Every few decades, the cultural guardians of Los Angeles (and yes, they do exist, with names like Chandler and Broad instead of Astor and Rockefeller) come to the collective realization that their city hasn’t done a particularly good job at tending to its own underappreciated history. There is some slight alarm at this oversight before a consensus emerges that this still-young metropolis had better shore up the scholarship related to its own rapid growth, maturation, and emergence onto the global stage.
This pattern has been going on long enough to have become a hardy stereotype in studies of Los Angeles, easily parodied even as it continues, reliably, to repeat itself. In 1985, writing about the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s campus of buildings on Wilshire Boulevard, the Los Angeles Times art critic William Wilson wrote that the opening of LACMA “seemed to leave little doubt that Los Angeles had arrived, or was about to arrive, or soon would make an excellent approach to arriving at … civic civility and artistic maturity.”
The latest and perhaps grandest of these periodic exercises in regional self-reflection comes with the expansive name “Pacific Standard Time.” Originally launched by the J. Paul Getty Trust as a celebration of the postwar art scene in Los Angeles, and spawning more than 50 separate exhibitions in all during 2011, it is turning this year to a less massive but still wide-ranging study of the city’s modern architecture. Under the banner “Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.,” or PSTP for short, the Getty has funded or helped organize 10 exhibitions in all, running from late March through mid-summer. These shows have opened or will soon open at many of the major museums in the region, including LACMA, UCLA’s Hammer Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown. There are also enough ancillary programs, tours, symposia, and online presentations to keep an architecture critic busy for several weeks straight.
The centerpiece of the project is an exhibition at the Getty called “Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990.” Curated by Wim de Wit, Christopher James Alexander, and Rani Singh of the Getty Research Institute—the museum’s archival and scholarly wing—the show is dense and richly layered. It features more than 400 objects in all, including drawings, models, photographs, and paintings, as well as TV and video clips. It is perhaps most impressive in its sheer, tireless ambition, in its interest in telling the entire narrative of postwar architecture and urbanism in Los Angeles. That means not just the well-known Case Study Modernism of Pierre Koenig, Craig Ellwood, and Charles and Ray Eames, but also sections on freeway-building and mass transit; the controversial history of Dodger Stadium, finished in 1962, and the Chavez Ravine neighborhood where it sits; the 1984 Olympics; and the role architecture and architects played in the rise of aerospace, the oil business, Hollywood, and other industries.
The show also manages a careful balance between boosterism and critique—between sunshine and noir, to borrow the terms that scholars of Los Angeles have long employed to describe the poles of extreme feeling about the city and its civic personality. On the sunshine side, the curators herald the emergence of Los Angeles in the postwar decades as an open, democratic, and hugely productive laboratory for new ideas in architecture.
But they hint at darker themes, too, an effort that begins with the very title of the exhibition. As de Wit writes in the introduction to the catalog, “The term ‘overdrive’ … alludes to the fact that an engine burning at an incredible speed often overheats and shuts down. The metropolis’s expansionist aspirations and aggressive growth did not come without a price. The environmental degradation [and] disturbing economic disparities … that resulted from the region’s meteoric rise can often make Los Angeles boosterism seem like a cruel hoax.”
If “Overdrive” has a blind spot, it is one that afflicts the PSTP enterprise as a whole. Though the Getty has prominently labeled this new series of shows an examination of “modern architecture in L.A.,” the dates it chose for “Overdrive,” which have also largely determined the time frame of the other exhibitions in the series, run from 1940 to 1990. This creates a fairly obvious contradiction: Modern architecture in Los Angeles had quite firmly established itself well before 1940, and had run its course long before 1990. “Overdrive,” as a result, leaves out the breakthrough projects of many architects who have become synonymous with L.A. Modernism, including the early work of Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Irving Gill.
In the exhibition’s version of L.A. history, modern architecture emerges as a mature and powerful force—as the default style for wealthy and prominent clients, including oil companies, suburban home builders, record labels, and movie stars. And then “Overdrive” gives us a chance to watch Modernism decline—or at least slide into an unhappy kind of old age, as buildings by firms like AC Martin and Partners, Welton Becket and Associates, and Pereira and Luckman become talismans of prestige and the thickening status quo.
Oddly enough, this turns out to be one real benefit of the rather curious time frame the Getty has chosen for these shows. It puts front and center the transition, in the 1970s, from high Modernism to the restless, aggressive, and inventive work of the architects who became known as the L.A. School: Frank Gehry, FAIA, Thom Mayne, FAIA, Eric Owen Moss, FAIA, and others who built fledgling practices on the west side of Los Angeles. Architects who were developing an approach that would become more conventionally postmodern, like Charles Moore, are also featured, fleetingly, in “Overdrive.”
The early work of the L.A. School gets an even fuller treatment in a PSTP show at SCI-Arc called “A Confederacy of Heretics: The Architecture Gallery, Venice, 1979.” It is a deeply fraught exhibition in many ways. It is curated by two SCI-Arc faculty members—historian Todd Gannon and architect Andrew Zago—along with Ewan Branda. It is hosted by SCI-Arc. And it shows the early work of architects who either helped found the school in 1972 (Mayne) or now basically run it (Moss, the school’s director, and Gehry, who like Mayne sits on the board of trustees). In other words, the curators’ very tricky task has been to assess the key early work of the men who are essentially now their bosses. Imagine being assigned to write a history of Pravda. That will be published in Pravda. While working at Pravda.
