The 'emperor' of all we survey

Times Staff Writer

With all the talk of "icons," good deeds and pure hearts, Tuesday night's Welton Becket celebration at the Arclight Cinerama Dome had the feel of the canonization of a saint.

The dome's designer was put forward as a key player in creating, perhaps even the unassuming emperor of, what one speaker called the "imperial California" of the mid-20th century. The event, "Built by Becket: Centennial Celebration," belatedly marked the architect's 1902 birth.

Almost 700 people listened to speakers and saw film clips that told Becket's story as part of the social history of Southern California. To detractors, the architect may be merely a corporate modernist with good business skills, but to architecture historian Alan Hess, "the qualities he took around the country were Los Angeles qualities" -- its sense of innovation, its robust confidence, its understanding of popular sensibilities.

Becket's heyday, said Hess, arrived in the late 1940s as "California was really coming into its own. Its aerospace industry was charging into the future," along with the entertainment industry and the car culture. Becket's designs, from the Music Center to the Capitol Records building to Bullocks Pasadena (now Macy's), expressed L.A.'s brashness and ideals.

The Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee added enough cheekiness to take the edge off the evening's idolatry. Some of the vintage film clips, for instance, were narrated with an old-school newsreel voice, backed by quaint cocktail-lounge music, adorned with bathing beauties and came with a winking nod to Becket's interest in tiki culture and other elements of Cold War cool.

The audience ranged from young hipsters in retro suits to veterans of the Becket office. One surprise was an appearance by Art Linkletter, a former neighbor of the Beckets.

"As unaccustomed as I am to speaking in public, for nothing," the onetime TV host said, "I'd go anywhere to be part of the family of Welton Becket."

The film clips, which began with the architect's arrival from Seattle in 1933, show Becket advising Walt Disney on his new theme park, driving to his office in a burgundy Lincoln Continental and discussing "total design," right down to the menus in a hotel restaurant. On film, the architect came across as a jaunty version of Dwight Eisenhower. He was, the audience was told, a reserved, refined man whose self-deprecating personality helped his career substantially.

Some of the most revealing details about the man came near the end, from a panel made up mostly of former Becket colleagues. "He was an old world patriarch," said the firm's former public relations man, Martin Brower, who called his boss "Mr. B." "He liked to stand at the Christmas party, calling names and telling little stories about us as he handed out bonuses."

The Modern Committee made no secret of its hope that events like this, and two sold-out driving tours this weekend, will elevate the architect's work into the canon of great architecture. The night ended with a plea to save an imperiled Rancho Mirage Becket home that was compared to work by architect Richard Neutra.

Linkletter seemed to speak for the whole crowd when he concluded of Becket, who died in 1969: "I wish he'd lived longer."

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