L.A. Before 1940

Well before 1940, Los Angeles architects (both native-born and immigrant) had developed a free-thinking, exploratory Modernism blended with commercial pragmatism that generated new forms, new architectures, and a new decentralized city.

Bullocks Wilshire

Bullocks Wilshire (John and Donald Parkinson, 1929). Photo from Conservancy archives

Southern California had been nurturing a culture of architectural experimentation as early as 1900. Inspired by a near-ideal climate and a dramatic natural landscape that inspired artists, the brothers Charles and Henry Greene had turned to the Arts and Crafts Movement (not the Classicism fashionable at the times) to create an informal, airy, and beautiful new architecture.

By the teens, Irving Gill was developing a new vocabulary and technology using modern concrete. By 1920 Frank Lloyd Wright (considering resettling in Los Angeles because of its free thinking clients) was building his concrete block houses blending modern technology with his trademark appreciation of nature. In the same atmosphere, his employee R. M. Schindler and his son Lloyd Wright were actively exploring complex, non-traditional spatial geometries for a new era.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Moderne (or Art Deco) buildings by established Los Angeles firms Morgan Walls & Clements, Parkinson and Parkinson, and others already created strikingly futuristic skylines with crystalline pinnacles of green, gold, and black, both downtown and along the new linear downtown of Wilshire Blvd.'s Miracle Mile.

The car culture that defined modern life and Los Angeles as a modern city was in full swing;

lowrise commercial buildings like Wayne McAllister's Streamline Moderne drive-in restaurants along the new auto-oriented suburban districts were part of daily Angeleno life.

Popular taste and commercial forces played a large role in shaping many of these creative solutions; L.A. Modernism had long embraced both in bringing the advantages of modern technology to the broad public. These visions of the future were complemented by the buildings of a few Europeans, including Kem Weber, Jock Peters, R. M. Schindler, and Richard Neutra, who added some of the latest European concepts of Modernism to L.A.'s existing Modern mix. Commerce and art, neon and concrete, solidity and flux, nature and artifice, natives and emigres, center cities and suburbias, avant garde and mainstream:

Diversity has always been the engine of Southern California architecture.

One of Modernism's ideals championed bringing the advantages and boons of new inventions to improve the lives of average people. In the beautiful climate of Southern California in particular, this principle lead naturally to the idea that Modernism was to make the lives of average people more enjoyable, pleasurable, and easy.

Besides the well-known custom-designed Modern homes for the wealthy or skyscrapers for large companies, Southern California also focused on bringing good design to mass produced products and everyday architecture. Thus the designs for the city's gas stations, department stores, movie theaters, apartment houses, amusement parks, and coffee shops are often as good as those for expensive custom homes.

Far from being isolated from the world, L.A.'s reputation attracted talented and ambitious designers from all over the world, injecting new ideas on a regular basis.

These mixed with indigenous culture and native architects who consistently generated new design ideas to push the cause of Modernism forward.

By 1939, the signs of a city looking to the future were visible in major civic projects. Downtown, Union Station (Parkinson and Parkinson, 1939) opened; it acknowledged both California's mission heritage in its tower, arcades, and plain whitewashed walls, and the Modern era of speed in its sleek forms and streamlined details. The Arroyo Seco Freeway (1933-35, Pasadena) was under construction, heralding a new form of interurban transportation and a future that would knit the region together more closely.

Far from downtown, the new May Company Department Store (A. C. Martin, 1939) helped establish a new type of decentralized city by extending Wilshire's Miracle Mile all the way out to Fairfax. Its streamlined forms and its landmark gold tile corner tower announced a new architecture that was meant to be seen through the car windshield. Out in the still-rural San Fernando Valley, a startling new studio for Walt Disney (Kem Weber, 1940, Burbank) announced California's interest in new technology, new ways of working, and new means of communicating.