PRINT Summer 1964

Architecture in Los Angeles

THE PRESENT ARCHITECTURAL SCENE in southern California can, at best, be described as respectable, but dull. One end of the spectrum—that which may be thought of as popular or folk architecture—still brings forth unbelievably fantastic creations, ranging from the façadism of the suave “Hollywood regency” to the latest version of Islamic, Tahitian or Japanese architecture. At the other end are elegant, finely detailed structures, as fraudulent in their use of materials and expressive form as the current emaciated female Hollywood model. No matter how one may try to twist or turn the facts, Los Angeles architecture reveals none of the lively vitality experienced in painting and sculpture in the galleries on La Cienega.

With few exceptions, the significant buildings now being designed and built in the Los Angeles area are being produced by men who established themselves in the late 1940s and early 1950s or even, in a number of cases, by designers who were working before the Second World War. The dullness is in marked contrast to the atmosphere which prevailed in the six or seven years immediately preceding the Second World War. Certainly from 1935 to 1942 California—both in the Los Angeles area and in the Bay region to the North—was the architectural center of the United States. The East Coast had its Gropius, its Breuer—all imported vintages—but it could not boast of a Neutra, a Schindler, an Ain, or a Harris. Los Angeles architecture was alive during these pre-war and immediate post-war years. Perhaps as Gregory Ain once commented, it was alive because it was evangelistic. To commit oneself to the ideals of progressivism in architecture meant that one was aligning oneself against the establishment. Such a commitment was not an easy one to make—only those who were passionately involved were willing to place themselves against the majority. The architect with the “right” connections, the architect who knew that producing buildings was nothing more than a business “service” had nothing whatsoever to do with the real architectural scene during these pioneering years.

It was during the late 1930s and the 1940s, while southern California painting and sculpture were in almost complete doldrums, that Los Angeles brought forth some of its major buildings of the “modern movement.” At least in the years just before the war, one could really speak of a “Los Angeles School”—a school represented by Richard Neutra, R. M. Schindler, Gregory Ain, H. H. Harris, Raphael S. Soriano, Rodney Walker, Whitney R. Smith and several others. As a group their work could perhaps be thought of as a domestication of the European International Style—a translation of this style into purely American terms. A good case could be made that the major wok of these designers is to be found in this earlier period and not in the years since, say 1950. Neutra in his Nesbitt house (1938), Schindler in such works as the Dekker house (1940), Ain in his Dinsmoor Apartments (1938), or Harris in his Fellowship Park house (1935) created buildings which they themselves have not equaled in their more recent work of the late 1950s or early 1960s.

The initial momentum of this movement was able to sustain itself in the years after the war. The Case Study House program of John Entenza, in his magazine Arts and Architecture, encouraged the production of a series of ideal designs which have had a deep and lasting effect on Los Angeles architecture.

The architectural scene immediately following the War was marked by wide variations in point of view. It encompassed such divergent personalities as A. Quincy Jones, Carl Maston, John Rex and John Lautner. There were even brief sorties into the non-architectural wasteland of tract housing: the Mar Vista project of Ain (1950), the Mutual Housing Association of Smith and Jones (1950), and the Blue Ribbon Project of Smith and Williams (1954).

But the atmosphere of the postwar years was not that of the late 1930s. “Modern architecture” (as a style, not its principles) became the dominant style in the whole country. The original pioneers and their younger compatriots, who had struggled to set the stage for this victory, now found themselves easily thrust aside by those practitioners of architecture who knew that success is a business phenomenon, not an esthetic one. As far as Los Angeles is concerned the last decade can be thought of as the great empire building period. First there was Wurdeman and Becket (at present Becket alone), then Pereira and Luckman (each now has his own empire). These, and a few smaller architectural empires, are the ones which obtain a vast majority of the major architectural commissions. The great campuses of the University of California, civic structures, office and apartment buildings are all in their hands. These few architectural firms are literally smothering southern California with a surfeit of mediocre buildings. No matter what criteria one wishes to use in appraising these buildings—as problems in form, in function, or utility—they simply will not stand up under serious scrutiny. One may strongly feel that the premises of the architect are in error, but in the case of this work, it is all too apparent that there are no premises whatsoever. Significant buildings can be produced by large organizations, as shown in some of the work of Saarinen or of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; significant buildings can be commissioned by large organizations: several of the American Embassies abroad, the recent buildings at Yale, Harvard and Pennsylvania, etc. One must confess, though, that at least in southern California our educational institutions (particularly the University of California), and our civic and business organizations have shown very little critical acumen in selecting the architects who are to produce their buildings.

