Coy Howard’s Ellen and Jay McCafferty House in San Pedro was built in 1980, just around the pivotal, transforming times in California architecture. This is when experimentation with form and materials inspired the whole generation of architects as fresh ideas were beaming from Los Angeles. Group of young architects led by Frank Gehry were making buildings with plywood and drywall but were doing them outrageously. It quickly caught on by the students as most of the group were teaching architecture in UCLA and newly opened SCI-Arc.
by Orhan Ayyüce
Unofficially, Coy Howard was the house poet of that dynamic, exploratory and highly mobile group of the moment.
Coy’s biggest contribution was that he connected the philosophy of his architecture to artistic “making.”
Although McCafferty House was one of the most evolved ones of the ground up projects of the genre, it remained elusive to the architectural community and it still keeps its distance.
In one of its rare public appearances, the house was picked up by the ever so architectural connoisseur Charles Moore in his guide to LA architecture, “The City Observed, Los Angeles,” in which Mr. Moore included the McCafferty house among the handful of carefully chosen contemporary homes. I think the only other houses he talked about were Frank Gehry’s own Santa Monica House and Larry Gagosian’s House in Venice that was designed by Robert Mangurian, regarding the particular times.
McCafferty House - was and is - a major work.
Last summer Coy Howard and I drove to McCafferty House in San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles. Jay McCafferty, Coy’s client/friend and one of the legendary Cirrus Gallery artists has joined us in the living room. As we sat down around a small round oak table, I thought this could be an interesting conversation between the writer, architect and his artist client, all interchangeable.
I start by asking, “How did you guys meet?”
Jay volunteered to tell how they have met.
“I was having a show at the Santa Barbara Museum in the same time when they were having a show on Five California Architects. And I met Coy and he said that he designed the show, but what I thought he meant is that he curated the show. And he had some connection with the lady, who really curated the show. I was sitting on a large couch talking to some people and I said something disparaging about art collectors and Coy just turned around and walked away. I asked the lady next to me who he was and she said she had no idea. I talked to Coy later at the party wanting to know who he was. Coy introduced himself and said he was a professor at UCLA. I later needed to find out about some California architects for my house, and still thinking that Coy had curated the show, I tried to find him and had to call UCLA to get Coy’s phone number. I asked Coy if he knew the local scene or knew of any California architects and Coy mentioned himself. We met later that same day and Coy began drawing stuff that I never imagined could be drawn. Coy’s pre-post-modern style impressed me since my architecture training only went up to modernism.
Orhan Ayyuce: Do you agree with that terminology about pre-post modern?
Coy Howard: Oh, I never think about that kind of stuff.
Jay McCafferty: But when he showed me the drawings, and when we started designing the place, it was like, ok…and to this day when he shows me shit, you still can’t tell what it is because you’ve never seen it.
Orhan: So I guess this has a lot to do with the way you work? Jay gave me that little video/CD, and I was watching it when you guys were building the garden. It was very interesting to watch, you know, how you work because most architects just kind of show up with shirt and tie and they don’t do things with their hands.
Coy: I have no idea what you guys are talking about. (chuckles)
Orhan: We’re talking about you working with the craftsmen building these garden walls and the way that you are working with them was very organic. You were communicating a process with real time drawings, or by moving from one location to the other, describing it in words and getting them excited about your directions….
Coy: No, I make no distinction in between those things.
Orhan: To me, it is like psychological and creative hitchhiking to get there… constantly processing and moving with the installation, but still vulnerable to getting it right.
Coy: Well, I think it’s a matter of … well there’s certainly the certain issue of communication with myself. I don’t necessarily know where something comes from. It just comes down to a feeling of what seems right because it’s all to me about some sort of appropriateness psychologically of what I think is right, but also in terms of psychologically what I think needs to be delivered. And that’s a very complex internal thing for me. It’s not a simple thing. It’s not about concepts, it’s about feeling and what might be necessary to communicate those expressions. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s an old material or a new material or whether it’s beautifully crafted; it’s just about whether it’s necessary.
