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Constructing Fantasy : A look at some Los Angeles architecture books

<i> Michael Webb is the author of two recent books: "Architects House Themselves: Breaking New Ground" and "Architect's Guide to Los Angeles."</i>

Five thousand architects from across the United States are expected to attend the centennial convention of the American Institute of Architects, which began Friday at the new Los Angeles convention center. For a city battered by a string of frantically publicized disasters, this is an opportunity to show our guests, and remind ourselves, how much of value remains.

Students visiting Los Angeles from Europe and Japan have a keener appreciation of our architecture, past and present, than many Angelenos. They know that you have to get off the freeway and explore the neighborhoods to find the treasures and curiosities. Most Americans are intimidated by the scale of the city or are blinkered by prejudice. “Because the principal business of Los Angeles has been to produce some of the world’s best fantasies, perhaps it is inevitable that we think of its architecture as largely composed of palatial homes and restaurants in the shape of a hat,” reads a New Yorker’s blurb for “Landmarks of Los Angeles.” It’s a view that’s widely shared by people who know the city only from television or a bus tour of stars’ homes.

How do you decide--and find--what is worth seeing? The Baedeker for architectural explorers is “Los Angeles: An Architectural Guide” by David Gebhard and Robert Winter (Gibbs Smith Publisher: $21.95; 520 pp.). This is the fourth incarnation of what began, in 1965, as a modest listing of mostly recent buildings in Southern California. I still have my well-thumbed copy of the original, which I bought as a first-time visitor from London. It led me to such now-vanished gems as Angel’s Flight on Bunker Hill and the black-and-gold Richfield building downtown; to Irving Gill’s Dodge House in West Hollywood and Richard Neutra’s silvery space ship for Josef von Sternberg in Northridge. I was hooked, and eventually moved here to find my own piece of Neutra and to enjoy more of what I had briefly sampled.

The new edition is 10 times as dense as the first, and limits itself to greater Los Angeles, leaving surrounding areas for a future publication. It’s encyclopedic in scope and generously illustrated; an invaluable resource for anyone who is curious about the growth and flowering of Los Angeles. Too bad the publisher didn’t catch the many typos and factual errors, some reproduced unchanged from the 1985 edition. The Pacific Design Center never built its red hall. The Pacific Theater and the Menzies house in Beverly Hills were demolished years ago, as were a score of other buildings listed here. To be useful, a guide should supply current names and the latest credits for conversions and rehabs. The McDonald’s in Downey was not the first of the golden arches, and there’s no mention of the fact that the parent company is threatening to demolish it.

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Gebhard and Winter boast of their catholic taste, but too many of the more adventurous recent buildings are omitted or dismissed with a derisive label. Surrealist-Expressionist is an oxymoron and doesn’t describe either “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or Frank Gehry’s idiosyncratic buildings. The authors would blush to characterize a Victorian house in such unscholarly terms, and should recruit a more open-minded collaborator to cover work they cannot relate to.

No one has done more to promote classic modern architecture than the veteran photographer Julius Shulman. For every person who has sat in Pierre Koenig’s 1959 Case Study house in the Hollywood Hills, thousands have enjoyed the romantic image of two young women in white dresses, chatting within a steel and glass room that’s cantilevered over the lights of Los Angeles. Another memorable photo shows Ayn Rand with friends in the silver-walled yard of the Von Sternberg house. “A Constructed View: The Architectural Photography of Julius Shulman” by Joseph Rosa (Rizzoli, distributed by St. Martin’s Press: $50; 224 pp.) shows how Shulman manipulated reality to create images of enduring beauty, and a vision of Southern California as the promised land of modernism, full of machines in nature’s garden. The superficial text fails to develop this theme or to reveal the quirky, opinionated man behind the camera. But the images, well-chosen and superbly reproduced, recapture the excitement of an era--from the late 1930s through the 1960s--when a few bold spirits believed they could change the world. Shulman kept at it for another two decades, and he has never lost his faith in the power of architecture to enrich our lives.

Foreigners still get excited by the promise of “World Cities: Los Angeles” edited by Maggie Toy (Academy Editions: $95; 400 pp.), the second in a British series of tomes that juxtapose history with a portfolio of pace-setting buildings and projects. The price is high but, at about 60 cents an ounce, this book is a bargain, and it can also be used to build the pecs or to tether a balloon. However, as a portrait of L.A., it suffers from a severe case of schizophrenia.

The introductory essays evoke the spirit of place. Planners Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides describe a city that has been built and rebuilt four times as it grew from “a tiny and unimportant village” to a metropolis, and they outline their plan to revitalize downtown Los Angeles as a regional hub. Architectural historian Diane Ghirado denounces the rape of Southern California by greedy developers and irresponsible officials. Architect Kim Coleman intercuts her personal insights on the city with musings on a visionary plan for West L.A. There are other essays, and the transcript of a forum, held in London, at which a dozen authorities talked at cross purposes, generating much heat and little light.

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Series editor Maggie Toy introduces a selection of recent buildings that were proposed, built, or are still to come. The selection is heavily tilted toward the arresting diagrams of the avant garde, and the most radical built work, with 48 pages of work by Eric Owen Moss alone. Frank Israel’s uncompleted house in Berkeley has strayed in (perhaps the Brits thought it was a far-flung suburb) but there’s almost no coverage of his brilliant warehouse conversions in Los Angeles. There’s nothing on Frank Gehry’s urbane Loyola campus; photos of his own house and the Chiat/Day offices in Venice are accompanied by descriptions of other buildings. There are pages of unbuilt projects, but not a word on a score of recent landmarks, or the thoughtful work of Frederick Fisher, Hank Koning, Julie Eizenberg and other leading talents. The color images are dazzling but unreal. Three spreads and several full pages present the downtown skyline as the Emerald City, untouched by graffiti, traffic or the homeless. A clogged freeway yields a visual poem of moving lights. Every building is pristine and backed by an azure sky.

Compared to this beauty queen, “Landmarks of Los Angeles” by Patrick McGrew and Robert Julian (Abrams: $49.50; 288 pp.) resembles an apple-cheeked granny. Over 500 Historic-Cultural Monuments of the City of Los Angeles are described by date and illustrated with authors’ charmingly old-fashioned photos. They include a giant fig tree, a fire boat, the Hollywood sign and buildings that reflect every imaginable style and fantasy. Several of these registered monuments have succumbed to greed or vandalism. As this paper remarked in 1991, Los Angeles has “one of the worst preservation records in the nation (and) has been left with relatively few protected structures.”

The ultimate L.A. fantasy may be living beside the ocean, and “Beach Houses From Malibu to Laguna,” text by Elizabeth McMillian, photographs by Melba Levick, foreword by Frank Gehry (Rizzoli: $50; 208 pp.), shows two dozen ways to do it. Designers and owners discuss their choices with the former architecture editor of “Architectural Digest,” and the images are as seductive as the surf. Standouts include contemporary places by John Lautner, Richard Meier and Bart Prince; the richly tiled Adamson house in Malibu, and Robert Graham’s live-in artwork for the Doumanis in Venice.

“Frank Lloyd Wright in Hollywood: Visions of a New Architecture” by Robert L. Sweeney (The MIT Press: $50; 256 pp.) explores a frustrating decade in the life of an architect too often portrayed as a superman. Wright came to Los Angeles to design the Hollyhock house for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall while working on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. On his return from Japan, he tried to secure major commissions here, but was able to design only four small houses. Sweeney, who oversees the Schindler house in West Hollywood, shows how Wright struggled to develop a new system of construction, using cast-on-site concrete blocks. It’s a tragic tale of a visionary frustrated by unreliable clients and contractors, a persistent lack of funds--and his own hubris. For, Sweeney suggests, Wright was determined to claim credit as an inventor, and ignored the experience of others in using concrete blocks. His legacy--of leaky artworks--falls far short of what he might have achieved.

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