Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Love Your Late Modern


LaLa Land movie poster
Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a new week on the blog.  Yesterday, yours truly finally saw LaLa Land and liked it.  Blogger especially liked the how the director, Damian Chazelle, effectively used Los Angeles landmarks as supporting players.  Blogger was so taken with the movie and a fantastic conversation with FOB (Friend of Blogger) Daniel Sirignano (play itagaindan.wordpress.com) that it inspired a post on saving Los Angeles's late modernist landmarks from a date with the wrecking ball.

The article, written by Mimi Zeiger, "Can Preservationists Save L.A. Late Modernist Landmarks From the Wrecking Ball?" originally appeared in L.A. Weekly and was picked up by Architectural Record.  To be clear, AR did not report, edit, or fact check the article.  It is a timely article because some of the landmarks have reached or are reaching the 50-year-old threshold that preservationists set for enough time to properly evaluate a building or place.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy this survey of Los Angeles's late modernist landmarks.  Hopefully you will be inspired to appreciate these buildings and similar ones where you live.

Los Angeles International Airport Theme Building
Paul R. Williams, William L. Pereira, Charles Luckman, and Welton Becket
Los Angeles, California
Wedged in the middle of Los Angeles International Airport's cacophonous traffic and packed-beyond-capacity parking lot , the iconic spaceship Theme blissfully rises above the chaos.  The Theme Building was designed by William L. Pereira and Charles Luckman (with Paul R. Williams and Welton Becket) is one of the last original buildings of the airport masterplan, opened in 1961. "Its architects envisioned it as the centerpiece of the airport, a jet-setting gateway to the futurist city of Los Angeles."  Today you have to play shuttle bus chicken to reach it, and the retro-cool cocktail bar and restaurant shuttered doors in 2013.   In 1993, the L.A. City Council declared it a Historic-Cultural  Monument, which protects from demolition or substantial alterations, "it's an essential piece of architectural history."

Norm's Coffee Shop on La Cienega
Armet & Davis
Los Angeles, California
The Theme Building is situated within the narrative of a period of expressive architecture sometime referred to a "Googie" or "Populuxe"-"commercial styles meant to capture in streamlined form L.A.'s aerospace ambitions"  Norm's Coffee Shop on La Cienega Boulevard  by Armet & Davis, saved from demolition in 2016, is an example of this style.  The coffee shop features comet-like shapes that evoke a sense of midcentury optimism.

The promise of a brighter future did not exactly materialize.  Some of the buildings from the late-fifties, early sixties-that once heralded the coming urban utopia-now have prove their contemporary relevance or face the wrecking ball.  Rapid growth across Los Angeles-from the proposed Los Angeles County of Museum redesign, extended Metro rail lines, to science fiction-like proposals for larger denser developments-suggests that now, more than ever, we need to preserve the architectural past.

Pann's Restaurant
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles is full of architecture that has a story to tell about "LaLa Land"-not all of it happy.  After all, buildings are documents of a city; like fashion, styles change; some things remain classics while others come and go.  Architecture is also a mirror of the period it lives in: its. ideas, hopes, and aspirations.

"Midcentury architecture in L.A. reflects many great ideas, but should all midcentury buildings be preserved?"  This is the conundrum faced by preservationists and architecture aficionados.  Matthew Weiner's series Mad Men proved that the Hollywood is love with the sleek modern homes nestled in the hill as the perfect hideout for villains and socialites-but what about their unattractive siblings?  Those buildings that do not quite fit into the Mad Men narrative?  The Theme Building and the Pereira & Luckman LAX master plan is part of the late modern narrative-"a period after the famous designs by Silver Lake-based [sic] Austrian architect Richard Neutra and the Eames Office-that begins at midcentury and stretched into the 1970s, when it quietly died."

Parker Center
Welton Becket
Los Angeles, California
Adrian Scott Fine, advocacy director for our friend at the Los Angeles Conservancy (http://www.laconservancy.org) said,

In many ways the midcentury moderna buildings and places from the 1950s to the 1970s best tell the story of Los Angeles during its greatest period of growth and prosperity.

The L.A. Conservancy was founded in 1978 to protect the city's architectural heritage and is now calling attention to later modern designs, including the soon-to-be demolished the 1955 Parker Center by Welton Becket and the original Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus by Pereira Associates.

Capitol Records Building
Welton Becket & Associates
Hollywood, California
Mr. Fine continues,

At a time when the city was essentially coming into its own, each one imparts an important aspect of how Los Angeles was rapidly growing, from one of the most modern and advanced police headquarters in the nation to city's first real cultural arts museum.

