One of Southern California's more distinctive natural qualities is its ambient light, which, when the air is clear, lends the landscapes and cityscapes a special glow.
The skies seem not to just be blue, but a brilliant blue, the sunshine a gorgeous gold, and the pastel-painted houses, modish clothing, customized cars, flowered hillsides and rippling ocean incandescent.
To appreciate and use this light and the amiable climate that generates it has been a constant challenge to architects searching for an appropriate Southern California style.
These thoughts came to mind after a weekend that included a visit to a new Tower Records store in Torrance designed by a touted New York architectural firm, and dinner later in a house in Los Feliz crafted more than half a century ago by the modernist master, R. M. Schindler.
At the northwest intersection of Sepulveda and Hawthorne boulevards, the store designed by Buttrick, White & Burtis catches your eye, no easy trick along the strip adjacent to the colonized moonscape that is the Del Amo Fashion Center.
The store's playful facade of banded colored concrete block and glazed ceramic tile, the angled, pyramid-topped entry and slick signage read well from the street and parking lot. A nice touch is a row of towering palms.
Being inside the neon-encrusted, climate-controlled, black-box interior was another matter. Without any high windows or skylights to offer a hint of time or place, the store for all intent and purpose could be in an underground shopping arcade in New York's Times Square or Tokyo's Ginza. It felt as though one were inside a jukebox.
The design might in a calculated way serve merchandising well, and is more interesting than the dated Wherehouse outlet across the street. But its spirit is not sunny Southern Californian, an accolade the architect has received for similarly styled interiors in New York record stores.
Neon is not the sun.
That evening I watched the sunset from the Schindler-designed Elliot House owned by Dana Levy and Tish O'Connor. A modest Modern-styled structure of simple horizontals layered on a steep site, the house built in 1931 is marked by an extensive use of glass.
"Schindler treated glass as a tool to use light to define and enlarge space," explained Julius Shulman, a guest at the dinner party.
An architectural photographer who documented most of Schindler's projects, Shulman said the architect's constant goal in his distinguished career in Los Angeles from 1921 to 1953 was to take advantage of our special light and pleasant weather.
"He wanted the outdoor and indoor spaces to somehow flow together," Shulman said, adding that Schindler, born and reared in dank, gray Vienna appreciated Los Angeles' weather.
While the purpose of a commercial building is of course quite different from that of a residence, they both nonetheless can be responsive to their natural settings and climate, as Schindler's designs so admirably display.
For those interested in touring a Schindler design, the architect's first experiment, a double house he built in 1922 for himself and a friend, is open to the public. The simple, sublime structure at 833 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood, is on view 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; $3 general admission and $2 for students and seniors. Information: (213) 651-1510.
The house is a little torn up these days, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the City of West Hollywood to the Friends of the Schindler House to repair the roof. Other cities should be so kind to their landmarks.