Getty Initiative Explores Los Angeles’ Architectural History

Posted on: May 24th, 2013 by Lauren Walser

LAX Theme building at night. Credit: Thomas Hawk, Flickr
LAX Theme building at night

Every now and then, when I tell someone I live in Los Angeles and work for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I’ll get a perplexing response: “What’s historic in Los Angeles? What is there to preserve?”

Where to begin?

For the next couple months, I will point any skeptics I meet to the current Getty initiative, Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.

Following on the heels of the expansive Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980, the 2011-12 Getty initiative that examined the birth of the city’s art scene, this latest collaborative event is slightly smaller in scope, with 11 exhibitions at nine different venues throughout the region, plus an array of programming and events hosted by leading cultural institutions, including biking, driving, and walking tours; lectures and panel discussions; performances; films; and more.

And all to celebrate Southern California’s modern architectural heritage.

One of the highlights this year is the Getty’s own exhibition, Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990, co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute. Using drawings, photographs, models, videos, and visual art, it’s an all-encompassing look at Los Angeles’ evolution, post-World War II, as well as its global influence. Most impressively, it’s the first major exhibition to survey the city’s built environment.

Prepare to spend hours there.

Downtown Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power (DWP) Building, now also known as the John Ferraro Building. Credit: Mike Chen, Flickr
Downtown Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power (DWP) Building, now also known as the John Ferraro Building

The exhibit, broken down into five sections, opens, fittingly, with a look at the city’s car culture. Drive-in movie theaters, gas stations, car dealerships, strip malls, and even a drive-in church are all examined, as are the architects who brought these iconic structures to the city, including Louise Armet, Douglas Honnold, and Wayne McAllister. Photographs and drawings of the ‘50s and ‘60s “Googie” coffee shops -- those colorful, angular, Jet Age structures that seem to come straight from an episode of The Jetsons -- were, to me, among the highlights.

The other sections in this exhibition include:

  • “Urban networks,” which looks at the city’s water and power infrastructure, its pioneering freeway system, and transportation hubs (think LAX and the city’s iconic Union Station);
  • “Engines of innovation,” examining structures built for the city’s major industries, like oil, aerospace, media, entertainment, and higher education;
  • “Community magnets,” including sites of major social engagement, like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Dodger Stadium, Disneyland, and a number of sacred buildings;
  • “Residential fabric,” which features photos and drawings of the groundbreaking Case Study houses, planned communities, and apartment complexes of the city, while also showcasing the work of some of the city’s biggest names in architecture, like John Lautner, Frank Gehry, and Pierre Koenig.

The Eames House, Case Study House #8, was one of roughly two dozen homes built as part of The Case Study House Program. Credit: Brandon Shigeta, Flickr
The Eames House, Case Study House #8, was one of roughly two dozen homes built as part of The Case Study House Program.

As I left the Getty, it struck me that the exhibition, and really all of Pacific Standard Time Presents, is just as much a celebration of the city’s beloved architectural icons as it is a reminder of what has been lost. Some of Los Angeles’ most amazing structures met the wrecking ball long ago, and all that remain are sketches, photos, and memories. Others still stand, neglected, underused, or in flux.

I certainly hope all who explore the many exhibitions and events surrounding Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. are left with a renewed sense of pride in the city’s architectural heritage and a stronger commitment to ensuring its survival.

Throughout the next several weeks, I’ll be immersing myself in this heritage, exploring a number of events and exhibitions related to Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. You can follow my journey here, as I report back on what I learn.

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Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles through July 21, 2013. It will also travel to Washington, D.C., where it will open at the National Building Museum on October 20.

Visit the Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. website for more information. Also check out the full calendar of events.

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Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based Field Editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about history, art, architecture, and public space.

Modern Architecture, Pop Culture