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STYLE: ARCHITECTURE : L.A. Architects: They Did It Their Way : Classicism Bows to Offbeat Designs, Declasse Materials

<i> Writer and architect Joseph Giovannini's last article for the magazine was about the renovation of the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles</i>

At a two-wine, three-fork luncheon in New York’s Plaza Hotel a couple of years ago, when editors of Progressive Architecture announced their choice for the year’s best designs, alarmed New York architects stopped sipping their decaf as they realized that Angelenos were walking off with every other award. By the end of the roll call, it dawned on the audience, including front-row arbiter Philip Johnson, that something momentous had quietly happened: The baton of the profession, so firmly gripped by the Postmodernists of the East Coast in the 1980s, had passed to the West. The offbeat buildings in Santa Monica and Venice, the daring houses perched on Hollywood hillsides and Frank Gehry’s designs for museums and cultural centers added up to a national phenomenon that challenged the notion that New York’s sovereignty in architecture was God-given and forever.

“New York made a fatal turn in the 1980s and stepped off the trajectory,” says Santa Monica architect Craig Hodgetts, whose spirited, tent-like Temporary Powell Library at UCLA, designed with his partner and wife, Hsin-Ming Fung, landed a cover feature in Architectural Record a year ago. “Their Postmodernist architecture was about the history of architecture. It didn’t draw on contemporary life, so it severed itself from a source of vitality.”

Unlike New Yorkers, who excavated the architectural past for styles and precedents, the young and irreverent Los Angeles avant-garde looked to movies, sports cars, Nintendo games and the ordinary street-side vernacular for inspiration. They browsed the shelves of hardware stores, cruised plywood racks at lumber yards and ogled the quilted stainless-steel panels of lunch trucks. Their designs did not pretend to be built anywhere else or at any other time. And they did not aspire to sentimentality or cuteness but directly and poetically acknowledged their sites, times and clients in materials assembled from the cityscape. More than 15 years ago in Venice, designer Brian Murphy reveled in projects with next-to-nonexistent budgets, daring to use declasse corrugated fiberglass and asphalt shingles on facades because the material was cheap and unexpected. Quiet, understated architect Frederick Fisher, practicing a layered collage architecture, made common bathroom tiles and concrete block look original.

The buildings were hardly meant to be timeless. The basic notion was not to remake the city in the image of a utopian ideal, but to take parts of what UCLA classicist and architectural theorist Ann Bergren called “the most deconstructed city in the world” as cues for buildings that do not add up to balanced wholes. If discontinuity is the urban reality in Los Angeles, then it is realistic to design buildings as pieces.

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Culver City architect Eric Moss, one of the first to break into shelter magazines with his own home and the graphically florid Petal House in West Los Angeles, explained the design of one building as a process of taking it apart at all scales--roof, walls, doors, windows, screws, washers--and assembling the pieces in different ways: “Apart and back together--both.” There was a logic to disjunction, and strangeness and beauty in the complex and irrational. Architects were learning to release the Parthenon from their minds and step out of the Wilshire mainstream into the wilder margins of Venice, Ocean Park and Santa Monica, a petri dish for this new architecture culture.

The 1992 awards were the offspring of the 1980s national design boom and Los Angeles’ prosperity, but even in today’s troubled local economy, architecture--like film and art--remains a point of cultural pride. Architects with small offices need only a couple of adventurous clients with an idea or friends with a house requiring an addition. Or, like husband-and-wife team Mark Cigolle and Kim Coleman, architects simply hire themselves to build a cliffhanging statement on their own “unbuildable” hillside site. With most of Los Angeles occupied by first-generation buildings, the loosely structured, relatively open metropolis invites additions and replacements more readily than more “finished” cities like New York.

Cultural institutions offer other opportunities: The recent break-out installation design for two shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art--"Expressionist Utopias” and “John Heartfield"--introduced the radical Viennese firm of Coop Himmelblau, whose Culver City office designed tilted, dancing walls of acrylic and construction board that were as brilliant and daring as the Expressionist work displayed. The installation upped the design ante, challenged conventional notions about neutrality in exhibition design and brought the new architectural thinking to a broader public.

