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Critic's Notebook: 'Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970'

Thomas S. Hines fleshes out the heroes of L.A. architecture with a smart look at their most important buildings.

August 01, 2010|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • VDL Research House, Diane Neutra sitting on second-floor terrace. Image from the book "Thomas Hines' Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970."
VDL Research House, Diane Neutra sitting on second-floor terrace. Image… (© Richard J. Neutra…)

Thomas S. Hines, a professor emeritus at UCLA, is the dean of architectural historians in Los Angeles, the author of major studies of the pioneering modernists Richard Neutra and Irving Gill. In "Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970," he has produced a doorstop-sized magnum opus: a massive but terrifically detailed distillation of his thinking on the city where he has lived and taught, with only minor interruptions, since 1968.

Unlike such younger historians as Sylvia Lavin, Hines' colleague at UCLA and the author of a 2005 book called "Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture," Hines is not interested in putting architecture on the couch or for that matter in charting the political or economic forces that inevitably shape the cityscape from the outside in, as Mike Davis and others have done. His goal is to flesh out the giants of L.A architecture through a patient, smart and sometimes microscopic look at their most important buildings. He is a generalist and — especially when it comes to his admiration for modernism at the expense of other kinds of architecture — something of a purist.

The book begins with Charles and Henry Greene in the early years of the 20th century — Hines argues that their oversized Pasadena bungalows "formed a bridge" between the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement and modern buildings to come — and passes through the studios of Gill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Neutra, Gregory Ain, Welton Becket and literally dozens of others before slowing smoothly to a stop on the eve of the postmodern revolt of the 1970s and '80s.

The metronome-like chronology — after Gill come Neutra and Schindler; after Neutra and Schindler come the Case Study architects; after the Case Study architects comes John Lautner — is understandable, even useful, in a work so expansive. But the book's steady progress is periodically waylaid, particularly in the early chapters, by phrases and sentences that repeat themselves, seemingly unintentionally. (You have heard this already but still: Where did all the book editors go?) And there were certainly moments when I found myself hoping that Hines would surprise me with a startling view, or a full-throated take-down, of a well-known building. Indeed, it's when he quotes from historians and critics with fizzier prose — Reyner Banham especially but also the great Esther McCoy — that you realize how subtle Hines' own approach can be.

Even when he confronts architects he has serious reservations about, Hines, ever cordial, is compelled to give their work a thorough appraisal. He laments the "formal and conceptual flabbiness" of Lautner's architecture but dedicates a full chapter to the architect all the same. He also banishes all of the book's first-person narrative to an epilogue that describes his personal history in Los Angeles. Its anecdotes — about giving personal architectural tours to Banham and receiving from Neutra's widow, Dione, a coat she claimed had belonged to Freud — are compelling but subordinate, tidily walled off from the rest of the text.

That approach, old-school and essentially canonical, yields no shortage of compelling themes, however, and over the course of 13 chapters they manage to knit this long historical narrative together. One is the influence of Japan and its design culture on Los Angeles architecture, a seed perhaps first planted when the Greene brothers, on their way west to California in 1893, stopped at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and were deeply impressed by the replica of a Kyoto temple on display there.

Another is the way that a handful of exceptional women shaped the evolution of Los Angeles not as architects but as strong-willed clients (Ellen Browning Scripps and Alice Lee for Gill; Aline Barnsdall for Wright) and leading critics (not just McCoy but Pauline Schindler and Jean Murray Bangs). A third is the difficulty the most skilled L.A. architects have always had making the jump from innovative residential designs to large-scale civic work.

The book makes a persuasive case for the talents of some underappreciated L.A. architects, including Stiles O. Clements, who designed the Pellissier Building on Wilshire Blvd. and other Art Deco landmarks, and Karl Klokke, who led the AC Martin design team for the Department of Water and Power headquarters on Bunker Hill. For me the discovery of the book was Gordon Drake, a onetime draftsman for Harwell Hamilton Harris who on his own produced a number of remarkable wood-paneled modern houses in the 1940s before he was killed in a skiing accident at age 34.

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