Much of the time Los Angeles can feel like a huge, messy jigsaw puzzle, with pieces left out — a city that evolved by accident. Parts of it don’t work, parts of it seem newly broken, parts are truly luminous — but hidden — and they all seem to have nothing to do with each other.
But Christopher Alexander sees things differently. “There was this desire, this strategy, this intent to have Los Angeles evolve in a manner that was unlike any other city,” says one of the curators behind the Getty’s new Pacific Standard Time architecture initiative. “So multiple hubs, multiple centers of activity — and the vastness. The terrain was established by the Pacific Electric rail line in the ‘teens, so when you see, later, the freeway system overlaid on that network, you see that right from the start of the 20th century, that was the plan, to have something vast and diverse.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Architecture initiative: A March 10 article about the Getty Research Institute project Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. misspelled poet Allen Ginsberg’s first name as Alan. —
After poking through the city’s master plan and its transportation, planning and auto club archives — some going back a century — he was struck by how deliberate it all was: “‘This is how we want the city to evolve; we don’t want it to be like New York or Chicago.’”
Wim de Wit, the head of the architecture and contemporary art offerings at the Getty Research Institute, says that the continuity with the past goes back even further, as Native American settlements laid down the patterns later traced by train lines, which led to the roads we drive on now. “This is not a new city,” he says.
Alexander is young, polished and optimistic; when he speaks about “this extraordinary metropolis,” he sounds like Jason Bentley of KCRW queuing up a groovy recording. But Alexander is not quite a booster. When you look over the city’s architectural history, he says, you realize “not everyone wins, at any given moment. It’s far more complicated than that.”
A renewed focus
The thinking behind Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. (running April through July) goes back well before last year’s initiative, which documented post-World War II art. . Members of the Getty Research Institute had been talking for years about architecture in general terms, and within two years of his 2007 arrival director Thomas Gaehtgens told his staff that it was time for a substantial effort on modern architecture. Around the time PST was launched in 2011, the architecture initiative was greenlighted.
The Getty, which was initially slow to wake up to the 20th century and to West Coast culture, is diving in to midcentury California cool in a big way. It held its initial press event for the architectural initiative at the Capitol Records Tower and enlisted L.A. architecture enthusiast Moby to narrate a promotional video. An exhibition at the Getty opens in April on the architectural engagement of artist Ed Ruscha, who is to old-school cool what Raymond Chandler was to noir. The Getty Foundation gave out $3.6 million in grants to 16 organizations to back the program.
And though the curators say that the modern-art PST helped shape the new project, they also learned that this one had to be different. “Something on the scale of Pacific Standard Time — 60 institutions together — you cannot repeat that,” De Wit says a bit wearily. “So it was always clear that we were to be working on a smaller scale.” This one has a wider range of years; it’s devoted to the period from the 1940s through 1990. The Museum of Contemporary Art’s “A New Sculpturalism,” opening June 2, will look at the mid-'80s to the more-or-less present — one of 11 exhibitions at nine institutions.
While there are a few detours — to Disneyland, for instance — PST 2.0 will not consider far-flung spots like San Diego or the high desert the way the original did. “Architecture is so much a response to a certain built environment,” says Alexander, “and social and political conditions, that it became clear that what you could say about Los Angeles you cannot say about San Diego. It’s totally different.”
Beyond the highlights
The overview — parallel to last year’s “Crosscurrents” — is called “Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990" and includes 400 objects, from photographs of pioneering Case Study Houses to a film about the construction of Lakewood. (It opens April 9 at the Getty Museum.) De Wit and Alexander curated it alongside the GRI’s Rani Singh, who had an important role in the first Pacific Standard Time and brings some avant-garde cred to the project — she served as an assistant to Alan Ginsberg and directs the archives of polymath Harry Smith.
The curators stress that while the show will include images of some of L.A.'s famous houses, it’s not just a greatest hits collection. “It’s not just the highlights of the Schindlers and Neutras and Gehrys,” De Wit says. “We want to bring back the names of some architects who’ve been overlooked,” such as Frederic Lyman, whose Malibu house showed some of the influence of Japanese architecture, and Claud Beelman who served as architect for J. Paul Getty and whose archives were thought to be lost.
And much of the show looks at L.A. urbanism more broadly. Its five orienting themes are residential architecture; car culture; “urban networks”; “engines of innovation,” which includes Hollywood and the oil, aviation and aerospace industries; and “community magnets,” which considers the way culture, sports, shopping and religion have exerted themselves on the cityscape.
The Urban networks topic includes one of the city’s most famous symbols. “We present freeways as something that unites and divides communities,” Alexander says, discussing both their abstract beauty and the way their construction destroyed neighborhoods, especially in poor and Latino parts of town.
“Overdrive” will range from the corporate modernism of Welton Becket’s firm to vernacular coffee shops and the gas stations that so entranced Ruscha. De Wit is particularly excited by influential everyday places such as LAX and Universal City Walk.
One test of the project will be whether it can augment a fairly robust existing discourse on Los Angeles modernism. The Getty is coming to all of this a bit late, years after the enthusiasm of Reyner Banham, the efforts of the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Modern Committee (which will lead several related tours and events) and following the work of architecture historian Alan Hess (who has written extensively on Googie and the ranch house), UCLA’s Thomas Hines (a chronicler of high modernism) and Jim Heimann (the bard of vernacular architecture.)
What can the Getty add to the existing conversation?
“I hope that people will understand that what happened here wasn’t an accident,” says Alexander. And he wants people to see the beauty in the oil derrick, the master plan, the water grid that make — in various ways — the isolated and heroic Lautner or Wright house possible. “If we can reframe people’s perceptions of Los Angeles,” he says, “we’ve been a success.”