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Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons (firm)

Name

Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons

Location

San FranciscoCA  

Firm History Sources

American Architects Directories:

Listing in 1962 American Architects Directory

Listing in 1970 American Architects Directory

 

Biographical/Historical information:

Contributed by the Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley:

William Wilson Wurster, born in California in 1895, earned his degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1919. After obtaining his license in 1922, he worked briefly in firms in Sacramento and New York, then opened the firm William W. Wurster in 1924. He gained national recognition early in his career with an award-winning design for the Gregory farmhouse (Scotts Valley, 1927), and became the most well-known modernist architect in the Bay Area.

Wurster’s work, primarily residential during this time, was widely exhibited and published. The Colby house (Berkeley, 1931) and Voss house (Big Sur, 1931) were included in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. At the same time, Wurster was developing friendships with landscape architects Lockwood deForest and Thomas Church. Though he worked with both men, his collaborative relationship with Church was particularly strong, and he designed a house for the landscape architect in 1931. During a 1937 trip to Europe, Wurster and Church met and befriended Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who became an influence on both men’s work.

In 1939, Wurster met the public housing and community planning expert Catherine Bauer, and the two were married the following year. At this point, the firm was involved in the design of numerous defense housing communities. Defense housing, administered initially by the Federal Works Agency and later by the National Housing Agency, was necessary to accommodate the manufacturing and production workers who had come to California to work in shipbuilding and aircraft industries.  Often working with Church, Wurster completed defense housing projects that encompassed over 5,000 units in Vallejo alone.

In 1943, Wurster closed his firm so that he could study planning at Harvard. Both Yale and MIT invited him to teach, and by 1944 he had become Dean of Architecture at MIT, a post he held until 1950. Catherine Bauer Wurster taught planning at Harvard University during the same period. In 1944, Wurster formed a partnership with former employee Theodore Bernardi, and with the addition of Donn Emmons, also a former employee, in 1945, the firm became Wurster, Bernardi, and Emmons (WBE). During his years at MIT, Wurster spent only vacations in San Francisco and Bernardi and Emmons effectively ran the firm.

Wurster returned to the Bay Area in 1950 to become Dean of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, a position he held until his retirement in 1963. In 1959 he brought the departments of architecture, landscape architecture, and city and regional planning together to become the College of Environmental Design. WBE incorporated in 1963 and continued to produce award-winning designs, receiving the American Institute of Architects’ Architectural Firm Award in 1965. All three partners had been named Fellows of the AIA by this time, and Wurster was later honored with the AIA Gold Medal Award for lifetime achievement in 1969.

After Wurster’s death in 1973, the two younger partners continued running the firm until the mid-1980s. As of 1999, WBE continues to exist without the original partners.

Sources: Montgomery, Roger. “William Wilson Wurster and the College of Environmental Design,” in Inside the Large Small House:  The Residential Design Legacy of William W. Wurster. Berkeley:  The Regents of the University of California, 1995.

Peters, Richard C. “WWWurster.” The Journal of Architectural Education. 33 (1979):  36-41

Treib, Marc, ed. An Everyday Modernism:  The Houses of William Wurster. Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1995.

 

Related Records

Theodore C. Bernardi

Donn Emmons

William Wilson Wurster

Archival Holdings

The American Institute of Architects Archives

        Architects Roster questionnaire, 1953

Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

        Collection number 1976-2. Extent: 66 cartons, 131 manuscript boxes, 22 1/2 flat boxes, 26 flat file drawers, 4 negative boxes, 1 shoebox, approximately 500 tubes, 1 artifact.

Records of the architectural firm Wurster, Bernardi, and Emmons (WBE) span the years 1922-1974, and include the files of its parent firm, William W. Wurster (Wurster). The collection is organized into six series:  Professional Papers, Office Records, Project Records 1922-1944, Project Records 1945-1974, United States Housing Agency projects, and Additional Donations. Within these series original order has been maintained wherever it is evident.

The majority of the collection documents Wurster and WBE projects. Office Records such as photographs, presentation boards, clippings and scrapbooks were most likely created and collected to promote the firm. They record not only the buildings themselves, but indicate how projects were presented, interpreted and received. The firm’s Project Records and the United States Housing Authority files are quite thorough, and include extensive written records (correspondence, specifications, notes, and reports) as well as drawings and construction photographs.

Wurster’s collaborative relationships and professional friendships are also documented in the Professional Papers series of the collection. Correspondence files document Wurster’s communication with Alvar Aalto. Project files document the collaborative work of Wurster and WBE with landscape architects Thomas Church, Lockwood deForest, and Lawrence Halprin, among others.  A number of architects who later became well-known in their own rights worked for WBE early in their careers, and it is interesting to note the signatures of architects such as Arne Kartwold and Germano Milono on various drawings and correspondence.  Wurster and WBE also collaborated and consulted with other major architects, artists, and interior designers of the day, including Edward Durell Stone, Vernon DeMars, A. Quincy Jones, Pietro Belluschi, O’Neil Ford, Isamu Noguchi, Francis Elkins, Maurice Sands, and Beth Armstrong.  Wurster’s philosophy was that all work in the office itself was collaborative, and would not allow clients to berate his partners or associates while praising his own design sense.  He routinely answered letters from clients or admirers who had erroneously assumed a design to be his, gently insisting that credit be given where due, whether it be to Bernardi, Emmons, or an associate in the firm.  When designs and buildings were published, credit for every design was assigned to the entire firm, regardless of who was responsible for the main design idea.

There are some gaps in the collection.  Large corporate projects, such as the Safeway stores and the Bank of America World Headquarters, are vastly underrepresented in the project files, possibly because the records were retained by the corporate clients.  However, the majority of the project files contain a great deal of information about the relevant personnel, the clients, the design development, and the back-and-forth between the architects and clients over design decisions, budgets, finishes, and legal issues.  Even during the years that Wurster spent at MIT, his hand is evident in the design of all of the office’s projects; correspondence documents the other partners and associates in the firm mailing him their original schemes followed by his alternately scathing and encouraging comments on the best and worst features of their designs.  Wurster also offered his services as a consultant on a number of large projects in Texas and other states; these projects are documented in the project files. 

While appraising the project files, a large amount of non-permanent material was removed.  Transmittal letters were removed almost entirely, and only a representative sample of financial records were retained.  Most of the telephone notes, bid documents, consultant and engineer reports, and job notes were sampled to a large or small degree; however, a great deal of information about a project can be gleaned from informal telephone and job notes, and as such most of them were preserved.  Routine job correspondence was also sampled, especially in the case of large corporate clients.  When appraising residential records, care was taken to preserve all non-routine correspondence and, in some cases where documentation was scant, all material in a project file was retained.     

The bulk of the collection was donated in 1976, with additional materials being transferred from the firm in 1977, 1995, 1996, and 1998. All records donated by other sources are included in series six, and primarily relate to residential projects.

Link to online finding aid: http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf8k40079x

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