Remembering John Thodos, Award Winning Architect — 1934-2009 by Diane Thodos

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John Thodos’ architecture expressed a unique minimalist beauty with a distinctive Mediterranean openness. His invention of seamless glass boxes as bay windows brought in glowing light and the Aegean spirit in his design opened up the insides of his spaces to the radiant California sun and nature. These windows were often punctuated by orange-red steel frames that seemed to make the air vibrate, as did the warm cedar wood interiors of his homes. The exterior doorways of his homes reminded me of the column and lintel passageways at the ruins of Phaestos in Crete. I was feeling Minoan memory in these houses of Carmel-by-the-Sea, drawing from an ancient source of pre-classical Greek architecture in its simple and elemental timelessness. These distinctive door openings were specifically inspired by Cycladic architecture that John had experienced during visits to Greece following college in the 1960’s. The simple elemental forms of this architecture, with its clear masses and deep doorways, became imprinted in his visual memory. He incorporated materials from the American Northwest reflected in his use of white oak and red cedar woods and expressing his unique ability to combine an Aegean and Californian material aesthetic. The interior spaces of his homes were inspired by the use of the mathematical golden section, a particular and systematic division of space that has also been noted in the architecture of the Acropolis in Athens.

We will sorely miss the presence of this unique individual who brought depth and meaning to the Modernist architectural ideas which he staunchly supported. I was surprised to find as kin, so kindred a spirit who, like me, believed that true creative achivement came from a deep and meaningful struggle with history and inner vision. It was approximately a decade ago that we first received a call from John. He had been searching for relatives and found us – a long lost branch from his family’s past that had remained in Chicago when his father moved West. I distinctly remember him saying “I knew there must have been other creative people in my family, and now I have found them” – in visual art, dance, and theater. Yet our equally happy acquaintance with him was no small revelation. A dynamo in his own right, he was hardy and persistent, sure of himself, living in complete devotion to creative thought. He saturated his life with all that elated and inspired him to the fullest. Whenever we had performances and exhibitions he was there: loyal and supportive, inspiring and energetic. Some of the memories he related to us reflected his Greek family’s past with struggles that surely forged toughness within him, but also developed an openness of spirit and an upbeat energy that got him through difficult times. He also cultivated a well-noted mischievousness with youthful sense of possibility that many who knew him well remember. John was indefatigable in his political activity as a Democrat and progressive. He practiced passionate engagement toward reform and social improvement which he felt was the obligation of all citizens.

He told us the mysterious story of how he came to live in the city of Carmel, California. In the 1970’s he had wished to go to Greece and buy a house as a place to relax from his intense work, but conflicts in the region changed his mind. Upon returning to Portland and decided to “sleep on it” and had a dream that he should go to Carmel California, a place he had never visited. He called a realtor in Carmel the next day. It became the place where he was to build important award winning homes for himself and other residents of the city. He also built several distinctive office and apartment buildings in and around Portland Oregon where his main architecture design firm was located. He was to win over 15 design awards from the American Institute of Architects, among many others, for his innovative work. Not long after meeting him John sent us a 22-page article from the Italian Magazine L’Architettura published in January 2001 which profiled his seminal building achievements.

From the beginning we sensed John’s dynamism, his drive, and a certain West Coast optimism that was in tune with the sunny California coast where he lived. It was above all his spirit of possibility and creative realization that we were most taken by. His experimental state of mind was also apparent in the many paintings he produced. Most represent a formal play between gridded and curved segments, while are others are spontaneous clusters of gestures, lines, and dots – a reminder of his searching curiosity. He was constantly excited by the challenge of solving problems, particularly ones that others could not. He often said, “I don’t want to hear about how it can’t be done.”

Indeed the quality of light, materials, proportions and space in his buildings, furniture designs and paintings lend themselves to something both ancient and Modernistically democratic; something almost spiritual in its totality. I found symmetry, translucent space, light, and nature that combined Bauhaus purity with a kind of archaic transcendence that took the impersonal edge off the sterility which can often come to characterize Bauhaus architecture. When I visited Carmel in November 2009 following John’s memorial I recall standing in one of his homes and seeing the beckoning glow of California light through one of his glass bay windows. It generously framed nature that seemed to flow from outside to inside. I felt how warm and simply expressive his materials were, and though the proportions of his furniture and rooms were not large they retained a temple- like elemental monumentality. Here in the space between glass and wood, light and space, John was alive and spoke as only the work of true and lasting creative achievement can.

For more information on John Thodos and his work you can visit his website at www.thodosaia.com

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Interior – Scenic Drive House, Carmel, California

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Bradley and Byrd Residence, Carmel, California

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Gallery House near Carmel, California

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Gallery Park Apartments, Portland, Oregon

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Torres Street Residence, Carmel, California

Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She is a 2002 recipiant of a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant and will be exhibiting at the Kouros Gallery in New York City in 2010. She is represented by the Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City, and the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago.