As we pause at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Laboratory of Chemical Synthesis, she recites a short history of the beaux-arts Calder arches, sculpted by Alexander Stirling Calder, father of Alexander Calder, abstract sculptor of mobiles. Removed from Throop Hall when it was razed in 1989, they were given to the city of Pasadena, which found no use for them. Placed in open storage, they had grass growing over them before they were rescued and given a new home.
At Throop, they'd been installed with a mask representing the arts and an anvil representing science transposed.
"I've often wondered if Calder noticed," Wyllie said. That little error was corrected the second time around.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 20, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 4 View Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Caltech architecture--A story in Monday's Southern California Living had an incorrect tour schedule and byline. Caltech tours are offered the fourth Thursday of each month; the story was written by Beverly Beyette. (NOTE: Error was corrected on 6/21/00 -- PFJ).
Stopping at the Norman W. Church Laboratory for Chemical Biology, Wyllie relates a favorite bit of campus lore about racehorse breeder Church. It seems he'd been accused of doping one of his racehorses and, eager to absolve himself, asked a Caltech scientist--"It was either Linus Pauling or Arnold Beckman"--to test the animal. When the horse was found drug-free, "supposedly Church was so grateful that he turned around and gave this building to Caltech."
We do not stop at the Robert A. Millikan Memorial Library, a hideously incongruous nine-story black and white modern tower designed in the '60s by L.A. architects Flewelling and Moody. How did it get there?
"It was a really terrible time," Wyllie says. "Almost all the people connected with the Goodhue period had died or retired. A lot of people wanted to tear down the old buildings and start over."
Ornate revivalist architecture had fallen out of fashion. Modern was de rigueur.
Indeed, when she set out to write her book, there were those who asked, "How are you going to explain the library?"
The best explanation, Wyllie says, is that the trustees "had tried for 10 years to get a donor" when finally Dr. Seeley G. Mudd offered $2.4 million. He chose the architects. "He wanted complete control. There were a lot of protests," but up it went.
As Vincent Scully (no, not that Vin Scully), professor emeritus of art history at Yale University, commented in reviewing Wyllie's book: "Failing one of the institution's famous explosions, nothing much can be done about the library."
Scully, in a phone interview from his New Haven, Conn., home, lamented the failure of Caltech to follow the Goodhue master plan.
"It really was pretty wonderful . . . really brilliant." In that era, he added, people "knew how to put buildings together to make a community." The library, in his view, is "much too big and out of scale and primitive in its forms, compared to the wonderful richness of the forms Goodhue and those people were able to use. It's very sad."
The art historian, who spent a year at Caltech in the mid-'90s, was struck by how the overall campus plan "seems a natural outgrowth of the structure of the town. In so many college towns, you get the campus, which is one thing, and often more coherent than the rest of the town. But in Pasadena, basically the grid of Caltech fits right in. It's very beautifully related to Pasadena."
A Beautiful, Tragic Kind of Place
Despite the Millikan Library and other postwar buildings that "completely destroyed the scale" of the master plan, Scully still finds the campus "a very beautiful place. It's also kind of a tragic place," symbolic of what happened to L.A.-area towns when "people began to build where it would have been better if they hadn't."
Historic preservationist and lifelong Pasadenan Tim Gregory agrees. The '60s buildings are "way off kilter," he says. But, he adds, "I can't blame Caltech. That was happening everywhere, wanting to be modern."
Gregory researches histories of houses for a living as the Building Biographer--the name of his one-man business--and very recently found a Pasadena residence thought to be the only one in the city designed by Goodhue. Once quite grand, it was split in two in the '50s and one half moved to another site.
Gregory says, "Way back in the '20s, Pasadena liked to call itself the Athens of the West. Caltech, I think, epitomizes the self-image of Pasadena and what Pasadena wanted to become." Despite its architectural blips, he feels the campus--thanks in part to its splendid landscaping--works as a whole.
Nor is he critical of all that is new, citing as "very nicely done" the Avery House, a Mediterranean-style housing complex, and the Sherman Fairchild Library of Engineering and Applied Science, both of which were designed in the '90s by Santa Monica architects Moore Ruble Yudell.
"You don't want to slavishly imitate old styles," he says, "but you want to echo them in the new buildings." Still, functional is probably the kindest description for most of the earlier post-World War II buildings.
"Blocky," says Wyllie, somewhat dismissively.
The saving grace? That lush, carefully planned landscaping that disguises what she diplomatically calls "the dichotomy between old and new."