1. In the hullabaloo surrounding proposed changes to the historic Huntington Hartford Gallery at Two Columbus Circle, Ada Louise Huxtable, longtime architectural critic for the New York Times, famously dismissed the Edward Durrell Stone landmark as possessing “dubious architectural distinction,” both for the New York skyline as well as the career of the architect himself. I say, relax. I think it is a fantastic building, emblematic of a more innocent era, when people, even New Yorkers, didn’t take themselves so seriously. As a cultural icon I am saddened by the proposed intervention by a lesser architect, as if Jackie O. were forced to wear a polyester jumpsuit from Ross-Dress-for-Less.
2. Some of the best buildings in Los Angeles are invisible to the local and national architectural press. Three works by Edward Durrell Stone are among them:
a. The Stuart Pharmaceutical building in Pasadena must have been amazing once, built at a time when it would have been in the middle of nowhere. Now, with the area built up around it and a Metro Gold Line stop behind it, the building seems to have been left to die. But imagine this sleek edifice in its day, adorned with the ubiquitous screens that Ms. Huxtable found so distasteful, with the Tommy Church designed hanging planters and vast reflecting pools in the foreground.
b. My wife and I were married at the Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, the first time ever that structure hosted a wedding. What I love about that building is its apparent lightness: it feels like a tent at the end of a grassy allee, but when you get up close you realize that is constructed of massive poured-in-place concrete. Other highlights include the shimmering fabric ceiling in the auditorium and the vaguely Moroccan light fixtures that dangle like earrings from the portico surrounding this circular building.
c. It was the lights surrounding the Ahmanson Center in Los Angeles that first drew me, as a driver, to this mid-Wilshire complex. Like the Wiltern Theater down the block, it is a strange and deeply imagined invention, one that is as remarkable for its level of detail as it is for its larger vision of a sort of modernist Campidoglio. This complex confirms the notion that not only was Mr. Stone a compelling architect, he was a skilled urban planner as well: I can think of no other gathering of buildings along the entire length of Wilshire that do as much formally as does the Ahmanson Center, yet matter as little. Such grand urban plans come off as totally irrelevant in Los Angeles; still, I welcome the enthusiasm of the gesture.
3. My grandfather’s last act as a free man of was to walk into Perino’s on Wilshire Boulevard and shoot up the place. He spent the rest of his life in a hospital in El Monte where, between electroshock therapy sessions, I apparently met him. I have no recollection of this, or of him at all; but I do know Perino’s.
Paul Williams designed Perino’s along with his many masterpieces throughout Southern California; he, with his contemporary Wallace Neff and a handful of others, were architects strong on the fundamentals of their profession: addressing issues of site, program, comfort, and structure to meet their clients’ needs. However, unlike their Modernist contemporaries, they chose to add style to the mix, working predominately in the various traditional architectural languages popular at the time: French Norman, English Tudor, and most often in Los Angeles, Spanish Colonial.
Their contributions to local architectural history are often overlooked for the sin of superficiality; but even if these architects directed their talents solely upon the surface of things, they would not be alone in Los Angeles. As John Chase has argued persuasively in his books, Exterior Decoration and Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving, an entire phylum of architecture endemic to southern California derives from such artifice.
Chase traces the origin of Hollywood Regency origin to the design departments of movie studios around Hollywood. People like George Vernon Russell and Douglas Honnold were hired by studio bosses to design their personal estates and these young designers did not disappoint, bringing the skills honed over the production design of countless black and white movies to inject Technicolor drama into their personal lives.
4. Tony Duquette, who began his career as a window dresser for the major department stores along Wilshire Boulevard, took this a step further, shamelessly borrowing sources worldwide for effect. His West-Hollywood studio as well as his Westside home were both densely populated with amazing, rare museum pieces gathered in travels to South America, Africa, and Asia, objects that gave the homes he designed an immediate air of elegance and sophistication.
