The Early Development of the Late-Modern Glass Skin in the Collaborative Works of Cesar Pelli and Anthony Lumsden
In 1964, the large, multi-service, Los Angeles architectural firm of Daniel Mann Johnson, & Mendenhall (DMJM) hired Cesar Pelli as the first Director of Design in their 18-year history. Sensing the heavy workload at DMJM, Pelli immediately hired an Assistant: Anthony Lumsden. Both were hired from the Roche/ Dinkeloo office, formally that of Eero Saarinen until his premature 1961 passing. Mid-1960s Los Angeles, having no tradition of formal architectural criticism, easily allowed for both new experimentation, and rapid, cost efficient architecture. In answering to both, beginning in 1966 Pelli and Lumsden would create and refine the glass skin, an easily shaped, reversed mullion, continuous grid design system that would become a corporate vernacular in the western world throughout the 1970’s, into the early 1980’s. This article will focus upon their collaborative designs, which are the earliest works in the Late-Modern glass skin design system.
The Saarinen office had a penchant for glass designs that took the High-Modernist curtain wall in new directions. Of note among these is the Bell Labs project [figure 1 1956, 1962/1967, Holmdel, New Jersey] for which reflecting glass, which makes the glass skin possible in a practical sense, was first designed. This first solar performance glass was mirrored (which will become the skin of choice after the energy crisis), and was developed by Kinney Vacuum Coating of Detroit.1 For his part, Anthony Lumsden had been the project designer on Bell Labs, and it was an idea of his to reverse the vertical mullions to form an exterior skin, an idea that was rejected at that time.2
The Los Angeles region had a prior history of employing glass in twentieth century architecture, as a means to simultaneously provide an aesthetics of Modernism and, particularly with the Modern residences, an integration into nature. The first of Pelli and Lumsden’s glass designs was commissioned by Henry Singleton, who himself lived in a house designed by Richard Neutra. The commission was for the headquarters of the company Singleton had co-founded, Teledyne Labs. Reyner Banham would cite Pelli and Lumsden’s structure [figure 2, 1966/1968, Northridge, CA] for continuing the “Case Study style that almost wasn’t”3 The Teledyne building features an 800-foot long, glazed two-story circulation spine that looked out into surrounding grapefruit groves. Taking a cue from Bell Labs, beginning in 1963, large glass companies Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG) and Libbey Owens Ford (L-O-F) began marketing heavily a new generation of vision and spandrel performance glasses. These reflecting glasses featured microscopic metallic oxides vacuum coated to the inner face of the outer lite of a double glazed unit. Teledyne employed the bronze tinted ‘LHR’ (light heat reflective) glazing units that PPG had introduced as their first solar performance glass. The benevolent climate of the region made the use and experimentation of these early performance glasses an easy option.
The mullion system on Teledyne, though not reversed, gave the horizontal and vertical mullions the same thin treatment, which approximated the idea of an early skin, and was called a ‘continuous’ mullion system in blueprints.4 The fact that the vertical mullions were no longer predominant, combined with the non-loadbearing nature of the curtain wall, allowed for a new shaping of the exterior, and Teledyne features triangular protrusions called ‘fingers’ which provided a self-reflecting interplay upon the glass itself, and made possible easy expansion if necessary [figure 3].
