The third edition of Jim Heimann’s California Crazy from TASCHEN asks what happens when you build out a new city in the car-crazy age of the early 20th century. The result? A freethinking (and wheeling) design style that cut ties with the past and dropped giant owls, ice cream cones, and hot dogs across the desert landscape.
Southern California, according to Heimann, has always been a land of roadside attractions, movie lots, amusement parks and attention-grabbing style. The rebar-and-plaster animals made for movie sets gradually became larger as roadside businesses, looking for ways to lure in customers whizzing by at high speeds, constructed buildings to be seen from a distance, but also act as attractions in and of themselves. The access to cheap land and loose (or no) zoning let builders in the 1920s and beyond build increasingly fantastical buildings as well as mini-golf courses and life-sized recreations of historically famous buildings.
The core premise was always to entertain and attract, even if the results drew scorn from architectural critics. But over time, the conglomeration of “buildings that look like other things” across Hollywood and Los Angeles created their own architectural vernacular, one that eventually spread east to cities like Las Vegas. California Crazy also includes David Gebhard’s essay, in which he defines the relation this language has to the automobile and “normal” domestic architecture.
The original version of California Crazy was published in 1980, but our fascination with fanciful architecture seems like more than a passing fad. Buildings like NBBJ’s Big Basket or the giant chest of drawers in North Carolina continue to draw attention, and in California Crazy, Heimann breaks down exactly why we still find them so intriguing.