In Los Angeles, it's back to the future

On a perfectly clear afternoon last week, Eames Demetrios, grandson of the pioneering, multitalented designers Charles and Ray Eames, met me at the house and studio in Pacific Palisades that his grandparents built for themselves in the late 1940s. The living room of the boxy, steel-framed house was empty, its contents having been carefully packed up and carted 10 miles east to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As part of LACMA's "Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965," a major show in the Pacific Standard Time series, the items, more than 1,800 in all, have been painstakingly reassembled inside a full-sized replica of the house.

The last time the living room was empty, Demetrios told me as we stood talking on the bare concrete floor, was near the end of 1949, just before his grandparents moved in. In that year the house, like Los Angeles, was a container waiting to be filled. In 2011 it's vacant because its contents have been cataloged, removed, cleaned and set delicately into a museum display.

The difference between those two kinds of architectural emptiness suggests something crucial about the cultural development of Los Angeles, reflecting a turn toward history hardly restricted to the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time exhibitions. All over Los Angeles, the places where artists, architects and engineers were busy in the postwar years inventing the future are being recast as monuments and historical shrines.

This new attitude toward the city's recent heritage can be seen in increasingly visible battles over the fate of postwar landmarks like Richard Neutra's Kronish House in Beverly Hills and in nascent efforts to preserve and display artifacts from the early years of the computer and aerospace industries in Los Angeles. For a city long associated with youth and trendsetting, with bulldozing its architectural past and even with a kind of civic immaturity, it is a major shift.

With L.A. County's population expected to grow by 2.5 million between now and 2040, we are hardly on the brink of becoming a hopelessly nostalgic, European-style city, a shrinking capital watching its creative glories sink further into the distant past. It's possible that this emerging historical fixation is in part a temporary response to the depressing state of the economy, a reflection of the fact that for the time being our most ambitious creative impulses, particularly in terms of innovative new architecture, are being held in check.

And it would be naïve to say that Los Angeles has never shown an interest in packaging or promoting its own history. But the past we embraced most energetically in earlier decades was often a mythical, faux-weathered or imported one; think of the 1884 Helen Hunt Jackson novel "Ramona" (and its associated pageants) or the original Getty Museum, a literal re-creation of a Roman villa that opened in 1974. What's emerging and even accelerating now is an interest in capturing the postwar inventiveness of Southern California like a firefly in a jar.

A few days before meeting Demetrios at his grandparents' house, I drove to Boelter Hall, on the UCLA campus to see something called the Kleinrock Internet Heritage Site and Archive. In fall 1969, UCLA engineers led by the young professor Leonard Kleinrock used a bulky machine called an Interface Message Processor, or IMP, to communicate with the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto.

The room from which that message was sent, 3420 Boelter, had been modified a great deal in the intervening decades, but a few years ago a graduate student in history at UCLA, Brad Fidler, suggested to the engineering department that it consider re-creating it as it looked in 1969.

The university gave him the go-ahead, and after landing contributions from Mark Cuban and Google's Eric Schmidt, among others, and consulting with Sebastian Clough, director of exhibitions at UCLA's Fowler Museum, Fidler restored a wall on one side of the room that had been taken down and decorated the space to match photographs from the 1960s. He set the IMP in one corner and in another placed a period desk topped by a rotary phone.

The room, which UCLA is promoting as "the birthplace of the Internet," is not meant to be a completely authentic historical display. The dimensions don't match the original space exactly, and during the official opening of the site on Oct. 29, Fidler happily allowed a photographer to climb atop the 1960s-era desk to take a picture of the crowd below. That relaxed, slightly improvisatorial approach to history makes the room a good match for a city known for its inherent informality.

Whether Pacific Standard Time is a good match for Los Angeles is another, more complicated question. For me it is more than anything a sign of progress — and of real engagement with Los Angeles — from the Getty, which just 25 years ago decided to build its main campus on a hilltop removed, in literal and symbolic terms, from the city below.

For others, though, PST has loomed as an irresistible target. Adam Nagourney, the L.A. bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote last month that the Getty initiative "suggests a bit of overcompensation from a city that has long been overshadowed by the New York art establishment, a place that — arguably unfairly — still suffers from a reputation of being more about tinsel than about serious art, and where interest in culture starts and ends with movie grosses and who is on the cover of Vanity Fair."

Nagourney then quoted the art critic Dave Hickey, who said of PST: "It's corny. It's the sort of thing that Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time. It is '50s boosterish, and I would argue largely unnecessary."

Boosterism, of course, is woven into the DNA of Los Angeles. A recurring theme of Reading L.A., my yearlong series of blog posts on the canonical books devoted to Los Angeles architecture and urbanism, has been the city's longstanding, seemingly preternatural gift for self-promotion, much of it connected to real-estate speculation and Chamber of Commerce-style marketing.

Carey McWilliams, in his brilliant 1946 book "Southern California: An Island on the Land," called Los Angeles "one of the great promotions the world has ever known" and "the best-advertised city in America." In 1933, Morrow Mayo wrote that "the attitude of Angelenos towards their city is precisely that of a salesman towards his product, or a football cheering-section towards its team. Here is a spirit of boost which has become a fetish, a mania. Everything else is second to it."

In that sense, PST may appear to be merely more of the same. And yet Hickey and Nagourney had it at best only half-right. If the PST effort qualifies as boosterism, it is of a sort new to Los Angeles, promoting the past instead of the future — or, to be more precise, promoting the dynamic futurism of the recent past.

The same week that Nagourney's piece appeared, in fact, NASA officials were formally signing over title and ownership of the Space Shuttle Endeavour to the California Science Center in Exposition Park. The Science Center this year won a fierce competition for the orbiter, which was largely built in Palmdale and during its active NASA service touched down regularly at Edwards Air Force Base in the Antelope Valley.

After NASA finishes the tricky task of cleaning the shuttle, near the end of next year, it will send the vehicle to LAX on the back of a modified 747. The shuttle will then be driven through the surface streets of Los Angeles to Exposition Park, in an event that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa predicted will be "the mother of all parades."

With the architecture firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, the Science Center is developing a $170-million air and space wing as the shuttle's permanent home. The new structure will likely take the form of a glass tower, allowing the museum to display Endeavour vertically.

In other words, it will be the biggest, most expensive vitrine in Southern California, large enough to accommodate a dozen Eames House living rooms. Endeavour is expected to boost attendance at the Science Center dramatically, making it one of the region's top tourist attractions.

Who knows? It might just outdraw Tomorrowland.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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