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What will the Neighbours Think? Los Angeles looks back to the future

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Elastic, plastic and anarchic, Los Angeles is a city seduced by dreams of the future that feed its hunger for experimentation. A major series of new exhibitions revisits and reframes its colourful recent past

In October 2011, the Getty Trust launched Pacific Standard Time, a generously funded programme that invited museums throughout southern California to uncover and celebrate the art of the region in the postwar generation. It was, in the words of a New York Times review, ‘a cacophonous, synergistic, sometimes bizarre colossus of exhibitions’. Domestic architecture and design were the most successful element of this programme, with the county museum’s celebration of California’s revolutionary impact on the design of modern life drawing much the largest single audience to such icons of design as the Eames home and studio, Raymond Loewy’s Avanti and Richard Neutra’s experimental schools and housing. The startling originality and impact of the ideas was perfectly captured by Time magazine, which placed Neutra on its cover in 1949, and asked: ‘What will the neighbors think?’

Earlier this spring, the Getty began to run a sequel, Pacific Standard Time Presents, in which 11 venues are tracing some less trodden paths of architecture. As a model of intelligent funding the programme is a triumph: shows complement each other, but the idiosyncrasies and strengths of each museum are apparent; and for many the Getty grants have allowed research, installation and production at a wholly new level, giving a visibility and credibility to exhibition and archival programmes that had long been under the radar.

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The car is the star in Smith and Williams’ 1961 George House

The first shows focus on architecture and its culture in metropolitan Los Angeles from 1940 to 1990, as it grew from a lightly scattered city of under three million to a dense conurbation, over 80 miles across, of almost 15. The Getty itself anchors the programme in Overdrive, a wonderfully well-packed and well-paced presentation on the forward-looking thrust of the city’s changing architectural landscape in those 50 years. Overdrive starts with roadways and roadside buildings, with power, water and the economic engines of a growing city, and then moves through a variety of expressions of public life and labour, carefully mingling design documents and models with historic film footage, printed matter, photos and sound. Nothing is made to look sacred, and the effect, as if one were driving through the city and noticing its landmarks, is both animated and incredibly legible. Visitors flash on moments of recognition, start talking and reminiscing, and leave seeing this amorphous city − perhaps for the first time − as if they owned it.

Much of what we see speaks of a city, emerging early in the 1960s, whose approach to growth and the future has been to shift scale, mostly with more fanfare than the architecture warrants. It is immensely instructive, but we begin to tire of the boosterism, cultural pieties, greed and pomp that placed these overbearing punctuations in the landscape, arriving with relief at the models of Deborah Sussman’s brilliant-coloured Olympic columns of 1984, reminding us that this was still the city of Googies, Watts Towers, and the Tail o’ the Pup − a playground in which structures can happily have no purpose but delight. A large quiet gallery, almost exclusively devoted to models and drawings, closes the show with a 50-year feast of bold, brilliant and sometimes still-startling innovations in the character of the residential fabric and of the small scale, neighbourly public services that support it.

Three pictures of LA thus emerge: a city anarchic, accepting with bravado the loose, impermanent rhythms of a horizontal life and finding patterns and shapes to work with in the resulting accidents and collisions; a city plastic, periodically reappearing in an effort to match growth by re-scaling the very geography of a mobile urban life along normative, fixed and monumental lines; and a city elastic, a constant field for the reinvention of living, whether clustered or free, working with light and landscape, and stretching plans and forms to shift, with changing tastes and needs, from one function to the next.

The city elastic

Elasticity and small scale are what the city’s architects − from Schindler to Kappe, Neutra to Lautner, Gehry to Israel − have always done best, and it is what the world has learned most from them: how to reshape the space of neighbourhood life to fit new and particular ways of living, to balance comfort with economy, to find private space and vistas without losing visible links to community, and to reconcile what is already on the ground with what might suit it next.

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Gregory Ain’s Avenel Homes, built in 1947, are based on LA’s instantly recognisable bungalow-court type

As Gregory Ain’s Avenel Homes show, in a city founded on the unique typologies of the bungalow court and the low-rise garden apartment complex this has never simply been a matter of the single dwelling in the landscape, but a test of how to cluster and orchestrate adjacencies, views and contiguities, whether in a single row or court of homes or in a colony of independent houses.

