Everyone knows the stunning works of architecture that symbolize our city world-wide. We all admire these buildings, but FORM wanted to uncover the hidden gems, “the unusual suspects” that influenced design and were game-changers in architectural discourse. To that end, we convened a jury of true notables: Barbara H. Bouza, FAIA, Carlo Caccavale, Hon. AIA, Anthony Fontenot, Ph. D, Hsin Ming Fung, FAIA, Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, FAIA, and Kulapat Yantrasast facilitated by Michael Franklin Ross, FAIA.
Needless to say, this task created a heated dialogue. There are numerous beautiful buildings throughout Southern California. Many of them are not included on our list. There are some very famous architects who have designed multiple buildings for LA, but we chose not to include them all. We were looking for the buildings that were influencers. I hope the ghost of Mies Van der Rohe will forgive me when I say we decided that our guide was, “Less is More”.
We decided our selections had to be: Innovative, Groundbreaking, Aesthetically Beautiful, Sustainable, Paradigm Shifting, Iconic, Contextual, and Timeless. The jury agreed that any building designed by a jury member or their firm be removed from consideration and that any building to be considered must still be standing. What follows is an abbreviated discussion. Find out more about these fabulous buildings on our website www.formmag.net.
The Early Years
We agreed to begin with the landmark Bradbury Building (1893). The exterior is a typical nineteenth-century commercial office building. The interior is a light-filled wonder of wrought iron railings, multiple stairs climbing toward a sky-lit atrium. It created a paradigm shift for commercial office design half a century before John Portman.
The twentieth century brought us the elegantly detailed Gamble House (1908) by Charles and Henry Greene. One of the finest examples of California Arts and Crafts, it is also influenced by traditional Japanese design in the carefully detailed interlocking wood members and truly contextual in the way it integrates architecture and landscape.
Two very influential architects left their mark on Southern California during this period. Julia Morgan, famous for the elaborate Hearst Castle in San Simeon, was in 1904, the first woman to obtain an architecture license in California. William Randolph Hearst selected her to design downtown Los Angeles’ Herald Examiner Building (1914).
Irving J. Gill completed the design of the Horatio West Court (1919) in Santa Monica, one of the finest examples of courtyard housing. It influenced the development of courtyard complexes throughout Los Angeles.
This era brought an explosion of creative architectural design to the LA region from the many seminal houses to large public buildings. The city was booming, growing at an unprecedented rate. Gordon Whitnall, director of the City Planning Commission, said in 1922, that “ a new residence was completed every 26 minutes of the working day.”
Frank Lloyd Wright completed four of his concrete block houses; The Millard, Storer, Freeman and Ennis. The Ennis House, 1924, was the last, the largest, and the most dramatic, sitting up on the hill overlooking the city. The interplay of natural light and the rhythm of the textured columns flowing from outside to inside create one of the most memorable images of residential architecture in Los Angeles.
The R. M. Schindler House in West Hollywood (1922) became a prototype for Los Angeles residential design with interlocking spaces, patios and gardens. It was sustainable before we were even thinking about sustainability. The house ultimately served as the launching pad for both Schindler and his Viennese friend, Richard Neutra.
In 1925, after crossing the Atlantic and working for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in Wisconsin for a year, Richard Neutra and his wife Dione moved to Los Angeles. Neutra soon began designing his own groundbreaking projects including the Lovell Health House (1929) in Los Feliz. Historian Thomas S. Hines called this “his masterpiece”. It remains one of the purest and finest examples of the International Style in America.
The 1920s also saw a boom in the design of iconic public buildings several of which have come to symbolize our city. The Los Angeles Central Library by Bertram Goodhue (1926) and the Los Angeles City Hall by John Parkinson, Albert C. Martin and John C. Austin (1928) have bold exterior designs and dramatic interior spaces that are recognized around the world. The Hollywood Bowl is another symbol of LA that began life in 1926 designed by Myron Hunt, later modified by Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, and recently completely replaced in 2004 with a new shell and state-of-the-art technology by Hodgetts +Fung.
There were additional iconic buildings erected in the 1930s like John C. Austin and Frederick M. Ashley’s Griffith Observatory (1935) visible high above the city on the crest of the Hollywood Hills, but what captured the imagination of the Jury more was the work of Gregory Ain. The Dunsmuir Flats (1937) in mid-Wilshire was what Anthony Fontenot called “a major game changer”. It was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and captured the imagination of the design cognoscenti.
