The Art of Building

Greg Goldin

“All craftsmen are poets, although they are not called by that name.” — Plato

Long before art and craft acquired different meanings, builders like John Cordic were considered artists. Not artisans, mere manual laborers—carvers of unhewn stone, workers of timbered wood, smithies of blackened iron—but masters of culture no different than musicians, sculptors, and statesmen. Craftsmanship, in truth, is an extension of the imagination through the hands. Handed down from father to son, honed through years of apprenticeship and repeated practice, technical skill engages more than just the muscles. True masters in the midst of doing can feel fully and think deeply. Their art consists in bringing to life the inner truth of the material they’re working. Art, in other words, is discovered in the act of making. The fact that nowadays we prefer to separate artists from craftsman may account for why so many of our buildings are not only poorly made, but poorly designed. The division between the hand and the head haunts the cities in which we work and play.
John Cordic is an exception, a builder who cannot separate art from craft. He simply does not know how. He is a materialist. He cares, above all else, about the qualities of the plaster, the woodwork, the aluminum-framed window. He is in search of the virtues, and pleasures, of what he builds. He derives joy from doing a job well for its own sake, which places him in a long tradition, extending from ancient Greece to modern Switzerland. Usually, builders are anonymous—although architects know their names. And John Cordic is known to architects, from Lawrence Scarpa to Ricardo Legoretta to Richard Meier.
His friend and patron, Gil Friesen, says “he is an architect’s contractor.” Cordic has built three projects for Friesen, who is one of L.A.’s preeminent art collectors and patrons. “He understands the needs, the demands, the quality, the discipline, of what comes out of truly great architecture—which is what I think we work on together.” Those projects—one in Brentwood, two in Montecito—are complex and built to tight tolerances. One of them, for example, involves spacial variations from small cubes to huge rectangles, a progression like a three dimensional Fibonacci scale.
Since 1988, Cordic has been building similar houses, ranging in value from $1.5 mil to $4.5mil. He started off in the woodshop at the Southern California Institute of Architecture helping other students craft basswood models. In those days, as now, SCI-Arc was brimming with experimental energy and a sense of possibility. Cordic completed the the five-year program in less than the required time—no mean feat—quickly passed his licensing exams—not so easy, either—and returned to the school, this time as an instructor. By then, he had a small office on Washington Boulevard, and was taking on small remodeling jobs.
“I realized that there was a void in contracting” Cordic says. “There weren’t educated contractors who honored the architect’s ideas. Every time I wanted to do something special, the other contractors were rolling their eyes. Every conversation was a fight.”

Of all the buildings that get built none is more personal, more deeply felt, than a house. Nowhere else are we quite so free to express who we are and what we value than inside our homes. This goes well beyond the art we place on the walls, or the books we pile by our bedsides, or the furniture we surround ourselves with. These are tokens, acquisitions. The house itself, however, is the embodiment of our physical and mental state.
That explains why building a house is a protracted art, a collaboration that spans months, sometimes a year or two, and involves more than just the orchestration of cement and plywood and studs and electrical circuits. Building is about translating an architect’s ideas into reality. To do so, the builder must be able to transform the sum of the parts into a greater whole. Walls that are meant to float free of a building’s structure must truly float. A roof that is meant to disappear into the infinity of the sky must truly disappear. A staircase that is meant to have the subtle cadence of a John Adams’ score must truly harmonize with the pace of the human foot. A builder who does not begin with an appreciation for the architect’s vision, and the client’s commitment to that vision, will not likely to achieve these aims.
Larry Scarpa who designed the Redelco Residence which is the subject in these pages of “Diary Of A Building,” says, “John represents a really great combination of the old craftsman and modern builder. He has the knowledge to do and understand very sophisticated ideas and building materials and how to execute them. He’s been involved in helping us design things as well. We have ideas, and he figures out a better way for us to do them. It’s a symbiotic working relationship that’s benefited our work greatly. He has the dexterity to pitch in and the aesthetic eye to see where you want to go. Often, he’ll produce drawings of our buildings that are better than the drawings that we’ve made of them.”
Perhaps it is no accident that Cordic works on avowedly Modernist projects. He grew up in a post-and-beam modern house, in Brentwood, furnished with Mies Van De Rohe pieces. His parents collected Sam Francis Paintings and many unknown local artists, and their library had many architecture volumes which, as a kid, Cordic spent time thumbing. “That’s how I think I got my first understanding of the Modern vocabulary,” he says.
An ethic accompanies the aesthetic. Cordic values not just pride of workmanship, but conviviality, cordiality, and custom. When he signs a contract, he gives what is known as a guaranteed maximum. The total cost of the job is guaranteed before it starts. Barring an act of God or the discovery of a granite outcropping, the price is fixed. This is not “Mr. Blandings Builds A Dream House.”
In his spare time, Cordic retreats to his workshop, behind his Koreatown home. The largest project to emerge from his bench thus far is his twelve-foot sailing-rowing skiff. Cordic worked on the boat for about six months of weekends. Working in Mahogany, he bent the wood to create the lines of the skiff. He joined the wood using scarf joints, long, tapering wedges that overlap to form an invisible connection between two long boards. From teak left over from trellises he’d build, he fashioned the trim. By hand he spliced the three-strand halliards used to raise the mainsail. He taught himself the gooey chemistry of epoxy fillers, glues, lacquers, and paint finishes. Out came the hand-planes to fair lines and polish the wood to a satin silkiness. Cordic takes the gaff-rig, with it’s characteristic four-cornered sail trimmed tight, into the waters of Santa Monica Bay. “It’s a very sweet-sailing boat.” “I always try to have a little project going somewhere, something that I’m doing myself with my own hands,” Cordic says. The nature of craft, therefore, is innate to John Cordic. He builds at a manageable pace—in his garage and out in the field. Typically, he has just three buildings a year underway. Any more than that, and he feels he cannot give them the proper care and devotion they require. Nor does he solicit new projects. They come to him.
What’s next? Cordic says. Right now, it’s a gallery in the old Venice blueprint building. “But, listen, I’m very happy, and if I retire thirty years from now and all I’ve ever done is houses, that’s fine by me.”