One only has to linger on the terrace of the Getty for a moment to see − in the densely stacked postwar co-operative suburb of Crestwood Hills across the canyon − these ideas at work on the ground. The two monographic exhibitions in the programme are the first fully-fledged examinations of the leading figures in designing and planning that ideal neighbourhood, A Quincy Jones (at the Hammer Museum) and Whitney R Smith (at University of California Santa Barbara). Both went on to develop a number of pioneering suburban models, Jones working with Eichler Homes on middle-class, system-built housing and both Smith and Jones on a series of small-scale, small-lot, single-family developments, of which Smith’s Blue Ribbon tract orienting minimal homes for working families into a common landscape is a signal example.

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Scattered in a casual landscape: Blue Ribbon Tract plan for homes for working families by Smith and Williams

Both were also adept at translating domestic spatial scale − its low-rise, broken volumes and horizontal line; the play of movement and vista between indoor and out; a domestic vocabulary of casual colours and material − to local services of all types: the medical clinic, the recreation centre, the nursery school, the branch library, and the office court. Their own courtyard studios were fascinating examples. Smith, working with Garrett Eckbo, placed around a central garden court the offices of an engineer, an architect, a landscape designer, an interior studio and a planning group.

This was a veritable design neighbourhood, and one that inevitably produced shared ideas and real world collaborations. The Jones office, revived and restored by Fred Fisher as his own headquarters, borrows all its scales and movement from the domestic.

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Japanese influences come to the fore in the Shoreline House by Smith and Williams

Smith − in his car washes, fast food shacks, and auto showrooms, as well as many houses − also borrowed, as Schindler had before him, the structural language of the garden trellis, the post and pergola, to assemble structures that could be cut and built as fast as a new suburb blossoming out of nowhere needed them, drawing knowledgeably on those Japanese traditional examples to which California had turned since the start of the century.

His most brilliant work consists of almost nothing, like a car showroom in which a single pylon, a coloured sign, and a rudimentary frame flag the driver off a fast-moving highway, and that is that. It is that California tradition of rough and ready assemblage and informal adjacencies that can be seen returning in radical work of the 1970s and ’80s, whether as a kindly provocation, as in Gehry’s own house, at his Edgemar shopping centre, and in his ‘temporary’ Contemporary; as triggers for new form in the early work of Eric Owen Moss and Fred Fisher; and as a consoling force in such work as Koning Eizenberg’s experiments in social and supportive housing.

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The practice also designed commercial projects such as Hudson Motors, which beckons motorists off the freeway with the subtlest of gestures

The Santa Barbara exhibition, neatly titled Outside In and brilliantly using those post and panel systems as the vocabulary of installation, dwells not only on Smith’s dissolution of the boundaries between unmanaged landscape garden and structure, but on how other designers invented new approaches to that relationship: Maynard Lyndon with his approach to outside space and sunlight in schools, dating from 1946, that surely informed the Smithsons at Hunstanton; Gregory Ain and Garrett Eckbo beginning to zone and compose gardens at their first park-planned communities into what became Eckbo’s Landscapes for Living, a book that took the California patio and the abstract sculpted garden to the four corners of the globe.

Technology and Environment − at California Polytechnic Pomona − looks in depth at a small group of markedly different houses and places them in a similar light. Large-scale models analyse their plan and construction; their environmental performance is measured; and the relationship to vegetation and landscape around them is photographically recorded. The show’s in-depth approach makes the varied strategies of interaction with landscape clearer than ever before.

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Raphael Soriano’s Schrage House is defined as much by its planting as by its almost intangible steel frame

We see Smith at Santa Barbara using overhangs, openings and projections to make his houses talk to the landscape, and Raphael Soriano at Pomona reducing his steel-frame house to the barest elements and simplest geometries, depending entirely on vegetation and changing light to animate space and vistas, specifying with meticulous attention the placement, texture, colour and growth pattern of every plant within view of the window walls. At the same time the Pomona models make readily comprehensible complex structural and planning systems, like the casually intricate assembly and eccentric disposition of space at Schindler’s Kallis House.

