder Deane Homes used the zero lot-line concept allowed by Irvine’s progressive planning code, so that one side wall of my house abuts my neighbor’s. Instead of two small side yards I have one larger, useful side yard, and each room has sunlight and its own garden area. My ethnically diverse neighbors include original owners as well as young families. I walk to the library and grocery store. This is nothing like the sterile stucco Irvine of popular myth.

As American cities and suburbs today address densification, renewal, economic revitalization, and transportation issues, planners and architects need to revisit the myths and consider what it’s actually like to live in a place like Irvine. How did this progressive vision come to be built so thoroughly? Who designed it? Who invested in it? What role does it play in the history of suburbia?

Irvine’s founders followed the core tenet of American Modernism: bringing good design to the daily life of average citizens.

A part of that story is rooted in the rise of the mass-produced ranch house — a remarkable invention for all the disparagement it has suffered. The ranch proliferated across the nation after World War II, as standardization of materials and construction created a practical and profitable method for building hundreds of affordable homes at a time, and it helped solve the critical postwar housing shortage. Its open plan and unpretentious image touched a nerve in the midcentury psyche, responding to an appealing vision of family life and backyard socializing that was promoted in Sunset and other lifestyle magazines — an attractive alternative to life in the crowded, often polluted center cities of the era. The ranch proved extremely versatile as the basic unit of housing tracts that ranged from small subdivisions to large planned communities, such as Panorama City (1948) in the San Fernando Valley and Lakewood (1950) in southern Los Angeles County. Complete with libraries, schools, parks, and shopping districts, those communities offered decent, affordable living for blue-collar buyers who worked in the nearby aerospace and auto factories.

The results of these massive experiments were sometimes innovative and practical, sometimes raw and problematic. 2 By the late 1950s, suburbia had drawn the attention of progressive architects and builders. Two of the best-publicized responses were Reston, Virginia (1964), and Columbia, Maryland (1967), which sprang from the vision and desire of two developers, Robert E. Simon and James Rouse, who believed that by developing a large unified property under a master plan they could avoid the fragmented, apparently disorganized character of typical suburbs. Instead of building on a standard urban grid sliced up by wide arterial roads, progressive developers emphasized the primary appeal of suburbia — living close to nature — with extensive open spaces, street designs that responded to neighborhood size and topography, and separation of vehicle roads and pedestrian paths; their plans offered a rational balance of residences, retail, schools, and recreation. Towns reflecting these ideals had been built on a small scale at Radburn, New Jersey, and Greenbelt, Maryland, in the 1920s and 1930s, but postwar demand allowed them to be implemented on a large scale.

Irvine belongs to this progressive tradition, although, as we shall see, it emerged from slightly different circumstances. Like Reston and Columbia, Irvine drew on previous patterns of suburban development — for example, the automobile was still a key mode of transportation — even as it improved and rationalized those patterns. But more than in Reston or Columbia, Irvine’s founders applied modern design to mass planning and architecture. They followed the core tenet of American Modernism: bringing good design to the daily life of average citizens.

William Pereira, Jack Langson Library, University of California, Irvine, 1965.
William Pereira, Jack Langson Library, UC Irvine, 1965. [Wikimedia Commons]

The Invention of Irvine

Before World War II, Orange County was largely orchards, farms, and ranchland, dotted with a dozen small town centers. Oil fields punctuated the northeast hills and some of the beaches, interspersed with small vacation communities. Interurban train lines tied the county into the larger region. As the population of neighboring Los Angeles County grew rapidly after the war, its farms were subdivided and sold off to builders, resulting in the patchwork development pattern seen throughout the San Fernando Valley, South Bay and San Gabriel Valley — which then spilled into Orange County. This was the model that Irvine planners would react against.

The original 185-square mile Irvine Ranch had been established by James Irvine, Lewellyn Bixby and Thomas and Benjamin Flint, from Spanish land grants purchased in the 1860s. Irvine bought out his partners a decade later, and the ranch was run by the family for three generations. Astute farmers and businessmen, the Irvines diversified and adapted to shifting markets, using the land for a mix of ranching, citrus crops, lima beans, and other agricultural commodities. In 1937, James Irvine Jr. formed the Irvine Foundation, which held controlling interest in the family company that owned the ranch.

