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Essential Arts: Why Paul R. Williams archive is a game changer for architecture researchers

In a black-and-white image, architect Paul Williams is seen pointing at a model while seated at his desk
Paul Revere Williams presents a model in 1952. The architect had a hand in designing countless Los Angeles structures.
(Julius Shulman / J. Paul Getty Trust)

The presidential inauguration is five days away and we’re counting down with a barrel of Jim Beam and comedian Leslie JonesTwitter feed. I’m Carolina A. Miranda, arts and urban design columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and I’m here with the week’s essential culture news — and vampiric biographies.

What the Williams archive may reveal

There has been a surge of interest in the life and career of Los Angeles architect Paul R. Williams, who died in 1980 at the age of 85. Not only did he build thousands of structures around Los Angeles, indelibly shaping the city’s landscape, he also served on the city’s planning commission (in his 20s!), and was the first Black architect to be admitted to the American Institute of Architects and receive its prestigious Gold Medal. Of course, that latter honorific came 37 years after his death — at the urging of another important Black architect: the late Phil Freelon.

A black-and-white portrait shows architect Paul Williams standing in a library holding a book.
Architect Paul Williams in 1952, in a portrait by celebrated architectural photographer Julius Shulman.
(Julius Shulman / Getty Research Institute)

Last summer, USC and the Getty Research Institute jointly announced the acquisition of Williams’ archive from his granddaughter, Karen Elyse Hudson, who for decades had been looking for a home for his work. I report on how his papers will begin to flesh out the profile of an architect, who is currently better known for his biography than for his design innovations.

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I also have a look at artist Janna Ireland’s engagement with Williams work. Ireland has spent years photographing Williams’ buildings and last fall published a compendium of that work titled “Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View.”

There is much that remains unknown about the ways in which Williams operated as architect, businessman and civic leader. The archive may begin to answer some of the many questions. Which questions? For readers of this Essential Arts newsletter, I expand upon my two Williams articles and ask local architecture figures what they’d like to learn from the archive. As Hudson says, “All people know is that the man was a really nice guy who drew upside down and people worked with him. But they don’t know who the man was totally.”

Ken Breisch, an architectural historian at USC, wants to understand more about how Williams fit in with a network of Black leaders who helped build L.A.'s important community institutions. “He was a really important figure associated with all of the major African American institutions,” he says. “He designed for them. He was on the board on these institutions. And I hope the archives shed some light on that ... the larger picture of African American society in the 1920s and ‘30s — especially upper middle class society which hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.”

A screengrab of a 1921 report in the L.A. Times records Paul R. Williams' appointment to the city's planning commission.
A 1921 report in the Los Angeles Times records Paul R. Williams’ appointment to the city’s planning commission.
(Los Angeles Times)

Milton Curry, who serves as dean of the architecture school at USC, and was instrumental to the university’s acquisition of Williams’ papers, is likewise curious to learn more about how Williams navigated the networks of white patronage that would have been essential to building. “His colleagues were pressing the flesh and having martinis at private clubs,” he says — private clubs that, no doubt, would have never admitted Williams as a member. “How did he get all of this work without doing the schmoozing? You do it the old-fashioned way: you do a really good project and someone says, ‘You should hire these guys.’”

Ireland is also intrigued by this very question. “It’s the whole package, the whole performance of being Paul Williams,” she says. “Getting up in the morning and running this office and meeting clients who may have been uncomfortable with him and learning how to do new things all the time for 50 years. That level of dedication is fascinating.”

Paul Williams helped shape the look of Los Angeles through his architecture.
(Anna Higgie / For The Times)

Architects at the L.A.-based firm CO Architects have been working on renovations to several Williams-designed buildings at UCLA and have spent time poring over the plans and drawings related to those buildings. Designer Lois Lee helped create a mosaic mural that Williams designed for the university’s Botany Building but was never constructed. “I know that he worked for a landscape architect,” says Lee. “I’m wondering how that transformed his outlook on design.”

