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Sam Hall Kaplan

Back When the Machine Had Designs on Tomorrow

August 15, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan

Opening Sunday at the County Museum of Art is a major exhibition documenting that period in American life when the machine first caught our fancy.

Between the great world wars, from the boom of the 1920s through the Depression of the '30s, pencil sharpeners and radios, automobiles, locomotives and giant turbines increasingly became a part of daily American life. But beyond its function--whether providing pencil points or generating electricity--the machine became a symbol of modernism and its promise of a better life and world.

It was a spirit that soon pervaded architecture and engineering. Structures, be they houses for living, offices and factories for working, dams for harnessing water or bridges for connecting land masses, began to be viewed as machines. Out were styles and ornamentation recalling the past; in was the sleek, functional look hinting of the future.

With no particular architectural tradition and an infatuation with the avant-garde, Los Angeles was particularly fertile ground for the machine-age aesthetic.

Included in the LACMA exhibit as examples of inexpensive modern technology used to create inexpensive modern housing are several drawings and a model of Dunsmuir Flats, designed in the 1930s by Los Angeles architect Gregory Ain.

Consisting of four two-story units stacked on a narrow lot, the modest housing complex perseveres at 1281 S. Dunsmuir Ave., south of San Vicente Boulevard and a few blocks east of La Brea Avenue.

Also in the exhibit is a model of the Lovell House in Newport Beach, designed by R. M. Schindler in 1925. The beach house is described in the exhibit catalogue by architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson as an exploration in the use of "modern technology in order to create new spatial possibilities."

The house itself, stark and concrete framed, stands at 1242 W. Ocean Front, at 13th Street, on the Balboa Peninsula; a classic of the Machine Age. Another classic noted by Wilson is the Lovell House in Los Feliz. Designed by Richard Neutra as an all-steel-frame construction and featuring the use of headlights and rims from a Ford Model A for interior lighting, it attracted thousands of sightseers when opened in 1929 and generated an international reputation for the architect.

The private house still stands at 4616 Dundee Drive, proud and distinct, and looking as modern as ever. It's best viewed from a distance, looking across a canyon from upper Glendower Avenue, off of Vermont Avenue.

Some architects further streamlined the machine look to indicate speed or motion. Two examples of the genre are the facade of the Pan Pacific Auditorium, at Beverly Boulevard south of Spaulding Avenue in the Fairfax District, and the Coca-Cola Bottling plant and office at 1334 S. Central Ave. downtown.

A short distance from the county museum, the Pan Pacific in the harsh light of midday is just a shadow of its former self, in desperate need of some tender care and a viable reuse. It was designed in 1935 by the firm of Wurdman & Beckett and declared a city landmark in 1978.

In contrast, the Coca-Cola facility, designed by Robert Derrah in 1936 in the guise of a ocean liner replete with portholes, ship's ladders, a promenade deck and a bridge, appears ready to be launched.

As images of the Machine Age, few structures are more dramatic than the great dams built then. Included in the exhibit is the striking photograph of Fort Peck Dam in Montana taken by Margaret Bourke-White and used for the cover of the first issue of Life magazine, Nov. 23, 1936.

In Los Angeles there is the Sepulveda Dam, northwest of the intersection of the San Diego and Ventura freeways. Distinguished by its spillway of concrete pylons, the dam constructed in 1939 and '40 strikes a marvelous machine-age pose, sleek and functional. Even the obnoxious graffiti cannot overcome the architectural drama of the scene.

The exhibit at the county museum at 5905 Wilshire Blvd. will run through Oct. 18. Hopefully the landmarks across the Los Angeles cityscape will be on view much, much longer.

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