Part of the Pereira legacy is in danger of disappearing-his original  LACMA campus is slated for demolition to make way or the latest Peter Zumthor museum iteration.  Other buildings also face an uncertain future: "the brown behemoth addition to the L.A. Times offices and Echo Park's grand but now derelict hilltop Metropolitan Water District building."  Beatle fans pay attention, Welton Becket & Associates elegant Capitol Records building is also facing an uncertain future.  Whatever your thoughts are on Parker Center and what it stands for, you cannot help feeling a little sentimental for the space-age minimalist cube that is Parker Center.

Throughout Los Angeles, building by some of the city's most important firm also existential threats.  Rejected and out dated, can late modernism get any love?

Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Residence
Paul R. Williams
Photograph by Julius Shulman
Palm Springs, California
Beauty and the brutalist

Beauty and the Brutalist beast.  Well, maybe not so beastly thanks to renewed (good, bad, and indifferent) in late-modern architects and their work.  In December 2016, the American Institute of Architects finally awarded Paul Revere Williams the 2017 AIA Gold Medal.  Blogger says finally because Mr. Williams, who passed away in 1980, is the first African-American architect to receive this prestigious award.  He work included the Theme Building, homes for Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball.  "But why did it take 37 years for Williams' late-modern designs to be recognized?"

Good question.  Susan Macdonald, project director of the Getty Conservation Institute's Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative has the answer: it is a question of subjective public taste.  Public taste is a fickle and cyclical beast.  "There's a time lapse between an architectural fall from grace and renewed recognition.  Ms. MacDonald explained,

Typically, people start to see place as heritage some 30 to 40 years after their construction...First are the aficionados and professionals such as architects, historians and preservation organizations.

The Dude abides Sheats-Goldstein Residence
John Lautner
One of the obstacles to giving these buildings some love is it can be hard for the public to recognize a building as historic.  The Dude abides by the fact that the Sheats-Goldstein Residence, designed in the early sixties by Frank Lloyd Wright disciple John Lautner, is landmark worthy.  "Not only is the home architecturally unique with its temple like [sic] concrete walls, sharp edges and pointed roof..."  Last year, owner James Goldstein, donated it to LACMA, ensuring its long-term preservation.  "No one can deny the importance of GCI's most recent conservation of the Eames House-where Charles and Ray Eames put their minimalist philosophies to work-the beautifully brutalist Salk Institute as significant contributions to modern heritage."  What about the less sexy office tower or civic buildings?

Department of Water and Power Building
Albert C. Martin and Associates
Los Angeles, California

Painter Danny Heller (http://www.dannyhellerart.com) argues that those unsexy buildings are equally inspiring.  Mr. Heller was raised in the San Fernando Valley, surround by generic postwar sprawl.  His highly detailed oil paintings are an homage to midcentury architecture-the icons and quotidian.  He said,

Painting helped me describe the beauty of modernism by teaching me how to really observe...I always hope that in some small way, my artwork can expose [the era] more to the masses.

Mr. Heller is particularly enamored by the landmark Department of Water and Power headquarters in downtown L.A.-the John Ferraro Building-by A.C. Martin & Associates.  The painter perfectly rendered reflect pools and louvered elevations are repeated in several of Mr. Heller's work.  "He emphasizes the drama and the beauty of the stark structure."  He continued,

I think folks who find modernism ugly just don't understand it- they see it as plain, simple, uninspired...If people learned more about it and saw these buildings at the time of their conception, they would realize how revolutionary they were are and are.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art postcard 1968
William Pereira and Associates
Los Angeles, California

Pereira in peril

Let us consider one of Los Angeles's more prolific architects William L. Pereira.  Was his work revolutionary?  Discuss.  The late Mr. Pereira designed the master plan for Irvine Ranch and the iconic Transamerica tower in San Francisco.  He was also the subject of a cover article for Time in 1963-part visionary, part insider.

William Pereira was born and trained in Chicago, he came West to work as an art designer for Paramount Pictures.  In the late forties, he and his classmate, Charles Luckman, established the firm Pererira & Luckman.  The office has designed some classic Los Angeles buildings: the Theme Building and CBS Television City, in the Fairfax District.  Later, Mr. Pereira spun off a successful solo practice, which he ran until his death in 1985.

CBS Televison City
William Pereira & Charles Luckman
Los Angeles, California
  Quoting from his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, To design plans to satisfy the future.  His oeuvre address a time beyond his period of significance.  Despite his ambitions, many of his buildings have either been consigned to the dustbin of history or are threatened.