Architect Rachel J. Bascombe worked on CO Architects’ renovation of the university’s Psychology Tower (since renamed Pritzker Hall). She is the rare Black woman working in the field. (A 2018 diversity report by the AIA showed that only 565 of its 94,000 members are Black women.)

Bascombe says the archive is important to understanding the past — but also projecting into the future: “To explain what Paul Williams means to someone like me and to the architecture industry is rooted in thinking about who the next generation of architects is.”

Plays and players

“I wanted the truth, even if it left me feeling unconsoled and morally bereft.” Times theater critic Charles McNulty says there is an assumption in some theater circles that when they are able to reopen, audiences will want comedy and uplift. He disagrees. McNulty says he found “comfort” over the holidays by reading Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and by watching the first two “Godfather” films.

Speaking of theatrical darkness: Wiip, an independent studio run by BBC America, is developing a five-part limited television adaptation of the 2013 stage version of George Orwell’s “1984" from playwrights Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan.

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Thankfully, McNulty isn’t all Donnie Darko all the time. He reviews a new online offering from the Pasadena Playhouse: a tribute show to Jerry Herman, the musical-comedy writer who described himself as “Mr. Show Business.” The show, “You I Like: A Musical Celebration of Jerry Herman,” reports McNulty, “lavishes love on a lyricist and composer who didn’t always get his due.”

A woman in a fur stole sits onstage with her arms extended to the sky as pieces of paper flit from the ceiling
Lesli Margherita in “You I Like: A Musical Celebration of Jerry Herman.”
(Jeff Lorch)

Christi Carras reports that “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” raised $2 million in ticket sales that will go toward COVID-19 relief.

And Jessica Gelt has a dispatch on the how the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood is reinventing itself: the organization has set up an outdoor stage in its parking lot with spaced chairs and tables arranged by pod. “We live in a city that has this beautiful climate,” says artistic director Stephen Sachs, “and it’s the perfect environment for enjoying the arts.”

Truly honored

Singers Joan Baez and Garth Brooks, violinist Midori, actor Dick Van Dyke and actor, director and choreographer Debbie Allen are the Kennedy Center’s 2021 honorees. The award is usually presented as part of a glitzy televised ceremony, notes The Times’ Nardine Saad. This year, because of COVID-19, the program will be filmed in locations around Washington, D.C., then condensed into a broadcast.

In addition to her choreography work, Allen also serves as executive producer on “Grey’s Anatomy” and recently released the Netflix doc “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.” She chatted with reporter Makeda Easter about the honor. “It makes me feel like I need more time,” says Allen. “There’s so much to do.”

BTW, if you need some non-coup entertainment, Easter turned me onto this hilarious vid of Allen trying to teach Cardi B ballet.

Choreographer Debbie Allen rehearses with her dancers in "Freeze Frame" at Debbie Allen Dance Academy in 2016
Choreographer Debbie Allen rehearses with her dancers in “Freeze Frame” at Debbie Allen Dance Academy on Jan. 26, 2016.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Since we’re on the subject of awards: On Wednesday, President Trump gave the National Medal of Arts to country stars Toby Keith and Ricky Skaggs. Leading a lot of people to ask, what exactly is the National Medal of Arts? Well, Jessica Gelt has the answer: The award was created by Congress in 1894 and “it is considered the highest honor the government can give to artists, arts groups and arts supporters.”

Around the arts

Controversy began to swirl around the financially troubled San Francisco Art Institute last week after Zachary Small at the New York Times reported that the school might considering selling its Diego Rivera mural to make ends meet. In a follow-up story, the Los Angeles Times’ Gelt reported that the SFAI’s board had begun a feasibility study for a move — though the school did say that the ultimate aim was to preserve the mural in place. On Tuesday, however, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to fast-track landmark status for the mural, potentially blocking a sale.

A view of Diego Rivera's mural at the SFAI, which depicts an artist painting a fresco.
Diego Rivera’s “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” completed in 1931.
(Cabrillo.HWY via Flickr)

Lucia Daniella Saldivar-Lozano painted a tribute to Black Lives Matter on a curbside utility box in Sylmar in November. It has been defaced countless times since. And countless times since she has gone back to repair it. “I don’t want to change my art because of racist behavior,” she tells Times columnist Gustavo Arellano.

