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Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism, 1900-1970 by Thomas S Hines

Tracing the modernist legacy of southern Califonia from its roots

Reyner Banham was the first serious critic to celebrate LA’s eclectic architectural legacy, rather than dismiss it as another manifestation of Tinseltown kitsch. His book Los Angeles: Architecture of the Four Ecologies first appeared in 1971, and is still the best summary of what makes that maligned metropolis so fascinating. Over the past 40 years, he has become a leading advocate for the modernist legacy of southern California.

In Architecture of the Sun, Hines traces its roots, from the Greene brothers’ Craftsman bungalows to the pioneering work of Irving Gill and Frank Lloyd Wright. There’s a masterly comparison of Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, the Austrian émigrés who both worked for Wright, briefly collaborated, and then took paths as different as their personalities. Schindler was a hairy man for whom every job was a creative experiment. He secured little work and less respect in his lifetime, but his influence has been immense.

Neutra was the smooth man, persuasive and focused, who was anointed by the east coast panjandrums for his first major work - the Lovell Health House - and played brilliant variations on that theme for the next four decades. The estranged pair embodied the twin strains of expressionism and rationalism, Dionysian and Apollonian, that still shape LA architecture.

Neutra’s protégés - including Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano and Harwell Hamilton Harris - receive their due, and there’s a judicious summary of Craig Ellwood as an impresario who inspired his associates but stole credit for their creativity. Architectural descriptions are enlivened by portraits of remarkable clients who took chances, sometimes bankrupting themselves in the name of experimentation.

However, the last two chapters are anti-climactic. Hines doesn’t appreciate John Lautner, despite his work in the 1960s far outshining Neutra’s. More space is devoted to the corporate modernism of Welton Beckett and William Pereira, whose work symbolises the provincialism of LA’s public realm and its leaders’ eagerness to settle for mediocrity.

Both chapters could usefully be replaced with more detail on the many LA architects who enriched the modernist heritage, but have never received the attention they deserve.

Architecture of the Sun

Author: Thomas S Hines

Publisher: Rizzoli International, 2010

Price: $95

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