Southern California architecture: the missing early years from PSTP

Two years ago, when the Getty Trust helped organize and fund more than five dozen exhibits on 20th century art in Los Angeles, a massive enterprise it labeled “Pacific Standard Time,” it wasn’t difficult to guess which era the museum would focus on. It was clearly going to be the postwar period, and the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s in particular.

There wasn’t much of an art scene in L.A. in first half of the century, after all, and World War II itself, in a range of ways, helped fuel a transformative boom in both industrial and cultural production here. Ferus Gallery opened in 1957, and the new Wilshire Boulevard campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was completed in 1965.

Now the Getty is turning its attention to architecture in Southern California. And this time around there’s no such clarity about dates and decades. Officially, the Getty is calling the second, more modest round of shows “Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.” (PSTP is the acronym to remember.) The museum’s own anchor exhibition for the project, which opens Tuesday, is called “Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future 1940-1990.”


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There are significant gaps, and even contradictions, between those titles, between the phrase “modern architecture in L.A.” and the period 1940 to 1990. And it’s in those gaps that you’ll find both the blind spots and the major potential of the series — what it leaves out and what its counterintuitive sense of history makes room for.

Modern architecture in L.A., after all, got started well before 1940. And it exhausted itself — or was upended by impatient revolutionaries of various kinds — long before 1990. What that means is that the Getty-sponsored shows will be looking at modernism in Los Angeles from its middle age through its dotage.

One of the most prominent shows in the group — the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “A New Sculpturalism,” opening June 2 — is pushing the time frame even further from modernism’s founding, examining architecture in Southern California over the last 25 years.

By choosing to focus on the period after 1940 while also insisting on a title that includes the phrase “modern architecture” — elsewhere, the Getty suggests it is hoping to discover “how the city was made modern” — the PSTP organizers, principally Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander of the Getty Research Institute, can achieve three goals at once.

They can match, at least roughly, the time period examined in the PST art shows, which covered 1945 to 1980. They can play up the glamour of the midcentury period, with its sleek Case Study architecture and jet-set optimism, to potential museum-goers. And they can make room for a look at the early careers of Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and their compatriots in what has become known as the L.A. School, which didn’t emerge as a recognizable group until the late 1970s.

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It’s in this last focus that the Getty series may produce its most meaningful scholarship. While the midcentury period has been pretty well pawed over by now, the L.A. architecture of the 1970s and ‘80s remains underexplored and misunderstood — not only the work of the L.A. School but also of Charles Moore, Anthony Lumsden, Cesar Pelli, Ray Kappe and late-career modernists like Craig Ellwood and William Pereira.

Two shows in particular crack open that series of vaults: “A Confederacy of Heretics,” already running at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and “Everything Loose Will Land,” an exhibition opening May 9 at the Schindler House in West Hollywood and curated by UCLA historian Sylvia Lavin.

Ah, but what about the period before 1940? That is the great unexamined territory of the PSTP project. Perhaps a sort of prequel is required before you take the Getty tram up the hill to see the “Overdrive” exhibition.

The story would have to begin with the new residents who poured into Los Angeles in the 1880s and 1890s and in the early years of the 20th century — and the architects who arrived with them, carrying influences from Chicago, New York, Europe and Asia but fairly quickly establishing a native, forward-looking Los Angeles architecture.

There were the Greene brothers, Henry and Charles, who settled in Pasadena in 1893. They rode the train across the country, stopping off in Chicago on the way to see the Columbian Exposition — and perhaps most important, to walk through the expo’s Japanese temple, which was to have a profound effect on their work. The Greenes’ residential architecture, though it looks dark and rather heavy to our eyes, was spare and frank by the standards of upper-class 19th century design, and it helped prepare Los Angeles for the cleansing wave of modernism to come.

In the decades that followed — from roughly 1910 through the Depression years — Southern California modernism was propelled by three architects who were, like the Greenes, outsiders to one degree or another: Irving Gill, Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.

Gill, born in upstate New York, came to Southern California in 1893, the same year the Greenes did, and within 15 years was producing a kind of abstract, stripped-down proto-modernism as radical as anything being turned out by Vienna’s Adolf Loos, the architect typically given credit for cutting architecture’s ties to history most aggressively. Most of Gill’s early work was in the San Diego area, but by 1914, with the (sadly demolished) Dodge House in what is now West Hollywood, he had brought an unapologetically modern architecture to Los Angeles.

The architecture of Neutra and Schindler is better known and much explored, and the complicated relationship between the men — both born in Vienna, both finding in Los Angeles fertile ground for architectural innovation — is dramatic enough to be screenplay material. Close friends for years, they fell out bitterly before a late-in-life rapprochement, begun in a hospital room they coincidentally found themselves sharing.

It is probably enough, in the context of the PSTP shows, to say that their seminal projects were complete long before 1940 — and several years before the landmark “International Exhibition” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York of 1932, which is generally seen as the watershed moment when modern architecture found a broad American audience.

Neutra’s work was more polished than Schindler’s, just as Neutra was the better businessman; Schindler took more chances and burned more bridges over the course of his long career. But their early modernist breakthroughs — Schindler’s own house and studio on King’s Road from 1922, Neutra’s 1927 Jardinette apartments and 1929 Lovell Health House — were rungs on the same ladder.

A full, broad-minded accounting of L.A. modern architecture before 1940 would also have to include Art Deco masterpieces by Claud Beelman and Stiles Clements; Bertam Goodhue’s Central Library downtown; William Lescaze’s 1938 CBS building; and the half-dozen Mayan-inspired, textile-block houses completed by Frank Lloyd Wright, alongside whom Gill had worked briefly in the Chicago office of Louis Sullivan.

A study of L.A. buildings by Wright and his son, known as Lloyd Wright, could make up a show of its own, as could an exploration of health and hygiene as an obsession of the clients who hired Schindler, Neutra and Gill. The story of how women shaped L.A.'s early modernism not as architects but as patrons (Ellen Browning Scripps, Aline Barnsdall) and critics (Pauline Schindler and later Esther McCoy) is a key one as well.

In stitching the connections among architecture, urban planning and politics, the prewar story would have to confront the missed civic opportunities of those decades: how Los Angeles failed to take public control of the private red-car trolley network as it began to fall out of favor and how ambitious private plans for new parks and open space were scuttled. Historian William Deverell tells much of the parks story in his contribution to the “Overdrive” catalog.

More than anything, I hope that the surprising alignments and leftover spaces created by the Getty’s emphasis on the postwar period have inspired the curators involved in the series to experiment with history, expectation and perspective in their own ways. It’s hard to tell how much this anachronistic approach will shape the various exhibitions. The “Heretics” show at SCI-Arc, the first of the series to open, offers a thoughtful but pretty straightforward take on the early work of Mayne, Gehry, Eric Owen Moss, Frederick Fisher and others.

It would make little sense for the ad-hoc, low-budget, inventive spirit that has always marked the city’s most important architecture to be missing from these important attempts to put that architecture in historical context. If it is, the PSTP effort may itself, in a curatorial sense, feel as if it’s been imported from somewhere else — somewhere colder and more formal, and more hidebound too.


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