“It’s not the preciousness of materials or even character that’s bankable now in Los Angeles--originality is held in higher esteem,” muses the thoughtful Hodgetts. “What’s seen as valuable is intellectual property, how even ordinary things are put together. Los Angeles is, after all, about making a piece of celluloid valuable. Maybe the high level of Frank Gehry’s executed work has made people see the sky doesn’t fall.” The design Hodgetts and Fung did for the Temporary Powell--known on campus as the Towell--is a throwaway building much valued for its wit on a shoestring: a lightweight structure made from a kit of brilliantly assembled aluminum parts. Lights are suspended like trapezes and steel columns sprout articulate industrial uplights, all under a yellow-and-white big top of industrial-standard polyester.

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Buildings have always been status symbols, but L.A. designers changed the perception of architectural prestige and value. A house became not only a house, design not simply a matter of “value added.” Design could provide an enriched environment that enhanced the everyday pleasures of living, looking and thinking, and it could express something about a building’s creators, owners and times. Some buildings are cultural artifacts, and some are theses, all are objects of imagistic intensity and density, with a heightened visual presence and strong tactile charisma--an architecture of complexity rather than simplicity that offers the richness of “more” rather than the austerities of “less.”

While space in a city like New York collects buildings, it keeps them apart in Los Angeles, and the new breed of buildings that began surfacing here a dozen years ago was a peculiar, almost Darwinian adaptation to L.A.'s context of fragmentation, dispersal and privacy. Post-suburban Los Angeles, even as it fills in, is still lax enough to need the charge of these birds of paradise and disjunctive enough to absorb their shock. They invigorate the city with a punctual rather than linear urbanism; they “read” from a passing car. “L.A. has become the cultural repository of a certain kind of building--the small-scale, low-budget building that allows for a level of experiment that much larger buildings don’t,” notes Bernard Tschumi, dean of the graduate school of architecture at Columbia University.

The buildings resulting from this less-trammeled creativity have become a serious body of architectural work, even though few are large or public. As a class, buildings like the Towell have established a mystique and a romance about Los Angeles that attracts foreign architects and students for whom parts of the city have become exhibitions of contemporary architecture. The American Institute of Architects is holding its national convention here this weekend, and a substantial perk is the opportunity to visit buildings known only through photographs.

The L.A. projects honored in New York were not flukes. Los Angeles’ late, great lady of architectural letters, Esther McCoy, credited the city’s traditional spirit: “L.A. always had a larger population (than San Francisco), it had more thieves and more speculators, and it was livelier from the beginning. It’s always from these lively places that new design comes.”

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PERHAPS MORE THAN ANY OTHER AMERICAN CITY, LOS Angeles has supported experiments in Modernism, and the brave new forms of the most recent generation add to an open-ended rosary of buildings that make up a brilliant, but taken for granted, architectural tradition in Southern California. Unexpectedly, the tradition was cross-pollinated 25 years ago with L.A.'s contemporary art scene, with Frank Gehry acting as the bee.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, crisp, open Modernism was dislocated, not by Postmodernist historicism from the East Coast but by the messy vitality emanating from Venice’s art world. Artists were roughhousing their studios, treating them as objets trouves to be ripped open and rearranged: Studios were works in perpetual progress. The artists--Ed Moses, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Tony Berlant--inspired Gehry, Venice’s architect in spiritual residence, to look at buildings as hands-on sculpture rather than as the products of flat drawing boards. In 1978, he combined many sculptural experiments in his famous house in Santa Monica, a modest two-story, gambrel-roofed bungalow onto which he grafted an addition of corrugated metal and chain-link fencing. Influenced by local artists, he designed skylights that cast light and shadows on interior walls. For his family, the house still worked like any other house, but its visual presence outweighed its function, and design outweighed technique and details. Gehry, who has since remodeled the house, was importing a logic foreign to architecture, one that allowed unmethodical processes to generate design; he was questioning the boundary between art and architecture.

From the 1960s on, painting came out of the frame and sculpture off the pedestal, eventually migrating into the open landscape. Architects in Los Angeles were designing buildings that could be interpreted as site-specific urban sculpture. A small but slowly widening circle of architects was practicing in the fertile blur between architecture and the arts, generating nonconformist buildings that defied the laws of featureless design blended into common denominators.

For some, the blur extended to movies. “The icebreaker is somewhere in the entertainment industry--more than architectural theorists and historians,” Hodgetts says, citing the powerful production designs for MTV, which established a precedent for stimulating design. The late production designer Anton Furst, for example, came off the “Batman” set to design the restaurant Planet Hollywood. Reciprocally, Hollywood called on architecture when it discovered that special effects could deliver the power of great buildings to the screen. Visual futurist Syd Mead, who created the look of “Blade Runner,” devised intergalactic megastructures, far more powerful than walk-through sets because of their overwhelming scale. Hollywood’s notoriously closed movie studio Kremlins opened for architecture: Movie people and architects schmoozed.

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Hodgetts, who worked as an art director in film, created buildings with a filmic presence that heightened reality through controlled exaggeration, as in an unrealized hillside house he designed for himself. His cinematic buildings were not so obvious as to look robotic but seemed to have recently landed, with antennae and dishes and an aura of strangeness.

Frank Israel, an Ivy League-trained Rome Prize winner who moved from New York to teach at UCLA and work in set design, also crossed architecture and film, creating sets that were strongly architectural and buildings that are strongly cinematic. Several independent production companies hired him to design office interiors in cavernous warehouse spaces that he transformed into architectonic wonderlands. Shapes changed unpredictably from different points of view, enhanced by chimerical effects of light, shadow and translucency. His high-spirited design also posited that architecture offers the possibility of entertainment--that buildings need not labor under the Modernist self-delusion that they are to solve global problems.

Especially in Hollywood, architecture became a lifestyle choice, and the architect who pushed choice the furthest was the California Fauvist Brian Murphy, whose loose, anything-is-possible attitude put off his more academic colleagues. A former lifeguard, UCLA art student and architecture school dropout who turned guerrilla contractor, the T-shirted Murphy redefined the far edge in L.A. architecture when, in the early 1980s, he designed his Venice studio by throwing the I Ching. Like Duchamp, Murphy invited chance into the studio. He also cultivated spontaneity. In a house he designed in Santa Monica Canyon, he dragged a charred log down the wall on either side of a fireplace, creating a room-size charcoal drawing.

Often explaining his designs merely with a chuckle, he went on to flirt with the ultimate taboo, bad taste, recently clustering gaudy chandeliers en masse for David Sheffield, screenwriter for “Coming to America,” and his wife, Cynthia Walker, a poet and editor. The house is comic, with a chandelier grouping that, during tremors, sways in a slow-motion hula. For Murphy, there were no rules, just attitude: “My clients love inviting bosses and colleagues who live in houses paneled with exotic woods to come over to see how we’ve mixed deeply veined marbles with Astroturf, corrugated fiberglass and put a picket fence around the cat litter box.”

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Society architects have always designed houses that function as the ultimate social asset, but society at the beach and in the hills in the 1980s redefined itself, less formally, less seriously, and sometimes with irreverence. Fresh notions about originality and the more relaxed and inquisitive character of nesting baby boomers were dislocating conventional displays of good taste, elegance and wealth.

THE PHENOMENON OF ARCHITECTURE AS ART, ATTITUDE and lifestyle might have been confined to the high-style culture-vulture ghettos of the Westside and the Santa Monica Mountains, except that in the early 1980s, Los Angeles “got” design through its stomach. Restaurants introduced a wider public to avant-garde design at what might be considered a particularly vulnerable moment. “In restaurants, you’re about to get laid, so you’re in a receptive mood,” notes Hodgetts. “Some of the good feelings rub off.” Restaurateurs gradually discovered that design helped sell food. The young, hard-working firm of Morphosis in Santa Monica, with Thom Mayne and then-partner Michael Rotondi, went public with its hyper-architecture in a series of restaurants, starting with the corrugated-metal interior of the former L.A. Nicola in Silver Lake, Angeli on Melrose and 72 Market Street in Venice, where people dined under seismic steel rods strapped to a bronze column by Venice sculptor Robert Graham.