Other ominous changes have occurred in the Los Angeles scene during the past ten or fifteen years. Several of the original pioneers have simply decided to abandon the area. First, H. H. Harris departed for what he felt to be the greener pastures of Texas, and recently Grego y Ain has left to devote his energies to teaching in Pennsylvania. Neutra’s response to the new situation of the 1950s, for a period of time, was to form a partnership with Robert E. Alexander. This partnership made it possible for Neutra to get into the “Big Time,” but it also drastically compromised the quality of his work. Perhaps, though, the biggest single blow which Los Angeles architecture suffered in the post-war years was the death in 1953 of R. M. Schindler. One suspects that Schindler eventually will be seen as one of the major and the most original figures in the history of 20th-century architecture. There is certainly no one now practicing in California who in any way approaches the quality and uniqueness of his work. Finally, one additional shift in the southern California architectural scene is to be found in the pages of what had once been its propaganda sheet—the magazine Arts and Architecture. Steadily turning its back on its own native products. More and more of its pages illustrate European, Australian, or East Coast buildings.

The period of the late 1950s and early 1960s has seen only a few scattered indications that the downward course of Los Angeles architecture is not still continuing. The only real area of bright hope is to be found in work which could be labeled as a type of contemporary neo-classicism. This neo-classicism expresses a highly refined and at times extremely delicate machine esthetic. Many of the buildings which embody this point of view come precariously close to being overly precious, to the point of almost becoming an effeminate Hollywood stage set. In fact, the distance separating the humorous “Hollywood regency” buildings, with their fake high-pitched mansard roofs, their elongated windows, heavily draped, and their suave restriction to pure black and white color, from the serious neo-classic building is often very slight. Still, in the hands of such men as Thornton Abell and Thornton Ladd, these highly controlled designs have come off very well. A case could well be argued that the most sophisticated machine esthetic buildings to be designed in the past few years have been the work of two Los Angeles designers, Craig Ellwood and Pierre Koenig. Like Mies van der Rohe, or the earlier Phillip Johnson, the buildings of these younger Californians are not in reality the product of the machine, rather they are the expression of the spirit of the machine in the realm of esthetic form. Compared to Ellwood’s and Koenig’s work, much of Mies and Johnson’s work appears heavy and less in the machine spirit. The linear precision of Ellwood and Koenig’s work bears more than an accidental, casual relationship to the renewed and vigorous Hard Edge school of contemporary painting. Their buildings are a type of space cage, defined by thread-like vertical and horizontal lines, occasionally reinforced by the thin floor, ceiling and wall planes. Like many hard-edged paintings, the buildings of Ellwood and Koenig reveal no great involvement with rough tactilely-appealing surfaces—their forms are established through the visual interconnection of elements. Their buildings are a complete antithesis to the sculptural massiveness one finds in the work of LeCorbusier or Tange; nor can one really speak of these buildings as volumetric, for the way in which they have eliminated the distinction between interior and exterior means that one experiences their space as a single, not a multiple, complex phenomenon.

Having made such a refined statement, the obvious question is what more can be accomplished except to play endless rarefied variations on the theme? One course of action, entailed in many of the recent buildings of Killingsworth, Brady and Smith (in such a building as their Duffield Building in Long Beach, 1963) is to eliminate even more elements so that the form is as much a result of negation, as it is of positive assertion. Another course of action has been to compose the major architectural elements of even smaller units and to rely upon landscape design to establish the form of the building. Such has certainly been realized in the Offices for the Community Faculty Planners (1958–) by Smith and Williams in South Pasadena. This particular building unquestionably lies more directly within the tradition of Los Angeles pioneer architecture than the work of Killingsworth, Brady and Smith. Whether this is the course Los Angeles architecture will take is still an open question.

David Gebhard