Orhan: Is there any one particular feel that you have more of a tendency to work with as opposed to any others?
Coy: Yes definitely. I think it has more to do with a certain kind of ambiguity, and the ambiguity has to do primarily with creating two things. Number one: creating a sort of enigmatic presence in the work that is basically non-identifiable as a concept. And the second has to do with the enigmatic mystery that gets created by that and essentially opens the work up to possibilities for another person. It’s not something that you can look at and read consistently, it’s a lot of jumps and inconsistencies in the work. In terms of how other people might work, for me, those inconsistencies and those gaps and those transformations are really what demand, first of all, they seduce you because they provoke curiosity. And secondly, they open the work up to interpretation. Any good work to me has a kind of dynamic to it and the enigmatic presence is always there. When it’s concept based, you can always understand the concept and when it’s not concept based, it’s always more lucid.
Orhan: One is more rational, one is more sensorial? I bet you if I asked Jay the same question, he would say something similar since this is like the classic tone of describing any kind of art making.
Coy: The way he describes it, I would say is so beautifully articulated because I’ve worked with him and he’s say “oh no we’re not going to do that” and I’d say “well why” and he’d say “we’ll because it’s too ordinary.”
Jay: Mine’s a little dorky. I’m reading Art21 and now they have a series where they’re letting artists talk about their work….Good god…The only one that comes close is Jeff Koons but you don’t understand what he’s talking about. He’s very articulate. Everyone else, it’s like, how dumb can they say this.
And what I would say to Coy is that he just said that he just doesn’t like things that look like things. Before working with him, I thought I can go to any architect and they’ll be just as good, but that’s not the case. Usually an architect will get one idea and they build everything around that one idea, and they could hand it to anybody and they could do it. When you look at a building, you can say, ok, they did that one. I was in Dallas, I just couldn’t believe the one liners. I couldn’t believe that architects were allowed to take just one idea and build a building with it. It’s not complex.
I’m not trying to be a critic….(laughter.)
Orhan: So, how many ideas are in this house? (laughter.)
Coy: I don’t really know because I don’t look at things as ideas, I look at them as moments where something needs to be done. So it’s a much more direct kind of process. It’s not just about an idea. I might be over articulated later as an idea. But it wasn’t an idea at the moment of creation when I was doing it. It was just a thought process of oh it needs more symmetry, it needs more texture, it needs more work in order to create the kind of feeling or tone or sort of psychological moment that I wanted to have.
Jay: Coy may not even know that he’s done and subsequently the remodels have gone way more complicate, but it’s this step-down idea, in a way it’s almost like a gun shooting. If you look at the outdoors…… It was parallel. The idea was brought into the garden. If you look at the pattern on that way, there’s no pattern. There are rules…..like a solid piece….
Orhan: To me it’s very poetic structure, for example, a poet writing the words at the length of his breath. I think of it as a poetic checkpoint for the structural essence of its continuity…. That’s how I read the lines going from one space to the other. Then it continues into Max Palevsky House.
Coy (interjects): There’s a poetic technique called ‘enjambment’ and enjambment is where you have a line where the thought that it contains stops and then that thought is picked up in the next line, so in the reading of the poem, you basically have to pull around to the next line. I’m very concerned with the idea of variability and how elements can beckon to other elements and how some incomplete gesture or some particular gestures encourages the eye to move on to something else. To me, when Jay talks about ideas and when you talk about these gestural movements, it’s really about visual movements. You try to provide within the work, enough visual movements so the eye never stops moving. But at the same time, it’s cognitive moves because you’re having to reorganize how you think about the space and yourself within the space relative to that visual movement, and also what things are. You know, is it just a staircase or is it something else as well as a staircase? There’s two kinds of movements that I try to build into the work.
