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Plenty of L.A. style, without a signature

The DWP, May Co. and Union Bank buildings. A.C. Martin Jr. let each job dictate the theme.

April 08, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

In an era of "starchitects" who jet off to design attention-getting international projects, each a variation on the same theme, it's difficult to describe a corporate design chief whose key contribution was working with clients and leading design teams.

Albert C. Martin Jr., who died last week at 92, never settled into a signature style. The one thing most architectural observers agree on -- besides the beauty of the Department of Water and Power building, to some the most successful and unconventional structure in downtown Los Angeles before Walt Disney Concert Hall -- was his role as a citizen architect.

As a young man Martin stepped into the firm his father, Albert C. Martin Sr., had founded in 1906, now called A.C. Martin Partners Inc. Educated at USC, "Al" served as chief architect from the early '40s through the early '80s.

"The firm did not have a one-and-only signature," says Thomas Hines, a professor of history and architecture at UCLA, who met Martin a few times and recently read transcripts of his interviews with the university's oral history archive. "[Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe's] stamp in his own large firm, or Frank Gehry's stamp, is pretty obvious. But I think the Martins took [Eero] Saarinen as a model: His term was 'the style for the job.' You're not going to do one single thing, you're going to respond to the client and the project's needs."

The younger Martin's buildings, Hines says, range from a rationalist International Style to more Expressionist works. And even though Martin once said he preferred Frank Lloyd Wright to Van der Rohe, his style was generally more Miesian, with a rational, austere character and tendency to large buildings.Michael Webb, an L.A. based writer of such books as "Modernism Reborn," calls Martin "one of the establishment figures who bridged the gap between the mundane and the adventurous, which is L.A.'s great contribution."

Martin's heyday coincided with years in which the city was dominated by the large corporate firms of Welton Becket, Victor Gruen, William Pereira and Charles Luckman. Even by the sometimes impersonal standards of those architects, Martin's fingerprints are hard to discern.

"One of the differences with Martin and these other guys," says Hines, "is that they created their own firms and identities. They didn't have the blessing and curse of being born into a great family firm, of being under a father's guidance and perhaps his shadow. Because of that, you can't see the early buildings he did before stepping into the big firm."

Martin's son David, A.C. Martin's current design partner, says his father was proudest of four buildings, on none of which he served as lead designer. Instead, says David, his father served as a conduit between the client and the design team, and a kind of internal critic of the team's work. It meant that he was, in David's words, "involved to the smallest detail."

The four structures are the much-celebrated DWP, the Riley office building in Whittier -- which David describes as "a little jewel" in a Case Study House style -- St. Basil's Church on Wilshire Boulevard near Western, and the TRW space park in Redondo Beach. (Martin did a number of aerospace design and research campuses that his son values for the way they capture an era's optimism.)

One influence, David says, was the Bauhaus school, and Martin saw its work while traveling in Germany in the '30s. "That integration of architecture and structural engineering, which was part of our firm's point of view, was important to Dad."

And though his father's role in designing was often indirect, David says, he enjoyed sketching and drawing out plans, a remnant of the Beaux Arts education at USC just before the school switched to a Modern point of view. "He always said they switched to Modern architecture too soon," David recalls.

But the firm, under Martin Jr., became an exemplar of American Modernism. "He was practicing at a very important time in the formation of international corporate Modernism in Los Angeles," says Kenneth Breisch, a professor of architecture and preservation at USC. "A.C. Martin took a leading role in creating a new image for the corporation, an image of American efficiency and of the ascendancy of science and technology.

"We see in the postwar era a shift from the historicism of the '20s and '30s, looking back to old European models for respectability, to a new era where architects looked forward. In the immediate postwar era there was a real suspicion of this kind of Modernism, which was associated with leftist politics and workers housing. But Martin, along with firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, reinvented it as a symbol of American ascendancy and self-confidence."

And then there are the buildings. Many are fond of 1940's May Co. building, now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's LACMA West.

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