Pacific Standard Time Investigates L.A. Architecture

Frank Gehry, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 1987-2003, Image courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP

The Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. takes a close look at the city’s postmodern rise.

L.A. is having a moment. With home prices on the rebound, a revitalized downtown core and an expanding transit system, America’s second-largest city might just have come into its own. Its arts scene, too, seems well on its way. (Woody Allen’s quip that L.A.’s contribution to world culture is limited to turning right on a red light doesn’t hold up anymore… though it is a great perk.)

This year, after the staggering 2011 success of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945­–1980, the organization launched a follow-up that explores the area’s rich architectural heritage and legacy. Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. (through July; pacificstandardtimepresents.org)—which began in April and features 11 key exhibits at nine museums, as well as special programs and events—spans the length of the city, chronicling the rise of the postmodern metropolis and hinting at what the future may hold. It makes for must-see museum hopping for architecture-loving visitors and native Angelenos alike. Here are the highlights.

The Getty Institute: “Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future 1940–1990”

The first stop should be the Getty Institute (whose architecture itself is worth a look) for the keynote exhibition “Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future 1940–1990.” Throughout five halls, curators Wim de Wit, Christopher James Alexander and Rani Singh display an eclectic and unprecedented mix of archival flotsam, demographic and infrastructural factoids and structural beauty shots that explain how the city’s built environment came to be.

Case in point is a massive video map (basically a Google map on steroids) that projects all the World Factbook tidbits you could ever want, from the outlines of the old electric railway system to the locations and densities of L.A.'s myriad ethnic communities. A 1947 master plan for the massive freeway system, which has been almost entirely realized as envisioned, gives car culture its due. (City engineers once considered transforming the concrete-clad Los Angeles River into a freeway.) The walls are also lined with photos of Googie architecture (built to appeal to people driving by), Ed Ruscha’s famous shots documenting all of Hollywood Boulevard and a fascinating look at Pereira & Luckman’s LAX—a midcentury airport masterpiece.

The curators have taken pains to emphasize how the aerospace industry, located in the city and its outskirts, shaped the building trade. “It really was a laboratory for experimentation,” Alexander says. “The ideas that were tested and proven in aerospace, auto design or other industries were integrated into the architectural technologies of the era.”

Inadvertently providing a lineup of can’t-miss sites for newcomers, the exhibit highlights L.A.’s architectural landmarks like Bunker Hill, Century City, Dodger Stadium, the Music Center, Walt Disney Concert Hall and the famous DWP building by A.C. Martin (one of the world’s first green structures).

It finishes with an overview of the area’s famous residential architecture. According to de Wit, L.A.’s greatest influencers have been its residences given, “the way one can build in southern California with the openness, bringing the outside inside.” Through July 21; 1200 Getty Center Dr.; 310-440-7300; getty.edu.

Hammer Museum: “A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living”

The Hammer’s “A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living“ is the first career survey of the architect. While Frank Lloyd Wright, John Lautner and Richard Neutra basked in the limelight (plentiful examples of their work can be found in the Hollywood Hills), Jones was a quiet, collaborative working-man’s midcentury modernist. Though a bit overlooked, he has more than 5,000 built projects to his name, many of which are still standing. (Take a quick jaunt through Bel Air and you can probably see a few.)

His ethos, like that of his comrades’, was design for better living, with open-plan, natural-light-filled houses that fit seamlessly into the local geography. (He worked extensively with influential developer Joseph Eichler, whose houses Steve Jobs credited with fostering his own love of great design.) However, Jones dedicated himself to bringing this philosophy to the middle class, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator Jennifer Fletcher stresses how he viewed housing developments as a chance to build community, with shared green spaces, varied home models and non-grid site planning. “His larger project was really pushing the ideals of modernism—good design for all, improved efficient living,” she explains. “It’s a different take on modernism, less formal and more about an approach—seeing design as problem solving.”