Orhan: Which brings me to an interesting point. In architecture specifically, these things are very difficult distances to navigate. For example, from what you said, the feeling of the space has certain requirements of what the space is going to be. For example, let’s say a function works as the expression in simpler terms. So, how to you approach those things? Because you take it to that maximum. Where ever it can go, you’d take it there and you don’t stop. You don’t say, well this is done. It’s almost open-ended.
Coy: Well, function has all sorts of different dimensions to it. It’s not, “well, oh can you perform this different activity that this space was created for but does that space in some ways celebrate that activity?” And does that space also have some kind of variability so that it can have a life in other ways so that space can be reinterpreted. Every space in this building could basically be used in some other way. The configurations are very generous and they allow lots of different things. I tend to try to think about things as having multiple capabilities - what I refer to in my studio as “manifoldness.”
Jay: If you look at the cabinets, they’re not functional in the sense that you could use them but they are functional in the sense that you could put things in them that you didn’t use often. And then they become a piece of sculpture on top of that. (gives example of the …museum where an aspect in the elevator looked like an ashtray and people just assumed that it was an ashtray so the elevators eventually filled up with cigarette butts)
Orhan: There’s something very interesting about the process in this house and I’m sure that’s like other projects that you’ve worked on. There’s a peculiar continuity about this house that’s been here for 30 years now and you’re still able to come back here and add things to it. To me, that’s the fluid definition of architecture. It has nothing to do with the shapes or the forms, but with how the space is lived through and how it continues on. Am I close to something here?
Coy: Yes, it’s called potentiality. Potentiality is for the thing to continually engender transformational qualities in terms of how it’s used and how it can manifest itself in different guises. Part of the way in which that happens here are things can have certain enigmatic presence but they can also have an idea of some sort of abstract incompleteness. Abstract incompleteness invites completion. You never want to complete it because then it wouldn’t invite that anymore. So it’s always open-ended to that and that goes back to what I said earlier in that because it’s abstract, it’s partially referential in that it conjures up and seduces people to make the associations. Conjures up analogical thinking processes.
And that’s a very important part of it for me that basically carries a lot of memories and activates certain desires – the desire for completion. And the memories suggest all sorts of other presences and all sorts of other histories.
Orhan: I think that point of view is really interesting because you never have to struggle for new art. Your art is always new…
Coy: (chuckles) Yes, in certain ways that’s true because it defies closure. I don’t think you should strive to make anything new, I think you should strive to make something strange. Because new is only new for how long?
Jay: How many things look old today? This is the only house that’s held up. So many things in the 70’s that were “modern,” look terrible. They didn’t hold up, but this one still looks good.
Orhan: So what other specific things about this house became references for you?
Coy: Oh, everything. At the time I did this house, I was working on five other houses. None of them got built except for this one. With different houses, I was exploring different ways of the qualities I wanted to capture, so they were all very different in terms of that. It was very different in terms of this house because of the incredible restrictions in terms of the site. The site was only 25 feet wide, very narrow, and only 140ft long. It was very, very restrictive and the coastal commission and the building FAR was very restrictive, so it was all about, oh well how do I potentially deal with that? But also how do I deal with Jay’s aesthetic of burning and creative destruction and creating pattern. So those were all things to think about. And I just showed you drawings of all this new work. Everything in those drawings is in this house. There’s nothing new there in terms of an underlying formal gesture that is not already in this house. The ultimate intention about how to make something has not changed for me. The quality hasn’t changed for me at all. The materials have changed, the budgets have changed, the actual level of sophistication with my ability to detail something has changed, and the basic understanding of materials has changed. But the basic aesthetic and underlying aesthetic idea I used in this house, I still use in all my work today, because they are basically what I call principles. It’s not a style, it’s a principle.
Orhan: Can you explain more specifically what those principles are?
Coy: Yeah, sure. It always deals with multiplicity of opposites, so there’s basically a sense of symmetrical asymmetry or asymmetrical symmetry so things are always blended together. The underlying principle behind that is that most of the things we experience or encounter doesn’t exist in singularity, they exist in multiplicity and they exist as opposites. Our consciousness is based on that notion in terms of our intuitive understanding and grasp of the world. So a fundamental part of our existence is based upon this fusion of opposites and how these opposites feed each other to produce transformational dynamics. That’s almost always the principle. How do I find a way to embody as many oppositions as a coherent dynamic of transformation not as a juxtaposition. Some architects intend to be provocative by using opposites as juxtapositions. I don’t really like provocative gestures. I respond more to the deeper way where oppositions are fused together, as opposed to the more juxtapositional way most people use.
Orhan: It’s more organic in that case then? I don’t want to use that word in a sense of the current argument in some architectural circles but as more of a philosophical development of the idea.
Coy: Yeah, the word “organic” sort of connotates the more contemporary free forms and I personally don’t like that word. But I certainly do like the word “dynamic” and I like the word “natural” and the word “hybrid”. All of those words work better for me.
Jay: I guess people reject the word “organic” out right because they don’t understand it.
Orhan: Yes, the word organic mostly refers to commerce nowadays. Organic food, organic tee shirt, but Coy knows how I meant it, and you do too. It’s always been a gauge for me to look as people’s work and see their motivations. If you look at the space they created, you can tell the amount of life they have and that space gives them an identity. I know a lot of architects that will work on something for eight hours and say, we’ll I’m going to charge this much…. It is that much their space…
Coy: Yeah, we do that (sarcastically)
Orhan: Yeah right. (laughs)
Jay: I bought this lot for 20 grand because my parents threatened me that if I continued the way I was going I was going to end up a bum on Beacon Street. A lot anywhere else in this city would have been three times as expensive. Literally I was a lifeguard and a part-time teacher. I wasn’t even married at the time. And we just put this thing together for under a hundred grand, I think, when we first started. And his fee should have been that much. (At this point Coy and Jay begin to joke about trading artwork to each other laughing)
Coy: 30 years later I still haven’t gotten my fee!
Orhan: In the beginning, did you give him artwork?
Jay: In the beginning that was part of it. Not that he liked my work as much at the time, but I was a client. I think Coy likes my work now. At least I assume he does.
Coy: Um hmm. (agrees)
Jay: And, I obviously respect his. There way a guy that framed his house. He was a really good framer, an Oki kind of a guy, but a great framer. Because anybody that looks at this house, they say, that they didn’t know that they were going to have to go up one wall that was 60 feet. There’s two kinds of guys in this world. There’s people that do stuff for money, and then there’s Charles Manson. It was because he said that this was crazy. Nobody would design like this. This is a crazy person. Someone that would just design to make money and go to the river on the weekend just to get drunk. This is just crazy.
Orhan: Coy, is there anything in particular that you would state about this house?
Coy: It would probably have more to do with Jay. I mean, the house is just a vehicle for our friendship and a great sense of shared values and a shared sense of what stuff can mean in life, what stuff means. Not in the sense of use-function, but what they mean as a certain spiritual…. So, in that sense I was extremely fortunate to have met Jay and I feel extremely lucky that I’ve had him as a friend for 30 years. And the house has been an excuse for that sort of friendship.
Orhan: The houses are interesting buildings. They are different, let’s say, than a commercial building because you have that first-hand relationship with the person that’s going to live in the house.
Coy: And that everyone I’ve ever worked for, I’ve done repeated work for. There’s never been a client that I’ve only had briefly, I continue to do work for everyone.
Orhan: Do you ever wonder why you don’t have your own office now with 50 people working on buildings all across the country.
Coy: Of course, Jay and I talk about that. Jay says it’s because I’m just an asshole. (laughs.) Yes, I think it’s been my responsibility. I wouldn’t blame that on any rationale outside of myself. I think it has to do again with the way that I find personal satisfaction in the work. I mean I have had 6 or 8 or 10 people working for me and I have just found that I enjoy doing so much of the work myself. I enjoy the intimacy of doing the work. I enjoy the intimacy of watching my mind work, the intimacy of going into my shop and figuring out how to do something. (Coy then described some of the woodwork in the house as how he had to experiment with it himself before he sent it off to a fabricator and how the fabricator was the same guy that built the stealth bomber).