Perhaps none more so than the his LACMA campus.  Right from the start, the Pereira design stirred up controversy.  The design was welcomed by the public in 1965.  Painter Ed Ruscha's The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-68) best encapsulates the architect's original concept of a museum in the park (without the flames: three pavilions arranged in a U-shape, joined together by outdoor plazas.  The campus appeared to float on a large lagoon.  The pools have always been a problem-tar leaked into them and inflammable gas was rise to the surface.  By the seventies the pools were drained.

Current iteration of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Peter Zumthor
Rendering by Atelier Peter Zumthor
In its fifty years of existent, LACMA's critics have routinely stressed that the choice of the late-Mr. Pereira as architect was a compromised between the museum's board of director and Chicago-based modern master Ludwig Mies van Rohe; New York-based Edward Durrell Stone, known for a more exuberant approach to design.

Looming on the horizon is a brand $600 million new museum campus by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, that would replace the much loved Pereira building and the less loved hardy Holzman Pfeiffer 1986 addition lining Wilshire Boulevard.  Museum director Michael Govan has been repeatedly asked to defend his decision to demolish the older structures.  Mr. Govan ticked off a list of issues: narrow galleries and leaky pools to the $300 million required to bring the old structure up to earthquake code.  Mr Govan recalled,

The cutest one I heard was that women would get wet walking the stairs...The fountains were placed too close to the stairs.  So, when the wind blew they'd be baptized by the visit.

Really, Mr. Govan?  This sounds a wee bit sexist, do you not think?

Mutual Benefit Life building, 1971
Gin Wong
Los Angeles, California
Mr. Govan maintains that the original galleries have reached their expiration date and the elimination the pools represents a loss of the main design device.  He admitted,

If the Pereira buildings were still intact, we could try to do something.

He went on to suggest that the Mutual Benefit Life building by William Pereira associate Gin Wong as more preservation-worthy.   The 1971 high rise stands 32-stories, circled by open plazas and landscaping.  Since 2005, the building is owned by the Ratkovich Company, the interiors have undergone renovations; a few years ago, the developer announced a new entry plaza designed by Greg Lynn.  The plans have been stalled since 2010 however it is possible that infill and more redevelopment will continue.

Architecture is organic-it changes over time-carefully considered additions or renovations is absolutely crucial to its long term survival.  "Sensitive adaption for new uses can be a passive preservation technique, while heavy-handed retrofits, often done in the name of current taste or revised function, can doom a building."  Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain, which acquired William Pereira's office in 1987 and carries on his legacy, takes a more pragmatic view,

If a building is an important architectural and/or cultural landmark, and if enough of it remains that it can be brought back to physical presence either in part or in totality, then, yes, a historic modern building should be saved...Repurposing occupancy is usually the more difficult task and, in many ways, the important one.  We don't need our cities to become shuttered museums of times past.

Metropolitan Water District headquarters
William Pereira, 1961-63
Los Angeles, California
Such was the case with once gorgeous Metropolitan Water District headquarters on Sunset Boulevard near Echo Park.  Built by Pereira & Associates between 1961 and 1963, "the three-building campus has seen significant alterations to its structures and landscape, including the removal of the entry pavilion and he addition of a high-rise in 1971."  Photographs from sixties show fanciful water features and ponds, in tribute to the complex's client.  However, when Holy Hill Community Church took over the complex and built a new sanctuary building in the nineties, the original pools were drained and covered over.  The current owners, Palisades Capital Partners, wants to raze the complex (except for the recently renovated condominium tower) to build a mixed-use residential project.  Preservationists hoped that project would be designated a city Historic-Cultural Landmark but the Cultural Heritage Commission denied it this past autumn.  Too much damage done.

Ken Bernstein, manager and city planner in the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, said,

The challenge with some of these buildings is they've suffered from deferred maintenance or inappropriate additions...The complex was too compromised due to renovations and add-ons in the 1990s to be designated a Historic-Cultural Monument.

Architect-historian Alan Hess has a a different point of view.  Mr. Hess believes that "the project is distinct in its architectural style and celebration of water, and therefore worth preserving.  Specifically,

[It's] one of the very best examples of Pereira's expression of a new modernism for a new city-it's not Bauhaus, not International Style.

The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center
Los Angeles, California
Resuscitation downtown

Right now Mr. Hess is at work on his latest book, with architect Pierluigi Serraino, on a broad survey of California modern architecture from the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-seventies.  The deep dive affords Mr. Hess the space to reflect on how William Pereira's offices and other corporate offices such as: Welton Becket, Charles Luckman, and Victor Gruen shaped Los Angeles.  Consider the classics: the Music Center, the Forum in Inglewood, and CBS Television City.  Mr. Hess said,

Pereira was inventing new building types, as well as giving them architectural expression...CBS was designed in 1950 for television, a brand-new industry.  It's still in use today, almost 70 years later.