The work of John and Donald Parkinson was critical in the growth and image of the city most literally with Union Station (1939) downtown which became the gateway to Los Angeles for people arriving by train. The interior spaces are magnificent and timeless to this day. “I could talk endlessly about why Union Station is included,” said Fontenot.
Parkinson and Parkinson also gave us Bullock’s Wilshire (1929) a refined design of the Art Deco period that was the first building to accommodate the car. It had a pedestrian entrance on Wilshire Boulevard and an auto court in the back, linked by an elegant interior circulation spine. It also shifted the center of gravity of the city westward.
The Sturges House in Brentwood (1939) was designed as one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Usonian” houses. This 900 s.f. gem was a model of a house for “Everyman”. The jury called it extraordinary.
This era celebrated the performing arts with projects like the Hollywood Pantages Theatre (1930), The Egyptian Theatre, the Million Dollar Theater and the entire theater district on Broadway. The craftsmanship, lighting and interior detailing have never been equaled.
This period was heavily populated by the Case Study Houses, many beautifully photographed by Julius Shulman. Each was unique in their own way. We chose to celebrate the Eames House (1949), also known as Case Study House #8, by Charles and Ray Eames. It is the quintessential mid-century modern building. Exploring concepts of mass production, this design used basic industrial steel frames and simple geometric forms. The Eames House is a three-dimensional Mondrian painting welcoming inside the outdoor climate of Pacific Palisades.
It’s not easy being the son of a famous architect. Lloyd Wright carried that burden with dignity and grace. Many of his houses are works of design excellence, but the project that truly established him as an extraordinary talent was Wayfarers Chapel (1951) in Rancho Palos Verdes. It’s a spiritual space that welcomes the outside inside right through the roof, and gives the visitor a sense of floating above the ocean. It’s a building that’s a sculpture you can walk into.
Another Sculpture that’s large enough to walk into is Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, (1954). It’s art made of found objects; broken tiles, soda pop bottles, plaster, concrete and steel. Barbara Bouza said, “it meets every criterion; it’s innovative and aesthetically beautiful…we have to have a few on the edge.”
“L’enfant terrible” of Los Angeles architects who constantly pushed the envelope was John Lautner. Two of his most memorable houses are the Malin House AKA “The Chemosphere” (1961) and the Stevens House (1968). Both explore unusual structure, bold forms and exuberant spaces.
A lesser known modernist, “hidden gem” is the Great Western Savings and Loan (1961) by Paffard Keatinge-Clay at SOM. Clay who apprenticed for a year with Le Corbusier in Paris and for a year with Frank Lloyd Wright, developed his own modernist aesthetic at the Great Western building. The large cantilevered roof seems to simply float above the main volume creating a large open column-free space.
There are two buildings designed about the same time that both project an iconic image. One everyone knows, the other is one of LA’s best kept secrets. The LAX Theme building (1961) designed by Paul Williams with Pereira/Luckman is instantly recognizable. The lesser-known Robert Frost Auditorium at Culver City High School (1964) by Flewelling and Moody with structural engineer Andrew Nasser, has a gently curved roof that maximizes the sculptural qualities of reinforced concrete. The LA Conservancy called it, “one of the most breathtaking Modern buildings ever designed.”
The Pacific Design Center is a composition of three boldly colored buildings designed by Cesar Pelli at Gruen Associates. The initial structure is a 530-foot long extruded cobalt blue contemporary warehouse. Completed in 1975 it was quickly dubbed “the blue whale”. The PDC transformed West Hollywood into a forward-looking commercial design hub. Over the next thirty years Pelli added the Green and Red Buildings completing his colorful composition.
A much smaller, but equally powerful design, is the 2-4-6-8 House by Thom Mayne and Morphosis (1978) which also employs bold colors. Brightly painted yellow window frames increasing in size from 2-foot square to 4-foot, then 6-foot, and finally 8-foot square play tricks with the visitor’s sense of scale. “It makes architecture out of a single room,” said Larry Scarpa. It also won AIA/LA’s 25-Year Award, standing the test of time, and providing a harbinger of the creativity to come from Mayne in the future.
The single building that created the greatest discussion was an early design by Frank Gehry for World Savings and Loan, in North Hollywood (1982). At first glance it’s just a simple two-story rectangular volume. Upon more careful examination we discovered the façade was painted with lines creating a false perspective. He used the façade as a canvas to create an abstract painting. It was the first time Gehry integrated art into his architecture. Ming Fung said, “It was Frank before he became Frank”.