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Rudolph Schindler’s Kallis House (1948)

The city plastic

The rendering of the LAX Theme Building of 1961 (top), which the Getty chooses as the signature image for its show, captures it all. There is the patent absurdity of the object itself, which served no real purpose except as a landmark, which uses an optical illusion to fake a bravado of suspension that isn’t really there, and was quite consciously intended to evoke a science fiction filmmaker’s view of a spaceship landing. There is the forlorn reason for its very existence, marking the spot on which, in an original plan rejected for cost, a single gigantic domed terminal would have serviced all passengers. There is what the romance of the rendering never captures − the fact that it stood for years like a distant island, dwarfed and lonely amid the sea of the world’s largest parking lot. And there is the electric nightfall, which in the sunlit haze of the horizontal city, made even lonely or tiny landmarks visible from far, and in which with arc lights beaming and Burger Kings aglitter the real romance of the city’s vistas can be enjoyed, since night allows so much of its wayward architecture to be forgiven.

I have no quarrel with Overdrive’s claim that Los Angeles’ versions of corporate grandeur were in their scale and aspect − as Time magazine said in its cover feature on William Pereira in 1963 − peculiarly powerful as ‘vistas of the future’. Unlike corporate towers and cultural centres scaled to the smaller sites and more crowded streetscape of other cities, they dressed in a lighter California palette, shone in the sunlight, often twinned around an open piazza to heighten their independence, and either stood clear of their neighbours or − as at Century City − were part of a symphony of size and newness.

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The Shopping Bag Market also made great use of illumination, with a glance back to Mendelsohn’s cinemas

They were also − like Century City and the city of Irvine, planned for 50,000 and now near a quarter of a million − conceived at a unique scale. And that scale, as at Irvine and Newport Harbor, where a pattern of self-sufficient communities and neighbourhoods was developed, might stimulate some model planning ideas. But as a whole they are as stiff and plastic as Pereira’s County Museum pavilions − whose history will appear in a show to open there soon, alongside Peter Zumthor’s promise to tear them down. LA ends up as a result being littered with objects that smack of power but in the colours of a ghostly neutral nowhere.

Four massive firms essentially governed the landscape of LA development in the late Cold War era. One, Welton Becket’s, actually described itself as the largest architectural firm in the world. They were regularly hired to do the development feasibility studies of a new venture and then co-opted masterplan and design. As a result it was almost impossible for a small office to compete for the major developments. There were also decisive shifts in the mid 1950s, when Schindler died, and two of his most fertile and imaginative heirs − Harwell Harris and Soriano − moved away, and again in the early ’60s, with the departure of Ain, Eckbo and the editor John Entenza; as Richard Neutra’s signal career began to close; and as those who could transitioned from studios into sometimes shortlived commercial and planning practice, turning − like Edward Killingsworth, Maynard Lyndon, A Quincy Jones, and Whitney Smith − to resorts, colleges, civic facilities and luxury homes and developments, with sometimes unseemly results.

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LA also has its fair share of failed civic and corporate monoliths, but AC Martin’s Water and Power Building (1965) succeeds by virtue of its lighting and fountains

As Smith himself recalled, John Lautner was almost alone in finding enough private clients to sustain a studio practice through the ’60s and ’70s; others like Ray Kappe and Rex Lotery turned to teaching or masterplanning to keep small-scale inventive work alive. One exception was Craig Ellwood, whose practice had always worked as a small design and engineering collective, with highly successful and influential large-scale public buildings late in his career − the two brilliant lightweight campuses for Scientific Data Systems and the magnificent inhabited bridge in the foothills of Pasadena that houses Art Center College of Design.

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John Lautner’s Malin House, or ‘Chemosphere’ (1960), escapes an extreme gradient while affording incredible views

Like Lautner’s earlier Chemosphere and Ray Kappe’s house of 1968, Ellwood’s Art Center enhances the experience of the world it sits in by returning to LA’s long experiment in shaping for the slope. Lautner’s Chemosphere may have been mocked worldwide as a spaceship that has landed − and it actually carries its roof on the same truss forms that pretend to support the Theme Building.

But it is a perfectly sensible solution to placing a simple one-storey house on a precipitous site by releasing its ties to the land and it is very much more about vistas from within than the view towards it. Lautner imagined an entire neighbourhood of such miraculously independent dwellings ranged over the hills above the San Fernando Valley, repetition being ameliorated by shifts in placement. Both Kappe, who stacked the zones of his dwelling on floating trays rising into and above the trees, and Ellwood who stretched over it in a single line, were returning to the ideal of allowing one topography − built geometries − to turn another − the very terrain − into its own landmark.

