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Isn't It Iconic?

A new book explores the human stories behind 13 of L.A.'s famous structures and their links to the city's culture and history.

February 15, 2001|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Has the blinding light of Hollywood obscured a different kind of L.A. treasure that deserves equal time? Gloria Koenig makes just that case in her new book, "Iconic L.A.: Stories of L.A.'s Most Memorable Buildings" (Balcony Press). Digging through the archives of L.A.'s varied modern architecture, Koenig uncovered a vision of permanence filled with stories of romance, high-finance and even social conflict.

Col. Griffith J. Griffith's observatory, for example, was intended for scientific exploration, but it was also one man's hope to redeem his reputation after doing time for shooting his wife. Downtown's Union Station never would have been built had the railroad companies, which didn't want to pay for it, had their way. And Sid Grauman's Chinese Theatre got its famous footprints when its flamboyant owner mistakenly walked through wet cement one day--or so the legend goes.

The stories behind L.A.'s famous buildings say as much about the city's most powerful players as they do about the structures themselves: "I conceived the book because I have very strong feelings about Los Angeles, that it is more than just another pretty face. I was working against the dismissive image of La-La Land," Koenig said, adding that she wanted to help end the endless Woody Allen-style jokes about the city.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday February 26, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Misleading impression--An article about the book "Iconic L.A.: Stories of L.A.'s Most Memorable Buildings" by Gloria Koenig ("Isn't It Iconic?" Feb. 15) gave the impression that the LAX Theme Building was the sole design of architect Paul R. Williams. In fact, as the book points out, Williams was one of a team of architects who worked on the building, including the firms of Pereira & Luckman and Welton Becket & Associates.

"I was trying to assess the collective unconscious. Those are heavy words, but that's what iconic means. I wanted to find buildings that show [another side of] what people think of when they think of Los Angeles."

She chose 13 structures, only two of them residences. The first is Frank Lloyd Wright's severe, heavy concrete-block Hollyhock House, built for wealthy arts patron Aline Barnsdall and her new baby in the second decade of the last century. The second, Case Study House No. 22, was designed by Koenig's husband, Pierre Koenig, and has become one of the most illustrated images of Modernist L.A. architecture. The light-filled, glass-and-steel structure was built on a site in the Hollywood Hills in 1959 as part of a project to develop economic and futuristic residential architecture sponsored by Art and Architecture magazine.

But the bulk of the book focuses on public structures that range from the Spanish-influenced Mission San Fernando Rey to the early modernist Hollywood Bowl to the futuristic LAX Theme Building. Jumping to the present, the author ends with designs for Frank O. Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, still under construction as a new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Choosing what to include was difficult, says Koenig, an L.A. resident, who is both a writer and an editor. As she began her research, she also solicited suggestions from friends and colleagues in the field of architecture. "Every time I brought the subject up, everyone said, 'You have to have this or that building.' " The discussions were heated, she says, and the book could easily have grown. "I wanted 12, because I thought 12 was an accessible number. But once I submitted the list, my publisher also wanted to include the LAX Theme Building, and I'm so happy we did, because of the story of the architect, Paul Williams. So we have 13."

Koenig writes that Williams' "enigmatic symbol of Space Dreams of the '60s . . . could easily have been a hangout for George and Judy Jetson." Yet Williams, an African American who also designed homes throughout the finest of the city's neighborhoods--Hancock Park, Holmby Hills, Beverly Hills and Pasadena--never fully felt welcome in his clients' neighborhoods because of his race.

Though his name is not well-known, Williams lives on in his buildings, as do all the other architects whose stories are included. And in a city that has often sought to erase its past, these structures' survival is to be celebrated. As Gehry suggests in his foreword to the book, "Iconic L.A." continues the fight for historic preservation.

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