Making buildings as art and making buildings with artists has become a hallmark of Gehry’s work. At the Chiat/Day “Binoculars” Building (1991), he integrated a giant binocular sculpture by Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen into the front façade that cars drive right under.
Another project that integrates art with its architecture is the Getty Center (1996) by Richard Meier & Partners. Set high above the city in the Santa Monica Mountains this cultural acropolis is a six-building museum and research complex with framed vistas and magnificent landscaping by the Olin Partnership, Dan Kiley and Robert Irwin.
The Hayden Tract, in Culver City is not a single building, but rather a whole neighborhood. A former industrial zone, it’s been totally reinvented by its developers, Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith, and their architect, Eric Owen Moss. The buildings are adventuresome, idiosyncratic and always dynamic. The Smiths and Moss helped launch the reinvigoration of Culver City.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall (2003) by Frank Gehry has supplanted the LAX theme building as the 21st-century symbol of Los Angeles. Its façade constantly in visual motion, is architecture as a performing art. It’s a building within a building with bright curved metal petals on the outside and warm Douglas fir on the inside, and superb acoustics thanks to acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota.
A huge picture frame with a sculpture inside appeared on Sunset Boulevard in 2014. “It’s an idea that we haven’t seen before” said Ming Fung. It is the west coast campus of Boston’s Emerson College by Thom Mayne & Morphosis. Within the frame is an outdoor courtyard for students and faculty to mingle and to capture the view of the Hollywood sign. Welcome to Los Angeles.
After a lively, dynamic discussion, there was agreement about a few things. Los Angeles has many beautiful, uplifting buildings, some that broke the mold, and some that set a new design direction. The city has gained a reputation over the last 125 years of being a place that inspires creativity. Larry Scarpa said, “Southern California is a place of innovation, of experimentation and a place of ground-breaking work”. Ming Fung agreed saying, “LA has always been a place of ‘misfits’, a place that supports invention.” We look forward to bringing you the next groundbreaking design ideas in future issues of FORM.
Meet the Jury
Barbara H. Bouza, FAIA, IIDA, LEED AP, EDAC, Managing Director, Principal, Gensler | Barbara is Co-Managing Director and Principal of Gensler’s Los Angeles office and has been a leader in the global Health & Wellness, Sciences and Workplace practice areas. Through her collaborative leadership approach, she brings strategic design management to highly innovative clients such as Netflix, JPL/NASA, Amgen, Kaiser Permanente and the City of Hope. As a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Barbara has been an influencer elevating human wellbeing through design excellence.
Carlo Caccavale, Hon. AIA|LA – Executive Director, AIA Los Angeles | Coupled with his knowledge of architecture and passion for policies that support excellence in the built environment, Carlo Caccavale brings 15 years of experience at the American Institute of Architects Los Angeles chapter to his position as its Executive Director. Carlo has initiated a number of AIA|LA conferences intended to provide contributions to the profession and surrounding region. They include Encompass, the AIA|LA Conference to Actualize Diversity and Inclusion; Design for Dignity, the AIA|LA conference focused on homelessness and housing affordability; and Powerful, Women Leading Design. To facilitate greater recognition for design excellence and widen the spectrum of offices participating in design awards programs, Carlo launched the Restaurant Design Awards in 2005 and the Residential Architecture Awards in 2016. In 2017, he started the chapter’s Architectural Photography Awards to celebrate those who translate three dimensional design to the single plane while capturing its intent.
Anthony Fontenot, Ph. D, Professor | Anthony Fontenot is a Professor at Woodbury University School of Architecture. He holds a professional Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Louisiana, a Master of Architecture degree from Southern California Institute of Architecture, and a Ph.D. in the history and theory of architecture at Princeton University. He was a recipient in 2009 and 2010 of the Fellowship of the Society of Woodrow Wilson Scholars at Princeton University and was awarded a Getty Fellowship for 2010-2011. He is the author of numerous publications including New Orleans Under Reconstruction: The Crisis of Planning (Verso, 2014), “Gregory Ain and Cooperative Housing in a Time of Major Crisis” in Making A Case (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012) and the forthcoming books Non-Design and the Non-Planned City (Chicago University Press, 2017) and Gregory Ain: Low-Cost Modern Housing and the Construction of a Social Landscape (UR Books, 2017).
