L.A.’s Minority Architects

The theme restaurant and control tower at Los ...
The theme restaurant and control tower at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Breaking Ground’ at Chinese American Museum Shows That Not All L.A. Architects Are Old, White Dudes.
Wendy Gilmartin
LA Weekly
February 13, 2012

Los Angeles Revisited: 20th Century L.A. Architects: Chinese American Architects – Paul R. Williams – Pedro E. Guerrero – 2013 Pacific Standard Time Presents.
Elizabeth Uyeda
LA Revisited
May 8, 2013

Despite the inevitable hoots of derision from architectural purists, California is a haven of outstanding architecture. Lost among the strip malls and tract houses are countless examples of everything from subtle brilliance to outlandish provocation, not to mention pure gems of American history.

Los Angeles is no exception, with grand masters like Richard Neutra, Ray Kappe, Victor Gruen, Frank Gehry, George Wyman, and their like dotting the landscape with masterpieces and curiosities. What is too often forgotten, though, is that Los Angeles was also the garden for an early crop of America’s finest non-Anglo architects.

I was fortunate to grow up in a house designed by Paul Williams, who aside from being admitted as the first African-American architect to the American Institute of Architects in 1923, was the co-designer of the LAX Theme building, the first AME Church, the L.A. County Courthouse, the County’s Hahn Hall of Administration, and over a dozen buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That the height of his career preceded the Civil Rights movement is, I believe, testament to both Williams as a man and to California as his base.

Gilmartin and Uyeda also highlight four outstanding Los Angeles-based Chinese-American architects who were Williams’ contemporaries and who left their mark on the city and on mid-century American architecture. Gin Wong co-designed the LAX Theme building with Paul Williams. Gilbert Leong and Eugene Choy built a profitable niche designing homes and workplaces for Los Angeles’ increasingly prosperous Chinese-American population. And Helen Liu Fong was at the core of architects in the Googie movement, a 1950s update of the Streamline Moderne of the 1930s that, though once passe, has become a core part of the Southern California design language. (If you are looking for the quintessential Googie look, think of the original Tomorrowland at Disneyland, or Ship’s Coffee Shop.)

If there is one lesson to be taken from all of these greats, it is this: architecture in Los Angeles has been – and remains –  about testing limits, be they aesthetic, ethnic, or seismic. For those reasons, expect the parade of thought-provoking design to continue, and expect it to come from the most unexpected places.

Digitally Preserving the California Missions

San Francisco - Mission District: El Camino Re...
San Francisco – Mission District: El Camino Real Mission Bell and Mission Dolores Basilica (Photo credit: wallyg)

“Lasers used to scan California missions to preserve them forever”
Chris Palmer

San Jose Mercury News
February 8, 2013

One of the enticing possibilities offered by the ready availability of massive computing power is the potential to preserve detailed, accurate renderings of people, places and things online. Two of my favorite movies from my youth, Tron and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, began exploring that theme, offering parallel visions of how the “real” could be digitized, and vice-versa. Today I prefer the detailed simalcrum of the OASIS in Ernest Cline‘s dystopian cyberpunk future of Ready Player One, where places are captured in loving detail without being destroyed in the process. We get to have our place and live there, too.

Among others, California is blessed with nearly two dozen historical treasures over which the threat of destruction hovers daily: the Missions of El Camino Reál that were built by Franciscan monks between 1769 and 1823. Whatever your feelings about the Spanish colonization of Alta California and the efforts of the Catholic Church to convert the natives of the region, you must acknowledge that these settlements are the foundation that brought forth the modern state of California. There are of inestimable historic value, yet, made mostly of masonry and each built worryingly near active faults, these iconic sites exist on borrowed time.

Enter Oakland non-profit CyArk, which has set about preserving highly detailed renderings based on laser scans and photographs that become, essentially, blueprints for reconstruction, when and if such reconstruction becomes necessary. Four missions are done, 17 remain, and my understanding is that the process gets better with each site they scan.