By the late 1950s, as development pushed south from Los Angeles, it was clear that rising Orange County property values and taxes jeopardized the ranch’s future. Still, the owners were reluctant to subdivide the land one piece at a time. A solution crystallized in 1959, when the Regents of the University of California decided to build a new southern campus and hired the architecture firm of Charles Luckman (recently separated from partner William Pereira) to locate a suitable site. Pereira himself would prove to be the catalyst. Well-respected by Southern California’s civic elite (including Regents who also served on the Irvine Foundation board), he proposed an ambitious plan that would align the interests of the two institutions: a new university-city, combined to amplify the advantages of both, founded on progressive planning principles and dedicated to modern architecture. The plan’s boldness appealed to Californians in the midst of a phenomenal expansion fueled by aerospace technology, television, and cultural innovations in music, fashion, architecture, and design.

Boy Scout Jamboree, Irvine Ranch, 1953. [Orange County Archives]
Boy Scout Jamboree, Irvine Ranch, 1953. [Orange County Archives]

Inspired by his flights over California scouting military and industrial sites during World War II, Pereira’s career embraced large-scale planning as well as architectural design. With Luckman, he had designed and built many projects tuned to the character of the expanding region: an innovative studio for CBS at the dawn of the television industry; an early theme park (Marineland of the Pacific) to serve the recreational needs of the region’s young families; research campuses for growing electronics and aerospace companies; high-rise office headquarters for corporations; and a new jetport (LAX) that signified the region’s rising fortunes. A university campus fit perfectly into Pereira’s broad perspective.

Part of the reason for the partners’ split was creative. Luckman, who had been the successful wunderkind president of Lever Brothers before returning to architecture, had grown their firm into one of the busiest in California, but with the avalanche of work, Pereira felt restricted from exploring his own interests — including planning. Now working independently, he saw in the Irvine commission an opportunity to demonstrate the value of good planning. Through a fluke of history, the Irvine Ranch’s 90,000 agricultural acres offered an empty canvas on which to solve the problems of suburban development, right in the path of future population trends.

Despite its reputation for sprawl, Southern California had already pioneered many urban planning advances. During the boom years of the 1920s, developers from Palos Verdes to San Clemente had created small towns with intelligently planned roads, retail centers, libraries, city halls, businesses and housing. By the 1950s, the region’s largest architecture firms led the nation in innovative planning as well as architecture. Besides Pereira and Luckman, there was Victor Gruen Associates, which pioneered the regional shopping center and (in Gruen’s vision) its integration into both suburban and downtown sites, and Welton Becket Associates, which planned Century City on the site of the former Twentieth Century Fox studio backlot.

Artist's rendering of an early campus plan. [Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries]
Artist’s rendering of an early campus plan for UC Irvine. [Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries]

But like some other midcentury architects, Pereira perceived flaws in the way much suburban development was unfolding. He saw the development of the San Fernando Valley as an example of what not to do. In fact, the Valley was planned in many ways; its overall framework of mixed housing types, industrial areas along transportation corridors, interurban trains, and open ranchland had been plotted by the city of Los Angeles since the 1920s; and it was the location of major planned projects such as Panorama City (1948), developed by Henry Kaiser and Fritz Burns, and the Chatsworth research campus for TRW Inc. (1960), by A.C. Martin. But in Pereira’s eyes, it had no unifying strategy. He saw disorganization and inefficiency in the unrelated buildings stretching for miles along commercial strips, and the acres of cookie-cutter tract housing that covered former farmland. He thought the new suburbia should take advantage of the synergies of related uses, the orienting logic of planning, and the power of well-arranged, well-designed buildings.

In Irvine, Pereira imagined the possibility of an entirely new city anchored by the cultural and business advantages of a university. His proposal faced an uphill battle; in 1959, the very idea of master planning had a ring of socialism about it, and only a decade earlier Los Angeles had halted a large master-planned project by Richard Neutra in Chavez Ravine for that reason. Yet Pereira had the support of influential allies, including Edward Carter and Arthur McFadden, who served on both the Regents and the Irvine Foundation board. Ultimately, he convinced the Irvine Company to take a long view of their legacy and plan for development for decades to come, while persuading the Regents that the city’s infrastructure, housing and businesses could profitably interact with the university’s departments.

These were not entirely new ideas. Forty years earlier, Edwin and Harold Janss had donated the land for UCLA while developing the Westwood community around it. More recently, engineering professor Frederick Terman had conceived Stanford Industrial Park, which bridged university research and talent in high-tech industries. But no one had built a university city like this from scratch following an architect’s detailed design.

