As the cards skidded to a stop, each revealed a picture of a building, an architect or a piece of furniture from the 1950s and '60s. Most of the designs had a connection to Los Angeles: chairs by Charles and Ray Eames and a couple of Case Study houses with their light, almost delicate frames and wide expanses of glass.
That Piano decided upon glass should come as no surprise. It is, after all, the building material most intimately connected with the architecture of Los Angeles, with its energy, its light and optimism. And even today, more than 60 years after the Case Study program got underway, glass architecture seems not only entirely at home in Los Angeles but also capable of defining its future.
Indeed, in houses and commercial buildings, glass continues to exert a singular hold on the imagination of L.A. architects. The pair of towers Frank Gehry is designing for the first phase of the Grand Avenue redevelopment will be sheathed in glass with a curtain wall on the upper floors and flaring, skirt-like forms toward the base. New modular housing designs by Marmol Radziner, Jennifer Siegal, Ray Kappe and other L.A. architects — so-called modern prefab houses, which are just beginning to roll off the assembly line in significant numbers — are linked by their wraparound glass.
The aggressive use of glass in architecture wasn't invented in Los Angeles, of course. That honor goes to the pioneering Bauhaus school architects in Germany and their successors in the U.S., including Philip Johnson. But the relationship between glass and architecture was undoubtedly perfected here — and glass, in the end, returned the favor by helping to put Los Angeles architecture on the map.
Despite the pioneering work of the Greene brothers and other residential architects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn't until images of boxy, flat-roofed new houses with floor-to-ceiling walls of glass began to circulate around the country in the 1950s that the American public really became aware of our architecture.
Indeed, once those designs were published, the world finally had a way to illustrate their daydreams about life in sunny California. It could be a photograph by Julius Shulman of a design by Richard Neutra or Pierre Koenig. It could be a Cliff May ranch house in Long Beach or a Buff, Straub and Hensman in Pasadena. Whether it was glinting in the sunlight or framing a memorable view, glass became shorthand for the appeal of America's most thoroughly modern city.
What we've learned
There's an inherent contradiction, of course, in Piano's effort to move LACMA forward by looking back several decades. By making explicit reference to Southern California's Modernist masters while talking to the LACMA trustees, he was also tapping into a deep vein of nostalgia. After all, when those donors look at examples of postwar Modernism, they see their own youth reflected back.
But that's the funny thing about the relationship of glass to Los Angeles architecture: Once you start examining it, you see contradiction, and even paradox, everywhere you look.
To begin with, you might think that a city famous for its glass architecture would be more open and more public than one filled with an imposing collection of masonry, like New York or Chicago or Paris. But even as Modern architects were bringing walls of glass to the Southern California house, Los Angeles was cementing its reputation as a place of private architectural treasures — a place that, indeed, barely had any public life to speak of, at least in the traditional sense of crowded sidewalks and comfortable park benches.
The reason for that contradiction is that floor-to-ceiling glass wasn't primarily intended here to capture views or allow passersby to see into our houses. Instead, that sort of glass was usually installed only on the rear elevation, facing not the street but the backyard as a permeable membrane between inside and out.
There were earlier efforts to do what Piano and Gehry are doing now — to bring virtuosic glass architecture to the public sphere. Indeed, architect Albert Martin Jr., who died a month ago, did so with the Department of Water and Power John Ferraro Building downtown. With its wraparound glass sandwiched between extending floor plates, that building, especially when seen at night with its lights blazing, looks stately and weightless at the same time.
But in the end, for the most part, the marriage between glass and architecture made life here more private, not less; it kept reminding us how few reasons we had to spend time away from home.
Another paradox: The piece of glass most directly connected with our day-to-day experience of architecture in Los Angeles is the car windshield, which reveals the city, making it appear close enough to touch while keeping it at arm's length. The windshield makes possible the drive-by architectural visit, allowing us to see and understand a building without actually walking through it. Think about how many more times, for example, you've seen the Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Capitol Records Building — or even the house right next door — from your car than you've walked through them.
Savvy architects have figured out a way to incorporate those complexities into their designs. A recent example is Jose Rafael Moneo's Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels downtown, which was finished in 2002. The site for the cathedral is hardly ideal: It backs up to the Hollywood Freeway. But Moneo, a Spanish architect who had never worked in L.A. before, turned that difficulty into an advantage: When he designed a plaza in front of the new building, he added a glass wall to its northern edge, abutting the freeway.
The wall helps keep the sound of the cars out of the plaza, but it also offers a commentary on life in Los Angeles. Even as drivers are peering through their windshields at the building, its glass, etched with a pattern of angels, lets people on the plaza look down at the drivers. It is the cathedral's own windshield. It transforms the sense of detachment usually promoted by glass in the city into a means of connection, all the more appropriate because it is ironic and fleeting.