Morphosis intensified buildings by exaggerating structure, flirting outrageously with steel and breaking the whole down into proliferating numbers of parts, a design tactic that became widespread. Venice restaurateur Bruce Marder hired Gehry to design Rebecca’s and artist Chuck Arnoldi for DC3. Michele Saee, who had worked with Morphosis, went on to design a series of restaurants--Angeli in Santa Monica and in Marina del Rey--each venue more elaborate than the last, and all different. Saee, an Iranian-born, Italian-educated architect, was among the first of the second generation branching into what is now a mature and complex genealogical tree of architectural influence.

In 1990, perhaps the first Deconstructivist fast-food outlet anywhere--a tall, irregular spiral wrapping a two-story structure--appeared at the corner of Western and Oakwood avenues in Los Angeles. Designed by disciples of Gehry, Jeffrey Daniels and Elyse Grinstein, the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet was many notches more sophisticated than its self-advertising fast-food design predecessor, the famous but simplistic hot-dog-shaped Tail o’ the Pup in West Hollywood. “People are going to stop, eat and experience architecture,” Grinstein said. Not much later, a meticulously built and detailed armature resembling a billboard was installed over a simple rectangular structure in Marina del Rey by the L.A. firm Central Office of Architecture, a small partnership of three young and ferociously intellectual architects. The billboard had no message other than the name of the now-defunct restaurant tucked in a corner--Brix. The armature acted as a facade and scrim and exploded the scale of the 1,200-square-foot restaurant while offering roadside surrealism.

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Neither Brix nor the KFC building was architecture designed for a rarefied community that collects Warhol Marilyns. It was avant-garde architecture gone populist. Architecture might season haute cuisine for cognoscenti, but it also sold hamburgers.

Perhaps the longest leap for L.A.'s new wave has been the dozen-mile jump from the Westside into the pin-striped community Downtown, several social systems away. Restaurants again are proving to be agents of change. In the belly of a skyscraper, among its monumental columns, Michael Rotondi, now head of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, has designed a new Nicola, a Jonah of floor-to-ceiling ribs that carve out comfortable spaces for intimate meals. Several blocks away, motifs that Rotondi designed with Thom Mayne for Westside buildings seem to have influenced the architects who conceived the brushed-metal appointments, lighting fixtures, railings and elevator doors in the Gas Company Tower opposite the Central Library--elevating details to the status of high-tech jewelry.

But the greatest force of change Downtown has been the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, under the direction of Richard Koshalek, who trained as an architect. The museum has actively sponsored architectural shows, including a brilliant assessment of Los Angeles’ postwar Case Study Houses and an exhibit, “Urban Revisions: Current Projects for the Public Realm,” which opened Friday. Koshalek was the guiding spirit in the committee that designated Gehry to design the Walt Disney Concert Hall, now under construction on Bunker Hill.

“There are so many forces at work--the concerns of the community and clients, and just the simple codes--conspiring against individual expression that it takes tremendous self-confidence to do an interesting building,” says Koshalek, whose museum was designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and who has greatly raised Los Angeles’ architectural awareness. “Gehry’s example in Los Angeles encouraged younger architects to have confidence in their own ideas, and their new community of buildings is like a community of individuals. When we interviewed internationally known architects about the influence of the Case Study Houses, we heard time and again how architects everywhere were influenced by them. Now, we’re starting to hear the same thing again, whether it’s from architects in Japan or Europe, that the major influence in their work is coming from California.”

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The potential power of this spirited architecture to capture and define the nature of the city has not been lost on civic leaders. When newly elected Mayor Richard Riordan sought solutions to the city’s urban problems, he also looked to the avant-garde architects as one of its success stories and attended meetings with Gehry in hopes that this creative community could be enlisted to solve problems and enhance the city. He approached the possible coalition of city and architecture from a business point of view. To succeed in business, he reasoned, you’ve got to be open to innovation, and innovation comes from the most gifted people. For the city to succeed, it should hire and exploit the area’s best talents and reduce bureaucratic restrictions. A city can make itself a landmark through its buildings and planning--the beauty of Parisian buildings, after all, is big box office.