Hsin Ming Fung, FAIA | Hsin-Ming Fung’s design practice is energized by her lifelong commitment to the arts and education. As founding principal at HplusF, Ming brings purpose, creativity and high production standards to an architectural practice widely admired for innovation and experimentation. As Design Director, Ming has utilized a refined design palette towards the realization of each project, including the award-winning temporary Towell Library at UCLA, the 50-acre master plan for the Los Angeles Arts Park, and the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center. Among her recent projects are a new performing arts center at CalArts and the design of the Chapel of the North American Martyrs in Sacramento.
Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, Principal, Brooks+Scarpa Architects | Lawrence Scarpa has garnered international acclaim for the creative use of conventional materials in unique and unexpected ways. He is also considered a pioneer and leader in the field of sustainable design. He is the recipient of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Award in Architecture and was also awarded the State of California and National American Institute of Architects Architecture Firm Award. Over the last ten years, Mr. Scarpa’s firm has received more than 50 major design awards, including nineteen National AIA Awards, Record Houses, Record Interiors, the Rudy Bruner Prize, five AIA Committee on the Environment “Top Ten Green Building” Awards and the World Habitat Award, one of ten firms selected worldwide. He has also received the lifetime achievement awards from Interior Design Magazine and the AIA California Council.
Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, FAIA, Dean, Director, WUHO | Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter is an architect, educator, and design consultant specializing in the building envelope and the experimental architectural use of glass. Currently Dean of the School of Architecture at Woodbury University, she has taught at Yale, Cornell, the Bartlett, and SCI-Arc. She is also Director of WUHO, the Woodbury University Hollywood gallery, a venue for experimental installations, public lectures and workshops. She currently serves on the LA Forum Board of Directors.
Kulapat Yantrasast | Kulapat Yantrasast is a Thai architect who is the founding partner and creative director of wHY, an interdisciplinary design studio with workshops of buildings, grounds, objects and ideas. In 2007 Yantrasast’s studio designed the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the first new art museum building in the world to receive the LEED certification (Gold). Yantrasast lectures on creativity, food, and architecture.
Explore artist Timothy Robert Smith’s Map of Los Angeles that accompanied the print version of this article.
**Due to space restrictions in the January/February print edition of FORM Magazine some of Michael Franklin Ross’ original feature had to be edited down. We are including them here for your consideration.**
Lovell had already worked with Schindler on his Beach House and decided to give Neutra the commission for his Health House. Looking over Neutra’s career, Hines added, “It is hard to imagine his life and oeuvre without it.”
Subsequently Neutra designed the very influential and highly regarded VDL Research House, 1932, which became his home and office. Sadly this iconic building was gutted by fire in 1963. By this time Neutra’s son Dion was working with his father and Dion took on the task of rebuilding the house, completed in 1964.
I had the good fortune to meet Dion Neutra recently (October 13, 2018) at his Reunion House, where he is still practicing architecture at 92. We chatted about what it was like being the son of a famous architect, and so I asked him what he thought were his father’s best-designed buildings? He paused for a moment and then said, “the Health House, the VDL Research House, and the Reunion House.” The last two were collaborations of father and son, but throughout our tour and discussion Dion frequently made reference to design ideas he inherited from his famous father.
Another very influential house of this period was Frank Gehry’s own house, 1978. He remodeled, re-shaped and re-invented a simple Dutch Colonial into a sculpture you can live in. By exposing 2×4 wood studs and electrical conduit you get a sense of how the guts of the building informs the whole. Gehry’s ubiquitous use of chain-link defines transparent shapes and new spaces. “It opened the door for innovation and experimentation by others,” said Kulapat Yantrasast.
In his comprehensive biography, “Building Art : The Life and Work of Frank Gehry”, Paul Goldberger wrote of the bank, “It was not the only time Frank indulged in the postmodern gesture of an exaggerated façade. His branch building for the World Savings and Loan…(has) a ‘false front’ designed to enhance a sense of monumentality…It is austere in its details, but otherwise could almost have been designed by Robert Venturi.” This is a reference to one of the leaders of the postmodern movement. Robert Venturi welcomed mixed messages in his architecture. Venturi passed away on September 18, 2018 at 93. In an interview with The Architect’s Newspaper, Frank said, “Bob Venturi is one of my heroes in Life”.
Author: Michael Franklin Ross
As an architect, educator and journalist, Michael Franklin Ross, FAIA is one of LA’s preeminent advocates for design excellence. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, such as Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record and The Architect’s Newspaper. He served on faculty at Tokyo University, UCLA and SCI-Arc.