William Pereira. [Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries]

Architectural model of the campus plan, 1962. [Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries]

Alternative Ways to Be Modern

Pereira’s original plan envisioned a 1000-acre university within a 10,000-acre city, and it included most of the features that define Irvine today: residential areas with a diverse mix of housing types; neighborhood centers (or “villages”) that place shopping centers, schools, libraries and parks within walking distance of most homes; separate industrial and business areas drawing on university talent to create a tax base; a logical network of roads, utilities and transit lines; the integration of greenbelts, and the preservation of wetlands and hillsides. Directly adjacent to the university entrance, Pereira planned a high-density town center with shops and restaurants at ground level along pedestrian streets, and offices and housing above. Parking garages were to be distributed around the perimeter, with lower-density housing beyond that. Many of his ideas anticipated New Urbanist concepts by 30 years: green space, density, designing for pedestrians rather than cars. However, his plan for the town center was watered down as relations between the city and university cooled.

As campus architect, Pereira designed most of the university’s original buildings and its plan, centered on an open park by landscape architects Robert Herrick Carter, C. Jacques Hahn, J. Charles Hoffman and Frederick Lang. From this hub the departments radiated out like spokes, rationally accommodating future expansion. The buildings responded to the sunny climate with passive solar facades of precast concrete sunscreens that gave a sculptured appearance; to avoid monotony, each building’s screens had their own distinctive design. Though large, the buildings appeared to float above the rolling landscape (which had been grazing land) with their broad cantilevered terraces and inset ground floors, countering the heavy, raw look of Brutalist concrete architecture. Windows, railings and parapets were used as opportunities to introduce forms that caught sunlight and shadows. At a crucial time when the flat, hard-edged lines of the International Style were being attacked as dated and sterile by Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, and many others, Pereira offered an alternative Modernism that echoed the sculptural characteristics of Neo-Formalism, though without its strong symmetricality.

William Pereira, Krieger Hall, University of California, Irvine, 1965. Precast concrete panels create a passive solar screen. [Flickr/Commons]
William Pereira, Krieger Hall, UC Irvine, 1965. Precast concrete panels create a passive solar screen. [Flickr/Commons]

Aldrich Park, University of California, Irvine. [Flickr/Commons]
Aldrich Park, UC Irvine. [Flickr/Commons]

Pereira also authored the master plan for the city of Irvine, although he did not get to oversee the design of the city itself. The Irvine Company, still transitioning from agribusiness to real estate development, formed an in-house planning department led by Ray Watson, a UC Berkeley graduate with ten years of experience, and including Alberto Trevino, a Berkeley- and Harvard-educated planner who had worked with Victor Gruen Associates, then the most innovative planning firm in the country. Watson proved an effective politician, navigating the conflicting interests of Irvine Company planners, accountants, and engineers, as well as county officials.

With this small team, the Irvine Company carried out Pereira’s master planning objectives. Notably, Pereira insisted on using existing natural conditions to create an interlocking system of open space, preserving the wetlands. He demonstrated an early environmental awareness that predated even Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Contours of hills were maintained, too; Pereira knew the experimental city had to be a financial success, and hillside homes with natural views would have higher market value. Indeed, because of its proximity to amenities like the new university and coastal beaches, Irvine was designed to serve a more upscale homebuyer than the affordable housing of Lakewood or Panorama City. Pereira outlined a series of villages, each with its own character, shopping centers, schools, libraries, and recreation, and a mix of housing types. These were to be woven together, through architectural design and landscape architecture, into a whole that expressed both unity and diversity.

As bold as these concepts were within the building industry, Ray Watson’s team held to them remarkably closely. Most of the actual planning design was done in-house by Trevino. Watson kept a tight rein on the builders and often required them to hire prominent Modern architects, as Pereira’s plan stipulated excellent architectural design. Innovations and experiments in architecture, housing types, and planning were encouraged. At the same time, the Irvine Company’s real estate consultants often argued for conventional designs that had proven marketable. For example, the planners wanted to reserve the shoreline of the Woodbridge Village lakes for public space and pathways, while the real estate consultants argued to sell the shoreline lots at a premium as private residences. Such disputes often ended in compromise: today you’ll find both public walkways and private lakefront homes. This balance between the progressive and pragmatic also can be seen in the residential architecture. You will find conventional housing industry commodities such as ranch houses in Irvine, but you will also find the Lake Shore condominiums; built on engineered inlets of South Lake, they skillfully evoke the beauty of floating gardens in a dense configuration with outdoor decks cantilevered over the water. Another innovation was triplex houses designed to appear as single large manor houses set off by large lawns; they create a patrician suburban unity along Yale Loop in Woodbridge.

