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This summer, architectural historian Wim de Wit put on the largest architecture show in the history of the Getty Center. Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 had more than 400 objects on display, covering just about every name-brand and not-so-name brand architect and trend. From Frank Gehry to Armet & Davis; from Googie to industrial gigantism, the show echoed through the city in unexpected ways. Not least, in helping to put the subject of architecture before a wide, and inquisitive audience.
After 20 years as the director of architecture and contemporary art at the Getty Research Institute (GRI), de Wit is leaving Los Angeles for San Francisco, taking a curator’s post at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. During his extensive tenure, he oversaw the vast expansion of an architectural archive that now houses papers, drawings, and models, from Aldo Rossi, Philip Johnson, Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, the Bauhaus, and Ray Kappe.
AN contributor Greg Goldin caught up with de Wit recently, the 17 hour days of Overdrive seemingly a chimera of lapsed memory. In the wake of the massive show, de Wit wanted to clarify his 20-year mission—which, he said, was not exhibitions. His job was to acquire architecture archives and preserve them for research. Hardly the kind of quest that puts a man in the spotlight. He will remain a consultant at the GRI, and he still speaks in the present—and future—tense, as if he were contemplating his latest acquisition.
Courtesy Getty Research Institute
AN: After Overdrive, I suppose everyone misinterprets, in retrospect, what it actually is that you did at the GRI?
WD: When I first came to the Getty we couldn’t even talk about exhibitions. Of course, that changed the minute we came up here [to Brentwood] and had a real gallery. Still, it’s always first: How will it be used by researchers? And, of course, you don’t know how it’s going to be used. And somebody uses it in a context that you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, I never thought about that.’ That’s the best.
So, you’re a collector first and foremost. Does this mean you hoard? Why take one set of papers or models and not another?
Actually, we reject more than we accept. For example, there are a number of California architects who do similar work. So if we already have this particular architect who does one kind of residential or public architecture, and somebody offers material that is, basically, the same work, then we’ll say we have that already. Of course, there’s always a little bit of stuff in there that we may be able to learn something different from. But we also have to think about our space, and how much it costs to catalog, and how much to store forever, because these things will be here forever, whatever that means, and nobody can imagine that, what it is, but it will be, hopefully, thousands of years. Then we say, “We don’t need that.”
Okay, at the other end, I’m sure there are things you covet but don’t get.
Those things are painful. In general, they come with a purchase price. And sometimes you just can’t come to an agreement. At some point you say, “Sorry, we can’t afford it, and nobody should pay that much for this particular drawing.”
Do you feel like, as we sit here now, there are holes in the collection? Do you say to yourself, “Damn, that should have made it here no matter the price.”
No. Never. There are, indeed, things that I’ve lost, and that went to other collections. I don’t want to name names.
You’ve got to name some names.
Well, let’s think. There must be something. [He maintains his silence.]
Is something from a Southern California architect going to have more weight within your overall collection?
Well, that’s an interesting question because the Getty Research Institute, which was called the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, originally only focused on Europe. They did not immediately want to make people too nervous about going to buy anything that would be for sale here right around the corner.
Because it was perceived that the Getty had all this money, and suddenly the price of everything would go up.
So what is the core strength of the collection you’ve assembled?
Early twentieth century, especially European Modernism. Bauhaus, students of the Bauhaus—very important material. Also Italian Futurism, German Modernism, French materials, that’s all incredibly strong. And then we have interesting materials that document the history of building types, for example.
At some point the emphasis shifted?
The start was the Julius Shulman archive.
That came before you acquired the John Lautner archives?
Yes. There had been conversations off and on since the 1980s with Shulman. Around 2000 we really become serious about it, and in 2004 it all shipped to us. Lautner was three years later. In between was Pierre Koenig. That archive was when Mrs. Koenig heard about the Julius archive, she came to us and said, “Well, what about Pierre’s?” That was 2006. And then, from there, [it grew] very quickly.
How do you distinguish between good and important work and not-so-good, not-so-important?
I’m one of those architectural historians who thinks that sometimes not-so-important stuff is also important to look at. Like Edward Durell Stone. Nobody’s trying to say that his Von KleinSmid Center at USC is the best building in town. But we put it in Overdrive. His archive is in Arkansas, and that’s where it should stay. But [if it were available] I think I could defend the acquisition. I really could. He had an office in Palo Alto and he had an impact on the built environment of Los Angeles. Not everybody thinks about collecting architecture that way. Curators might say, “I only want to go for the best or for who changed things.” That’s one way of looking at it. I would not want to limit myself that way.
We’re also not in a position to know how we’ll understand things over time.
Los Angeles itself is weighing this kind of thing right now, with LACMA proposing to demolish the William Pereira buildings while leaving the Bruce Goff standing. People are fighting to preserve Pereira and no one even mentions Goff, one way or the other. They don’t see Goff as being in the Pantheon of...
But he is going to be, like John Lautner. Lautner went through that phase, and people will come back to Bruce Goff.
Overdrive was a huge exhibit, occupying a huge gallery. Normally you work in a very small gallery space. Do you have a preference for how you work?
I could not immediately do an exhibition like that again. It took three and a half years. And you have to keep the whole exhibition in your head! At the same time, you are working on the catalog…whenever there was a deadline for the checklist there was also a deadline for the book.
As you reflect on nearly two decades at the Getty, do you think you’ve put something into the genetic code of this institution?
I think I’ve made the architecture collection of the Getty known to the world. Especially through the California collection, although it will be a long time before we can compete with U.C. Santa Barbara, because they have such important materials there.
Well (longtime UCSB archivist) David Gebhard had a big head start.
Yeah, he was there in 1950-something.
And I don’t think anybody wanted it. Either put it into a dumpster or give it to Gebhard.
And he had [the collection] in his garage. And the first time I saw it was in a wooden shed somewhere on the Santa Barbara campus. It was all in brown paper. All the things you’re not supposed to do, he did. But at least he preserved them. And the drawings did survive.
You’re headed north, to Stanford. What will you do there?
I’m going to be adjunct curator at the Cantor Arts Center. I’m working on an exhibition about the International Design Conference in Aspen. Six years ago I acquired the archive of IDCA when it died, so to say. It’s a wonderful archive with incredible information about all the debates that were going on in the design world between 1951 and 2004. 54 incredibly important years. It’s very difficult to make an exhibition about a conference, because it’s words, but the archive has lots of great graphic design: programs, posters, invitations, all beautifully designed, so you can work with that.
So it’s a bit like leafing through Arts & Architecture.
Yeah, but I want to show the connection between the word and the design. And learn from that. For instance, I spoke to Ray and Shelly Kappe recently, and they said, “Oh, we went to the 1972 conference, and that’s where Richard Saul Wurman was the chairman of that particular conference, it was about education, and that inspired us a lot for how to start SCI-Arc.” That was an amazing piece of news.
When will the show open?
Will you miss Los Angeles, and the kind friction of this place versus the kind of suburban and academic setting of Palo Alto?
Yes, I think I will. It’s kind of strange, having worked now for these four years [just] on Los Angeles, starting to have the feeling that I understand the city a bit, and there’s still so much more to be understood, and to leave—that’s kind of a strange thing.
I’ll bet. Because I’m not sure anybody understands this place, and I think that’s why we all stick around. Because we keep searching for some way to get a grasp on it.
Uh-huh, yeah. And I’ve done it now several times in my life. When I was still in Holland, I worked on Dutch architecture. When I came to the United States, I was doing an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt about this Dutch group of architects. Then I went to the Chicago Historical Society to work on Chicago architecture. Then I came here. I’ve done this now a few times. I’m not going to worry this time around.
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.
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.
“It winds from Chicago to LA, more than two thousand miles all the way,” as the song goes, inspiring endless Googies and even a vintage television show. And now a new study shows that Nat King Cole’s famous line still rings true as Americans continue to get their kicks along iconic Route 66, to the tune of $132 million per year in economic impact. The National Park Service partnered with the World Monuments Fund and Rutgers University to analyze the economy of the so-called Mother Road as it traverses small towns across eight states.
The first-of-its-kind study combines information from the U.S. Census and extensive research in towns along the route to reveal new details about how travelers interact with communities and attractions and to identify preservation opportunities to further enhance the economic potential of heritage tourism. “This is the first time this Economic Impact Model methodology has been applied to this vast a stretch,” said Erica Avrami, research and education director at the World Monuments Fund. “As a methodology it can serve as a model for other routes and thoroughfares across the country.”
Like rivers or ports that sustained many American cities, Route 66’s continuous stream of motorists proved to be the lifeblood of many small towns across the West.
Courtesy National Park Service
Designated a U.S. Highway in 1926, Route 66 was slowly made obsolete as a transportation path by the faster Interstate Highway System’s new roads that bypassed small towns, taking the spending value of passing motorists with it. The decline was complete in 1984 as the last stretch of Route 66 was bypassed by Interstate 40 routed through Williams, Arizona; Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985.
But what the new Interstates offered in speed, Route 66 made up for in character, and a nascent heritage tourism industry has continued to keep the Mother Road alive. The report indicates potential growth in heritage tourism along the highway, but Avrami said there needs to be more unity.
In 1999, Congress passed the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program under the National Park Service to coordinate preservation work with property owners and nonprofits and issue grants to advance tourism, economic development, and preservation from the road’s historic heyday between 1926 and 1970, but no private group has yet emerged to oversee the process. “A host of federal opportunities exist that can be capitalized on, but because Route 66 goes through so many states, the process is piecemeal,” Avrami said. “Without a unified body, it’s difficult to think holistically because everyone has their own little piece of Route 66.”
Eldon Davis was always bemused–though gracious--when people showed interest in his fifty-year-old designs for Modern coffee shops like Pann’s, Bob’s Big Boy, Norm’s, Wichstand, and Denny’s. Davis, who died April 22 at age 94, had a modest Modernist’s attitude: architecture simply solves problems. He nurtured no nostalgia, even for his own buildings.
But to younger architects, historians, preservationists, and the public, the coffee shops he designed with partner Louis Armet became much more: they were emblems of a key period when Modern architecture was truly something for the masses. Eldon, the dapper, bow-tied, USC-trained professional architect of schools, banks, and churches, also tapped into the youthful rock and roll spirit of the booming 1950s suburbs, where everyone could cruise through the hamburger stand. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson even wrote a song about the Wichstand, one of the greatest Armet and Davis coffee shop-drive-ins in LA’s Windsor Hills.
It’s taken decades for Davis’ architecture to be recognized as part of the extraordinary surge of creative design coming out of Southern California in the mid century. Originally tagged with the whimsical label of Googie (after John Lautner’s Sunset Strip coffee shop), his designs were widely criticized as arbitrary and extreme by the architecture establishment. But opinions have changed: just last year eminent historian Thomas Hines credited Armet and Davis with “major contributions to a significant building type.”
Other architects established the main concepts of this car-oriented suburban architecture, but Armet and Davis developed their own distinctive interpretation. Working closely with restaurateur-clients like Bob Wian of Bob’s Big Boy and Norm Roybark of Norm’s, Eldon and colleagues such as Helen Fong, Lee Linton, and Victor Newlove translated efficient service and commercial necessity into architectural form and space. Kitchens were put on display, and every cook top and plate holder echoed the building’s unified aesthetic. Bold modern roof structures captured the energy of the space age and also attracted the eye of motorists. Walls of glass and indoor-outdoor dining patios took advantage of the balmy climate.
On his 90th birthday four years ago, friends and colleagues rented a party bus and traveled to a few of Eldon’s remaining monuments. The tour started at Norm’s La Cienega, where the sign’s neon pennants still wave in the electronic breeze over the stylish Modern interior of ceramic tile, terrazzo, stainless steel, plastics, counters, and booths. Armet and Davis never embraced the severe abstractions of Modernism; in the vein of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture, they used rich textures, warm colors, natural materials, and flowing spaces.
The tour ended at one of Davis’ best-preserved coffee shops, Pann’s in Inglewood, still operated by Jim Poulos, whose father commissioned the restaurant in 1956. Modernists loved glass boxes, and Pann’s is Armet and Davis’ version. Where Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House is serene and rectilinear, Eldon’s is angular and energetic. Instead of looking out on a sylvan meadow, Davis’ design taps into the pulsing energy of glinting chrome and the flow of traffic as seen through the panoramic windows.
Still, coffee shops, no matter how well designed, were not a path to professional prestige in the 1950s. Lautner blamed his association with Googie architecture for crippling his career, but Davis took a different tack. He marketed his coffee shops in restaurant journals; that’s what the clients read. Hiring photographer Jack Laxer to photograph his buildings in stunningly beautiful 3-D transparencies also helped. From custom coffee shop designs like Pann’s, he moved on to create prototypes for national chains; the first 400 Denny’s used his 1958 prototype design, securing Armet and Davis’ reputation as the premier coffee shop architects nationally.
Davis’ passing reminds us that our legacy from the fertile design era of the 1950s includes both the cool elegance of the Case Study houses and the vibrant opulence of the Googie coffee shops. Both sought to bring good design to the average person. Eldon Davis’ coffee shops actually accomplished that. For the price of a burger and a cup of coffee, any Angeleno could enjoy the Modern life at one of his coffee shops.
Architect Dennis Gibbens has created a home for himself that is the closest thing to a nest that one could ever find on Venice’s swank and hectic Abbot Kinney Boulevard. The project, located on the second and third floors over a Japanese housewares shop, is part of a mixed- use project. Once you walk upstairs from the hubbub of the road, the board-formed, poured-in-place concrete walls provide a textured and substantial shell surrounding a more refined palette of lacquers, stones, mirrored glass, smooth-troweled stucco, terrazzo, and polished metal.
“I’ve created my own private bunker up here,” said Gibbens. Bunker hardly seems the word for this sophisticated lair. Viewed from the outside, the home’s juxtaposition of rough and smooth is hinted at in a facade of alternating gray concrete and white plaster. Inside, the U-shaped second-floor space—which includes a kitchen, sitting room, dining room, and living room—is divided by a glass-enclosed entrance courtyard that cuts into the middle, drawing light and air into all corners.
The finishes are at once simple, artful, and elegant: a balancing act of the serenely austere and the dynamically modern. Gibbens designed much of the furniture in the formal living room, including a movie screen that the architect made from honeycomb laminate cut in an off-kilter shape reminiscent of Googie modernism. Much of the other furniture was found in some of the top-tier furniture stores on Abbot Kinney itself. A cutout terrace off the living room opens the cloistered space to the street, if so desired. And most of the utilitarian functions of this floor—closets, a bathroom— are bunched on the south side, leaving the space remarkably uncluttered.
Upstairs rooms continue to offset careful restraint with strategic “wows”: a square skylight in the master bedroom that looks like a James Turrell skyspace, a glass floor in the hall that looks down to the living room, glass walls in the guest room that suggest a boutique hotel, and of course a roof deck, where the walls are high enough to provide privacy but low enough to be open to the sky, the surrounding palm trees, and the lovely sunsets.
The 29-foot-wide house, at about 3,500 square feet, was a labor of love for Gibbens, who was general contractor for much of the work himself to preserve details and save money. The entire ground floor is a mat foundation, a two-foot-thick pad of concrete. Throughout the building, several steel moment frames, relatively disguised, help support the structure, accompanying a more conventional wood frame. Gibbens said the most challenging part, besides getting the eclectic elements to come together as a whole and casting exposed concrete for the first time, was pouring that concrete so close to adjacent buildings, and calling for a tight gap to complete any form work.
“It was more gratifying than nerve-racking,” said Gibbens, of the construction. “It’s fun. I like the construction process.” And, he added, “I was getting exactly what I wanted.”