a proposal for an exhibition organized by Frauke Neumeyer and sponsored by the R.I.B.A. The exhibit is open at USC and travel to the R.I.B.A. next spring.
Never or nowhere else is Herakleites’ conclusion that everything is perpetually in flux more convincing than in Los Angeles.
Having grown up in Europe and been educated in the tradition of European architecture with all its burdens and obligations and its goal of Vitruvian perfection found in “firmitas, utilitas and venustas”, I knew that I could only overcome my culture shock upon arriving in LA by accepting the definitely different though equal worlds of California architecture.
Driving around Los Angeles gives the impression of endless possibilities with no legible tradition. This, of course, is LA’s particular tradition: the lack of a perceptible or evident order is the order of the city. The roots of the tradition don’t run into the depths of history. Instead, they are to be found on the horizontal surface of the present, creating and recreating themselves daily. The main aspects of Southern California’s architecture (e.g. the region’s Spanish heritage, its taste for exotic styles, the craftsman tradition with Japanese influence, and the local varieties of modernisms, futurism and post-modernism) are not sequential, but co-existent, not based on each other, but mixed up together and continuously created.
Beyond that, however, we must try to understand the conditions that have generated this apparent but not actual disorder: the varied landscape, with its smooth, soft colors, the benign climate, the sun, the dry deserts, and the earthquakes. Disneyland, Hollywood, the freeways and the melting pot of 180 ethnic groups in LA County are other factors affecting architecture produced in Southern California. These local conditions have influenced the Southern California style as much as any architects’ personal sensibilities.
None of the generation of architects working in this century to create a Southern California was a native Californian. The range and variety of their backgrounds as well as their interest in what happens right here right now, rather than what happens elsewhere, helped to produce a diversity of forms, materials, and spatial relationships unique in all the world.
Like Greene & Greene, they tried to combine their skills in handicrafts and knowledge about Japanese architecture in distributing living spaces and combining inside and out. Or, later, like Schindler and Neutra, they informed the creed of European modernism with their own comprehension of existing conditions to generate a variety of forms with a wide range of materials.
The houses in this exhibition are examples of the extent and breadth of the transformations of California conditions into architecture. Some of the qualities they represent included a spatial inventiveness, an emphasis on or juxtaposition of contradictions, idiosyncratic choices of materials and colors, play with icons, and contextual responses to the local built and natural landscape.
(Ms. Neumeyer is an architect in Berlin who spent several years in LA.)