What a big LACMA exhibition has to say about L.A.’s ongoing search for ‘civic identity’

Architecture Critic

This column touched last week on the well-worn idea, revived most recently by the New York Times, that Los Angeles has an unusually weak set of civic institutions and a correspondingly spotty philanthropic record. My feeling, as I tried to make clear, is that a lack of “old-line families,” to use the story’s own J. Press vocabulary, has been as much a strength for L.A. as a shortcoming.

At the same time, the debate about how Los Angeles might establish a coherent civic identity, and the extent to which that identity should copy or break from older cities like Chicago, New York or London, is one we’ve been engaged in for more than a century. And the realm where it has played out most extensively, as I was reminded when I joined a panel earlier this month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is the world of architecture — specifically the architecture of the Spanish Colonial Revival.

Moderated by USC’s William Deverell and pegged to the exhibition “Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico, 1915-1985,” which runs at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion through April 1, the conversation focused on the shifting meanings over many decades in L.A. of the Spanish Colonial. If you need a primer on the style, which Elmer Grey by 1919 was already confidently declaring “Southern California’s new architecture,” think white stucco walls, arched openings, beamed wooden ceilings and always — always! — a red-tile roof.


Some notes on the exhibition itself, before we turn back to the Spanish Colonial and its discontents: Curated by LACMA’s Wendy Kaplan and Staci Steinberger, “Found in Translation” is among the most ambitious, and most accomplished, of the shows in the Getty’s third iteration of the Pacific Standard Time series. It aims to explore not only “the full range of design and architecture dialogues between California and Mexico from 1915 to 1985,” as Kaplan puts it in the catalog, but also how Southern California specifically, looking to Mexico as well as Spain, attempted in those years to “construct a regional identity.”

The show follows that story through four chapters of design history: the Spanish Colonial; the pre-Hispanic revivals that celebrated the Maya, the Aztecs and other cultures (and inspired architects including Frank Lloyd Wright); folk and craft traditions; and modernism. There are times in the exhibition when that spread begins to feel unwieldy, when the trip from Mexico under Obregón to the U.S. under Reagan can seem a long one. Yet for the most part, Kaplan and Steinberger manage quite effectively to coax a wide-ranging cast of characters — including Wright, Esther McCoy, Ruth Asawa, William Spratling, Deborah Sussman, Antonio Pineda, Judithe Hernández and A. Quincy Jones — into a single curatorial frame.

What the show and catalog do best of all is mine the Spanish Colonial (and its slightly older sibling, the Mission Revival) for a nearly endless supply of ironies. If academics over the last two decades have made a point of teasing out the complexities, aesthetic and otherwise, in architecture’s modern movement — if it’s become fashionable to speak of modernisms, plural — it’s refreshing to see “Found in Translation” attempt something similar with the Spanish Colonial.

Among the most striking of those ironies: An architectural style that looked lovingly on California’s pre-Anglo past was among the most effective mechanisms for the elite attempt, roughly a century ago, to establish Anglo control over civic and cultural institutions and to whitewash (the verb, in this context, is Deverell’s) L.A.’s multiethnic foundations. When Myron Hunt and George Washington Smith produced their most ambitious Spanish Colonial designs between 1900 and 1930, they weren’t just gazing back to Southern California’s Spanish and Mexican pasts; they were pointedly giving a foothold to a respectable Eurocentricism here. As the exhibition points out, it was commonplace to “misidentify” Mexican artifacts as Spanish (a 16th century chalice owned by William Randolph Hearst and now in LACMA’s collection, for example) precisely because of this preference for a European lineage over a pan-American one.

Another irony: It was the advent of photography, the most modern and forward-looking of artistic media in that era, that helped generate the wave of nostalgia for the Spanish Colonial in the first place. Photographs from the 1870s by Carleton Watkins of the missions — many showing them looking ruined or abandoned but noble — produced a new appreciation for the design of those buildings and, soon enough, the first organized efforts to restore them. Once Helen Hunt Jackson published her novel “Ramona,” in 1884, that appreciation quickly flowered into full-on revisionist (and self-congratulatory) history.


The final irony is that a style we remember primarily for the strength of its unifying impulse was, in architectural terms, so varied and inconsistent — such a hybrid. The strain of the Spanish Colonial known as the Churrigueresque, based on examples from the Mexican and Spanish baroque and favored by Bertram Goodhue, among others, seems too wildly decorative and exuberant to fit under the same stylistic umbrella as the stripped-down exterior of Union Station, a building whose clean lines nod toward the abstraction of mid-century modernism.

Or maybe this last one isn’t an irony at all: Any style capable of unifying a region like Southern California, a place with so many overlapping histories of origin and cultural inheritance, would by necessity have to be supremely flexible, even chameleon-like. On top of that — as both writer Tyler Green and my fellow panelist Julianne Polanco, California’s State Historic Preservation Officer, emphasized on the night of the event — the missions themselves were architectural and historical hybrids by the time Watkins photographed them, a mashup of original and re-created parts.

At least in the decades before World War II, one advantage of the Spanish Colonial over modernism in establishing a broad, shared patrimony for California and Mexico, however mythologized, was that the first tended to be a set of architectural suggestions and the second a set of rules. Still, plenty of architects, including Mexico’s masterful Luis Barragán, managed to make the transition from red-tile roofs to insistently flat ones.

As Phoebe S.K. Young puts it in the “Found in Translation” catalog, the impulse behind the Spanish Colonial was as much about distracting from certain cultural realities as expressing or celebrating them. “The eye-catching Spanish Colonial architecture helped mask the region’s complex … politics as well as its less glamorous history as a poor, remote outpost of the Spanish empire,” she writes. The style “fit so well partly because it could contain multiple narratives and California identities.” Because, in other words, it was perfect for Los Angeles — a city, despite the cliches, where establishing a common culture has always been as much about smoothing over various cracks and fissures as building from scratch, and where architects have long assembled authenticity from a kit of parts.

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT