A study in modernism

Craig and Debi Walker continue an architectural legacy in Ojai

By Stacey Wiebe

Photo by Stephen Schafer

Craig and Debi Walker, enjoying their roof garden.


he springtime greenery of Ojai appears a lush, living canvas through a wall of glass so clear as to appear nonexistent. This is the Walkers’ living room, but it isn’t the cluttered household pit stop many of us know all too well.

Unlike so many modern versions of domestic bliss represented in common living areas, this one features no monumental television blaring away like a static-y centerpiece, no stacks of magazines, remote controls and knick knacks littering the simply elegant, angular surfaces. This modern structure is truly modern — without sacrificing the soft touches that wring the starch out of what could be, without a thoughtful incorporation of nature, a slightly sterile environment.

For two long years, Craig and Debi Walker searched for the perfect plot on which to build this, their ideal home — a comfortable nest tailored both to reflect their needs and to honor the modern tradition Craig’s father, the late architect Rodney Walker, helped popularize in the ’40s and ’50s. “Modern architecture is about taking the outdoors and bringing it indoors,” said Craig, alluding to the countless pains his father, as well as he and his wife, took in designing the house.

The soothing sight of the hillside, populated by dense green trees and brush, was one of the principle draws. The modern architectural style meshes the man-made with the nature-made and became popular in the post-war 1940s baby-boom era. During that time, unlikely building materials like steel, cement and plywood gained popularity, particularly because shortages of certain other building materials were common as a result of the war. “My dad was a pioneer of plywood,” explains Craig.

The Walker home of Ojai is fundamentally based upon the blueprints of a home Rodney Walker built in the Hollywood Hills in 1946. “I was so young that I don’t remember much about it,” says Craig, “but I lived in it for the first two years of my life.” The 3,200-square-foot Ojai version, excluding the additional — and phenomenal — 1,000 or so square-foot roof garden, honors the original by about 80 percent.

The Walker’s perfectly modern lliving room.

The other 20 percent belongs to Craig and Debi, who strived to make certain the new design fit their needs, as well as those of their two sons. “This has become a passion of ours,” Debi says of the modern style — and the possibility of one day building another modern structure. “We love it absolutely.”

John Entenza, editor at Arts and Architecture magazine from 1938 to 1962, was a prominent figure in the growth of modernism in California. Entenza sponsored the Case Study Houses project, in which Rodney Walker participated — as well as architects Charles Eames, Craig Ellwood, Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra and William Wurster — and which showcased homes of modern design. Craig and his family were featured on the cover of an issue of Arts and Architecture during the case study era. On the cover, the smiling family is seated around a short table that Craig and Debi keep in their Ojai home.

“They were meant to be prototypes so other people could build them,” Craig says of the case study houses. “They were supposed to be high quality and low cost — but we learned that today the low cost factor doesn’t apply.”

Craig and Debi’s two-story (the roof garden is the second story), three-bedroom house features a master bedroom that opens into a large atrium area with, through several vertical windows that double as accordion and standard doors, a view of a fountain that trickles from the second story to the first. The incorporation of nature is quite literally represented by indoor and outdoor planters adjacent to the home’s front door, separated by a wall of glass. Plenty of natural light brings the home, which is situated on 2.17 acres and is decorated with several pieces of modern furniture right out of Craig’s childhood, to instant life.

Modern architecture flourished in the post-war era, but lost its gloss in the ’60s, when people “got discouraged with the future and began to look to the past,” says Craig. Looking to the past resulted in a rise in the popularity of Italian- and Spanish-style homes — and the idea that “bigger is better.” Hence, the McMansion was born.

After decades of being out of vogue, modern architecture has seen a strong resurgence in recent years. “With the turn of the millennium, people got more into this again,” said Craig, a retired teacher. “The case-study prototype is being examined.”

For years, Craig, Debi and their sons lived in Ojai in another of Rodney Walker’s designs, but decided to build a new version of the original Hollywood home, which was not one of the case study houses, though it is identical in nature, after Craig’s retirement. “It would be hard to go back to a traditional house,” says Craig, “where it’s not so open — and there aren’t so many windows.”


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