AS IN L.A. GENERALLY, THE CREATIVITY AND RESILIENCE of this growing community resides in its many small studios, so much more adaptable than large New York-style offices. What started out as a cluster in the 1970s--10 architects designing for each other and indulgent clients, often themselves--has mushroomed several architectural generations later into an energetic environment, with threescore talented avant-garde firms vigorously pursuing their own muses and clients. Gehry, Hodgetts, Moss, Mayne and Rotondi are uncles and grand-uncles of a second and third generation of like-minded architects, a generation that includes many women, notably Venice-based architect Victoria Casasco and Dagmar Richter, who teaches at UCLA. A large number of husband-and-wife teams and other couples are the principals of small offices. As a loose group, the architects have attained a critical mass, especially on the Westside, where architects constitute a social force and a miniature star system.

What fuels their ambition is the realization that idea-driven buildings economically produced in offices can yield artistic satisfaction. The atelier rather than the corporation is the modus operandi for architects who prefer to stay hands-on. Especially in these recessionary times, the architects support their independence and artistic integrity by teaching at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, an iconoclastic school that has been the sounding board, employer and advocate for many gifted teachers. Under Dean Richard Weinstein, UCLA has also welcomed avant-garde architects as teachers and graduated students who now underpin the Westside architecture culture. (Administrative restructuring, however, now promises to hobble UCLA’s architecture school.)

For a decade and a half, the buildings of Ocean Park, Santa Monica and especially Venice have opened a dialogue even more varied than the one in Silver Lake during the 1920s and ‘30s. A recently completed two-story office building by the Santa Monica husband-and-wife firm Mulder Katkov, for example, adds great levity to Abbot Kinney Boulevard, with front corners winging up from the roof to form fluttering clerestory windows. Another Westside husband-and-wife team, Koning Eizenberg, has completed several cost-conscious housing projects nearby on Electric Avenue and Ocean Park, projects that combine standard construction techniques and Modernist lines.

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These architects practice wherever clients call. Santa Monica designers Daly, Genik recently performed an act of lyrical Deconstructivism inside an existing house in Tarzana, where they bent wood panels into faceted planes that separate open spaces. A sculptural fireplace with a bright, burnished aluminum surface and a distorted shape that suggests invisible forces divides the living room and den.

Even large firms have chosen artist/designers rather than executive architects to lead their offices. The 33-year-old Harvard-trained Mehrdad Yazdani, for example, was chief designer at Santa Monica’s Ellerbe Becket Inc. before moving on to Dworsky Associates. He is largely responsible for Ellerbe Becket’s Metro Rail Red Line Station at Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, a mysteriously floating ellipse that was honored in New York at the Plaza ceremony, and he designed Showscan Prototype Theater-Cinemania, a motion-reality theater at Universal CityWalk, with a folded fiberglass screen on the facade that functions like an electronically liquid marquee.

Just as Mayor Riordan has proposed opening the city’s policies to more enlightened building, UCLA campus architect Charles (Duke) Oakley has invited these designers to join mainstream architects on university projects. Permanent new buildings include the east building of the Corrine A. Seeds University Elementary School by Barton Phelps, another Gehry-studio graduate who has emerged as a mature and independent talent. The simply built but complex two-story school successfully humanizes the original buildings by Richard J. Neutra and Robert Alexander and reshapes the campus as a small town. Near Westwood Village, Wes Jones, along with other partners at Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones, has turned a power plant into an intricately complex fugue of steam generators, cooling towers, turbines, chiller pumps, condensers and ammonia tanks.

THE ARCHITECTS AS A GROUP SHARE MANY TRAITS, BUT for all the similarities, they differ in many respects. Gehry and others who have passed through his office do not design buildings demanding fine craftsmanship or industrial precision. Instead, they often leave materials rough and exposed, cultivating a sense of physical energy. Form displaces craft and detail. Thom Mayne still tailors buildings almost obsessively, depending on metalsmiths and other craftsmen to fabricate parts. His machine-like images depend on old-fashioned craft.

