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A Toast to a Man Who Left His Imprint on L.A.

August 10, 2002|SCOTT TIMBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the family and fans gathered at Trader Vic's Thursday night, Welton Becket was an architect whose work is often seen but whose name is not much heard. Drive around Los Angeles and Becket's most iconic structures--the Capitol Records building, the Cinerama Dome, the Music Center--are impossible to miss; the man could bring imagination even to the prosaic office tower. But his admirers consider his profile, and that of the corporate firm he ran, in need of dusting off.

"In a way, Los Angeles is BecketLand," said Alan Leib, a self-described architecture geek and one of a number of thirtysomethings here to celebrate the forgotten modernist's 100th birthday. "His signature style was his own turn on International Modernism, but more futuristic, less linear. He'd build a dome, or a round building, like Capitol Records." To Leib and others, Becket hasn't gotten his due because of a bias against corporate modernism--a category that bears the same stigma as military music.

Becket's admirers were at Trader Vic's not only to pay homage to the man who died in 1969 after working in Los Angeles for almost five decades, or to sip the Polynesian bar's sweet, umbrella-topped drinks. They were there, too, to discuss an event for the spring, a centennial celebration with a panel of scholars and designers, an appearance by architecture historian Alan Hess ("Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture") and a Museum of Contemporary Art tour of Becket buildings. (The event will be put together by the Los Angeles Conservancy and its Modern committee, several of whose young cultists were in attendance Thursday.)

For years, Becket was largely overlooked by the architecture establishment, but as postwar Modernism's star has risen, so has his. Besides his style, Becket is known for designing what is arguably the country's first suburban department store, Bullocks Pasadena (1947), as well as originating "total design," by which a single firm handles all stages of a project.

Becket's two granddaughters, who were cutting the cake Thursday night, knew their grandfather only from the buildings in the city they grew up in. But his son Bruce, a distinguished man in a blue blazer who runs his own architecture firm, described a humble man who ran with Walter Pidgeon, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan in his early days, who hired out-of-work movie-set designers during World War II to design hotels and offices. Becket also liked to drink amid the bamboo ceilings and puffer-fish lamps of Trader Vic's, part of the Beverly Hilton he designed; the group received a tour of the hotel before the night ended.

Welton Becket, his son said, prided himself as a pragmatic guy, a team player, as proud of his master planning of Century City in the late '50s as for his signature buildings. "He'd liked to be known for doing good, practical work," said Bruce. "The old firm of Welton Becket and Associates was known for serving the client. Today you have a generation of architects producing work to get attention. That [work] is short-lived, I think."

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