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The Tiles That Bind

May 09, 1999|Bill Stern

The Getty Center--whose neighbors' complaints resulted in architect Richard Meier replacing his buildings' original white enameled aluminum with a more muted, travertine marble facing--wasn't the first local museum to have trouble putting on a public face. In 1967, Ladd & Kelsey, the architects of the Pasadena Art Museum--now the Norton Simon Museum--couldn't decide on which ceramic artist to design the tiles for the building's exterior. A consultant selected Sausalito-based Edith Heath, best known for her durable dinnerware glazed in earthy hues. As Heath, now 86, remembers it, the consultant was "that architect who lives in a glass house." That architect was, of course, Philip Johnson.

I was in Pasadena recently for an exhibit at the museum, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. And, for the first time, I approached the building not from the parking-lot-facing main entrance, which is as much glass as it is tile, but from Colorado Boulevard. While admiring the long street-front facade, with its undulating length almost completely swathed in Heath's elegantly mottled red-brown tiles, I thought of the nearby Gamble House; I was convinced that the tiles had been meant as a homage to the cedar shakes that clad so many of Pasadena's gracious houses. But, according to Heath, she intended the approximately 115,000 tiles--manufactured by the now-defunct Design Craft of West Los Angeles--to complement "the Pasadena landscape." Whatever the intent, Johnson's choice was obviously the right one: In 1971 the American Institute of Architects awarded Heath its one and only Industrial Arts Design Medal for architectural tile.

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