Situated between the domesticated modernism of the Case Study Houses and the Santa Monica School neo-avant-garde, Los Angeles’s late modern architects, big firms like Victor Gruen Associates, Luckman and Pereira, Albert C. Martin and Associates, and Welton Becket did much to reshape the cityscape during the years between the Korean and Vietnam wars. Yet, while work of this era elsewhere has been the subject of much attention in venues from Wallpaper* magazine to academic conferences, its Los Angeles manifestation remains little appreciated.
The chief guidebook to the city, David Gebhard and Robert Winter’s Los Angeles: an Architectural Guide, describes the office buildings and civic architecture of the period as possessing “in most instances an unbearable monotony.” In his Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham ignores it entirely. This is more charitable than the recent attention paid it by Rem Koolhaas, an architect who has virtually made his name by reappropriating late modern forms and techniques, but who in 2002 proposed to tear down the Luckman and Pereira complex at LACMA. Instead of reacting with shock, most local critics applauded his decisive spirit and took the opportunity to condemn the existing structures.
There are, however, signs on the horizon that the work of the LA late moderns is being rediscovered. Gruen has been the subject of academic interest for some time now. In 2002 the University of California-Irvine held a symposium on Pereira and USC Guild Press published a handsome edition of his works. In March of 2003, the LA Conservancy’s Modern Committee celebrated Welton Becket’s work at an event held in his Cinerama Dome.
But a resuscitation of the LA late moderns reputation won’t come easily. They lack the avant-gardiste romance of Gill, Wright, Schindler, or Neutra. There is none of the intimate domesticity of the Case Study houses. Nor is there the zaniness that characterizes Art Deco or 50s Googie modernism. Lacking an intellectual pedigree or theoretical position, this work has not usually held the attention of academics. This was big, serious architecture meant to be taken largely as built. Moreover, the contemporary scene does not look up to these firms; this is the work that the Los Angeles 12 and the Santa Monica School reacted against.
Modernism was no longer revolutionary for the late moderns. Instead, they worked to give physical form to big business and big government. As these would come under scathing criticism in the 1960s, the late moderns would be tarred along with them. Yet many late modernists already sensed that something was going wrong in the postwar city. The problem of congested city centers, so key to the advocacy of modernist urban planning had been exacerbated, not solved, by decentralization. Businessmen, so eager to build imposing modernist headquarters, shared little enthusiasm for progressive housing models and instead built thousands of acres of tract homes. Government lending policies promoted mindless suburban sprawl.
If the late moderns had lost the stridency of the avant-garde, they still hoped to reshape the city. This was an urgent task: the Southern California landscape was reshaped more thoroughly during the 1950s and 1960s than during any previous or subsequent decades. As this happened, profit-oriented construction produced waste, inefficiency, and a disregard for urbanity. In the new suburbs of the immediate postwar era, any broader sense of the civic was an afterthought at best. LA’s late moderns had the ambition to remedy that.
Victor Gruen, in particular, railed against the destruction of the city and the proliferation of what he called “subcityscape,” the gas stations, car lots, billboards, and trash prevalent in the day. In his 1964 book The Heart of Our Cities, Gruen proposed a polycentric city model as an alternative to the existing condition of central-core congestion and suburban sprawl. Gruen believed that through the introduction of subsidiary nuclei – for working, shopping, or education – in the previously homogeneous suburbs, monotony would be undone, pressure on traffic to city cores would be relieved, and urbanity would thrive.
Envisioning a concentrated new shopping district that would act as a modern agora, Gruen developed the shopping mall. In his vision, this would be no mere cathedral of consumption, but rather would have rich programming generated by residents of the local community and would limit commercialism’s excesses by regulating signage and nearby development. Although the end product is certainly not without its faults, how many other architects can claim to have developed a new typology virtually single-handedly?
At Irvine Ranch, William L. Pereira Associates explored the possibilities for making a community that would avoid the monotony of the suburbs and would be sustainable over a long period of time. Given the program of a campus for the University of California, education was at the core of the project, but Pereira introduced a rich integration of offices, government, and commercial facilities along with single family and apartment living. Inspired by the Garden City movement, Pereira paid ample attention to greenbelts, many of which remain in place today. So, too, he created intensive centers of concentrated activity, the very opposite of suburban sprawl, a move that appears to reflect the thinking of Team X as well as critic William Whyte’s call for clusters of density in the suburbs.
Nor was the work of the LA late moderns confined to the suburbs. Take Welton Becket’s Century City Master plan, Capital Records Building and Beverly Hilton or Pereira and Luckmanís LACMA complex and CBS Television City, the latter still as fresh as anything being done today. But the crowning urban moment of the LA late moderns would have to be the pairing of Welton Becketís Music Center and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building by AC Martin. Here, Gruen’s vision of a pedestrian downtown center revolving around culture is fulfilled in an architectural water fantasy.
If there is any building in Los Angeles that marks the end of late modernism, it is the Pacific Design Center, designed by Cesar Pelli for Victor Gruen Associates and completed in 1975. While the PDC is out-of-scale in regards to the surrounding community, it is deliberately so. In contrast to the tactic taken by more recent projects such as the Grove, Old Town Pasadena, or Hollywood and Highland, Pelli’s PDC avoided any false contextualism, feeling this would have damaged the surrounding texture irreperably. Instead, at a local level the PDC’s blue glass surface reflects back the surrounding cityscape, making it legible while at the scale of the city, it acts as a landmark, a great blue toy in the landscape.
Perhaps we will discover some affinity between this era and our own, post-doc.com, age. Theory and subversion, the driving forces of neo-avant-garde practice in the early 1990s, seem to have run aground. Likewise, architecture’s more recent infatuation with business strategies of the new economy seems to have cooled as the stock market has collapsed.
The late moderns may have been big, even dinosaur-like, but who wouldn’t deny that the dinosaurs were among the most noble of creatures? The late moderns were not afraid to engage the city, to make big plans, to dream of a civic realm, of solutions to sprawl. Contemporary architects, who may envision themselves in the role of the supposedly more nimble mammals, need to learn to dream these kind of dreams again.
Kazys Varnelis received his Ph.D. in the History of Architecture and Urbanism from Cornell University in 1994, and has taught at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He has lectured in numerous venues in both North America and Europe and his work has been published widely both in the US and abroad. With Robert Sumrell, he founded AUDC, an architectural research collaborative in 2001. His teaching and research focuses on late modernism, architecture and capitalism, and the impact of recent changes in telecommunications and demographics on the contemporary city in general and on Los Angeles in particular. He is editing Simultaneous Environments, a book on contemporary architecture and urbanism in Los Angeles.