Angelenos and others who have read the Los Angeles Times over the last half-dozen years or so are familiar with the writing of Sam Hall Kaplan, the design critic of that newspaper. His critical writings for The Times have again and again appreciably expanded our awareness of Los Angeles' architecture and of historic preservation by his continual insistence that we must look, react, and judge with a broad picture of this planned, unplanned environment always in mind. Kaplan has followed a similar approach in this volume where he has turned his attention to 200-plus years of L.A.'s architectural and urban history. In his initial chapter, he discusses the positive and negative physical environmental aspects that have so firmly established the personality of the place. Through the next seven chapters, he leads us from the establishment of the Spanish Pueblo of 1781 to the L.A. scene of the mid-1980s. In his concluding chapter, "Lost and Found," he discards his role of historian and returns to his "normal" stance of critic. In this chapter, he asks us to accompany him through his own responses to the city's contemporary planning and architectural scene.
As an urban/architectural history of Los Angeles and its environments, this volume by Kaplan has succeeded well. Facts, ideas and interpretation of each of L.A.'s episodes of the past are presented through a well-designed intermix of his own clearly written text, a perceptive selection of quotations from earlier writers, and by numerous beautifully reproduced black-and-white and color photographs (most of which are by Julius Shulman). It could perhaps be argued that this volume is not really an architectural history of Los Angeles, but in its form is a rather loose series of chapters on the urban and social history of the city. Individual buildings, and their architects, enter into the presentation to exemplify broad environmental and social observations--not as artifacts to be experienced and discussed as aesthetic objects. Such an approach to Los Angeles and its architecture underlies a number of earlier "classics" written by Carey McWilliams, Mel Scott and, more recently, by Reyner Banham and Kevin Starr. As with his above-mentioned predecessors, Kaplan's view of the city's architecture is sharpened, but also limited, by his underlying attachment to the evangelistic cause of 20th-Century Modernism. One senses a strain of uneasiness in his response to traditional architectural imagery, whether of the '20s or '30s, or of the moment. He comments with obvious regret that "while the work of these (the modernist architects: Harwell H. Harris, Gregory Ain, and Raphael Soriano) and other modernist architects produced some notable designs and lent Los Angeles a reputation as a testing ground of innovative architecture, historicism persisted." Kaplan's belief in the social responsibility of architecture puts him ill at ease with many of L.A.'s current avant-garde (Frank O. Gehry and others), whose work he categorizes as "individualistic designs of strained geometry and perverted materials." Kaplan is certainly reflecting his own views when he observes of a recent house of Eric Owen Moss that "The L.A. Design Community, which just a few years before had been known for its pursuit of architecture as a social art, winced."
Though the author opens his first chapter by concentrating our attention on L.A.'s symbolic and factual use of the palm tree, he ends up pretty well ignoring the subject of landscape architecture and horticulture and its long line of distinguished practitioners. A fuller presentation of how Los Angeles introduced, manipulated, and designed its landscape would have helped his readers to understand each of the city's various historic periods. Equally, at least a few of the planning schemes, garden designs, and individual buildings he mentions would have been helped by providing a small sprinkling of drawings and plans. Words and pictures set the scene, but plans are needed to put it all together. Finally, it is regrettable for a fine book of this importance that the publisher did not provide even a rudimentary index for the readers.
In his Introduction, Kaplan remarks that "whatever its age, Los Angeles seemed young, infectious." He concludes by observing that this city provides us with a "fractured glimpse of the future-now." These two recurring themes pose as threads that Kaplan employs to tie the history of the city together. In the end, he leaves us hanging; maybe in fact it would be better if we did not experience the "fractured glimpse of the future-now."