Times Mirror Square from the intersection of 2nd Street and Broadway
Los Angeles, Ca
If Angelenos still love CBS Television City with its elegant streamlined black-and-white Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square and explained,

fa├žades, William Pereira's later work has no such affection.  Mr. Hess pointed to the the architect's 1973 structure for the

People are saying it's ugly, it's garbage, it's a bunker.

The building was a six-story addition to the art-deco headquarters designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann.  It is a hulking brown structure that fills up its block on Broadway and First Street in Downtown Los Angeles.  The one-time home to the Times-Mirror corporate offices, it is now vacant and the object of redevelopment by the Vancouver-based Onni Group, which would knock down the building while preserving the Kaufmann edifices.

Gordon Kaufmann's Times building with the addition
Los Angeles, California

Alan Hess begs to differ on the building's history, not focus on its abstract geometry and dark color scheme.  "In its time, it was a major commission from one of the most powerful clients in California, located across the street from City Hall."  The glass and stone, not concrete, is a reference to Brutalism, the postwar style that frequently draws public scorn.  The vintage interiors are now used as film backdrops.  "Maybe those shoots represent the beginning of changing public tastes."

The current spate of movies and television shows set in the sixties and seventies indicate that this period style is back in vogue.  This trend is making its way to new proposals for megastructures in the Arts District by Swiss architects Herzong & de Meuron and Copenhagen- and New York-based Bjarke Ingels Group both feature feature chunky exposed concrete construction and block-like forms that reference the areas industrial past and current Brutalist trends.

 Parker Center: Former Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters
Welton Becket & Associates, 1955
Los Angeles, California

The Times Mirror Square is not the only piece of late modernism under threat, just a short distance away, the controversial Parker Center is at the epicenter of a redevelopment plan.  The former Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters was built in 1955 by Welton Becket & Associates.  The eight-story midcentury modern building has a strong presences in L.A.'s political and cultural consciousness-as a supporting player in the television series Dragnet to site of protests following the verdict in the criminal trial of the four officers accused of beating Rodney King.  In November 2015, the Cultural Heritage Commission placed the building in nomination as a Historic-Cultural Monument however, the City Council denied landmark Parker Center landmark status, voting in favor to knock it down and replace it with a proposed 28-story building.

Parker Center by Danny Heller

Painter Danny Heller made the former LAPD Headquarters the subject of several of his images.  "His brushstrokes capture the blunt elegance of the building, as well as the trio of palms out front."  Mr. Heller said "the structure has a special place in his heart, and he's been working with the Los Angeles Conservancy to help save it.  He said,

There's a long, turbulent history there, but I think it's important to preserve some of these buildings that might remind us of both the good- and bad- times.

L.A. Conservancy's Adrian Scott Fine said the "organization recognizes that ours is a city of constant evolution, so architecture of one generation may not always serve the purposes of the next."  However, new development and preservation do not travel down parallel courses.  He said,

many of these midcentury buildings and  landmarks are located on highly visible and  valuable sites, posing an addition threat and challenge, as some see them as being in the way and ripe for redevelopment and perhaps greater density...There are 'win-win' opportunities to integrate new development with the preservation and reuse of modern buildings.

The Century Plaza Hotel
Minor Yamasaki
Los Angeles, California

Mr. Fine points to a couple of successful examples: the incorporation of Welton Becket's Cinerama Dome into the Hollywood Arclight complex and the preservation of Minor Yamasaki's Century Plaza Hotel on the same site as twin high-rises.

Sometimes the most unlikely candidates for preservation can succeed too.  This past winter the LA2050 organization awarded a group of self-professed artists, urban planners, and civic leaders a $100,000 grant to restore the Triforium, a "six-story, 60-ton public artwork by Joseph Young, which stands in Fletcher boron Square at the north end of downtown's Los Angeles Mall."  The "polyphonoptic" kinetic sculpture feature 1,494 multi-colored Murano glass cubes that are designed to light in accordance to music from a glass bell carillon.  This tech-inspired work was ahead of its time-"the lighting effect were glitchy and its computer eventually failed."  Hopefully the grant will reboot the sculpture back to life.

Adrian Scott Fine added

Many Angelenos drive by these places and may take for granted but often do not know why they look the way they do, who commissioned them, what happened there or why they matter.

Public curiosity and interest is the first in keeping these unloved pieces of Los Angeles's late modern history from a date with the wrecking ball.

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