1960s architecture: L.A. and the paradox of preservation

Architecture Critic

Modern architecture is growing old. The groundbreaking designers at Germany’s Bauhaus began building nearly a century ago. Many landmarks of midcentury Modernism, while somewhat younger, are also showing their age, their curtain walls taking on water, their cantilevers askew. And now the most recent examples of the style, late-modern buildings from the 1960s, are nearing the half-century mark.

1960s architecture: In an article in Sunday’s Arts and Books section about 1960s architecture in Los Angeles, a caption with a photo of the Department of Water and Power’s John Ferraro Building said the building opened in 1961. It opened in 1965. —

That advancing age, in the simplest terms, means the most significant modern landmarks increasingly need protection from demolition, and even from benign disregard. But as “The Sixties Turn 50,” a new Los Angeles Conservancy campaign meant to bring attention to threatened 1960s architecture, makes clear, the effort to round up support for postwar buildings is often far from straightforward -- and can easily prove a minefield of contradiction and irony.

To begin with, modern architecture in nearly all its many guises was marked -- even propelled -- by an active disdain for architectural history. And it was during the 1960s that Modernism, fat with success, entered its Imperial phase, using urban renewal schemes and other tactics to remake cities -- often in the most inelegant, big-footed of ways. Bunker Hill, anyone?


Those massive projects, in fact, were precisely the ones that galvanized defenders of historic architecture and, in many cities, spurred the creation of the preservation movement. Now, this same generation of buildings increasingly finds itself at risk from new development.

At the same time, the 1960s was also the decade that saw Modernism -- to the degree that it was ever a single, coherent force -- splinter and break apart. It was the period in which doubt and memory crept in -- and also, significantly, the moment that consensus broke down within the architecture profession about which new buildings were most important and why. Robert Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” was published in 1966; the book, which Venturi called a “gentle manifesto,” was a shrewd, humane, minutely detailed challenge to corporate Modernism’s dominance and aloof stance toward cities’ history.

Architects such as Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the World Trade Center towers as well as Century City’s Century Plaza Hotel; Edward Durell Stone, and others, meanwhile, began adding curves, ornament and moments of humor to their work. The first stirrings of earth-friendly, back-to-the-land architecture could be glimpsed as the decade wore on as could those of the aggressively unconventional work of the L.A. School. Frank Gehry’s Danziger House and Studio on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, one of the architect’s early breakthroughs, dates from 1965; seen from the sidewalk, it is mostly a blank (or graffiti-covered) stucco wall.

There are practical problems too with any effort to preserve postwar architecture. Particularly in California, late-modern architects were experimenting with new materials, many of them lightweight and flexible -- or even meant to be temporary -- and therefore particularly susceptible to the ravages of time and wear.

In Los Angeles, where the 1950s and ‘60s were periods of infrastructural investment, optimism and intense growth, we are literally surrounded with architecture from the era, much of it executed at a high level. That means both that we may be lulled into a false sense of security about preserving its best buildings -- because we have so many in reserve -- and also that battles over their fate are emerging fast and furiously.

The Conservancy is fighting a three-front war, with the Century Plaza, Gerald Bense’s 1961 Commonwealth Bank on Lankershim Boulevard and Irving Shapiro’s Columbia Savings on Wilshire Boulevard, from 1965, all threatened by new development. In that sense, the Conservancy’s new campaign, which kicked off with a panel discussion and symposium earlier this month, seems noticeably sluggish.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is leading a similar nationwide effort, but its reach is broader, covering not just the 1960s but “Modernism and the recent past.” That wider focus makes sense: For the most part, the public is sold on 1960s architecture -- or as sold as it is ever going to be, as recent reactions to the death of architectural photographer Julius Shulman and the rise of the sleek series “Mad Men” have made clear.

But the 1970s? In that decade, L.A. architects in particular adopted a new kind of disdain: not for the past but for beauty, for conventional notions of good taste. Imagine trying to rally broad public support for preserving a building designed to look ungainly or unlovable or to make people feel uncomfortable: an early project by Morphosis, say, or Eric Owen Moss. That would make preservation fights over the 1960s look rational and perfectly ordered by comparison. Until the Conservancy starts working to educate Angelenos about the buildings of that decade and the early 1980s -- until it gets well out in front of the curve of public taste, in other words -- it will remain a reactive body, rushing to put out fires.

Other, trickier questions about preservation and the postwar period have yet really to be broached: Would we ever want to preserve a piece of postwar infrastructure -- a chunk of decommissioned freeway, say? And what about sustainability? The National Trust has recently begun aggressively making the case that preservation is green -- that protecting and maintaining older buildings, given the energy required to build them in the first place, is always a more sustainable choice than knocking them down to construct something new, no matter how energy-efficient the replacement.

There is merit in that point of view, but when it’s applied to modern architecture it loses some of its force. Postwar modern buildings, with their expanses of glass and exposed structure, are often glaringly inefficient. On top of that, as the green-architecture movement increasingly takes on the problems associated with car-centric urban planning, postwar architecture, with its deference to the private auto, begins to look more wasteful still.

Those two ideas -- that preservation is green and that postwar city building was not -- are now coming together in some contradictory, even absurd ways. The debate over the future of the Century Plaza has been a case in point. Both sides have tried to argue that they have sustainability on their side, the Conservancy because knocking down the hotel would waste its “embodied energy” -- the energy it took to construct it -- and Michael Rosenfeld, the developer, because his proposed replacement, designed by the architect Harry Cobb, would promote green urbanism, namely pedestrianism and use of mass transit.

In the end, the Conservancy’s and the Historic Trust’s efforts raise a question that is as much philosophical as practical: How does an organization dedicated to advocacy deal with complexity, even paradox?

If you want to save a building from the wrecking ball -- particularly if the wrecking ball is about to start swinging -- you need blunt, dramatic arguments. But the relationship between postwar architecture and preservation is anything but black and white: Many leading preservationists, inconveniently enough, still hold an active grudge against modern architecture. And when you’re working to slow down the march of the blindest sort of progress, ambivalence usually just gets in the way.