1970-1980: Los Angeles Rediscovered

Los Angeles, like most American cities, faced urban decay in the 1960s and 1970s. Though old neighborhoods declined, some of them became the seeds for ideas, imagery, and opportunities that led on to the next step of the region's architectural progress.

Unexpectedly, Los Angeles became a focus for intellectual discourse in the 1970s; unexpectedly, it also gave birth to a grassroots preservation movement.

As could be expected from its history, however, young architects (both local and emigres) were still drawn to the city believing it was a good environment to test new ideas. These radical new ideas centered in the Westside rubbed up against the Modernist establishment still very much represented in the new highrises of Bunker Hill and Wilshire Blvd.

Great Western Savings
Great Western Savings (Pereira Associates, 1972). Photo by Larry Underhill

The city’s large firms expanded their Late Modern corporate architecture beyond the plain International Style glass box with a variety of geometries. Great Western Savings (Pereira Associates, 1972, Beverly Hills) took the form of an extruded oval on a prominent Wilshire corner.

While two circular Holiday Inn towers (Lundgren and Maurer, Long Beach, 1968, and Brentwood, 1969) echoed Welton Becket’s 1954 Capitol Records building, Fidelity Federal (Krisel and Shapiro, 1976, Glendale) utilized a faceted, crystalline form for its glass skin, a motif used frequently in the 1970s. Inglewood Civic Center (Charles Luckman, 1973) used concrete Brutalism in a complex of buildings. Crowning these explorations was the confident mirrored silos of the Bonaventure Hotel (John Portman, 1976, Downtown.)

Educational campuses expressed the same diversity as architects searched for a path forward. While Art Center College of Design (Craig Ellwood, 1976, Pasadena) returned to the structural simplicity of a steel bridge girder spanning a ravine, California State University, Dominguez Hills (A. Q. Jones, 1979, Carson) used concrete to create a multi-leveled mega-structure.

Similar variety could be seen in the buildings of everyday life, still the focus of attention for Southern California architects. Sunset Car Wash (Robert Barnett, 1972, Hollywood) brought Brutalist concrete to the commercial strip, while the Hughes Market (Leon Edgar, 1972, Studio City) brought Expressionism to the daily trip the supermarket.

While the work of the large architecture offices continued, the questioning of their Modernist precepts became more insistent in the 1970s.

Figures that had embodied the earlier Los Angeles passed from the scene (Richard Neutra died in 1970, Charles Eames in 1978, A. Q. Jones in 1979), while three younger architects came on the scene to re-establish the vitality of Los Angeles as a generator of architectural ideas: Charles Moore, Cesar Pelli, and Frank Gehry.

Drawing on different aspects of Los Angeles culture, each offered alternatives to the standard International Style/Miesian Modernism. Charles Moore became internationally famous for his design for Sea Ranch in Northern California (Moore/Lyndon/Turnbull/Whitaker, 1967, Sonoma County.) He moved to Los Angeles after heading the School of Architecture at Yale to open an office and to teach at UCLA's recently founded Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Embracing both the stucco box vernacular and the Spanish Colonial heritage of Southern California, Moore's buildings, teaching, and writing addressed many of the weaknesses of Modernism of the time: a detachment from popular taste, a heroic and empty monumentalism, and an overemphasis on technological fixes. His Psychoanalytic Office building (Moore and Turnbull, 1971, Century City) used the easy flexibility and repetitive elements of Southern California's stucco box contractor vernacular to create an open, airy, and light-filled building. The exaggerated grandeur of its tall entry rendered in simple materials displayed Moore's interest in architecture's public role.

The Leland Burns House (Charles Moore, 1974, Pacific Palisades) was also a stucco box, but transformed in the image and lofty spaces of California's Spanish Colonial Revival. Moore's ideas contributed to the international movement known as Postmodernism, though his witty and knowledgeable understanding of architectural history distinguished his work.

Even Los Angeles' large commercial offices pushed into new territory in the 1970s.

Cesar Pelli and Anthony Lumsden, alumni of Detroit's Eero Saarinen Associates (one of the most original architecture firms of the 1950s) were hired by Daniel Mann Johnson Mendenhall (DMJM) and Gruen Associates specifically to bring a fresh design edge to those large firms.

Reflecting both the region's fascination with technology, and the practical budgetary constraints of commercial buildings, Pelli and Lumsden developed the glass skin held in place by neoprene gaskets as an aesthetic and commercial object. This cost-effective skin for large commercial buildings allowed the architects to create volumes that appeared as light as a dirigible, as at the FAA Headquarters (Cesar Pelli, Anthony Lumsden, DMJM, 1973, Lawndale). The rippling, curvilinear glass skin of the Manufacturers Bank (Anthony Lumsden, 1974, Beverly Hills) demonstrated even more freedom of form.

