mark mills: mid-coast modernist 11/2014

Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.

Aldo Leopold, A County Almanac


                                                                                                                                                    Mark Mills, Architect


As an aspiring architect in the 1970’s on the Monterey Peninsula, I had the opportunity to meet Mark Mills and see his drawings. I was expecting rendered perspectives in the style of RM Schindler or Richard Neutra, both of whom also formerly worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. Not a chance. Mills’ pencil drawings were of pure organic forms, small in size and almost engraved into the paper from re-working and testing out ideas. These were not a typical architect’s renderings to impress a client.


Wright often wrote of the beauty of natural forms. Mills’ work embodies these forms. Mark Mills and Paulo Soleri were friends while apprenticing together at Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship.  When they left Taliesin, they joined forces to design a house in the Arizona desert. They only worked together on one house, but its distinctive dome geometry connects back to Wright’s idea of using shells as inspiration. When Mills moved to the rugged California coast, his work became even more organic, using his engineering background to craft innovative house structures of concrete and wood in ways Wright never would have dreamed.


The Fan Shell house pictured above is built of five vaults radiating from a center, not unlike the Shell sign it is rumored the client asked Mills to adapt to a house design. The concrete vaults create a unified shape that seems to float over and connect the five spaces defined by the shell. The vaulted roof nestles into the site, making a modest profile against the sand dunes. Inside the house, the vaults have a dramatic effect, where the spring point of the vaults is barely high enough to pass under. One can’t help but contrast Mills work with that of Frank Gehry’s exuberant forms. Gehry starts with whimsical shapes and then has engineers devise a (hidden) structural system of steel to support it. Mills takes a very different approach, where the structural system is an integral part of the form. For the Fan Shell house, the shell shape is a structural concrete vault. There is no hidden structural support. What you see (and experience) is what you get.


                                                                                                                                                                    Mark Mills, Architect

Photos and text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects