Los Angeles Constructs the Future

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Julius Shulman. Mobil Gas Station (Anaheim, Calif.), 1956. Black and white negative. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10).

The Museum’s exhibition Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 traces the city’s transformation into an internationally recognized destination with its own design vocabulary, canonized landmarks, and coveted way of life. Co-organized by the Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the exhibition  contained original drawings, photographs, and models that offer new perspectives on familiar L.A. landmarks while revealing fascinating, lesser-known works.

During the mid-20th century, Los Angeles rapidly evolved into one of the most influential industrial, economic, and creative capitals in the world. With its mild climate, diffuse development patterns, and car-oriented culture, L.A. attracted new residents with the promise of an informal, independent lifestyle. At the same time, the city was emerging as a hotbed of cutting-edge architecture.

Christopher Alexander, assistant curator of architecture and design at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and co-curator of Overdrive, talked with NBM Online about the exhibition, L.A., and its connection to Washington, D.C.

National Building Museum Online (NBM Online): The automobile has played a major role in the development of Los Angeles. How did L.A.’s car-oriented culture influence architecture and design in the city from 1940 to 1990?

Christopher Alexander (CA): These days, cars in L.A. are more often associated with traffic gridlock than exhilarating speed and style. It’s exciting, however, to look back at the era in which automobiles were the ultimate symbols of freedom and self-expression. Mid-century architects, inspired by the auto industry’s sleek forms, new materials, and pioneering fabrication methods, designed eye-catching coffee shops, gas stations, and movie theaters with dynamic facades and whimsical signage that enticed customers zipping along L.A.’s wide boulevards. Richard Neutra’s Garden Grove Community Church embraced car culture by featuring an elevated exterior plinth, which allowed the reverend to preach to congregants parked outside as if they were attending a drive-in movie.

L.A.’s elegantly engineered freeway interchanges were originally heralded as vital symbols of modern development. Elevated roadways solidified the region’s vast geographic boundaries and facilitated its aggressive economic expansion. They also devastated countless communities in their path. Architects and planners are still attempting to repair this damage to the urban fabric. There’s no question the car will continue to reign supreme in L.A. for quite some time, but it’s fascinating to see how new mass transit projects, including light rail and subway systems, rapid bus lines, and hundreds of miles of bike lanes, are changing the way in which residents and visitors traverse this metropolis.

NBM Online: How did the Case Study houses revolutionize domestic architectural design?

CA: The Case Study House Program, initiated by the influential editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, John Entenza, redefined how the modern, middle-class American home was designed, constructed, promoted, and popularized. This experimental venture gave architects the opportunity to construct innovative structures for enlightened clients seeking unique and affordable homes.

Refined steel-and-glass residences by architects such as Pierre Koenig illustrated how using industrial materials, prefabricated components, and modern appliances could result in efficiently-built,

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, ca. 1960. Welton Becket Associates. Watercolor on lightweight board laminate. The Getty Research Institute, copyright J. Paul Getty Trust.

inviting homes that capitalized on Southern California’s mild climate by minimizing the physical boundaries between indoor and outdoor areas. Entenza’s true genius was the way in which he financed and promoted the project. Manufacturers that provided their residential products and supplies at reduced rates received promotional advertisements in the pages of the magazine. After construction was completed, each home was open to the public so that people could witness the amenities of these new buildings for themselves. Julius Shulman’s alluring, artfully composed photographs of the Case Study Houses were published around the world, and helped transform these originally modestly-priced residences into highly coveted, glamorous icons of modern living.

NBM Online: In contrast to Washington, D.C., Los Angeles has no consistent architectural fabric, but is more of an eclectic (some would say jumbled) mix of styles. Does the lack of existing style free southern California designers to experiment with built form?

CA: One of the ambitions of Overdrive was to illustrate how L.A.’s complex, and often chaotic, cityscape has galvanized architectural experimentation. This city is an urban laboratory, and architects consistently cite the diversity of this region’s built environment as an important creative asset, rather than an aesthetic liability. L.A.’s built environment has provided generations of designers with an extraordinarily rich palette of materials and fabrication strategies, as well as the space, both physically and creatively, to test new ideas and invent unorthodox solutions. The city’s a perpetual work in progress.

NBM Online: How did television and film help popularize southern California aesthetics to the rest of the country and beyond?

CA: The title Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future refers to the fact that groundbreaking developments in this region also impacted the design of cities around the world. The media and entertainment industry played an extraordinarily influential role in exporting L.A.’s idealized vision of suburbia, the seemingly limitless mobility afforded through automobile ownership, and the seductive appeal of Southern California’s relaxed beach culture. Hollywood also captured a more ominous urban existence in film noir dramas set in Downtown L.A. The haunting threat of a dystopian L.A. future was revealed in epic movies such as Blade Runner. The exhibition highlights the fact that intelligently designed buildings such as CBS Television City continue to facilitate the cultivation of new lifestyles, tastes, and trends that are beamed via satellite from L.A. to audiences around the globe.

NBM Online: You have family in the Washington area and visit occasionally. Can you think of any examples of L.A. influences on the architecture of the Washington metropolitan area?

CA: I think the L.A. model has played an important role in defining the urban character of the greater D.C. area, and I believe there are interesting connections between the ongoing evolution of these metropolitan regions. LAX and Dulles airports were both constructed in the early 1960s to promote the advent of the jet age. The Los Angeles County Music Center and the Kennedy Center, completed in 1967 and 1971 respectively, established important hubs for the performing arts in each city. In the past two decades, the downtowns of both L.A. and D.C. have been revitalized as a result of catalytic convention center, stadium, and entertainment redevelopment projects. There are also parallels at a regional scale. L.A. residents are well-accustomed to traveling great distances in their daily lives. Accommodating the recent influx of new Washington residents has led to the rapid transformation of neighborhoods throughout the area, and has inevitably forced many people to live further away from the District, resulting in traffic woes comparable to L.A.’s notorious gridlock.

I think it’s also important to recognize the overwhelming influence Washington has had on Los Angeles. Federal policies have radically altered the landscape of L.A. in the past century. Decisions made in D.C. resulted in the construction of the Hoover Dam, which powered the economic prosperity of L.A.; the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 led to L.A.’s vast freeway network; progressive EPA standards redefined Southern California’s water and energy consumption strategies; and ongoing military campaigns and NASA explorations drove L.A.’s aerospace boom. As L.A. seeks federal funding for future transit projects and the revitalization of the L.A. River, the vital link between these two cities will need to be strengthened and sustained in the years ahead.

NBM Online: Is Los Angeles still one of America’s creative capitals when it comes to design?

Sinai Temple, 1959. Sidney Eisenshtat. Pencil, watercolor, and gouache on board. Courtesy of the USC Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library, copyright Sidney Eisenshtat Estate.

CA: L.A. is definitely still one of the world’s most vibrant centers for architecture and design. More than 25 architecture, art, and design schools in the area guarantee an annual influx of aspiring international talent. New L.A. workshops and production facilities established by entrepreneurial industrial designers and fashion designers are making innovative, locally manufactured products. The tech industry’s creative impact continues to grow as companies including Google, YouTube, and Electronic Arts expand their operations in the coastal communities of Santa Monica, Venice, and Playa Vista, now often referred to as “Silicon Beach.” Although the aerospace industry’s presence has waned in recent decades, new companies including Elon Musk’s SpaceX headquarters have kept the tradition of cosmic exploration alive in L.A. Diverse neighborhoods throughout the city continue to serve as important incubators for progressive residential design, providing emerging architects with opportunities to construct new domestic forms. On a larger scale, ten years after the construction of Frank Gehry’s iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, L.A. is eagerly anticipating several projects that will redefine the built landscape, including the 73-story Wilshire Grand Tower by AC Martin Partners, which will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, the Sixth Street Viaduct spanning the L.A. River designed by a team including HNTB and Michael Maltzan Architecture, and a bold new vision for the L.A. County Museum of Art by Peter Zumthor.

Co-organized by the Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 was part of the initiative Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., which celebrated Southern California’s lasting impact on modern architecture through exhibitions and programs organized by seventeen area cultural institutions from April through July 2013.