The immediate focus of “Heretics” is a small gallery that Mayne created inside his own house in Venice, not far from the original SCI-Arc building in Santa Monica, and the nine weeklong exhibitions he organized there in the fall of 1979. These weekly shows were meant to introduce to a broader audience a number of architects, at that point mostly in their 30s and early 40s, who would go on to become among the most famous in the world. There was an exhibition on Mayne and his partner in Morphosis at the time, Michael Rotondi; there was one on Moss; and one on Gehry, then 50, who was the elder statesmen of the group. There were also shows on architects who never achieved anything close to broad fame, including Eugene Kupper, Peter de Bretteville, and Frank Dimster, FAIA.
The SCI-Arc show displays some work that was part of those exhibitions; it also adds other projects by the participating architects to provide some needed context. The curators have been understandably cautious in choosing and explaining this architecture and the cultural scene from which it grew. But for the most part, the drawings and models look remarkably fresh, full of the informality and the unorthodox energy we associate with the L.A. architecture of those years—but also surprisingly colorful, even beautiful. A cardboard model of Moss’s 1976 Playa Triplex in Playa del Rey has pink and light-green accents: Izod colors. Colored-pencil drawings by Roland Coate Jr. and Frederick Fisher are even more delicate. Black-and-white photographs by Grant Mudford show Frank Gehry’s remade house in Santa Monica in 1978, when the chain link wrapping the exterior was still shiny.
The 1970s is also the subject of a PSTP show curated by the UCLA historian Sylvia Lavin. Entitled “Everything Loose Will Land,” it is being held inside the Schindler House in West Hollywood—a stunning piece of early L.A. Modernism but a tough place to stage an architecture exhibition—and examines the links between architects (Gehry, Moore, Paolo Soleri, Ray Kappe, Cesar Pelli, and many others) and artists (including Robert Irwin, Judy Chicago, and Ed Ruscha) in the era of Jimmy Carter and the oil shock. Its name is taken from a quote about Southern California attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright: “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”
Other exhibitions—including a retrospective of the modernist A. Quincy Jones at the Hammer and a show on the firm Smith & Williams at UC Santa Barbara—stick more closely to the midcentury theme. Still, PSTP does include some high-profile attempts to bring this conversation into the present and even push it toward the future. At LACMA, director Michael Govan is using the series as an opportunity to examine the complicated architectural history of the museum’s Wilshire campus—and to unveil preliminary versions of the design for a new gallery building he’s commissioned from the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. And at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), guest curator Christopher Mount, in an exhibition called “A New Sculpturalism,” attempts to draw a direct line of influence from the L.A. School to younger architects, including Michael Maltzan, FAIA, Greg Lynn, Barbara Bestor, AIA, Hagy Belzberg, FAIA, Lorcan O’Herlihy, and Patrick Tighe, FAIA. (As of early May, Frank Gehry had withdrawn from the MOCA exhibit
A few other exhibits not directly funded by the Getty but opening this summer will add to the sense that Los Angeles has embarked on a broad effort to understand its architectural and urban past. The most promising is “Never Built: Los Angeles,” at the smallish Architecture and Design Museum located across Wilshire from LACMA. Organized by a pair of architecture writers, Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, the show catalogs the major initiatives in L.A. history that never got off the drawing board, including public projects by Frank Lloyd Wright, his son Lloyd Wright, AIA, Anthony Lumsden, FAIA, Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, and Steven Holl, FAIA. Its richness and diversity is a direct rebuke to the stubborn idea that Los Angeles is an unplanned city; of course, it is also an admission that visionary architecture in Los Angeles has struggled to find a foothold in the civic realm. We’ve always had more than our share of innovative houses in Southern California. Finding the will to build ambitious public projects, on the other hand, has been far more difficult.
What the PSTP project will mean for the city’s understanding of itself is still an open question. It is certainly notable that Los Angeles is grappling for the first time in a public, comprehensive way with its 20th-century architectural history. In fact, the PSTP shows are only one example of a city that has grown quite serious in recent years about cataloging its own track record of innovation. The wildly popular public parade last year that brought the Space Shuttle Endeavour from LAX to its new home at the California Science Center was another step in that direction. So was the decision by the UCLA computer science department to turn the room where the first Internet message was sent in 1969 into a kind of historical shrine. A region that once defined itself by what it invented and sent out into the world is beginning to put some of that productive and experimental history under glass.
Of course, as the quote from William Wilson makes clear, it’s always a good idea to realize that Los Angeles is forever seeming to reach crucial thresholds of one kind or another—that forks in the road are not always the momentous occasions we imagine them to be. In addition, you have to wonder how much of our new obsession with L.A.’s 20th-century history is in fact mostly constructed out of nostalgia for the days when we produced more groundbreaking buildings than we do now; Los Angeles is simply too dense, and our building codes too restrictive, to permit that kind of freewheeling architecture culture any longer.
But the sheer scope of the Getty enterprise, the way it has packed so many shows on the art and now the architecture of Southern California into a two-year period, does make this transition feel particularly meaningful, even for those of us who try to keep the eternal caveats about L.A.’s civic maturity in mind. The city of the future is finally pausing to take stock of its recent past.