Los Angeles in the mid-1960’s was the global centerpoint for the aerospace and high-technology industries, and the Teledyne Corporation was but one of many such companies in the region.5 With another of Pelli and Lumsden’s 1966 designs, that for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) West Coast Headquarters [figure 4, 1966/1973, Hawthorne, CA] the new glass skin would further articulate an aesthetic translation of Los Angeles high-technology. A six-story rectangular-plan structure, the FAA design is a very early mirrored skin design, with reversed mullions that protrude out only 3/8 inch. The structure was designed within the context of the open space that the region still possessed in abundance in the mid-1960s; advantageous to reflecting glass designs that need not respond to the confines of infill building. The FAA building reflects the sky, dematerializing the building, and making it atmospheric in a way that symbolically references the client. The mirror glass skin, receding lower levels, and rounded corners of the FAA project all contributed to a new lightweight design. In discussing his later, late 60s/early 70s glass skin designs, Cesar Pelli would state his desire to make a fragile and fleeting architecture of volume over mass, more akin to “a flower, not a stone.”6 To Pelli, these intentions ran counter to those of the Modern monument, which he saw as being for the Gods or the state, but not for “today.”7
Although Pelli and Lumsden initially designed the FAA to be completely enclosed in mirror glass, the technology did not exist at the time to fit glass around its tight, rounded corners, and aluminum was used instead. The combined affect of aluminum and mirror skin made reference to jet aircraft, to dirigibles, or in Lumsden’s estimation, to an early streamlined trailer.8 One writer referred to the FAA building as “the clearest statement of technological romanticism.”9
A third 1966 design would fulfill one of Pelli and Lumsdenís primary aims with the glass skin – that of complete enclosure. The Century City Medical Plaza [figure 5, 1966/1969, Century City, CA] is comprised of a 19-story tower and 4-story hospital, that had three floors added in 1972. Upon its completion in 1969, the Century City Medical Plaza would become both the earliest designed and completed project to feature structures entirely enclosed in a skin of glass.10 In enclosing the Medical Plaza tower within a continuous grid, the classical stacking prevalent on high-rises since Louis Sullivan was undone. The just-then prior LA high-rises were often pseudo-modern variations in the Miesian mode, and DMJM had initially brought Pelli in to help correct this. Pelli and Lumsden, by exaggerating the gridism of the Miesian language — applying it over the tower in its entirety, end up undoing these elements of the High Modern language from the dogmatic codes with which they were loaded. In place of this, the Century City Medical Plaza tower acclimates itself to the Minimalist sculpture exemplified by Floor Four of the 1966 Whitney Biennial, of shaped sculptures possessing both architectural and anti-monumental qualities. Although the Century City Medical Plaza is still a box, the new skin enclosure, liberated from columnar references, leaves the box-form to be contemplated as the “object” that it is.11 Pelli himself was fascinated by the interplay between the two-dimensional Cartesian grid across the three-dimensional object, and this continuous, all over gridism would be referred to by Lumsden as a “non-directional, non-gravitational” design system [figure 6].12
Aesthetics aside, Pelli and Lumsden were working for DMJM, where good cost efficiency was a primary objective. Lumsden has stated that part of the reason why such thin mullions were used upon the Century City Medical Plaza was because the tight budget did not allow for more aluminum.13 Just as with earlier glass curtain walls, the standardization of glazing units, with their relatively light-weight, reduced the purchase and construction costs. In the early 1960s the large glass companies switched to the float process of glass making, which greatly reduced labor costs on their part, and made the new performance glasses affordable. Of course, the new performance glass had great cost savings potential in regards to lower air conditioning costs. Century City Medical Plaza features a Graylite-type glazing unit that reads as black, and provides a greatly reduced daylight transmittance and lowered relative heat gain. The total cost of Century City Medical Plaza construction was $28.00 a square foot in 1969.14
Cesar Pelli would leave DMJM in 1968 to become the Design Director at Victor Gruen Associates, a post he held until the end of 1976. Upon Pelli’s departure, Tony Lumsden became the Director of Design at DMJM, where he stayed until 1993, when he began his own practice. Both would continue the glass skin as their signature style throughout the early and mid-1970s. Both would employ high-tech imagery, and design for maximum cost efficiency. In different ways, both would also aim to humanize their buildings, and use the glass skin to do so. For Pelli, he would focus upon the multiple readings on one plane of perceptual transparency as a way to provide a more non-dual relationship between the building and the participant.15 Lumsden would break apart the box using plan or section mutation with extrusion, allowing tenets to have 270-degree office views, whole elevations acclimated toward the Santa Monica Mountains, or just a new interior variety brought on by undulating curved walls.16 Eventually, the glass-skin design system would go global.17 Although LA has been called a global city, and it is logical that a global architecture would stem from it, something about the humanizing of high-rises seems nicely LA- centric as well.
Daniel Paul just graduated from the California State University Northridge with a Masters Degree in Art History. Working under Merry Ovnick, his thesis was titled, “The Aesthetics of Efficiency: Contexts and the Early Development of Late-Modern Glass Skin Architecture.” He is the Vice-Chairperson of the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee, and is currently an Associate Historian with Design Aid Architects. He has also heavily researched art environments by the self-taught, and oversaw Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley for many years.