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  • Doug Sydnor

Architect’s Perspective: Calvin Chester Straub, FAIA: Humanist

In a time when 'spectacle architecture' looks for media attention, it is essential to recall the post-World War II era and a specific architect who put people first in his approach to architectural design: Calvin C. Straub, FAIA.

I was first exposed to Straub in the early 1970s when taking his “Introduction to Architecture” course at Arizona State University, which was the most popular humanities credit on campus. He was a gifted teacher who expertly communicated his personal stories and philosophies about world architecture gathered from his extensive international travels. Straub brought an enthusiasm and energy that made the architecture come alive.

Straub was born in 1920 and spent his childhood in San Francisco. The family then moved frequently around the country until settling in Los Angeles in 1940. Straub enrolled at Pasadena Junior College, where he took architecture courses before attending Texas A & M in College Station, Texas. During this time, Straub married Sylvia Gates, who was the granddaughter to William Day Gates, founder of American Terracotta Company, whose product is found in the Chicago architecture of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. They had two daughters, Kris and Kathrin.

During World War II, Straub joined the V-12 Navy College Training Program that allowed him to complete his education at the University of Southern California. Upon graduation in 1944, he enlisted as an Ensign assigned to a tank landing ship, LST 602.

First Federal Savings and Loan Co. Branch Office (1974) in Phoenix. (Douglas Sydnor)

After the war, Straub returned to Pasadena to resume his architectural career. Arthur Gallion at USC offered him a teaching position in 1946, a school known for its creative ideas. Straub would later become the school’s College of Architecture Dean.

In response to the need for affordable housing, Straub designed low-cost houses, including his own 1947 cottage. He developed a post & beam structure that was efficient, featured integrated glazing, and used war-surplus materials that cost $800. This accomplishment led Ester McCoy to describe Straub as the “Father of California Post & Beam Architecture.”

Straub was also a senior partner at Buff, Straub and Hensman (1956-1961), where he designed mostly custom residences that received numerous design awards and was featured in Sunset magazine. Straub knew architectural luminaries, including Frank Lloyd Wright, R. M. Schindler, Henry Mather Greene, and he worked briefly for Richard Neutra.

In 1961 Straub moved to Arizona to teach at ASU and establish a practice. His architecture would contribute to a desert modern approach, but based upon his earlier design principles. Straub was my first ASU Design Studio Professor. We camped on a site near the Salt River to capture the spirit of the place through sketching, photography, and our impressions. Straub was effective at sensitizing us to the Sonoran Desert and its flora, fauna, precious water, and open vistas. The vision was to design projects that minimized site impact.

Scottsdale Festival Center Park & Flood Control (1980) Scottsdale. (Douglas Sydnor)

In 1973 he became a founding principal of Schoneberger, Straub and Florence along with George H. Schoneberger, Jr. and Earl Florence. The firm worked locally and was also the Associate Architect on the 31-story U.S. Bank Center with Kelley Marshall of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1976.

Straub practiced until around 1993. In 1974 his wife passed away at the age of 51. Straub stated, “She was my wife but also my partner in our career. We made a pretty good team for over 30 years – I still miss her.” He died at age 78 on October 21, 1998.

In 1987, a retrospective exhibition of Straub's work opened, based upon his 1950s manifesto. These ideals remained valid throughout his career, and recognized “the unique nature of each client, each site, each project; realize, inform, the role of architecture as a means to an end, not an end in itself; create order and unity with simplicity as an antidote for the chaos …of the times; and approach architecture in a direct and honest manner.”

Straub also emphasized to "understand the difference between the validity of traditions and the dead-end of the cliché of eclecticism; participate in the total architectural process; design, construction, landscape, and interiors, to bring it all together as a creative whole; search for refinement and self-development; and continue to learn through the process of observation, experimentation, and active participation in architecture. To live and to build."

Straub also authored the book, The Man-Made Environment: An Introduction to World Architecture and Design, but most importantly, inspired generations of students with his enthusiasm.

This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, May/June 2020 issue, Vol. 9, No.3.

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