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THE CREME DE L.A. CREME | Architecture

August 10, 2000|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Los Angeles' architectural treasures are concealed in the city's cracks and crevices, easily overlooked amid the endless sprawl of bungalows and themed mansions. Butto insiders the city houses one of the world's greatest traditions of 20th century architecture.

Visitors should first rent a car with unlimited mileage.

Then drive to leafy, suburban Pasadena, where Charles and Henry Greene's 1908 Gamble House is a masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts movement. (The house is closed for cleaning today and Friday.) The house's elaborate puzzle-like, interlocking woodwork and open-air sleeping porches became an inspiration for the myriad simpler, more affordable Arts and Crafts-inspired bungalows that still dot the city's suburban landscape.

Southwest, in Los Feliz, Frank Lloyd Wright's 1924 Ennis Brown House--the largest of the textile block designs the architect created for Los Angeles--ranks among his most fantastic visions. The house includes many well-worn Wrightian themes--the compact entry that suddenly opens onto a towering living space, for instance--but here those features are cloaked in a brooding, Mayanesque aesthetic. The house's structural, textile block system, meanwhile, although it proved unable to stand up to the ravages of time and earthquakes, is a further example of the complexity and richness of Wright's work. Group tours are arranged by appointment only.

Twenty-five miles west, armed with a private reservation, you can tour the Eames House, a masterpiece of late Modern design nestled in a hillside site in Pacific Palisades. Built in 1949, the house's lightweight--almost fragile--appearance evokes the euphoric confidence in technology that was a basic tenet of postwar America. Its delicate, steel frame--clad in a grid of glass and thin colored panels--is a remarkable model of prefabricated design. Although the Eames office forbids visitors from entering the house, it provides a half-hour tour of the exterior and surrounding meadow Thursday mornings by appointment.

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In nearby Santa Monica, Frank O. Gehry's own house, completed in 1979, has become a pilgrimage stop for young, doe-eyed architecture students from around the world. A remodeled Cape Cod bungalow wrapped inside a second skin of chain link, plywood and corrugated metal, it marks a key turning point in architectural history away from the influence of Classical Modernism. Its fragmented forms and crude materials evoke the social instability inherent in contemporary life and a tough, Populist aesthetic. (Don't ring the bell.)

Together, these four houses offer a compact voyage through the evolution of a century's worth of Modernism.

But if you like your architecture more classically inspired, you might head downtown to gobble up some lunch over a bottle of Barbaresco at Cicada, the fancy Italian restaurant housed in the stunning Oviatt Building, a first-rate example of 1920s-era Art Deco design. From there, it is a short walk to the 1911 Orpheum Theater, one of the most ornate of the city's once glamorous downtown movie palaces. Now showing: "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" with Spanish subtitles.

Finally the current show at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary, "At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture," will place Los Angeles' wealth of 20th century landmarks in its historical context. The show depicts many of the masterworks of Modern design, from drawings of early Modernist visions of Utopia to models of key landmarks in contemporary architecture, such as Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, and Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin. Scattered throughout the collection are various visions for Los Angeles' future, by architects such as Eric Owen Moss, Thom Mayne and Wes Jones.

Got heaps of available cash? Make a bid on Wright's 1923 Storer House. One of the rare Wright landmarks on the market, it was painstakingly restored by movie producer Joel Silver. Asking price: $4.5 million.

What could be more in the nature of L.A. than that?

Addresses, exhibits, hours: Page 27.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"I'd recommend the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, not because I worked on the renovation, but because it has one of the best art collections in the Los Angeles area."

FRANK O. GEHRY

Architect

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