One experiment in housing form: triplexes designed to look like a single large estate, Woodbridge. [Alan Hess]
One experiment in housing form: triplexes designed to look like a single large estate, Woodbridge. [Alan Hess]

Other novel concepts implemented in Irvine include the planned unit development, regional planning, and generous open space. The Irvine Company convinced county officials to waive standard zoning in favor of a superblock that allowed more creative neighborhood organizational patterns. This gave the planners more flexibility to break the conventional suburban grid and avoid homogenous densities and uses, and mix open space and different housing types together in ways that responded to good design principles. One example of how they translated abstract theory into real living spaces can be seen in the greenbelt infrastructure of University Park Village. Here the open space is designed in several interrelated configurations of varying scales, from broad, open lawns bordered by townhouses to small, winding, landscaped paths between homes. Each townhouse has a small yard, but by backing up to the greenbelt, each yard also enjoys the benefit of the common spaces that spread beyond its fenceline. The large common area, in turn, feels even more spacious as it blends with the private backyards. This pedestrian space is interwoven with a system of secondary streets and auto roundabouts — an elaboration of the cul de sac — that brings residents’ cars from the arterial roads to the entry side of the houses. The roundabouts are small parks, featuring play equipment, landscaping, and berms that moderate the visual presence of cars parked on the street.

In this way, the plan’s key concepts — the integration of nature and open space with daily living, logical organization of functions, creative design of homes and public places, civic landmarks that orient visitors and communicate character, the balance of unity and diversity — were imaginatively and effectively expressed at the human scale in the architecture. These designs were by no means avant garde, but they were certainly Modern.

Walls and planters enclose a private front yard and form a unified line on the street, University Park.
Walls and planters enclose private front yards and form a unified line on the street, University Park.

Small private yards blend with public space on the University Park greenbelt; narrower pathways wind between houses. [Alan Hess]
Small private yards blend with public space on the University Park greenbelt; narrower pathways wind between houses. [Alan Hess]

In the detached-home neighborhoods of University Park, the sidewalks are lined consistently with six-foot brick garden walls, broken up by garage doors, gates, and low planters. The street view thus maintains a fairly regular setback line that establishes a sophisticated unity along the sidewalk, balanced by a diversity of rooflines and housing materials (brick walls, post and beam trellises, board and batten garage doors, clapboard gables, shingled roofs). The houses are painted in the earth tones that were fashionable in the late 1960s, perhaps giving rise to the image of Irvine and suburbia in general as “beige”; they replaced the primary colors favored by International Style architects to set off white walls, or the wide range of turquoises, champagnes, coppers, roses, and forest greens found on 1950s appliances and automobiles. University Park also broke the mold of conventional suburban lot use that limits family recreation to the rear yard; here the sidewalk garden walls create forecourts that turn the entire lot, front and back, into private outdoor spaces. Open interior plans take advantage of the expanded lot to create strong links between indoors and outdoors.

Irvine embraced a wide range of Modern styles. The hegemony of International Style minimalism was losing its grip on the architecture profession in the 1960s, and Irvine reflects an exploration of alternative ways to be Modern. University Park’s Woodbridge shopping center and Parkside tract adopted vernacular influences (famously popularized in the shed roof architecture of Northern California’s Sea Ranch, by Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, Whitaker, in 1966), while Heritage Square shopping center reflected the influence of exposed heavy timber construction. Post-and-beam architecture and Modern spatial ideas such as interior atriums (like those seen in the progressive designs of the Eichler Homes by noted architects such as Anshen and Allen, and Jones and Emmons) were incorporated in house plans to bring light, air, and privacy to each room. Public buildings such as recreation centers and libraries featured expressionistic rooflines that created neighborhood landmarks.

Irvine planners encouraged their builders to push the boundaries of standard housing products, often requiring them to partner with designers such as Smith and Williams, Sasaki Walker Assoc., Lawrence Halprin, Backen Arrigoni and Ross, and Richardson Nagy Martin. For apartment complexes, the Irvine Company hired Fisher-Friedman, who designed both the shingled, shed-roofed Baywood apartments and the multi-story Promontory Point overlooking Newport Harbor, which imitated the slope of the bluff upon which it sat. Frank Gehry and Greg Walsh, early in their career, planned and designed affordable-rate Park West apartments next to Interstate 405 by turning a solid wall to the freeway noise and creating a series of courtyards for recreation and parking within.

