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Review> Big Man on Campus
Alan Hess on Modernist Maverick, a new exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art exploring the architecture of William Pereira.
Detail of Pereira's Transamerica Tower in San Francisco.
Barbara Stumm / Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art

Modernist Maverick: The Architecture of William L. Pereira
Nevada Museum of Art
160 West Liberty Street, Reno
Through October 13

Labeling William Pereira as a maverick is the first surprise in the current exhibit on his architecture at Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art.

“Maverick” is usually reserved for brilliant loners who stray far from the herd. Pereira, on the other hand, was featured on the cover of Time, designed indelible urban landmarks like the LAX Theme Building, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and San Francisco’s Transamerica pyramid, and worked in the heart of California’s public and private establishments. Yet the architect-planner that emerges from this exceptional exhibit is clearly well ahead of the herd.

This exhibit is long overdue. It’s an embarrassment that no Los Angeles museum took on this task. But Nevada Museum of Art Executive Director David Walker (formerly with Art Center College of Design) saw the opportunity when he met Pereira’s son Bill in Reno. The Museum and curator Colin Robertson have achieved a balance of new information for scholars and a lively exhibit design for laypeople that ranks with the best of the Getty’s recent Pacific Standard Time Presents exhibits.

Views of the exhibition floor at the Nevada Museum of Art.
Jamie Kingham

Not exhaustive, the exhibit focuses on five projects that capture the broad strokes of Pereira’s multi-faceted career. They include his own house in Hancock Park, but also the plan of an entire new town and university in Irvine, California, which addressed the shortcomings of garden-variety suburbia. He could create singular riveting architectural statements (such as San Francisco’s Transamerica pyramid and the reverse-pyramid of UC San Diego’s Geisel Library), and yet the planner in him was always compelled to integrate these icon-landmarks with their surroundings. And in Pereira’s farsighted early concepts for LAX (with then-partner Charles Luckman, implemented with joint collaborators Welton Becket Associates and Paul R. Williams), the technological complexities of jet travel are blended with a truly modern public architecture.

Pereira's Geisel Library at UCSD.
Ken McCown / Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art

So Pereira is not just a conventional corporate architect at the beck and call of industry. In each of these projects he uses his confident insider status to push back boundaries. A trip to Reno to see the exhibit is made entirely worthwhile by the original black plastic model of the unbuilt 1,000-foot-tall ABC headquarters in Manhattan, which became an early study for the Transamerica pyramid. Its asymmetrical play of office floors and elevator cores, of served and servant spaces, explain how Pereira was pushing modernism forward at a critical time in its history.

Pereira’s innovations become clear in the accessible exhibition design by Nikolaus Hafermaas and UEBERSEE. Many architecture exhibits induce fatigue in the average visitor by relying on stylized models and obscure drawings. Hafermaas avoids this by high-lighting specific details that bring the architecture alive. Pereira’s sense of expansive cinematic space (after all, he won an Oscar for special effects in 1942 for Cecil B. DeMille’s “Reap the Wild Wind”) is tangibly conveyed in a series of openings cut into the exhibit’s partitions. These widescreen windows combine a wide shot of the entire exhibit with focused close ups of key exhibits. The experience of jet travel proposed by Pereira and Luckman for LAX in the early 1950s (well before jet travel was common) blends electronics with architecture in such details as a hand-held device to keep travelers updated on their flights—essentially a smart phone.

Left to right: Drawing of the Transamerica Puramid; Ball-Nogues' inverted model of the pyramid suspended from the ceiling of the Nevada Museum of Art; An early concept sketch of the ABC Tower.
Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art (left, Right); Jamie Kingham (center)

Key to this accessibility is the inclusion of art, mostly commissioned for the installation. Several artists stretch and reimagine Pereira’s forms, iconography, and concepts in ways that that give us new perspectives on the architecture—literally. The Transamerica pyramid, a form almost too well known, is made startlingly fresh by Ball-Nogues Studio’s stunning four-story model rendered in ball chains and hanging upside down in the museum’s open stairwell. Deborah Aschheim’s luminous white plastic models reinvigorate the modern sculpted shapes of the Theme Building and a preliminary Transamerica Tower design, while her drawings of the UC Irvine campus in the throes of 1960s student rebellion undermine the conventional screed that Pereira produced futuristically lifeless designs.

Of course, Pereira’s accomplishments go beyond these five buildings. There were innovations in modern urban recreational venues (Marineland of the Pacific), retail architecture (several superb Robinsons department stores), and modern communications facilities (CBS Television City). These and others are represented in a timeline that graphically links major themes in his life and work, as well as providing in-depth material via icons that link to further material through visitors’ smart phones.

With LACMA proposing to demolish its original Pereira campus, we’ve seen attempts to downplay his significance. This exhibit demonstrates what little justification there is for that opinion. The Pereira shown here was an innovator, a builder, a doer, often visionary, and certainly a major shaper of modern twentieth century cities.

Modernist Maverick clearly establishes, with fresh and needed scholarship, that Pereira was a major architect. Above all, Modernist Maverick is a ringing reminder that we don’t know everything we think we do about the history of modern architecture. Though the Nevada Museum of Art may be on the outer fringes of the San Francisco–Los Angeles museum axis, it has produced an extraordinarily important exhibit and catalog.

Alan Hess

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


Jamie Kingham