1960-1970: Imperial California

Southern Californians sensed that the astonishing future they had eagerly anticipated since the 1920s had finally arrived in the 1960s.

The boom of the 1950s had been the launching pad; by 1964 California became the largest state in the union; its aerospace, oil, electronics, tourist, and entertainment industries dominated the nation; its economy became one of the largest in the world; its fashions, fads and culture spread throughout the country and the world.

The city continued its reach out into previously agricultural areas in the San Fernando Valley, the South Bay, the San Gabriel Valley, and neighboring Orange and Ventura Counties.

California was a nation-state in itself, and its Modern architecture perfectly reflected the wealth, reach, and self-confidence of this empire.

The jewels of this rise in power and prestige were two self-assured cultural monuments, the Music Center (Welton Becket Associates, 1964-67, Bunker Hill) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (William Pereira Associates, 1964, Miracle Mile) -- both designed by major local firms.

Music Center model
Howard Ahmanson, Dorothy Chandler, and Mr. and Mrs. Mark Taper with a model of the Music Center. Photo courtesy The Music Center of Los Angeles County

Both firms were breaking new ground in organization and expertise to be able to design for the size and complexity of the corporate, manufacturing, and educational campuses that were at the cutting edge of California's growth, and idealized in these two cultural monuments.

Similar monuments were rising all over town. Smaller museums such as the Pasadena Art Museum (Ladd and Kelsey, 1969) showed the extent of cultural growth. The Department of Water and Power (A. C. Martin, 1964, Bunker Hill) embodied the ease, the power, the light, the modernity of the city's image of itself -- and replaced the decayed glory of old Bunker Hill.

Campuses for new technology firms like TRW Space Park, later Northrop Grumman (A. C. Martin, 1967, Redondo Beach) and Xerox (Craig Ellwood, 1966, El Segundo) highlighted California's dynamic high tech economy.

The new Los Angeles International Airport (William Pereira Assoc., Welton Becket Assoc., Paul R. Williams, 1961, Westchester) was crowned with another intentionally symbolic design, the Theme Building. Other new buildings brought the same modern sensibility to the city's play, including Dodger Stadium (Praeger, Kavenagh and Waterbury, 1962, Echo Park), and the Cinerama Dome (Welton Becket Assoc., 1963, Hollywood), which used a dynamic precast concrete system to house a new movie projection system.

Planning these large complexes became a major expertise for Los Angeles' large architecture offices.

Planned communities had been practiced since the 1920s in Leimert Park and Westwood, Westchester and Panorama City in the 1940s, but the even larger housing tracts of the 1950s gave way to more sophisticated master-planned communities in Valencia (Gruen Associates, 1965), Westlake Village (A. C. Martin, 1968), and Irvine (Pereira Associates, 1965, Orange County).

On a smaller scale, builder Joseph Eichler added his Modern mass produced home tracts to the earlier Modern tracts designed by Palmer and Krisel and Edward H. Fickett in the San Fernando Valley. Century City (Welton Becket Assoc., 1959-1963) updated the traditional center city model with an all-new master plan combining offices, cultural venues, hotels, and housing. The Century Plaza Hotel (Minoru Yamasaki, 1966, Century City) served as the centerpiece of the plan, but the Century City Medical Plaza (Cesar Pelli, Anthony Lumsden, DMJM, 1969, Century City) pioneered a new glass skin that would revolutionize commercial architecture.

In recreation, Marina del Rey and Long Beach built large-scale, master-planned, recreational-commercial-residential developments along the shore and harbor.

The pace of Southern California Modernism's experimentation and diversity in residential design continued in the 1960s.


Chemosphere (John Lautner, 1960). Photo © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

The prodigious range of creative ideas can be grasped in a few examples: the Chemosphere house (John Lautner, 1960, Hollywood Hills) solved the problem of building on an unbuildably steep site by using a single concrete column; in Case Study House #18 (Craig Ellwood, 1956, Hollywood Hills, altered), slender steel skeletons were a framework for elegantly minimalist homes; the broad shingled pavilion roofs of the Seidenbaum House (Richard Dorman, 1964, Hollywood Hills) echoed Japanese architecture, connecting it to the long influence of Asian architecture in California going back to the Greene brothers; the Kappe House (Ray Kappe, 1967, Pacific Palisades) used massive concrete walls and wood beams with transparent glass to tie the house to a wooded ravine site.

The same variety of ideas is visible in commercial and civic architecture. The Sunset Canyon Recreation Center (Smith and Williams, 1966, UCLA) reflected California's wood post-and-beam tradition. The Neo-Formalist Beckman Auditorium (Edward Durell Stone, 1963, Pasadena) reflected the architect's search for ways to blend classical architecture concepts (in this case, a Greek tholos) with the Modern era -- one effort to reform the severity of minimalist International Style Modernism.

Danziger Studio
Danziger Studio (Frank Gehry, 1965). Photo courtesy Studio of Glenn Williams Architect

A Union 76 station (Gin Wong, 1965, Beverly Hills) shows the flexibility of Googie Modernism as a fully realized three-dimensional form expressing its function. The Danziger Studio (Frank Gehry, 1965, West Hollywood) shows the blend of L.A.'s vernacular stucco box tradition with high art minimalism. The rugged exposed concrete structure of Brutalism was used in Liberty Bank (Kurt Meyer, 1966, West Los Angeles).

Apart from the monuments of the city's well-known architects and important institutions, the city's rich vernacular of Mexican restaurants, drive-through dairy stores, tiki apartment houses, industrial buildings, and power plants continued to thrive. The unique Farmer John's Meat Packing Plant (1953, Vernon) with its supergraphic mural of a pig farm idyll was launched, and the Donut Hole (John Tindall, Ed McCreany, Jesse Hood, 1968, La Puente) kept Southern California's long tradition of programmatic architecture healthy by creating a giant drive-through donut. These and other diverse vernacular architecture would help drive yet more design innovation in the next decade.

By the 1960s, Modernism, which had once been avant garde, reigned as the favored style of establishment corporations and institutions.

At this point of wide acceptance, ironically, doubts about the usefulness of Modern design principles in a changing world began to arise.

As the large architecture firms often applied it, Modernism could lead to formulaic and bland results. Its assumptions about the advantages of infinite growth began to be questioned because of growth's impact on urban quality and natural resources.

In attempts to combat the decimation of their Main Street commercial centers by shopping malls, several cities experimented with revitalizing their downtown districts; in one example, Pomona hired Millard Sheets to redesign its Main Street as a pedestrian mall with river stone planters, fountains, and sculptures along the way. Many architects and members of the public felt Modernism had come to the end of the line.