Lake Shore condominiums built on inlets of South Lake in Woodbridge. [Alan Hess]
Lake Shore condominiums built on inlets of South Lake in Woodbridge. [Alan Hess]

While Reston and Columbia also used Modern principles in their planning, their residential architecture was primarily traditional in character. In contrast, Irvine was distinctly Modern for its first several decades. Today that has left Irvine with a remarkable collection of Modern buildings and landscapes from the midcentury.

Of course, the Irvine Company’s commitment to good planning and Modern architecture was not simply altruistic; it helped position the community as an alternative to the typical suburb. The Company’s advertising appealed to upscale homebuyers who were dissatisfied with the standard suburban housing products, and who were attracted to the advantages, community amenities, progressive character, and family-friendly design of planned communities.

With the success of the first experiment on 10,000 acres around the university, the Irvine Company decided to launch a second phase of 1,800 acres, Woodbridge, which was located inland on the ranch’s broad valley floor. On this canvas, which was larger than any of the original neighborhoods, the planning concepts were expanded and refined. Besides greenbelts for common recreation and natural vistas, Woodbridge added two artificial lakes that combined beach clubs for recreation, public paths along the water, attractive private waterfront residences, public gardens, and a town center within walking distance of most homes. Continuing Pereira’s insistence on good architecture, it was planned by landscape architect Peter Walker and architects Smith and Williams.

Irvine was not the only large-scale master-planned community in California to apply progressive planning principles. Highlights from the 1960s included Victor Gruen’s Laguna Niguel and Valencia near Los Angeles, Smith and Williams’s California City in the Mojave desert, and Edwards Durell Stone’s Foster City on San Francisco Bay. But Irvine may have been the most successful and fully realized of these projects. Still, there was a price to be paid for rejecting the conventional logic of suburban development. The East Coast alternatives, Reston and Columbia, went bankrupt in their early years, burdened by debt from land purchases. The Irvine Company escaped this partly because it already owned the land, but it had to manage its finances carefully, balancing cash flow between the dwindling farming operations and the costly infrastructure that supported the new home tracts, shopping centers, and public amenities. Adopting a long-term investment strategy, the company kept a financial interest in Irvine, primarily through ownership of shopping centers and rental apartment complexes. This tied the fortunes of the city and the company together and motivated high standards for design and maintenance.

Welton Becket Associates, Fluor Corporation headquarters, 1977-81. [Alan Hess]
Welton Becket Associates, Fluor Corporation headquarters, 1977-81. [Alan Hess]

Evaluating Irvine

As Irvine prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, its often daring character has been largely forgotten, replaced by the beige stucco myth. In the 2005 competition for the design of Orange County Great Park (on Irvine land that once belonged to the El Toro Marine Base), none of the entrants responded to, or even noted, Irvine’s unique landscape and planning heritage.

Nevertheless, Irvine remains an important chapter in the history of American urban planning and architecture. At the zenith of suburban development, Irvine’s designers offered a carefully considered proposal that was not so much a radical alternative to contemporary suburban design as a boldly rationalized refinement of it. Residential, retail, public, and recreational elements were reorganized, improving the relation of each part to the others. The design quality of plan and architecture was upgraded. Of course, for a few critics then and now, suburbanism of any kind is a bete noire. They trace what they perceive as mindless sprawl to the assumed cupidity and blindness of developers and city officials in the 1950s and 1960s who encouraged laissez-faire decentralized planning. The history of Irvine, however, belies this perception.

Although Irvine has evolved with time, taste, succeeding owners, and rising land values, many of the founding design principles are still recognizable. In the mid-1970s, a change in nonprofit law compelled the Irvine Foundation to divest its control of the Irvine Company, bringing new leadership under a consortium led by real estate developer Alfred Taubman. The new owners eliminated the planning department, precipitating Ray Watson’s departure. The department was reinstated (along with Watson) in the 1980s, when ownership was united under the control of one of the minority partners, Donald Bren; but by then land costs and building industry trends forced divergence from some of the original concepts. The neighborhoods developed in recent decades feature smaller lot sizes and less generous green space, and the Modern architecture has been replaced by Mediterranean and traditional styles painted in pinks and tans.

