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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.
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.
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.
When dealing with beloved historic structures, a delicate balance is necessary and best achieved by appeasing stalwart loyalists, but also appealing to a younger, less sentimental market.
A good example is UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, which, after a hiatus of almost three years, recently re-emerged from a $136 million renovation and expansion.
First designed by modernist architect Welton Becket in 1965, the arena has been a landmark on the campus for the last 45 years and home to a staggering 42 NCAA championship teams (in basketball, volleyball, and gymnastics). It’s been home court to basketball stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Reggie Miller and it’s where the legendary John Wooden coached.
“We wanted to keep what was here, optimize it, and make it function better,” said Jonathan Ward, design partner for NBBJ, which oversaw the recent work. That expansion added an additional 65,000 square feet of lobby, concourse, and team space.
The structure’s distinctive V-truss roof structure and concrete shell remained intact, but the arena was expanded outward with the creation of a new facade made of steel, clear glass, channel glass (which glows at night), and terra cotta panels.
The facade leans back rather than standing perpendicularly over the street; the effect gives the adjacent busy Bruin Walk, which leads thousands of students from their dorms to their classes every day, more space to breathe.
The new facade allowed for a concourse that eased visitor flow around the arena, and upgraded and increased amenities like concession stands and restroom areas. NBBJ re-oriented the entrance to the north, adjacent to Bruin Walk, by setting on that north face the 35-foot-high glass-enclosed entrance. To the east is “Wooden Way,” a mini-museum of Wooden memorabilia. On the south, glass hangar doors open up, creating an indoor/outdoor concourse space suited for grills and barbecues for tailgating. Inside, perforated blue metal panels with digital images of UCLA athletes in action hang on the original stadium’s concrete exterior and act as a way-finding system.
When the original Pauley was constructed, it was situated at the western edge of the campus. Since then, UCLA has grown around it. To make room for additional amenities, NBBJ expanded downward, with a new, two-story building underneath the existing Bruin Walk. The underground expansion holds new locker rooms with thick carpets and cherry wood, plus training rooms, a film room, a sports medicine room, and equipment storage areas. A 6,000-square-foot Pavilion Club comes equipped with a full bar and kitchen for donor events or other university gatherings.
NBBJ improved the seating bowl by realigning seating sections, reducing obstructions in circulation and views, and adding approximately 1,000 seats. Theater-style seats now replace the original bench seating. The new basketball court is made of FSC-certified maple wood. The renovated arena also comes with upgraded technical systems, including a new scoreboard, lighting system, and wraparound LED signage. The project is on track for LEED Gold certification.
Overall, the NBBJ team has done a commendable job melding past and present, especially in the eyes of athletes who have played in the old Pauley Pavilion, said Robert Mankin, NBBJ partner-in-charge. “A lot of the feedback was what we had hoped to hear—that they could come in and still recognize the old Pauley. It felt updated, but not so updated that it had erased what it had been before.”
Written in Fire: Tapestries from the Estate of Jan Yoors Through March 28 reGeneration Furniture 38 Renwick Street New YorkTapestries and life are both about entwined threads but rarely are both as tightly wound together as the life and tapestries of mid-century textile designer Jan Yoors, whose works are now on show at reGeneration Furniture in Tribeca. “It was a communal project that my two mothers and my father worked on,” son Kore Yoors said by phone from Paris. To be clear, Yoors had only one biological mother, Marianne Yoors. But Marianne and her weaving partner, Annabert Yoors, were both wedded at different points to the Belgian Jan. Together they created a family and a series of tapestries at their studio on Waverly Place in the Village during the 1960s and 70s. Only now is the family sifting through years of accumulated records showing just how widely popular the tapestries were to modern architects and artists. Visitors and museum curators dropped by the studio frequently. Marcel Breuer, Gordon Bunshaft, and Welton Becket were fans of the group’s work.
Millennium Hollywood, a mixed use development by Millennium Partners and Argent Ventures, is seeking to further revive downtown Hollywood and preserve the historic Capitol Records tower, designed by Welton Becket in 1956.
According to architect Bill Roschen, who is also chair of the LA Planning Commission, and to spokesperson Brian Lewis, the approximately $1 billion project will include an outdoor public room, a pair of multi-level towers framing the Capitol building, and an off-the-freeway park from 4.47 acres of sunken in land and one million square feet of street level space. The architectural design has not been finalized. A bulk of the development will be located at the corner of Vine and Yucca, near the Hollywood/Vine Red Line Station, and will not obscure the landmark Capitol Records building, with its iconic form.