America in that era had a generally rosy and somewhat naive view of the world, an attitude that infected everything, including cultural production. Two specific phenomena distill this to its essence: the “Family of Man” exhibit at MOMA in the fifties, and the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland from the sixties. Both sought to celebrate the oneness of humanity, but they did so in far different ways.
Glitter and foamcore permeate Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride which offered in 1968 a pastiche of images that appeared to be pulled directly from travel posters of the time, presenting international stereotypes as kid-friendly cartoons with an endless soundtrack. Contrast this with the “Family of Man” exhibit, curated by Edward Steichen, which more soberly depicted people worldwide in a variety of settings performing a range of activities and generally suggested that, beneath our obvious differences, we are all essentially the same.
5. In 1971, the artist Millard Sheets, known primarily for his intense watercolors, completed a tile mural entitled “Family of Man” at the entrance of what is now called City Hall East in Downtown Los Angeles. The mural still stands, but it is as darkened by inadequate lighting as it is by the bureaucratic indifference surrounding it.
But Sheets had a more pervasive and lasting effect on the built environment in his 40-plus designs of Home Savings branches around Southern California. Adorning simple travertine boxes with mosaics depicting local histories or other, more distant mythologies, Sheets was able to synthesize the often opposing forces of structure and ornament.
His studio in Claremont was perhaps the most thorough fusion, using the building as a canvas for explorations of material, color, and light; however, to the contemporary eye, the effect comes off as more superficial than substantial, more “It’s a Small World” than “Family of Man;” yet, in the end, far more captivating than all the earnest modernism throughout that college town.
6. Artist Pae White and writer Med Bradbury together came up with a term to describe a certain type of condominium off Orange Grove in Pasadena. Mostly one-story, these courtyard dwellings are tucked away behind hedges of Oleander, Pittosporum, or Ligustrum and are accessible only to residents, guests, and the adventurous. The “Well-Traveleds” seem to have been fully colonized by grandparents of friends and mysterious others who have spent a lifetime roaming the world and filling their relatively modest abodes with artifacts too exotic and authentic have been purchased at Pier One Imports. Many of the Well-Traveleds were designed by local architectural phenom, Bob Ray Offenhauser.
Offenhauser is a minor character in John Chase’s writings yet is almost single-handedly responsible for created a unique style which might be called Pasadena Regency. Sharing many of the characteristics of its more famous cousin in Hollywood, this variation relies more on scale and proportion than it does on surface treatment. Offenhauser’s homes are immensely livable and are appreciated by their owners without a hint of irony. They provide an elegant if neutral backdrop against which an occupant can assert his or her own identity.
Even as well-traveled as Offenhauser may be personally, it is the client that has always been paramount; his buildings celebrate the owner and they do it in a clean, modernistic, and reverent way. Whereas the buildings of Edward Durrell Stone, Tony Duquette, and Millard Sheets sample world culture overtly and often simplistically, in a Bob Ray Offenhauser structure it is the client that is well-traveled.
7. When we as architects narrow our concern only to tectonics, to the physical nature of construction, we discharge ourselves of responsibility for what that building means to the neighborhood, the city, the society; when we ignore the emotional impact that our environment has on all of us, we further our own alienation.
We also miss out on a tremendous opportunity. Imagine: if we put our minds to it we could actually make buildings that matter to people other than ourselves. This is one of the lessons of the well-traveled Late-Moderns, why the work of Duquette, Sheets, and Offenhauser enchant us, and why Two Columbus Circle, Beckman Auditorium, and Perino’s still hold sway: they connect us to history, to the rest of the world, to ourselves; and they do it in the most delightful way.
Tom Marble is a native Angeleno who studied architecture at UC Berkeley and Yale before working for a variety of firms throughout Southern California. Over the last ten years he has designed buildings, planned communities, written screenplays, and created public art – all part of an ongoing project that explores how architects and urban thinkers help form the urban mythology of a place like Los Angeles, and how that mythology in turn forms and informs their work in that city. Tom opened his own architecture and urban design practice in July 2011.