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125 YEARS / THE BIG IDEA

Seeing through glass walls

It may have started as a Bauhaus trademark, but it became L.A.'s signature. Glass -- from the Bradbury Building to the Case Study houses to car windshields -- is the city's cornerstone.

April 30, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

ONE morning three months ago, Italian architect Renzo Piano met with a handful of LACMA trustees in one of the museum's conference rooms. After a few minutes of small talk, Piano motioned the group over to a large table and picked up a stack of cards about 4 inches wide and 6 inches high. He began tossing them onto the tabletop, as if he were dealing blackjack.

As the cards skidded to a stop, each revealed a picture of a building, an architect or a piece of furniture from the 1950s and '60s. Most of the designs had a connection to Los Angeles: chairs by Charles and Ray Eames and a couple of Case Study houses with their light, almost delicate frames and wide expanses of glass.

Piano's buildings don't usually borrow directly from architectural precedent, so the performance seemed odd at first. But once Piano began explaining his plan for an extensive addition to the museum, it became clear that the presentation was an animated preamble to a simple declaration: He had decided to wrap LACMA's new entry pavilion entirely in glass so that it would appear to float beneath a wide steel roof, and he wanted everybody in the room to understand that the inspiration for the design was entirely local.

That Piano decided upon glass should come as no surprise. It is, after all, the building material most intimately connected with the architecture of Los Angeles, with its energy, its light and optimism. And even today, more than 60 years after the Case Study program got underway, glass architecture seems not only entirely at home in Los Angeles but also capable of defining its future.

Indeed, in houses and commercial buildings, glass continues to exert a singular hold on the imagination of L.A. architects. The pair of towers Frank Gehry is designing for the first phase of the Grand Avenue redevelopment will be sheathed in glass with a curtain wall on the upper floors and flaring, skirt-like forms toward the base. New modular housing designs by Marmol Radziner, Jennifer Siegal, Ray Kappe and other L.A. architects -- so-called modern prefab houses, which are just beginning to roll off the assembly line in significant numbers -- are linked by their wraparound glass.

The aggressive use of glass in architecture wasn't invented in Los Angeles, of course. That honor goes to the pioneering Bauhaus school architects in Germany and their successors in the U.S., including Philip Johnson. But the relationship between glass and architecture was undoubtedly perfected here -- and glass, in the end, returned the favor by helping to put Los Angeles architecture on the map.

Despite the pioneering work of the Greene brothers and other residential architects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn't until images of boxy, flat-roofed new houses with floor-to-ceiling walls of glass began to circulate around the country in the 1950s that the American public really became aware of our architecture.

Indeed, once those designs were published, the world finally had a way to illustrate their daydreams about life in sunny California. It could be a photograph by Julius Shulman of a design by Richard Neutra or Pierre Koenig. It could be a Cliff May ranch house in Long Beach or a Buff, Straub and Hensman in Pasadena. Whether it was glinting in the sunlight or framing a memorable view, glass became shorthand for the appeal of America's most thoroughly modern city.

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What we've learned

There's an inherent contradiction, of course, in Piano's effort to move LACMA forward by looking back several decades. By making explicit reference to Southern California's Modernist masters while talking to the LACMA trustees, he was also tapping into a deep vein of nostalgia. After all, when those donors look at examples of postwar Modernism, they see their own youth reflected back.

But that's the funny thing about the relationship of glass to Los Angeles architecture: Once you start examining it, you see contradiction, and even paradox, everywhere you look.

To begin with, you might think that a city famous for its glass architecture would be more open and more public than one filled with an imposing collection of masonry, like New York or Chicago or Paris. But even as Modern architects were bringing walls of glass to the Southern California house, Los Angeles was cementing its reputation as a place of private architectural treasures -- a place that, indeed, barely had any public life to speak of, at least in the traditional sense of crowded sidewalks and comfortable park benches.

The reason for that contradiction is that floor-to-ceiling glass wasn't primarily intended here to capture views or allow passersby to see into our houses. Instead, that sort of glass was usually installed only on the rear elevation, facing not the street but the backyard as a permeable membrane between inside and out.

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