The project does not currently have an end date, but the 2006 effort, part of a national urban development movement around public transportation, wants to use the area's foot-traffic to rejuvenate the neighborhood.
“There's a real ability for buildings to make space for these historic monuments,” said Roschen. “That's the ambition around Capitol Records–to let the new density actually provide a setting for this historic structure in a true gateway for Hollywood and, in many ways, for Los Angeles.”
Despite grand ambitions, downtown LA has built precious few skyscrapers in recent years. The major culprits are the economic downturn, a bloated bureaucracy, and a short-staffed planning department, which all help explain why the Wilshire Grand Redevelopment, first proposed in April 2009, took until yesterday to receive approval from the LA Planning Commission.
Nonetheless the approval paves the way for one of the largest projects in LA in years. The $1 billion, 2.5 million square foot, mixed-used complex consists of two large towers on the corner of Wilshire and Figueroa. Built on the site of the current Wilshire Grand Hotel, which will be destroyed, it will include a 45-story tower housing a luxury hotel and residential units, and a 65-story office tower. The two buildings, designed by AC Martin—which has designed several of downtown’s notable skyscrapers— would be connected with a large plaza, while their 275,000 square feet of public space will include shops, a spa, and meeting spaces.
The project’s final sticking point is another clue as to why projects drag on in the city. After a protracted push and pull (and a seven hour meeting yesterday), the planning commission finally called for the building’s LED signage to be reduced to 150 feet or 13 stories, a much smaller footprint than the developer had requested. The department also nixed the idea of upper floor exterior lighting.
Besides the LED signs, the new buildings will have folded glass facades, tapering inward as their height increases (largely a function of their cores shrinking as fewer elevators travel to the top). While details haven’t been finalized, AC Martin principal David Martin said that the hotel would also be clad in a combination of stainless steel and terra cotta, and the office tower would be clad in stainless steel along with photovoltaic-covered sun shades along its south elevation.
The buildings’ glass configurations would change according to their orientation, creating what Martin alternately referred to as “texture” and a “fuzzy character.” “Different patterns will be created by various angles of the sun,” said Martin, who said the buildings will have operable windows. The podium, meanwhile, would be “open and glassy,” welcoming pedestrians instead of presenting monolithic walls.
AC Martin has designed the 52-story Two California Plaza and the 53-story Bank of America Plaza, among many others. Meanwhile the building’s developer, Thomas Properties, has worked on Two California Plaza, the Wells Fargo Tower, Library Tower, and Gas Company Tower. Their partner, Korean Air, owns three hotels in Korea and another in Hawaii. Korean Air Acquired the Wilshire Grand Hotel in 1989. That 1940’s building was designed by architect Welton Becket. But LA Conservancy spokesperson Cindy Olnick told AN that the group doesn’t consider the building a priority “because it's been so completely altered over the years, even on the exterior. It was very important when it opened as the Statler Center in 1952, but unfortunately, it has virtually no historic integrity left,” she said.
The development team is exploring several funding options, although Martin admits that there is more demand for hotel construction than office construction right now. The developers on Wednesday helped clear their path by announcing a union agreement to give hotel employees of the Wilshire Grand severance and the option to work at the new hotel. The final step in the process comes early next year when LA city council casts its vote.
Thomas S. Hines
Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism, 1900–1970
Thomas S. Hines
Ardent modernists and book lovers have equal reason to celebrate this splendid production, and to congratulate its publisher. Succinct yet meticulously researched chapters explore the origins and flowering of the modern movement in Southern California. In contrast to so many mega-scrapbooks of stunning images and multi-lingual captions, it offers nourishment for the mind as much as for the eye.
Here are insights and visual delights of a quality you’ll never find online. The designer, Green Dragon, has done an exemplary job of seamlessly weaving text and pictures together and setting them off with luxurious expanses of white space. Architecture of the Sun is as cool as a vintage Richard Neutra house.
Tom Hines, a native of Oxford, Mississippi, arrived in LA in 1968, around the same time as Reyner Banham and David Hockney, and all three have enhanced perceptions of a city most outsiders disparage. Architecture of the Sun is his magnum opus, drawing on 40 years of teaching, writing, and exploring the modernist legacy.
He traces its roots from the Greene brothers’ Craftsman bungalows to the pioneering work of Irving Gill and Frank Lloyd Wright and Wright’s art deco houses. There’s a masterly comparison of Schindler and Neutra, the Austrian émigrés who embodied the twin strains of expressionism and rationalism that have shaped LA architecture down to the present. Neutra’s protégés—including Ain, Soriano, and Harris—receive their due, and Hines provides a judicious summary of Craig Ellwood as an impresario who inspired his associates but stole credit for their creativity. He evokes the regional tradition and sketches the context within which these architects worked.
