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PST, A to Z: 'Breaking Ground' at Chinese American Museum

June 01, 2012|By Sharon Mizota
  • Cathay Bank in L.A.'s Chinatown, designed by by Eugene Choy.
Cathay Bank in L.A.'s Chinatown, designed by by Eugene Choy. (Dan Kaufman / Studio Kaufman )

Pacific Standard Time has been exploring the origins of the Los Angeles art world in museum exhibitions throughout Southern California. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

When one thinks of modern architecture in Los Angeles, it’s the big names that come to mind: Neutra, Schindler, Lautner. Yet it obviously required a slew of less celebrated, more workaday efforts to make the city — for better or for worse — into the icon of urban sprawl that it is today. That some of these architects were not of European extraction may come as a bit of a surprise. For instance, I had no idea that the supervising architect on the design of LAX was Chinese American.

An exhibition at the Chinese American Museum, “Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980),” attempts to fill in a few of these gaps. Featuring the work of just four architects and designers, it initially feels like a bit of ethnic boosterism: Chinese American architects were there! Yet through its spare, carefully edited presentation of their work, the exhibition successfully teases out some of the central trends and issues in L.A. architectural history. 

One of these was an appetite for expansion. As the supervising architect on the 1950s design of LAX, Gin D. Wong developed the “satellite” terminal system — the network of separate buildings now familiar all over the world — allowing the airport to accommodate more planes. He also worked on the design of the second-story departures level that was added in the 1970s, providing for still more traffic into and out of the airport. His 1952 design for CBS Television City, which could house four simultaneous TV productions, included removable glass windows so that the building could be easily expanded. Wong’s structures deviate little from the classic modernist box, but his emphasis on adaptability and growth echoed perfectly the expansive optimism of the postwar years.

Another quiet innovator, Gilbert L. Leong worked on one of the first tract housing developments. Designed in 1954, the Ponty Vanowen Homes offered a choice of four floor plans, 16 exterior styles, and interiors intended to feel “one of a kind.” Leong was also known for designing several important community buildings in Chinatown, as well as the Chinatown branch of Bank of America. Built in 1972, it was basically a low-slung box with “authentic” Chinese motifs tacked on. It looks kitschy now, but I suppose it could be recouped as early postmodernism. 

Eugene Kinn Choy’s combination of modernism and Chinoiserie has aged a bit better in his 1962 design for the Chinatown branch of Cathay Bank. Fronted by slim columns, its decorative “Chinese” elements are more geometric and streamlined than Leong’s. A bit like Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center Towers, Choy’s integration of “ethnic” motifs moved the International style in a slightly more organic direction. 

If Leong and Choy were on the cusp of postmodernism, Helen Liu Fong embraced it entirely. Working as a designer for the firm of Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, she was a key contributor to the “Googie” style of architecture, perhaps best known to Angelenos in the emphatic, rounded, Jetsons-esque signage and interiors of diners like Norms. The exhibition features several “3-D” images of such spaces seen through stereoscopic viewers (like a View-Master) mounted on a replica diner counter, complete with bar stools. But the most touching display in the exhibition is a collection of ephemera from her 1950s design for Sakiba, the cocktail lounge in the Holiday Bowl in Crenshaw. Fong dedicated the design to the bowling alley's owners, who were Japanese American. It featured a three-dimensional ceiling map of Japan made out of cork lined with gold foil, a remarkable choice, given the rancor displayed toward Japan and Japanese Americans just a few years earlier. The bowling alley, which was torn down in 2000, seems to have been a rare multiethnic gathering place, serving everything from grits to yakisoba.

This broadening of Los Angeles architectural history is really what the exhibition is about. But it also acknowledges the city’s darker moments. In addition to his commercial work, Choy was know for his modern houses, but to build one for himself in 1949, he confronted racist housing covenants that prohibited non-whites from buying homes in certain neighborhoods. To get around them, Choy had to ask all of his Silver Lake neighbors for permission to build.

He was eventually successful and built a thoroughly modern house lined with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on a neatly manicured courtyard. The only difference between Choy’s home and the more famous houses photographed by the likes of Julius Shulman was that the perfectly coiffed people relaxing in it were Chinese American.

This might seem a small difference, but it’s a significant one. The rediscovery of these Chinese American architects doesn’t fully remap our understanding of L.A. architectural history; it tweaks it a bit. It’s important to see that photograph of Choy’s family, sitting in their modernist chairs in their modernist outdoor room, enjoying the good life in Silver Lake. It not only reminds us of the extra hurdles they overcame to be there, but it gently pries open our notion of who could be sitting there in the first place.

Chinese American Museum, 425 N. Los Angeles St., L.A., (213) 485-8567, through June 3.  www.camla.org

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