Architecture inspired by great traditions of the Mediterranean region has a long, rich history in California. The fruits of this long lineage flavor the character of our cities and dot the surrounding hillsides. At KAA Design, we have often found the Mediterranean architectures to be a perfect fit for our clients wishing to build here. Whether influenced by Italian, Spanish, French, or even Greek or Moroccan ancestries, Mediterranean architecture reminds us of our European roots, even as it creates places which are particularly well suited to the locale, climate and lifestyle of contemporary California.
The Spanish Missions of California represent the germination point for Mediterranean architectural styles in North America. These were places designed to provide sanctuary and practical accommodation, while reminding the founders of the notable structures of their Spanish homeland. Courtyard plans, solid, massive walls, arcaded walkways and wide protecting eaves are elements common to all of the Alta California Missions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and these features are still common in much of the architecture in the Mediterranean tradition built today.
A second great flowering of interest in architecture inspired by Mediterranean precedents occurred at the turn of the 20th century with the Mission Revival and the Spanish Colonial Revivals. The synthesis and re-interpretation of Spanish Baroque and Spanish Colonial architecture in the planning and public buildings of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, located in San Diego's Balboa Park, presented to a receptive public an architecture that was both richly romantic, and aesthetically and historically appropriate for California. The Panama-California Exposition's style was widely published, seen by many, and was highly influential in California and all of the Southwest. Its popularity led to the assimilation of the Spanish Colonial Revival style as the dominant regional historical architecture, which continues to this day.
Soon, a bevy of architects and landscape designers would meet the rising demand for public and residential buildings in picturesque Mediterranean styles. Architects such as George Washington Smith, Wallace Neff, Reginald Johnson, Gordon Kaufmann, Roland Coate, Carleton Winslow Sr. and John Byers produced residences and specialty commercial structures that exhibited an eclectic mixture of Mediterranean influences. Although the Spanish character of the Mission era spawned this revival, these talented practitioners were soon experimenting with a blend of regional styles drawn from other corners of Southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Said Rexford Newcomb, noted documenter of the Mediterranean Revival in America, in 1928: “Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Byzantine – Mediterranean types… merged, as were those golden threads of long ago, into a new sun-loving style which, while eminently American in its plan and utilities, is never-the-less distinctly Mediterranean in its origin and spirit.” 1
Newcomb’s quote nicely summarizes the core reason why an architecture and lifestyle inspired by Mediterranean traditions has been so successful in California. Of course the early Spanish settlers brought with them cultural ties to the architecture of their homelands. But the character of the Mediterranean-inspired architecture of early California resulted from more than simple emulation of the architecture the settlers and missionaries had known from home. The climate, locale and flora of California are strongly reminiscent of many parts of Southern Europe. The characteristics of regional Mediterranean architecture – the natural, earth-based palette of materials, simple massing of forms, courtyard planning, solid, massive walls, shady arcades, and a direct integration with the adjoining landscape – have proven to be outstanding strategies for gracious living in coastal California. We like to think of our Mediterranean-inspired designs as having a place in the long lineage of this living tradition, one that has wide appeal because it is at once sensible, responsive and romantic.
1 Rexford Newcomb, Mediterranean Domestic Architecture in the United States, J. H. Jansen, Cleveland, 1928, p. 4