At some point, though, it would be fascinating to have these renderings provided to the public, to become the centerpiece of virtual tours. Having tromped through six of them myself, I am always struck by how little time I have to focus on the detail, and how, at age 48, I still have 15 I’ve not seen. Earthquakes aside, our state should recognize that we have places that deserved to be savored online with greater depth than what is available on Google Earth and Wikipedia. And of all of the states in the union, ours should take the lead in bringing our historic and iconic buildings online.

In the meantime, though, kudos to the fine people at CyArk who have already figured out that our technology offers us a priceless opportunity to capture, preserve, and share our past, as well as our present and future.

Architecture and Alternate Futures

The Coolest Places In Los Angeles That Never Were
David Hochman
December 24, 2012

I spend so much of my time searching for the remnants of California’s history and the green shoots of its future that I’ve completely overlooked an entirely different Golden State: the California that could have been.

Thanks to everything from property developers to city planners to science fiction writers, there is no shortage of what we could call the alternate futures of the Golden West. Of all places in California, Los Angeles is probably best endowed in this area, thanks to the land speculators, railroad barons, and boosters who financed the envisioning of a future City of Angels.

Some of those visions are returning to the light of day, thanks to curators Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin and their exhibition Never Built: Los Angeles, which is scheduled to open at Los Angeles’s A+D Architecture and Design Museum this spring (and which I will miss because I’ll be in China for the duration of the exhibit.)

I can think of a lot of reasons going to an exhibition like this would be hard: nobody likes to look at inspired designs and wonder, in frustration, what forces of unenlightened self-interest put an end to these ideas?

What I hope Lubell and Goldin do instead is focus not on the missed opportunity or the laughable utopianism embodied in the unconstructed Los Angeles, but in how those visions provide grist for a new generation of planners, designers, architects, and developers. As Los Angeles lies perched on the cusp of a new, uncertain future, this is an ideal time for a new vision for the future of the Southland.

Making Our Yards Like California

Grass (Photo credit: DBduo Photography)

“Bloom Town: The Wild Life of American Cities”
Maggie Koerth-Baker

November 27, 2012

Confession: I love my lawn. But I feel guilty about it.

My homeowners’ association says I have to have grass, and it has to be green. That doesn’t break my heart. I confess that there are evenings when, even in our mild Southern California winters, I will walk shoeless out my front door, risking the ire of my spouse, simply to experience the sensual pleasure of walking barefoot on grass that is just catching the night’s coastal dewfall.

Yet I know that same patch of grass is responsible for the majority of the water consumed by our three-person household. I know that somehow it is wrong, even if it feeds the Audobon’s Cottontails that in turn feed the hawks in our neighborhood, and even if it helps employ my irrigation guy and my landscape maintainers. Lawns are water-sucks.

In an article in the The New York Times, BoingBoing.net science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker explains that in places like Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami, up to 80% of the urban space is natural surface, and that means that what we grow in our gardens collectively alters ecology.

Koerth-Baker is not calling for a wholesale change of lifestyle or human geography as much as she seems to want us to cultivate gardens made up of indigenous flora, like many people in Phoenix do with their desert-like front yards. This practice, called “xeriscaping,” seems to have great benefits. While much lighter on water requirements, the xeriscaped gardens appear to capture more carbon and absorb more heat than their natural counterparts up the road.

I’ll confess I’m not thrilled at the idea of giving up my lawn for the kind of natural ground cover I see growing on the dunes behind our house. But I can see the virtue, and I’ll bet our homeowners association will start to agree in ten years as the cost of the water to irrigate our common areas becomes our most expensive outlay.

The future of the California yard is, thus, California. We should welcome that, and, rather than fighting for our grass, start figuring out ways to make our California yards more appealing.

Richfield Tower, Downtown Los Angeles

Beneath the mesh radio tower in the right center of the picture is the Richfield building, the erstwhile headquarters of Richfield Oil of California.

Richfield was incorporated in 1905 and opened its first service station at Slauson and Central in Los Angeles in 1917. The building in the photo, a black and gold art-deco masterpiece, was completed in 1929 on the cusp of the Great Depression.