Emblematic of his career is the story of his work with the Mutual Housing Association, a group started by itinerant musicians who had hung out with Lloyd Wright and wanted to embrace pioneering ideas for affordable home architecture. The exhibit highlights Jones’s un-built submission for the influential Case Study House program, a lovely suburban retreat sunk into a hill; it looks like a house that Mad Men’s Don Draper would buy if he moved to L.A. Jones did not lack a glamour quotient, and the show displays his work for Gary Cooper and Warner Brothers Records and the famous Annenberg house in Rancho Mirage—which recently hosted President Obama’s high-profile summit with new Chinese president Xi Jinping. Through September 8; 10899 Wilshire Blvd.; 310-443-7000; hammer.ucla.edu.

The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art: “A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California”

For a more modern look at Los Angeles architecture, head downtown to the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Little Tokyo for “A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California.” Gathering 39 major and emerging figures and architectural firms, the exhibition showcases how L.A. architects are currently building.

All the big guns—Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Frank Gehry—submitted mock-ups, models and designs for recent projects in California and around the world. Indulge your inner urban planner with Moss’s massive wall-mounted model of a renewed Culver City or feel the vicarious thrill of custom designing your own postmodern home with the various residential models on display. Three “pavilions” from up-and-comers invite guests to reconsider wall shapes and forms of space, while Mayne’s undulating design for the Phare Tower in Paris (estimated to be complete in 2017) dominates the center of the exhibition.

Above all, make sure to see Gehry’s portion, nestled by itself in the reading room, if only because the architect was ready to exit the show (he seemed to disagree with the curator’s approach initially) until Mayne sweet-talked his mentor into returning. The fascinating riposte to those who think Gehry designs buildings by crumpling up sheets of paper and throwing them together lays out his proposal for the National Museum of China, a high-profile project being built on Olympic Park in Beijing.

Although French architect Jean Nouvel eventually won the prestigious contract, Gehry was clearly proud of his elaborately thought-out submission, for which his firm developed a new glass material dubbed “translucent stone,” meant to shroud the museum in an exterior that rippled with light. All the presentation materials meant to wow the Chinese are there. Through September 16; 152 N. Central Ave.; 212-626-6222; moca.org.

LACMA: “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA”

Last, but far from least, is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is the county’s pride and joy, becoming an art-world epicenter under the direction of CEO and director Michael Govan. The museum’s Miracle Mile campus, however, has a disjointed, slapdash feel. An ’80s-era makeover obscures the core midcentury modern buildings, obliterating any sense of architectural unity—and the beautiful new Renzo Piano additions only highlight the unflattering contrast.

Govan has created a stir by presenting a radical redesign of the campus from Pritzker Prize–winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, the focus of the exhibit “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA.” Govan’s presentation starts with the history of LACMA’s construction, going back 50,000 years to examine the area’s tar pits, which trapped and preserved fauna from the ice age that is now on display at the Page Museum next door. What does tar have to do with LACMA? A lot: The original design by William L. Pereira and Associates featured surrounding pools that were quickly fouled by sulfurous seepage and had to be filled in. Since then, LACMA has looked for a cohesive way to expand its campus with pell-mell results. The community eventually rallied behind a proposal by Rem Koolhaas to raze the entire east campus, but funding never came through.

Building on that proposal, Govan has spent the past six years working in secret with Zumthor to create a LACMA for the future; the centerpiece of the exhibit is a multi-ton, concrete-cast model of breathtaking ambition. Modestly calling it a “sketch,” Govan and Zumthor have produced a massive, flowing inkblot design, which they call the “Black Flower,” that mimics the local tar pits as it overhauls the notion of a museum. Rather than crafting a multi-floor vertical space, Zumthor embraced L.A.’s sprawl with a horizontal plan wrapped in a sinuous perimeter gallery made visible to the street by floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Foregoing a single main entrance, the alluring curves of the building rise on several columns, any of which provide entry to the museum via individual stairways. Behind the perimeter gallery, nestled in its curves, is exhibition space in somewhat more traditional, orthogonal rooms.

The building itself seems to rise above the ground like a tar-trapped mammoth, providing direct pedestrian access to the park below and showcasing LACMA’s extensive storage holdings, which will be kept in plain sight year round. And, of course, the structure is a green dream, harvesting L.A.’s relentless sun to generate more electricity than it requires. It is a stunning proposal, which promises that the city’s shining moment is far from over—and may be just beginning. Through September 15; 5905 Wilshire Blvd.; 323-857-6000; lacma.org.