Orhan: Those are the people that are the most difficult to find.
Coy: Oh yeah, some of the pieces for that are so big that they couldn’t fit in his shop.
Jay: Oh I didn’t know you went there?
Coy: Oh yeah, it was so big that he had to take his front window of his shop out so to mill the wood he had to hang it out that window and pull it back in again.
Orhan: Did Jack Brogan do any of this here? He had a shop here in San Pedro. He did some of Gehry's early cardboard chair prototypes...
Coy: He did that handle there.
Orhan: On the rail?
Coy: Yeah, the one that goes to the roof. That’s basically all Jack did. Jack was the artist’s craftsman. To give you an example of Jack, he would go to the phonebook and look for somebody with a Christian reference. He thought if they were Christian then they’d have to be good. Then he’d have them do the work and then he’d bring it back to his shop to clean it up because he knew what clean lines were about. (Laughing)
Orhan: I know him pretty well.. Your work is highly well done. How do you maintain that kind of focus on the work?
Coy: I think it’s a matter of what you care about, you know?
Orhan: I didn’t use the word obsessive with you because you are not an obsessive person.
Jay: No, I think he’s different from most architects because he gets things so plastic. He gets parts of the whole to where if you needed to throw in a drainage pipe and it hadn’t been part of the original idea… I’ve almost watched his head explode…he agonized over how to do that. I think if you got a guy like Frank Gehry and said you needed a mail box there, he’s just ask where you needed it and stick it there. I think of Frank Lloyd Wright. Frank Lloyd Wright picks one thing and then repeats it all over. Coy’s plasticity is at least three things, not two, not one. But he gets them going. They’re all plastic and they all relate to each other. So if you juggle one out of place and say, oh I need a door handle here. You could wait 30 years for it. Coy’s stubborn, and I probably know that better than anybody. And I love that because that’s integrity. He isn’t traditionally successful but that door opened him up to sensibilities that he’s developed. If he ran a big office full of 100 people, he wouldn’t have been able to do all these great things in such great detail.
Coy: Ok, going back to the question about 20 people or 30 people or whatever, I could say that I’d like to have more buildings in the world. I’d like to have that level of professionalism…I’d like that. The thing essentially is to explore my creative impulses in lots of different ways. One of the things that few people know is that I’ve got graphics in the Museum of Modern Art, I have furniture in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, and other museums.
Orhan: And ceramics here in LACMA?
Coy: Oh no, those ceramics aren’t mine, I did the room. And I write, so I’ve got these short stories I’ve written in a book that coming out and some haiku poems.
Orhan: When is the book of short stories coming out?
Coy: Whenever I get around to designing it. I’ve got all the stories written, now I have to get around to designing the book.
Orhan: How short are they?
Coy: Oh they’re short, they’re like a page.
Orhan: Oh, could I publish one? That’s very interesting to me that you did that.
Coy: Sure, you could publish one. I think that art and architecture is an epiphenomenon. And what I mean by that is that it’s really what the name we give to the aesthetic experience you have in built form. It’s not a thing. It’s the assemblage or the experience. And that varies for different people. If that’s right, then the way you trigger that experience in people should be able to happen in many different ways. So the stories are based upon activating a bunch of different sense modalities and situations that create the possibility of having that kind of experience.
If, in fact, you look at a building and it creates certain association in your mind, it gives it a certain richness and certain depth of emotional experience. There’s also probably a set of words that can do the same thing, and trigger that association and trigger that same thing. These things are crafted very carefully in terms of what words are chosen and what the line widths are. They are more like prose points really. They are as nuanced as I can make them and created by the same sensibility. It’s just that the expressive modality is different, and that goes back to the issue. I’ve had a very creative life, but it hasn’t manifested itself in one singular professional mode.
Orhan: That’s the way you are?
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License .
/Creative Commons License