The book provides a brilliant synthesis of a drama with many themes and players. The strongest sections, on Gill and Neutra, reprise the texts of Hines’ books on those architects, but there is much new material. Architectural descriptions are enlivened by portraits of remarkable clients who took chances and often sacrificed themselves in the cause of artistic experimentation.
But the last two chapters are anti-climactic. Hines seems to have little appreciation for John Lautner, whose achievements in the 1960s far outshone that of Neutra and the other rationalists. It’s ironic that his cursory or dismissive comments mirror those that were directed at Schindler during his lifetime.
More space is devoted to the corporate modernism of Welton Beckett and William Pereira, whose work (most notably the Music Center and LACMA) symbolizes LA leaders’ eagerness to settle for mediocrity. (It was the suits, remember, who fought Gehry’s vision for Walt Disney Concert Hall.) In essence, nothing has changed.
Architecture of the Sun concludes on the same low note as the architecture it chronicles: 1970 was a bad year all around. What matters are the decades of innovation that went before. Here is a body of work that captures the spirit of place and retains its power to inspire, in California and around the world.
Read all of AN's Friday Reviews here.
On April 11, 2002, the infamous demolition of Richard Neutra’s Maslon House in Rancho Mirage was featured on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Living section. For many, it was a shocking first close-up of what appeared to be a Wild West–style race to summarily destroy midcentury icons as fast as possible. Schindler’s famed Wolfe House in Catalina and his Packard House in Pasadena were demolished in 2000 and 2001. Gregory Ain’s Mar Vista tract home facade at 3542 Meier Street was demolished in 2002. A classic Cliff May Ranch home interior in Sullivan Canyon was gutted in 2002.
Myron Hunt’s famed Ambassador Hotel in Koreatown came down in 2006 along with the original Rand Buildings in Santa Monica. Although the Wolfe House and the Rand Buildings both went through local public hearing processes, they were still destroyed, the former because the building was deemed irreparable due to lack of structural maintenance and the latter for the greater good of the Santa Monica Civic Center Plan.
How was this allowed to happen? For one, Southern California is not only home to hundreds of works by renowned 20th-century architects and modernist mavericks, but it is governed by an equally unwieldy number of local city entities. Los Angeles County alone packs in 88 different municipalities. At the time of the Maslon House loss, Ken Bernstein, then director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy and now managing director of the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, told the Los Angeles Times that, “Many local governments have the misconception that if a building is not officially designated a local landmark, it does not need to be considered as a potential historic building. Under CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), a city has an obligation to decide if a building is significant or not. You cannot destroy historical properties without a review.”
Yet few cities exert their legal authority or responsibility to question or stop property owners or developers in the process of permit requests to demolish residential, retail, or commercial structures. Cities not only badly need ordinances that can stay or halt demolition, they also need surveys of historic properties, and support organizations to convince people why the properties should be saved. Furthermore, they need their citizens to back some reasonable measure of preservation without stifling real estate development and the experimental architecture that continues to make LA an important metropolis for design.
On the positive side, the loud outcry following recent teardowns has clearly propelled the wheels of change here. It doesn’t hurt that midcentury modernism has been hot for a decade. Late modernist works ooze “Mad Men” cool, adaptive reuse projects have prompted turnarounds in several neighborhoods, and Los Angeles is the heart and soul, center and sprawl for postwar architecture. Still, as Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne noted last month, “the effort to round up support for postwar buildings is often far from straightforward—and can easily prove a minefield of contradiction and irony.”
Bernstein is passionate about getting Los Angeles a state-of-the-art preservation program, including a revised Cultural Heritage Ordinance with the backbone to actually halt demolitions, and an upcoming citywide inventory known as Survey LA, which is near the end of phase one of its two-part, five-year plan.
While LA’s existing preservation ordinance was the first among major U.S. cities, the legislation is now one of the weakest in the country. Unlike in New York, San Francisco, San Diego, and Sacramento, where the municipal authorities can in fact prohibit demolition of structures, the existing LA ordinance can only enforce a limited stay of demolition, even for existing Cultural Monuments. Proposed amendments to the existing preservation ordinance—which were approved by the LA Planning Commission in September and are expected to be voted on by the city council in early 2010—not only strengthen the city’s power to stay and halt demolitions, but improve due process for property owners and developers, increase the cultural heritage commission’s board membership from five to seven so that consensus can be reached more frequently, and provide more protection for cherished individual projects to match the strength and success of LA’s Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) program.
