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L.A. architecture takes the lead in Getty's new PST project

The new initiative Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. engages the landscape to 'reframe' people's outlook on the city.

March 11, 2013|By Scott Timberg
  • Wim de Wit, senior architecture and design curator, right, and Christopher James Alexander, architecture and design curator, both with the Getty Research Institute, are curating their latest show, "Overdrive — Los Angeles Constructs the Future 1950-1990," at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
Wim de Wit, senior architecture and design curator, right, and Christopher… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Much of the time Los Angeles can feel like a huge, messy jigsaw puzzle, with pieces left out — a city that evolved by accident. Parts of it don't work, parts of it seem newly broken, parts are truly luminous — but hidden — and they all seem to have nothing to do with each other.

But Christopher Alexander sees things differently. "There was this desire, this strategy, this intent to have Los Angeles evolve in a manner that was unlike any other city," says one of the curators behind the Getty's new Pacific Standard Time architecture initiative. "So multiple hubs, multiple centers of activity — and the vastness. The terrain was established by the Pacific Electric rail line in the 'teens, so when you see, later, the freeway system overlaid on that network, you see that right from the start of the 20th century, that was the plan, to have something vast and diverse."

Architecture initiative: A March 10 article about the Getty Research Institute project Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. misspelled poet Allen Ginsberg's first name as Alan. —

After poking through the city's master plan and its transportation, planning and auto club archives — some going back a century — he was struck by how deliberate it all was: "'This is how we want the city to evolve; we don't want it to be like New York or Chicago.'"

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Wim de Wit, the head of the architecture and contemporary art offerings at the Getty Research Institute, says that the continuity with the past goes back even further, as Native American settlements laid down the patterns later traced by train lines, which led to the roads we drive on now. "This is not a new city," he says.

Alexander is young, polished and optimistic; when he speaks about "this extraordinary metropolis," he sounds like Jason Bentley of KCRW queuing up a groovy recording. But Alexander is not quite a booster. When you look over the city's architectural history, he says, you realize "not everyone wins, at any given moment. It's far more complicated than that."

A renewed focus

The thinking behind Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. (running April through July) goes back well before last year's initiative, which documented post-World War II art. . Members of the Getty Research Institute had been talking for years about architecture in general terms, and within two years of his 2007 arrival director Thomas Gaehtgens told his staff that it was time for a substantial effort on modern architecture. Around the time PST was launched in 2011, the architecture initiative was greenlighted.

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The Getty, which was initially slow to wake up to the 20th century and to West Coast culture, is diving in to midcentury California cool in a big way. It held its initial press event for the architectural initiative at the Capitol Records Tower and enlisted L.A. architecture enthusiast Moby to narrate a promotional video. An exhibition at the Getty opens in April on the architectural engagement of artist Ed Ruscha, who is to old-school cool what Raymond Chandler was to noir. The Getty Foundation gave out $3.6 million in grants to 16 organizations to back the program.

And though the curators say that the modern-art PST helped shape the new project, they also learned that this one had to be different. "Something on the scale of Pacific Standard Time — 60 institutions together — you cannot repeat that," De Wit says a bit wearily. "So it was always clear that we were to be working on a smaller scale." This one has a wider range of years; it's devoted to the period from the 1940s through 1990. The Museum of Contemporary Art's "A New Sculpturalism," opening June 2, will look at the mid-'80s to the more-or-less present — one of 11 exhibitions at nine institutions.

While there are a few detours — to Disneyland, for instance — PST 2.0 will not consider far-flung spots like San Diego or the high desert the way the original did. "Architecture is so much a response to a certain built environment," says Alexander, "and social and political conditions, that it became clear that what you could say about Los Angeles you cannot say about San Diego. It's totally different."

Beyond the highlights

The overview — parallel to last year's "Crosscurrents" — is called "Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990" and includes 400 objects, from photographs of pioneering Case Study Houses to a film about the construction of Lakewood. (It opens April 9 at the Getty Museum.) De Wit and Alexander curated it alongside the GRI's Rani Singh, who had an important role in the first Pacific Standard Time and brings some avant-garde cred to the project — she served as an assistant to Alan Ginsberg and directs the archives of polymath Harry Smith.

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