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Craig Ellwood and Carlos Diniz’s Art Center College rests on the undulating terrain like a habitable bridge

Equally successful is the Music Corporation of America offices by Skidmore Owings and Merrill, built at the same time as Art Center and sadly omitted from Overdrive. Here SOM drew on the unique local tradition of domesticating workspace and spilling it out of doors, so that what results is a working neighbourhood, marked only with a modest orienting tower block, in which a creative community with a need to collaborate can move in and out of private space.

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SOM’s MCA courtyard pergolas overflow with greenery, in a vision of the head office as suburbia

As anyone looking out from the Getty on its hillside site can note, all of LA’s difficulties with constructing, adopting and preserving monuments might be resolved at a blow by recognising that in a city this wide and vast, very few Angelenos pass by the same point very often, and a landmark must be in the common field of vision to exist at all. And any landmark will invariably be swallowed up by the great line of hills that orients the city and controls its vistas, unless by chance it sits upon them. So it is in fact no accident that the accidental survival of an abandoned 1920s suburban real-estate sign, perfectly inaccessible in a great wave of scrub and saying simply ‘HOLLYWOOD’, has remained the only lovable sign for the city. These chance monuments are funny things − the Eiffel Tower says nothing about Paris.

But ‘Hollywoodland’ says everything LA ever wanted to say about its aspirations: looking out from the commonplace retreat of a little hillside neighbourhood and imagining the possible urban sleekness and glamour that might lie below.

The city anarchic

Which brings us back to the playful landscape of the postwar roadside, and forward to the last decade in this half-century of expansion. SCI-Arc’s Confederacy of Heretics revisits Thom Mayne’s ‘Architecture Gallery’ − a room in his house that for 10 weeks late in 1979 showcased the work of emerging architects, most of whom would soon and wrongly be cast as the ‘LA School’. They were not a school at all, but a cluster of independent minds, some working together, playing not only with architectural ideas but with the endless possibilities of how to present and visualise them.

Heretics shows these figures and studios at a critical moment both in their evolution, and in the life of Los Angeles, questioning both the compulsion to over-plan and over-build and the solemnity that went behind it. It was the start of an exuberant decade, in which LA was reinventing itself in a number of new small-scale typologies.

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A Quincy Jones’ studio spills into the sunlit outdoors; it was restored by Frederick Fisher

This is the spirit captured by Sylvia Lavin in her reflection on the oddities of improvised and creative space at the MAK’s Everything Loose Will Land. It also appeared in the commonplaces of the first new live-work ‘lofts’, clustered town houses, infill beach houses, hard-edge restaurants, and 3,000 mini-malls that appeared in the 10 years since gas stations began closing in the wake of the oil crisis. Along with it went new spaces squatting inside old ones, mismatched materials, the specific language of one typology quirkily imposed on another, often borrowing from apparently inappropriate vernaculars in which surfboards served as doorways, or a lifeguard station as a den. Thus LA recaptured the improvisational intelligence of a studio culture that had been all but swallowed up in the corporate monumentalism of the plastic city. The most established of the heretics was Frank Gehry, and his work, especially at his own house, was the inevitable and liberating point of reference around which so much of that new culture spun.

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Schindelr’s Kallis House perhaps acted as a precursor to Frank Gehry’s home (top, 1978), with exploded forms and an incongruous corrugated iron shell built around a colonial house. The Petal Housen by Eric Owen Moss (above, 1982) follows in this LA tradition of remaking the vernacular single family house as something strange and new

In this atmosphere the heretics seem to bring the experimental traditions of the postwar studios back to life, while adopting next to none of their languages. Here − as at the Getty − we see early essays by Morphosis and Studio Works in recalibrating possible city works and forms, but with a new and livelier sense of the monumental, and expressed in a cheeky mix of rigorous line drawings and pop collage, a made-up geography, or a set of fake postage stamps; and such figures as Fred Fisher and Eric Owen Moss at their beginnings, Moss modelling his work wittily on local vernaculars of all types and eras, and Fisher on universal archetypes.

Perhaps the one heresy on which they agreed was the primacy of representation and of reconceiving it. The result is a glimpse into some critically important mental worlds as they begin to formulate the landscape that might have made up the next ‘vistas of the future’.

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