On my first visit to LA, in 1968, I had two guides: Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles; The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which is still indispensable, and A Guide to Architecture in Southern California, compiled by David Gebhard (an advocate for modernism) and Robert Winter (an authority on historic buildings). A tiny paperback, published by LACMA, it had many limitations: the entries were cryptic, the maps schematic, and the illustrations were grouped in back. But it was a masterpiece of compression and scholarship that led me to treasures as far afield as Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Palm Springs—as well as the hole in the ground where the Atlantic Richfield tower had just been demolished. It has become a precious memento of a productive trip that persuaded me to move to the US, and, a decade later, to LA. I can only imagine how many lives this guide has enriched over the past 50 years.
Subsequent editions grew in size, while shrinking the area covered. Gebhard died in 1996, and Winter unwisely attempted to review new buildings—for which he had little sympathy—in a flawed update that appeared in 2003. The Menzies house in Beverly Hills, long a ghost, made yet another appearance. For this edition, Winter wisely enlisted Robert Inman, a former student of his, to conduct fieldwork and draft new entries. The guide covers all of Los Angeles County and has grown to 576 pages; 700 buildings have been added, and 500 removed (including the long-vanished Menzies house). The sequencing has been rationalized: starting with the historic center and ranging outwards. Angel City Press have taken over from Gibbs Smith as publisher, enlarging the typeface and strengthening the binding (a must for field guides).
I’ve lived in LA for 40 years and have explored the city quite thoroughly, but I’ll never live long enough to see more than a fraction of the buildings described here. Had I found this edition on my first visit I might have been so intimidated as to abandon my explorations. In response, I created my own modest guide, Architecture + Design LA in the 1990s, as a primer for those who lacked the time or energy to read the bible cover to cover. For indeed, this guide is a bible—though full of useful facts rather than colorful fictions. Sober appraisals alternate with outspoken opinions. Improvements could be made in the seventh edition. The index has become more legible, but less useful by omitting the identification of buildings under the names of prolific architects. Page numbers alone are insufficient to locate a specific house by Neutra or Schindler. Maps have been dropped on the assumption that everyone uses Google’s, but the old ones indicated the proximity of entries—a big help in planning expeditions. They should be restored.
There are surprising omissions: for example, the newly restored Smith house of Craig Ellwood, a marvel of elegance in Crestwood Hills, and the innovative Robert Frost Auditorium in Culver City, a homage to the thin concrete shell roofs of Felix Candela. Despite the revisions, some reviews verge on banality. The former entry on Walt Disney Concert Hall—a masterpiece that has become LA’s defining icon—was studded with ignorant comments; now there is only one. That some fool looked at a photo of the model and declared “the whole world has gone mad” is irrelevant. A building of this quality deserves a responsible evaluation by someone who appreciates Gehry’s complex language and the universal acclaim for his auditorium. And it would have been helpful to draw a comparison between the Beaux Arts formality of the Music Center on its raised podium and that of Lincoln Center.
A pedestrian entry for Eric Owen Moss’s additions to the Hayden Tract concludes “We find it impossible to describe these buildings adequately,” and refers readers to the architect’s web site. A modernist in the mold of Gebhard needs to be recruited. Even a few of the the classics are short-changed. The comment on Schindler’s house-studio makes no mention of the unique character of its interior, and it’s the lumpish block to the north, not Habitat 825 to the south, that would have appalled Pauline Schindler.
All commentary is subjective and a guide as multifarious as this is bound to provoke controversy. I was disappointed to find some of my favorite buildings judged unfavorably or superficially, but it’s nothing short of a miracle that two individuals (and a team of helpers) should have provided so comprehensive a survey of our metropolis.
The Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles; fully revised 6th edition. David Gebhard and Robert Winter; revised by Robert Winter and Robert Inman. (Angel City Press, $45)
Author: Michael Webb
Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.