Plus, how Audry Chan’s mural for the ACLU in Westlake, “The Care We Create,” serves as an action in support of more social services and less policing, as envisioned by the People’s Budget LA Coalition. Chan tells Artillery how it all came about.

ICYMI (a.k.a. I forgot to put it in last week’s newsletter), I wrote about how the CIA (yes, that CIA) has given its website a sleek new look. “The redesign — surprisingly elegant and up-to-date for a federal agency — draws attention to the lack of good graphic design elsewhere in government.” Case in point: Where is the good design for COVID-19?

Redesigning the L.A. River

Speaking of new looks: Frank Gehry‘s office has sort of released plans for the L.A. River, at least one corner of it. The Times’ Louis Sahagún reports that the architect has released a concept for the point at which the river meets the Rio Hondo in South Gate. This includes covering the river in concrete platforms that would serve as “bridge-like green spaces” that would occupy the “airspace high above the flood channel’s musty floor.”

But a coalition of environmental groups oppose the plan, including the Friends of the Los Angeles River, Heal the Bay, the Nature Conservancy, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, the Trust for Public Land and East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

An overhead view of the concrete channels that mark the convergence of the Los Angeles River and Rio Hondo
View toward what would be an imagined park at the point where the L.A. River and the Rio Hondo meet.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Essential happenings

Matt Cooper has a mind-boggling 21 culture picks for the holiday weekend — a particularly poignant year in which to be celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. This includes a concert in honor of the slain civil rights leader by the Santa Monica Symphony and a day-long event organized by the California African American Museum featuring a poetry workshop, a children’s story hour and a performance by the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963.
Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1963.
(Associated Press)

Also, keep this on your calendar for next week: The Broad museum is launching a new online series produced by Quincy Jones that will examine the musical influences of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The first video segment will feature L.A. jazz musician Terrace Martin and Jones himself. Videos start dropping on Jan. 21!

Passages

Renie Bardeau, a photographer who chronicled Disneyland’s early evolution, is dead at 86.

Susan Landauer, a curator and scholar who organized key exhibitions of Bay Area artists, has died from lung cancer at the age of 62.

Philip J. Smith, chairman of the Shubert Organization, whose chain of Broadway theaters and Off Broadway production sites, made him a force in the world of theater, has died at 89.

Howard Johnson, a musician who made of the tuba an unlikely instrument of jazz and pop, has died at 79.

In other news

— The Orange County Museum of Art has a new director: Heidi Zuckerman, formerly head of the Aspen Art Museum.
— Plus, in the world of architecture, Jia Yi Gu is the new director of the MAK Center while Argentine architect Mariana Ibañez takes the helm of UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design.
Rubén Martínez has a pretty terrific essay on Joseph Rodriguez’s 1994 LAPD photos over at KCET.
— And Lewis Gordon writes about how the images that emerged from the U.S. Capitol last week will inspire fringe groups for decades.
President-elect Biden had hoped to arrive to the inauguration by train. Security and the pandemic have made that impossible, and it’s a loss for transit advocacy, writes Curbed’s Alissa Walker.
— Biden may put an end to border wall construction, but the damage to sacred Indigenous sites wrought by the Trump years may be permanent.
— “Guston — who was Jewish, anti-Nixon and avowedly antiracist — took to painting small-time thugs wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods, running around town in small gangs, looking menacing and idiotic. Sound prescient?” Critic Sebastian Smee says this would have been a good moment to show Philip Guston’s paintings in Washington, D.C.
— In “Vaterland,” a new book of photography, critic and artist Jörg Colberg captures the unease of a contemporary Germany reckoning with its past.
— Archaeologists have found what may be the world’s oldest extant figurative painting in Indonesia. It is of a pig.
— Avast, Randall Roberts has an explainer on sea shanty TikTok.

And last but not least ...

2021 goals: Read everything there is about Vampira.


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