The Pacific Design Center (Pelli and Gruen Associates, 1975, West Hollywood) was asymmetrical, boldly colored, an enclosed volume that denied mass. It gained international attention as an original Modern design that had escaped the boredom of the skeletal glass box with influences from the contemporary art of Larry Bell and Tony Smith. But it was the simplicity and cost savings of Pelli and Lumsden's glass skin that made it an influential new direction for Modern architecture nationwide.

Gemini G.E.L.
Gemini G.E.L. (Frank Gehry, 1979). Photo courtesy you-are-here.com

Frank Gehry, a local architect educated at USC and steeped in the commercial and urban character of Los Angeles, also began to attract national attention in the 1970s. He evolved over the decade with experiments exposing the common contractor wood stud framing and stucco skin seen in the Gemini GEL studio (Frank Gehry, 1979, Hollywood), to the exploded forms and vernacular materials of his own house (Frank Gehry, 1978-1992, Santa Monica), a design that influenced the coming Deconstructivist movement of the 1980s.

These trends in the direction of Modernism in L.A. were highlighted in a 1975 symposium at UCLA on the Silvers, including architects Tim Vreeland, Anthony Lumsden, Frank Dimster, Eugene Kupper, Paul Kennon, Cesar Pelli, and Frank Gehry.

Though Los Angeles had never had a strong publishing or intellectual community, this growing ferment brought new critical attention locally, nationally and internationally.

That, in turn, attracted architects from elsewhere to the city, and made the city more self-conscious of its architecture.

Esther McCoy, who had arrived in Los Angeles in the 1930s, continued to write for the popular and academic press in the 1970s. British critic Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies was published in 1971, mating an outsider's observations with a sympathizer's insights.

David Gebhard, director of the University Art Museum of the University of California, Santa Barbara, mounted a series of exhibitions and catalogs on neglected history; with Robert Winter, Gebhard co-authored the Guide to Southern California Architecture (1977), the first thorough guidebook to the region's architecture. John Pastier and John Dreyfuss became the first architecture critics of the Los Angeles Times in this decade.

Architectural education expanded tremendously as well.

The well-established architecture school at the University of Southern California was joined by the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning at UCLA, and then the radical new Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) spinning off from Cal Poly Pomona.

Young faculty at these new schools included Craig Hodgetts, Robert Mangurian, Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, Eric Owen Moss, Eugene Kupper, and Fred Fisher. Though often limited to remodelings in then-funky neighborhoods, such as the Delmer house (Morphosis 1977, Venice), these architects used limited budgets to their advantage by highlighting cheap industrial materials such as corrugated metal, exposed wood studs, plywood, and chain link fencing -- a direction in which Frank Gehry took the lead, but which reflected an interest in the possibilities of ordinary contractor construction stretching back to R. M. Schindler.

Other young local architects including Steven Ehrlich, Michael Folonis, and Peter deBretteville, and architects such as Frank Israel attracted to Los Angeles from the east coast, also drew on Los Angeles itself. Their work would form the basis of the city's impressive reputation in the next decades.

The interest in alternative theories to Modernism coalesced internationally in the 1970s as Postmodernism.

Los Angeles contributed to this movement, which sought to reintroduce a wider range of sources to architecture, beyond the narrow range of sleek, geometric, machined imagery of Modernism. Charles Jencks, a primary Postmodern interpreter from Britain, came to UCLA in the 1970s to teach.

In many ways, however, Postmodernism simply reiterated Los Angeles' long interest in blending historical imagery with modern uses, from Grauman's Chinese Theatre (Meyer and Holler, 1927, Hollywood), to Disneyland (Walt Disney, 1955, Orange County), to Beckman Auditorium (Edward Durell Stone, 1963, Pasadena), to John Woolf's French Mansard-derived houses, to Tony Duquette's exotic historicism, and finally to the high profile Getty Villa (Stephen Garrett, Langdon and Wilson, 1974, Malibu), an imaginative recreation of a Roman villa buried by Vesuvius at Herculaneum.

The 1970s introduced two other trends that transformed the Southern California scene: sustainability and preservation.

In the land of the automobile and glass walled homes, the OPEC Oil Crisis of the early 1970s introduced a new urgency to reducing energy usage and increasing sustainability through design.

At a grassroots level, the Los Angeles Conservancy quickly tapped into the public's interest in Los Angeles architecture. When the demolition of an early example of Los Angeles Modernism, the Los Angeles Central Library (Bertram Goodhue, 1926, Downtown), was proposed, a group of concerned citizens was able to coalesce this public support, leading ultimately to the library's preservation and the founding of the Los Angeles Conservancy in 1978.