Richfield would bounce between receivership and prosperity during the 1930s, and in February 1942 had its Ellwood Oil Field in Santa Barbara County bombarded by the Japanese submarine I-17.

The company prospered with the war and the following boom, becoming one of the launch sponsors at Disneyland and discovering Alaska’s first major oil field.

The merger boom of the 1960s, however, would see Richfield combined with Atlantic Petroleum, becoming Atlantic Richfield and later ARCO. The headquarters building, an architectural jewel in the tiara of the downtown skyline, was demolished in 1968. Just as sad and permanent, ARCO’s purchase by BP, and its pending sale to Tesoro, removed yet another headquarters from Southern California.

Ships, Westwood, 1984

Ships, Westwood, 1984 by jericl cat
Ships, Westwood, 1984, a photo by jericl cat on Flickr.

There are bits of history that should never be forgotten, and high among those are the bits that went into our bellies.

My first hamburger was a quarter of a Ship Shape burger taken out from Ship’s Westwood years before McDonald’s showed its face in West Los Angeles.

The quasi-streamline-moderne architecture, the neon, and the unrepentantly retro fixtures, along with a San Francisco-style hamburger on sourdough instead of a bun, made this place iconic.

I think about it every time I drive past the intersection of Wilshire and Glendon.

Walking Away from Our Sunset

A Sunset Boulevard sign, in Los Angeles, Calif...
A Sunset Boulevard sign, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In another of his installments on walking L.A.’s more storied avenues, L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne offers the perspective on Los Angeles’ future he gained by walking Sunset Boulevard the other way – i.e., from the beach to East L.A.

Hawthorne offers us echoes of familiar critiques Los Angeles, noting the disappearing sidewalks and three-story-tall hedges that line the winding street on the West side; the disappearance of Hollywood the industry from Hollywood the place; and the general sense of decay that pervades the Boulevard and its environs from the Beach to downtown.

But the columnist really hits his stride when he suggests that in the once-Jewish now-Latino shtetl of Boyle Heights we find hope for the future of Southern California. In the area along what is now known as Caesar Chavez Boulevard, Hawthorne suggests he has found the answer to Los Angeles’ unspoken challenges in a neighborhood unified by culture where the automobile is relegated to long trips and people actually walk places. He offers a similar treatment to Sunset Triangle Plaza, a block-long street cordoned off to traffic and re-landscaped for pedestrians as an experiment in neighborhood planning. Such experiences are an enticing vision, but one is left with the feeling that the future of Los Angeles is somehow wrapped up in making it more like New York City.

Whether you agree with that approach or not, Hawthorne does a great service by offering us more than a pedestrian’s travelogue, having the temerity to leap off the front page of our Sunday paper, rip our sunglasses off, and demand that we go looking for the seeds of L.A.’s next germination.

Yet I finished the article feeling like Hawthorne had more to say – or that maybe I wanted him to have more to say. Indeed, my most serious critique of the article was that it should have been about three times as long. I’ve driven the length of Sunset myself a hundred times, and the omissions leap out. Music merits barely a mention, but the Los Angeles music industry is probably more vibrant even than New York’s and Sunset is thrumming with that rhythm. (New York’s music scene and its importance to the art and the business has been in a long decline, capped by the 2008 closing of CBGBs.) Digital entertainment and advertising shops, most of them small but incredibly creative, are starting to cluster in the area. Healthcare gets a passing mention, without a suggestion that the future of Southern California – given its salubrious climate, superb research and teaching hospitals, and America’s aging Baby Boomers – may be wrapped up in the addressing needs of the aging. And as important as car-less transportation is to Hawthorne’s point, the slow-motion revolution radiating out from the Union Station/Gateway Plaza complex deserves at least a mention.

I suspect the problem was space, as it is with most dead-tree journalism. I have to believe Hawthorne wants to say much more. All of us who love California are in search of her future, and few people have the training and the gift of communication that Hawthorne has to be able to offer us some vision of what that future should our could look like. Hopefully Hawthorne is already thinking about a book on this subject: I would imagine he has much more to offer us on this theme than what the editors of the Times allowed him.