Architecture exhibitions are notoriously tricky to pull off. It's hard to squeeze a whole building inside a museum, after all. And the number of forces that shape any piece of architecture — engineering, politics and money, to begin with — make it impossible to say with perfect clarity how a building came to be or what it means.
Broaden the scope to the architectural history of an entire city or region and you begin to approach head-spinning levels of complexity, not to mention a nearly endless list of possible story lines, heroes, villains and pivotal landmarks.
None of these pitfalls seem to have discouraged Wim de Wit, Christopher James Alexander and Rani Singh of the Getty Research Institute, curators of "Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990." The exhibition, centerpiece of a new Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time survey of modern architecture in Los Angeles, is a big, sprawling and somewhat overstuffed study of all the ways architecture interacted with the Southern California growth machine in the decades following World War II.
What sticks out more than anything is the curators' willingness to attempt to tell the whole gigantic story, without hedging or issuing any caveats about the size of the job. "Overdrive" is a richly layered collection of pretty much every corner of Los Angeles culture that architecture touched, influenced or was shaped by in those years, including cars, power plants, aerospace, higher education, public housing, the movie business, race relations, religion, shopping, sports and politics.
There is even, somewhat buried among the show's models, drawings, videos and multimedia displays, a provocative if never fully articulated argument: that in the postwar years the growth machine finally revved too high.
As a bit of wall text near the beginning of the exhibition puts it, the title "Overdrive" doesn't just refer to L.A.'s quick pace of growth in those years and its love affair with car culture, it "also alludes to the fact that an engine running at top speed may overheat."
There are even fascinating hints, in a section near the end, that the architecture of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was pragmatic and efficient not just for budgetary or artistic reasons but because the growth machine was by that point simply spent, no longer able to muster the consensus or gather the resources to build civic monuments from scratch.
If those details introduce a bit of pessimism — especially intriguing given that the show comes to a chronological close on the eve of the 1992 riots, when the city of the future suddenly found itself unable to manage its present — it is pretty quickly burned away in the glare of broader enthusiasm.
To put it another way: There is no time to slow down for darker meanings, even as we can see them lurking. There's simply too much to get to!
There's Tail o' the Pup and Edward R. Murrow; there's the American Cement building overlooking MacArthur Park and Frank Gehry's house in Santa Monica, with its chain-link wrapper; there's Disneyland, Bunker Hill, Googie coffee shops, dingbat apartments, the Getty Villa and the Capitol Records tower.
The curators certainly recognize the danger of the show becoming an all-things-to-all-people smorgasbord, even as they seem reluctant to let any of this material fall by the wayside. In what qualifies as at least a gesture in the direction of manageability, they've sectioned "Overdrive" into five discrete parts.
The show begins with a look at car culture. Then it turns to infrastructure and networks: water, power, freeways and mass transit. Sections on innovation (aviation, Hollywood) and what the curators call "community magnets" follow. The show wraps up with dozens of examples of innovative residential architecture, including the postwar Case Study houses and designs by John Lautner and Gregory Ain.
Each of these sections holds up better than you might think as an exhibition in itself. And the quality of the drawings, photographs and models is remarkably high.
Among the many high points: a model of Anthony Lumsden's impossibly smooth design for the 1984 Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys, a drawing showing a wide cross-section of Jon Jerde's Universal CityWalk and a picturesque view of A. Quincy Jones' Annenberg School at USC.
As is often the case with exhibitions of this scale, what ultimately stands out are not the thematic sections themselves but the firms and ideas that move from one to another, or appear in one obvious place only to pop up surprisingly in another.
The illustrator Carlos Diniz, who drew remarkably intricate architectural worlds and deserves his own substantial museum show, is one star of "Overdrive." Another is the architect Ray Kappe, who produced innovative work on a range of scales in the 1970s and '80s. Among the lesser-known architects who play a prominent role is Sidney Eisenshtat, with a number of fairly derivative projects on view.
To a large degree, the show pivots on a single, momentous transition: between the corporate and civic-minded modernism of the 1950s and '60s and the work of the young, experimental architects who emerged in the 1970s and '80s and became known as the L.A. School.
Because the exhibition begins in 1940, it does not include the early breakthroughs of modernist architects like Irving Gill and Rudolph Schindler. Modern architecture, in the narrative of "Overdrive," emerges nearly fully formed, backed by powerful institutions including the University of California system, television and movie studios and aerospace companies.
The heroes of this modernism are not architectural pioneers as much as savvy and prolific power-brokers: Welton Becket and William Pereira in particular, but also Jones and Edward Durell Stone.
When their influence begins to wane, the L.A. School architects, including Gehry, Thom Mayne, Franklin Israel and Eric Owen Moss, stand ready to pick up the slack. Their early work brings an obvious change in scale from those establishment firms, from the institutional to the residential, from the corporate office tower to the restaurant.
What's most surprising is how smooth "Overdrive" makes that transition look. What others have seen as rebellion, with younger L.A. architects casting out in new and barbed directions, the show is inclined to portray as an inheritance or changing of the guard. The design of the exhibition, by the Getty's Merritt Price in collaboration with a number of students from Art Center College of Design, supports this interest in smoothing over some jagged edges.
The glass case holding a large model of Gehry's Santa Monica house is tilted from the horizontal, a modest effort to convey some of the unconventional tumult of the architecture. But for the most part the design of the show underscores this surprising notion of continuum from 1960s to 1980s, from late modernism to L.A. School experimentation.
Still, you have you have to admire the curators' dogged interest in telling a comprehensive story, an ambition that remains rare and valuable in studies of Los Angeles.
This is one of L.A.'s great ironies: that a city so often written off as superficial is in reality so dense and layered that it frustrates nearly every effort to understand it in full.
Where: The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, L.A.
When: Daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. except Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (closed Mondays). Through July 21.
Price: Free (Parking is $15).
Information: (310) 440-7300; http://www.getty.edu.
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