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Even so, seven years ago, a surprising four-story note of dissension was built on Main Street amid the casual collection of brat-pack buildings. The strictly geometric steel-and-glass structure, the Marine/Main Center by James Tyler, threw down a classically Modernist gauntlet in the face of buildings designed on a looser premise. A handsome structure in the Miesian less-is-more tradition, the building trumpeted a call back to Modernist order and cooled the heated designs that were becoming the norm.

According to the pendulum theory of architecture--that design swings back and forth between the mysteries of Gothic styles and the certainties of the Classic--a Calvinist period should now be challenging the exuberance. The recession also discourages risk.

A cautionary critic has emerged in the voice of L.A. author Mike Davis, who has written that architecture is a public art and that the avant-garde fails to communicate to many L.A. constituencies. Often, he says, the city’s diverse cultural groups consider the buildings hostile and anti-humanistic. Davis has reprimanded Gehry, somewhat unfairly, for turning his buildings away from the public realm and shortchanging what should be a public experience. As perhaps the first knowledgeable and well-reasoned voice of dissension to emerge here in years, Davis gives pause to the enthusiasm.

Some self-criticism has also come from within, especially among younger architects who have grown up in the amnesiac candy store of the Westside and want to find roots. They are looking back to Los Angeles’ fine architectural traditions--to the Modernist classics by Neutra and R.M. Schindler, to the Case Study Houses of the 1940s and ‘50s and to the still-active, creatively monumental John Lautner, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. Susan Lanier of Lubowicki Lanier Architects recently took a client to see Schindler’s own 1922 house in West Hollywood, a spatially intricate structure built elementally in exposed redwood and concrete. “He used simple materials and let them come together as they needed, without pretension,” says Lanier.

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The Case Study Houses and the Pacific Palisades house by Charles Eames, a colorful steel warehouse made of off-the-shelf parts, inspired Marc Angelil and Sarah Graham, partners and spouses, in their own rigorously engineered house in the Hollywood Hills. The two-story building, terraced on a steep hillside, combines steel and wood in an outrigger structure as taut as a sailboat. Its originality is technical. The young architects invented a hybrid wood-and-metal support structure pertinent to a low-rise, quake-prone area.

Affordability has been an issue for the avant-garde, even though their architectural flamboyance seems to deny it. In a refreshingly direct house expansion in Brentwood by Robert E. Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray of Studio Works, the architects simply jacked up the existing house over an open living loft and studio. A visitor steps into the areas on the ground floor, and a staircase wends its way up to the newly decorated rooms of the original wood-frame house on the second floor.

So many avant-garde designs are for houses or restaurants that their lessons seem limited in application, if not downright elitist. But in Santa Monica, one of the unsung architects, William Adams, created an original complex of affordable apartments with “masked” facades, whose suggestion of eyes, nose and mouth give the building a strong identity and street presence. The overall organization offers sociable terraces akin to a commons, along with livable layouts. Art Center College of Design in Pasadena has taken up the issue of industrial housing under the direction of Harvard-trained Steve Diskin--an obvious issue in a time of homelessness but neglected altogether because of national housing policies in the 1980s. Classes have tried to yoke industrial design and architecture in studies for easy-to-erect temporary shelters, with the riots and earthquake lending a sense of urgency.

Last November, yet another wave of powerful new designs was recognized in an architectural awards ceremony, this time by the Los Angeles chapter of the AIA. While the winners included the usual suspects--Gehry, Moss, Morphosis, Hodgetts and Fung--less-established firms like Adams and Angelil/Graham broadened the subject matter. What is remarkable about the avant-garde is that it remains open to change and criticism.

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If Los Angeles has lost factories, jobs and a competitive edge in some industries, the good news is that the city remains a generating center from a cultural point of view, and architects are among the leading contributors. The recent AIA awards showcased a unique set of buildings, yet another wave in the ongoing design tsunami emanating from Los Angeles.


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