Survey LA, largely supported by the grants, working papers, and continued partnership of the Getty, will be completed in 2012. And it’s about time: While LA has over 900 Historic-Cultural Monuments and 24 Historic Districts, only about 15 percent of the city has been surveyed to date.
The project’s first wave of localities will follow a rolling model, making survey work available for consideration as each neighborhood updates its community plan. Another step is the development of preservation education and training. Ken Breisch, director of the Historic Preservation Programs at USC—the only accredited preservation program in LA with both masters and certificate tracks— has seen a significant increase in participation in these programs since their inception six years ago. The program supports the growing rise of interest in postwar architecture, while Bernstein was proud to note that graduates are now working for local historic resource consultants who are piecing together Survey LA.
And while Schindlers, Neutras, Mays, and Ains have been bulldozed or remodeled beyond recognition, private citizens and public institutions have made some nice saves. Oscar Niemeyer’s Strick House in Santa Monica, his only project in the United States, was landmarked by the city and restored by Michael and Gabriel Boyd in situ in 2003. Just a year ago, Richard Neutra’s Maxwell House was precisely sliced like a Gordon Matta-Clark installation and moved by developer Barbara Behn on flatbed trucks from Brentwood to Angelino Heights to recapture the form, if not the context, of this classic 1957 work. In 2008, the homes of lesser-known but remarkable midcentury modernists like Romanian-born Haralamb Georgescu and Swedish-born Greta Magnusson Grossman were thoughtfully restored with complementary additions and renovations in Beverly Hills. On June 4, 2008, the MAK Center welcomed the Fitzpatrick-Leland House donation as part of its roster of Schindler projects available for public consumption and as home to the MAK Urban Future Initiative.
And on November 7, 2008, the LA Conservancy’s efforts to save the Driftyland Dairy-Port in El Monte from a strip mall demolition were rewarded with a unanimous vote of acceptance on the State Landmark Registry. This summer, Santa Monica opened the Annenberg Beach House, including docent-led tours of the Marion Davies guest house and dips in the original mansion pool.
Further afield, Jim Louder, owner of two Bob’s Big Boy restaurants in Torrance and West Covina, just finished a recreation of the almost-completely steamrolled Johnie’s Broiler in Downey. The new restaurant—Bob’s Broiler—opened for business on September 26. This teardown turnaround story was made possible by Los Angeles Conservancy volunteers who had procured copies of the original drawings for Johnie’s state landmark process. Without these, restoration would have been impossible, as a tenant’s demolition crew reduced the building to rubble in 2007. In 2008, Neutra scholar Barbara Lamprecht wrote successful statements of significance for the Poppy Peak and Pegfair developments in Pasadena, getting these projects on local, state, and national registries this year and greatly expanding the lexicon of highly regarded postwar developments. Similarly, the Eichler Balboa Highlands Tract in Granada Hills is now a proposed HPOZ.
Back in Palm Springs, Neutra’s famed Kaufmann House stands restored, unauctioned, and back for sale, while his nearby Miller House is being carefully brought back to life. On April 15, the city of Palm Springs approved a historic designation for Donald Wexler’s west facade of the Palm Springs Airport. And in the aftermath of the Maslon House demolition, Rancho Mirage completed their citywide historic survey and inventory in 2004, noting that the home was the most architecturally significant work within city limits prior to its demolition in 2002.
Nevertheless, threats still abound from developers weighing the value of maintaining existing structures versus tabula rasa visions. Some choice projects still on the chopping block include Minoru Yamasaki’s Century Plaza hotel in Century City, Luckman Pereira’s Robinsons-May department store in Beverly Hills, and Irving Shapiro’s Columbia Savings and Loan building on Wilshire Boulevard. Welton Becket’s Beverly Hills Trader Vic’s and his Century City Gateway West Building have already lost their battles and sit quietly on death row. Equally ominous is the financial fragility of projects in good hands. Cal Poly Pomona’s Neutra VDL House has stabilized its annual operating and maintenance costs through tours and architectural fundraising events, thanks to its energetic director Sarah Lorenzen. But it is in urgent need of $100,000 for roof repairs (plans for these repairs have been drawn up by Marmol Radziner) to stave off continued damage from rainwater infiltration.
While the economy has slowed the actual bulldozers, the LA Conservancy is busier than ever.
“We think this is the best time for us to tune up our preservation policies in advance of the next economic cycle,” said Bernstein. “There are still misconceptions as to what historic preservation means; that it will freeze a property in time. But I think there’s a growing understanding between preservationists and the economic community alike that preservation is a key component of economic revitalization.”
When LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) was founded 30 years ago, it was directed by Richard Koshalek, who had been trained as an architect and wanted to show the work of architects alongside top contemporary artists. Major exhibitions on the Case Study House program, Louis Kahn, Franklin Israel, and late modernism were enthusiastically received, but Koshalek had to struggle constantly with his board, which wanted to focus exclusively on art.
Now, years later, it appears that the board has won. Brooke Hodge—the imaginative curator of an exciting Gehry retrospective, as well as the more recent Skin and Bones (on the interplay of fashion and architecture) and inventive smaller shows—has been axed as part of a desperate attempt to balance the budget and remedy a decade of financial irresponsibility. Major exhibitions on Morphosis and the architectural photography of Luisa Lambri, scheduled for the fall, have been abruptly canceled.
On the brighter side, the Architecture + Design Museum (A+D) on Miracle Mile has recently achieved a measure of stability that it lacked during eight years of shuffling from one vacant space to another, always dependent on the charity of developers. Now it has a six-year lease on a spacious storefront in an ideal location on Wilshire Boulevard, across from the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA). At last it can raise funds and plan ahead.
Director Tibbie Dunbar wants to reach out to schools and the public at large, using digital technology to bring architecture to life rather than relying on architect-designed boards and balsa models. If she realizes her ambitious goals, LA could eventually boast a showcase worthy of its history and potential: an institution to match the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and the best architectural museums of Europe.
The need is pressing. It is a cause for celebration that, in contemporary art, LA has gone from provincial outpost to key hub, thanks to the energy of institutions and individuals, and because artists find it a congenial place to work. But for architects, the picture is still bleak. Often, their work is marginalized or ignored. There is a huge disconnect between the abundance of creative design talent in LA and the timidity or philistinism of the client base. Too often, institutions and public authorities settle for the second-rate. In San Francisco, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake spurred a dramatic renewal. In LA, the 1994 Northridge earthquake produced little but bureaucratic fumbling. Walt Disney Concert Hall was nearly aborted, taking 14 years to realize, and the public realm has stagnated.
Work by major firms, including Morphosis’ Caltrans District 7 headquarters, Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and Coop Himmelb(l)au’s School for the Performing Arts, were seriously compromised. USC is an architecture-free zone for which George Lucas’ Spanish revival film school is a perfect fit. Tepid contextualism is the theme at UCLA, and the fundraising campaign for the $185 million makeover of Pauley Pavilion makes no mention of the original architect, Welton Becket. Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne have won the Pritzker Prize and international acclaim but have secured few commissions on their home base, and other talented firms have had a tough struggle—even before the collapse of the market.
Koshalek had the vision to expand the mandate of MOCA to foster enlightened architectural selections behind the scenes, and to bring Art Center out of its ivory tower. For that last achievement he was hounded from his post, and is now directing the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The munificence of Eli Broad highlights the lack of philanthropy among other super-rich Angelenos. It’s unhealthy to become dependent on a single patron in the arts. In contrast to other great cities, LA is an archipelago of self-absorbed neighborhoods with little sense of the larger whole.
What’s needed is inspiring leadership—of the kind that has spurred a revival of architectural excellence and adventurousness in Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and even the depressed cities of Ohio. It could be the mayor, the archbishop, university chancellors, CEOs of major companies, or the head of the school board. In every one of those areas, LA falls short. A vibrant showcase, stirring public debate, exhibiting and promoting the best architecture, cannot make up for an absence of civic pride, enlightened clients, and generous patronage. But it can alert the public to what it is missing. A+D can set a lead and play the role of catalyst.
LACMA director Michael Govan is passionate about architecture, and might be persuaded to make architecture a part of his mandate—as it is at MoMA, SFMOMA, the Chicago Art Institute, and other landmark institutions. The Hammer’s Prouvé exhibit and Lautner retrospective were big hits, and director Ann Philbin has repeatedly demonstrated her commitment to architectural excellence. The Getty now has a department of architecture, acquiring major archives, and its deputy curator Chris Alexander recently convened (with AN) a meeting of 50 curators and activists to encourage them to communicate effectively and form the Southern California Architecture and Design Consortium.
All of these initiatives can advance the agenda. The fragmentation of LA could be turned to advantage if its diverse and scattered institutions were to make common cause. MAK, the LA Forum, the Italian Cultural Institute, and a score of others have distinct perspectives that could enrich the public discourse. A provocative exhibition or speaker or an introduction to the visceral experience of a great building can provide a moment of revelation and enrich the culture of a city that badly needs a lift.