Few architecture firms have shaped the Los Angeles skyline as profoundly as Albert C. Martin & Associates.
Over the past eight decades, since Albert C. Martin Sr. founded the firm in 1906, three generations of Martins have been at the center of the city's commercial and cultural development.
To mark the firm's legacy, the USC School of Architecture will honor Albert C. Martin Jr. as its 1990 distinguished alumnus in the year that celebrates the school's 75th anniversary.
The award will be given at USC's Architectural Guild Dinner on April 3.
"We are honoring Al Martin as one of our school's most successful alumni, and for his remarkable record as one of the city's most respected elder statesmen," said USC architecture Dean Robert Harris. "Al is the model for all of us of the architect as civic leader."
Martin said the link between his firm and USC has been one of the major strengths in the vitality of the firm's practice."
"I was trained there and so was my son David and my nephew Chris," Martin said. "The school always shared our desire to see architecture in Los Angeles live up to the highest community standards."
The Martin firm established itself as a major player in the city's development under the command of Albert C. Martin Jr. and his brother J. Edward Martin, during the post-World War II building boom that transformed downtown and created new urban centers such as Century City.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, the firm was one of the Big Six group of larger architectural offices--along with Welton Becket Associates, Daniel Mann Johnson and Mendenhall, Gruen Associates, the Luckman Partnership and William L. Pereira Associates--who collectively dominated the local commercial design scene.
Of these firms, only Martin--with a staff numbering about 200 in their downtown and Irvine offices--has continued in an unbroken and active succession into the 1990s. The other five have undergone major changes in leadership and character, or have lost ground as architectural powers in shaping the city.
"The frenetic building activity of those years gave the firms who learned to cope with it a special kind of experience and perspective," said USC architecture professor Arthur Golding.
"They were competent and efficient because they had to be; they were nearly always pragmatic because their clients were, and they were fearless; they could design anything."
The L.A. landmarks designed by Martin over the past 84 years include:
The Million Dollar Theatre on Broadway (1918), St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church on Figueroa St. (1925), the May Co. department store on Wilshire Boulevard (1940), Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Building on Hope Street (1964), Arco Plaza on South Flower Street (1972).
Others are Union Bank Square on Figueroa Street (1968), St. Basil's Roman Catholic Church on Wilshire Boulevard (1974), Security Pacific Plaza on South Flower Street (1974), Wells Fargo Plaza on South Flower Street (1979), Sherman Oaks Galleria (1980), Home Savings Tower on 7th Street (1989), Mitsui-Fudosan Building on Figueroa Street (1990).
In addition, Albert C. Martin Sr. collaborated with John C. Austin, John and Donald Parkinson and Austin Whittlesey in the design of Los Angeles City Hall in the late 1920s, to create what to this day remains our noblest urban tower.
"In 1917, Sid Grauman asked my grandfather to design a theater that would make Los Angeles the film capital of the world," said David C. Martin, who, with his cousin Christopher, now oversees the day-to-day operations of the firm.
"They called it the Million Dollar Theatre because that's what it cost to build back then."
Today's third generation of Martins is concerned to raise the firm's sights beyond its long-established reputation for mainstream competence.
"Since 1980, when Chris and I took over, we have focused fresh energies on design by interest and necessity," David Martin said. "The marketplace is now very intense in L.A., forcing us all to a greater awareness of quality."
For Al Martin, now 77, the crisis in the city's leadership in the area of planning issues is his most worrisome concern.
"The lack of civic and political vision has allowed special interests to exercise undue influence in shaping the city," he says bluntly.
"The municipal bureaucracy has become a ball of hissing snakes few citizens dare untangle. The people who care about Los Angeles, not only the city but the entire region, must get in there and advocate strategies for the greater good."
Putting his words into practice, Martin has recently organized a "kitchen cabinet" of prominent citizens in the business community to advise Mayor Tom Bradley on the preparation of such "strategies for the greater good."
"In the end, I'm an Angeleno optimist," he said. "I believe in this region's role as the capital of the Pacific Rim."
Martin's alma mater, USC, has a long and distinguished history in providing architectural education in Southern California. On the West Coast only UC Berkeley has been around longer.
The USC architecture program began in 1915, and became an established department within the School of Fine Arts in 1919.
For the next four decades, until the 1960s, USC offered the only fully accredited professional degree courses in architecture in the Southland. Today, with 400 students, it remains the principal private school of architecture in the western United States.
Many of today's leading local designers came out of USC, including Frank Gehry and Jon Jerde. In the 1940s and '50s, under deans Galleon and Sam Hurst, USC became the avant-garde Modernist architectural school on the West Coast.
Things went a little sour in the 1960s, when campus radicals challenged the authority of the academic establishment. The experimentation and questioning of the 1960s gave way to a conservative reaction in the 1970s; the school turned inward, focusing upon the realities of professional practice and the struggle to earn a living as a designer in a changing social and aesthetic environment.
In 1981, Robert Harris was appointed dean with a mandate to bring calm and order to the curriculum and turn the school's attention to the place of architecture in the rapidly evolving city that surrounds its South-Central L.A. campus. A master's program titled "Architecture in the Urban Landscape" was added to the five-year undergraduate bachelor's degree to emphasize this civic focus.
"If I wanted to encapsulate our uniqueness compared to other schools," Harris says, "I'd use the word 'integrative.' We see the training of a designer as an integral part of his training as a literate and sensitized citizen.