Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945–1980) examines the previously unheralded Chinese-American contribution to Los Angeles’ iconic modernist architecture. Its impressive roundup of work includes Los Angeles International Airport, CBS Television City, the Choy Residence, and Googie projects like Pann’s and Norm’s restaurants. The show is the first architectural exhibit at the museum since it opened in 2003.
Originally conceived as a much larger exhibition featuring work by Chinese-American architects practicing globally (I. M. Pei, for example), Breaking Ground was reduced in scope to complement the Pacific Standard Time initiative organized by the Getty Research Institute. It now tells the story of the life and work of four mid-century Chinese-American architects—Gilbert L. Leong, Eugene Kinn Choy, Helen Liu Fong, and Gin D. Wong—often ignored talents whose buildings, residences, interiors, and designs contributed significantly to the built environment of Los Angeles.
Some of the work highlights ancient Chinese motifs and techniques. For example, Leong’s Bank of America (1972) in Chinatown, the city’s first major national bank for Chinese Americans, features a facade with an imported jade-green tile roof over extended wood beams, and an interior detailed with wood-beamed ceilings and Chinese characters.
The exhibition argues, however, that the architects were just as much a product of LA as they were of their Chinese ancestry. Eugene Kinn Choy’s Choy Residence (1949) in Silver Lake was constructed to meet the needs of a modern family living in a fast-developing metropolis. It uses contemporary techniques and materials, including a setback from the street to create privacy and floor-to-ceiling windows to connect indoors with out-of-doors, a particular characteristic of Southern Californian living. Helen Liu Fong’s design for Norm’s Restaurant (1955) in West Hollywood applies asymmetrical forms to create a highly visible and playful architecture. These and other works demonstrate the incredibly diverse styles that were developing in Los Angeles in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
According to curator Steve Y. Wong, “Architecture is a very esoteric form of art that oftentimes makes it difficult to engage a larger public.” To counter this, the show shares the personal stories of the architects and their work in the context of LA modernism.
The exhibition begins in a second-floor gallery with a plaster bust of a Nubian woman, circa 1935, superimposed with a series of architectural drawings by Leong. Through such subtle contrasts viewers begin both to understand the ways these architects practiced and to appreciate architecture as its own art form.
The show successfully merges architecture with design through the inclusion of modern furnishings like the Eames Wire Chair, the Eames Stephens Tru-sonic Horn Speaker, and George Nelson’s Platform Bench, displayed alongside images and documentation of the Choy Residence. The furniture both complements the design ethos of the day and provides insight into Choy’s interior plan for his Silver Lake property.
Also compelling are photographs by Julius Shulman that capture the form and beauty, not to mention the efficiency and standardization, of such works as the Los Angeles International Airport and CBS Television City, both designed by Gin D. Wong, the only architect from the group still living. Shulman’s iconic images (mostly originals, some reproductions) tell the story of time, place, and history as effectively as the adjacent wall texts chronicling the life and work of each featured architect. The individual compositions bring to the fore not only the architectural ideas and techniques the architects favored but also the hope of a progressive future, so prevalent in their work.
Breaking Ground draws welcome attention to an important yet often overlooked component of California modernism. The emblematic work of these Chinese-American architects, with their modern reinterpretations of traditional practice, breathes new dimensions into our own understanding of modernism.