Ron D. Young, Irvine High School, 1975. [Wikimedia Commons]
Ron D. Young, Irvine High School, 1975. [Wikimedia Commons]

Irvine can play a valuable role today as we seek to understand how modern suburban metropolises work, and the reasons why they developed as they did. As midcentury suburbs mature, they face challenges such as increasing density and transportation demands. While some reformers propose to tear out the existing fabric — for example, demolishing malls and overlaying their parking lots with a traditional 19th-century street grid — my experience suggests that the example of Irvine would be a more useful starting point. One of the lessons it offers is that suburban conventions can be rationalized and improved without entirely rejecting the logic and appeal of suburbia itself.

As a veritable catalog of Modern architecture and planning from the 1950s through the 1970s, Irvine is also a test case for historic preservation in midcentury suburbs — a leading front in the preservation movement today. Though much of the original fabric remains, the pressures of infill, densification, maintenance, and changing uses are beginning to unravel that fabric. Preserving an individual structure is one thing; preserving a large master plan is quite another. When the relationship of one building to another and to the space between them is as important as the individual structure, a new building, insensitively inserted, can diminish a good urban design. Irvine has no strategy to protect such resources, from the large public university buildings, to the tract homes of University Park, to the urban plan of Woodbridge, to the Late Modern corporate headquarters of Fluor Corporation. The important role played by historic architecture from the Victorian, City Beautiful, and Art Deco eras is acknowledged as essential to the vitality of our cities, but the now-historic architecture of midcentury suburban cities has still not achieved that recognition.

Despite such clear imperatives, Irvine’s plan and architecture is currently threatened. The University of California, Irvine, has drastically altered some of the original Pereira-designed buildings, and demolished a 1986 building by Frank Gehry. The city of Irvine, not fully aware of its design heritage, slowly erodes the quality of its public buildings and landscapes with insensitive alterations. In a rush to update its commercial retail centers, the Irvine Company has remodeled strong examples of the city’s original design, including the muscular, heavy timber Heritage Square shopping center.

Heritage Square's exposed heavy timber architecture. Its 2012 remodel highlighted the lack of preservation strategies for 1960s master-planned communities.
One vision of 1970s Modernism: Heritage Square’s exposed heavy timber architecture. A 2012 remodel highlighted the lack of preservation strategies for master-planned communities. [Alan Hess]

If uncovering the architectural history of Irvine is important, then so is discovering why it was overlooked in the first place. How did the common misperception of Irvine come to be so widely accepted? Part of the answer may lie in Irvine’s location, far from the East Coast academic and media centers that first reported on the phenomenon of master-planned communities in the 1960s. Columbia and Reston, in convenient proximity to New York, became the primary examples of the type. Irvine was easier to evaluate as a set of theoretical, quantifiable concepts, which is how the city often appears in planning histories; 3 and architectural histories rarely assess the tangible reality of those concepts as interpreted in architecture, landscapes neighborhoods and daily life. Though Irvine is less than an hour’s drive (or a Metrolink train ride) south of downtown Los Angeles, it is, frankly, rare to find architects, academics or critics based outside Orange County who have actually visited the city on the ground. Ironically, members of the commercial building and development industries have often visited and been influenced by Irvine.

Instead of rejecting entirely the fundamentals of midcentury suburbia, Irvine’s designers took them seriously and strived to improve their strengths and reduce their weaknesses. Rather than building an idealized theoretical model like Radburn, Irvine’s designers used the existing development industry to realize a large-scale city of actual homes, libraries, pathways, front doors, and backyards.

In so doing, Irvine’s designers added a new dimension to the choices offered by midcentury suburbia. The piecemeal development opposed by Pereira offered advantages Irvine could not: without a master plan determining the arrangement of neighborhoods or the style of buildings, conventional suburban development allowed residents to remodel and repaint their homes as they desired. Standardized, mass-produced ranch houses at Lakewood served blue collar homebuyers well. But for other homebuyers, Irvine’s well-orchestrated amenities and experimental housing choices were ideal solutions. Suburbia offers a variety of choices and a range of prices for various tastes and desires. Irvine’s creation actively stretched the spectrum of suburbia’s possibilities as an urban form for large, diverse cities.

  1. Don Speich, “It won’t look like Irvine,” Marin Independent Journal, Nov. 1, 2006, 1.
  2. Alan Hess, The Ranch House (New York: Abrams, 2004).
  3. See, for example, Ann Forsyth, Reforming Suburbia: The Communities of Irvine, Columbia, and the Woodlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
Alan Hess, “Discovering Irvine,” Places Journal, October 2014. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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