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06.21.2013
Review> Wide Angle Lens
Alan Hess on the Getty's new exhibition, Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940-1990.
Peter Alexander's PA and PE, 1990.
Peter Alexander / Courtesy Pacific Enterprises

Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940–1990
Getty Center
Los Angeles
Through July 21

New research on LA architecture and urbanism has been piling up for more than thirty years, but it is only with Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940–1990 at the Getty that we get an opportunity to see much of it spread out before us in one place.

For a city often critiqued through the blur of glib myth, this panoramic view should change the way we perceive its architecture and urbanism. Curators Wim de Wit, Christopher Alexander, and Rani Singh lay the long-overdue groundwork for a more accurate and more useful architectural manifesto about LA, with new vistas on unheralded architects, overlooked building types, and unsuspected planning history.

The wall of the final gallery drives this point home. Where the Case Study houses (undeniably brilliant but only a fraction of the city) have been in the spotlight of other exhibits, this wall broadens the focus to show a panorama of housing innovations. Side by side with the familiar Case Study houses are high density multi-family housing (from low rise Baldwin Hills Village to low rise and high rise Park LaBrea) and the revolutionary mass-produced tract housing given Modern expression by Palmer and Krisel, Edward H. Fickett, Jones and Emmons, and others. These tracts, not the Case Study houses, made the dream of Modern middle class housing a widespread reality.

Carloz Diniz's rendering of Pacific Design Center by Cesar Pelli for Gruen Associates.
Edward Cella Art & Architecture
 

In the same spirit of reassessment, Overdrive gives a more balanced view of the region’s commercial and car culture architecture alongside residential architecture. In Southern California’s broadly democratic urban society, coffee shops, offices, car dealerships, and shopping centers were all part of an everyday modernism. But “everyday” does not mean poorly designed or insignificant. When LA architects ranging from John Lautner, Armet and Davis, and Edward Killingsworth, to Smith and Williams, Ray Kappe, and Victor Gruen applied their talents to such buildings, they fulfilled one of the earliest hopes of Modernism: to bring design based on the convenience, ease, and delight of modern technology to the average person. As presented in Overdrive, this turns out to be one of Southern California’s greatest contributions to Modernism.

The exhibit cannily shows how architects creatively interpreted the new conditions of Southern California’s multi-centered suburban metropolis, and then how those concepts continued to evolve. For example, Overdrive includes pleasing and functional movie theaters by S. Charles Lee, and then their reverberation through the city and culture in Richard Neutra and Philip Johnson’s drive-in churches in Orange County.

 
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion by Welton Becket & Associates, ca. 1960 (left). Capitol Records by Louis Naidorf of Welton Becket & Associates, 1954 (right).
Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust; Louis Naidorf / Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust
 

Is LA ready to accept a new narrative about its history and its significance—one that’s not based solely on a few exquisite glassy houses? Can we embrace everything from the appealing Googie coffee shops of Armet and Davis to Morphosis’ Kate Mantilini restaurant, from the Music Center to Disneyland? Overdrive makes a strong case for each of these as part of a closely-knit fabric, not as isolated artifacts.

It’s refreshing to see the large corporate architecture offices recognized as part of our architectural history, alongside the smaller atelier or avant-garde architects who have usually been the focus of LA’s international reputation. With designs and planning honed on California’s aerospace and high tech campuses, these firms are also examples of LA’s aesthetic diversity. From the sculpted volume and tight glass skin of Cesar Pelli and Gruen Associates’ Pacific Design Center to the geometrically warped arcades of Edward Durell Stone’s Perpetual Savings tower, these firms indicate a wide range of aesthetic taste and experiment.

The work of these large firms is still controversial (evidenced in the proposed destruction of William Pereira’s LACMA campus), but Overdrive drives home the fact that these once-shunned buildings are part of the culture of inclusiveness, experiment, and quality design that is seen across the spectrum of LA architecture as the challenges of each decade are faced.

Art Center campus by Craig Ellwood Associates, 1976. Drawing by Carlos Diniz, 1968.

Carlos Diniz / Courtesy Diniz Family Archive and Edward Cella Art and Architecture

 

While Overdrive admirably includes many architects and buildings that have not been part of the official canon, it has not achieved a fully balanced view. Probably the most glaring example is the slight presence of Charles Moore, whose intellectual leadership opened a path for the profession out of the doldrums of establishment Modernism. He had a global reach, but was rooted in LA. Moore figures in the 1970s and 1980s, decades that launched a new chapter in the city’s architectural history with Frank Gehry, Cesar Pelli, and the younger generation of the so-called Los Angeles School. These decades are problematic for the exhibit, because their themes and ideas are still at work today.

Southern California design, we learn, is marvelously interconnected, without the clear, comfortable distinctions we’ve assumed exist between high art and popular design. That point is underscored by the inclusion of Victor Gruen’s innovative concept for Millirons department store (1947) next to Frank Gehry’s Edgemar shopping center (1984)—especially when we learn that Gehry worked with Gruen at the beginning of his career.

What is clear in Overdrive is the story of a remarkable creative flowering throughout the second half of the twentieth century in Southern California. Now we can see that it was broader, more diverse, and more inclusive than we generally thought.

Alan Hess

Alan Hess is the architecture critic of the San Jose Mercury News.