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From the Imperial to the Mundane

An exhibit on Central European architecture inspires a drive through L.A. to consider how our surroundings are rooted in the past.

April 12, 2001|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They clamored for Wiener schnitzel. We prefer the fish taco. They had the beautiful blue Danube; we've got the Harbor Freeway. Their cultural luminaries included Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka and Bela Bartok. Ours are Frank Gehry, David Hockney and Shaq. They were a fractious, multihued society--a dozen distinct cultures in search of a common voice--that held together remarkably well for centuries, then imploded in an orgy of imperialist ambition and tribal bloodletting.

And we? Well, superficially, the 3.6 million of us who dwell in this City of the 21st Century might seem to have little in common with the 50 million inhabitants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But, as usual in Los Angeles, a lot depends on who's along for the ride.

"It's a whole different era, but with many of the same situations," says James T. Rojas as he stares out the rear window of a Volvo 270, inching its way up the Wilshire corridor.

The occasion was a weekend excursion--part road trip, part mind's-eye odyssey--spanning two very different civilizations. The impetus was the J. Paul Getty Museum's recently opened exhibition, "Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe, 1890-1937."

The participants were Wim de Wit, 52, head of special collections and visual resources at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, and one of the exhibition's curators; Rojas, 40, an urban planner with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority who gave a recent lecture at the Getty comparing L.A. and the Austro-Hungarian cities; and a reporter for The Times. The plan: to superimpose a vision of fin-de-siecle Central Europe onto the mutating movie screen of Los Angeles, as viewed through the aperture of a passing car's windshield. The question on the table: How does architecture shape civic identity and vice versa.

The results? Some surprising parallels--and, not surprisingly, some pointed contrasts--between the vast, transnational Austro-Hungarian superstate, with its cream-puff palaces and equestrian statues, and this smoggy expanse of stucco bungalows and Carl's Jr. outlets. "People may think about this as a staunchy kind of show, but it has many things that may affect them today," says Rojas, an outgoing man with ink-black hair and a neatly manicured goatee.

De Wit, a lean, urbane Dutchman who has volunteered both his time and car for the afternoon, is already thinking of the future. "We're going to need gas soon," he says as he spins the Volvo west onto Sunset Boulevard.

On display through May 6, "Shaping the Great City" explores the urban scene in the last decades of the Hapsburg dynasty, which once ruled a chunk of Europe extending from the Balkans and northern Italy to southern Poland and the Swiss border. Among the cities in its imperial orbit were Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Krakow and Zagreb. Comprising architectural drawings, photographs, archival film clips and other materials, the show has drawn strong reviews and substantial crowds since its February debut.

A tentative travel route was discussed: Some obvious parallels between L.A. and its historic predecessors begged to be explored. In turn-of-the-century Vienna, the empire's capital, two influential architects, Otto Wagner and Camillo Sitte, championed competing models of the modern metropolis. Wagner favored boundless cities laid out along precise, geometric grids, crammed with big, self-consciously important buildings; Sitte advocated a more human-scale, irregular urban fabric, with small parks beckoning pedestrians and picturesque vistas breaking up the relentless march of brick-and-mortar. "Wagner is Wilshire Boulevard, Sitte is Silver Lake," de Wit says succinctly.

As the Volvo cruises into Westwood, a gantlet of high-rise apartment towers--most dressed in austere '70s minimalism, a few in postmodern drag--looms into view along Wilshire. Would Wagner have condoned this upscale architectural fashion parade?

"No, I don't think so," de Wit replies, keeping his eyes on the congested roadway, "because there's too much design variety. Wagner wanted a city that was almost like a movie set."

Rojas, leaning forward, puts the question in perspective. "Before Wagner, you had medieval cities," he says. "The question facing 19th century planners was, 'How do you make order, how do you make logic here? How do you superimpose a grid onto a medieval city and create a modern infrastructure?' You wake up one day in 1900 and you suddenly have all these people. In medieval cities there were no street signs, there was no plan."

Indeed, until the 1890s, many Central European cities were haphazard mazes cobbled together by royal decree and sheer accident. Then German engineers began tinkering with a new "science" of town planning and zoning, using "operational models" to organize and track urban growth and development.

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