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Southern California architecture: the missing early years from PSTP

Critic's Notebook: Focusing on 1940-90, the regionwide overview looks at a movement in middle age and dotage. Here's what came before.

April 06, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • Exterior views of the Horatio West Court apartments, designed by architect Irving Gill.
Exterior views of the Horatio West Court apartments, designed by architect… (Mark Boster )

Two years ago, when the Getty Trust helped organize and fund more than five dozen exhibits on 20th century art in Los Angeles, a massive enterprise it labeled "Pacific Standard Time," it wasn't difficult to guess which era the museum would focus on. It was clearly going to be the postwar period, and the 1950s, '60s and '70s in particular.

There wasn't much of an art scene in L.A. in first half of the century, after all, and World War II itself, in a range of ways, helped fuel a transformative boom in both industrial and cultural production here. Ferus Gallery opened in 1957, and the new Wilshire Boulevard campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was completed in 1965.

Now the Getty is turning its attention to architecture in Southern California. And this time around there's no such clarity about dates and decades. Officially, the Getty is calling the second, more modest round of shows "Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A." (PSTP is the acronym to remember.) The museum's own anchor exhibition for the project, which opens Tuesday, is called "Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future 1940-1990."

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There are significant gaps, and even contradictions, between those titles, between the phrase "modern architecture in L.A." and the period 1940 to 1990. And it's in those gaps that you'll find both the blind spots and the major potential of the series — what it leaves out and what its counterintuitive sense of history makes room for.

Modern architecture in L.A., after all, got started well before 1940. And it exhausted itself — or was upended by impatient revolutionaries of various kinds — long before 1990. What that means is that the Getty-sponsored shows will be looking at modernism in Los Angeles from its middle age through its dotage.

One of the most prominent shows in the group — the Museum of Contemporary Art's "A New Sculpturalism," opening June 2 — is pushing the time frame even further from modernism's founding, examining architecture in Southern California over the last 25 years.

By choosing to focus on the period after 1940 while also insisting on a title that includes the phrase "modern architecture" — elsewhere, the Getty suggests it is hoping to discover "how the city was made modern" — the PSTP organizers, principally Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander of the Getty Research Institute, can achieve three goals at once.

They can match, at least roughly, the time period examined in the PST art shows, which covered 1945 to 1980. They can play up the glamour of the midcentury period, with its sleek Case Study architecture and jet-set optimism, to potential museum-goers. And they can make room for a look at the early careers of Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and their compatriots in what has become known as the L.A. School, which didn't emerge as a recognizable group until the late 1970s.

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It's in this last focus that the Getty series may produce its most meaningful scholarship. While the midcentury period has been pretty well pawed over by now, the L.A. architecture of the 1970s and '80s remains underexplored and misunderstood — not only the work of the L.A. School but also of Charles Moore, Anthony Lumsden, Cesar Pelli, Ray Kappe and late-career modernists like Craig Ellwood and William Pereira.

Two shows in particular crack open that series of vaults: "A Confederacy of Heretics," already running at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and "Everything Loose Will Land," an exhibition opening May 9 at the Schindler House in West Hollywood and curated by UCLA historian Sylvia Lavin.

Ah, but what about the period before 1940? That is the great unexamined territory of the PSTP project. Perhaps a sort of prequel is required before you take the Getty tram up the hill to see the "Overdrive" exhibition.

The story would have to begin with the new residents who poured into Los Angeles in the 1880s and 1890s and in the early years of the 20th century — and the architects who arrived with them, carrying influences from Chicago, New York, Europe and Asia but fairly quickly establishing a native, forward-looking Los Angeles architecture.

There were the Greene brothers, Henry and Charles, who settled in Pasadena in 1893. They rode the train across the country, stopping off in Chicago on the way to see the Columbian Exposition — and perhaps most important, to walk through the expo's Japanese temple, which was to have a profound effect on their work. The Greenes' residential architecture, though it looks dark and rather heavy to our eyes, was spare and frank by the standards of upper-class 19th century design, and it helped prepare Los Angeles for the cleansing wave of modernism to come.

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