The United States, grown old, insular and fractious, probably will never produce another boomtown, like New York in the age of the Erie Canal, or Chicago after the fire, or Detroit under the auto barons, or even the ugly mushrooms of cement growing in China today.
And that might explain the muted nostalgia that runs through the National Building Museum’s large and engrossing exhibit “Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990,” which documents that city’s extraordinary history: the wildfire growth in the middle of the last century, the pioneering construction of superhighways, the flourishing of something called “car culture,” the exuberant architecture and unashamed embrace of consumerism, the rise of a distinct suburban lifestyle, and the efforts to stem its growth, rein in its anarchic tendencies, civilize its excess and build systems that could somehow manage the voracious need for more land, more water, more homes and more fun.
But there is some special pleading in the background of the show, which originated at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles as part of an ongoing scholarly effort to understand how architecture and urban planning developed in the country’s second-largest city. There are darker aspects to everything that makes L.A. unique, and while the exhibition acknowledges many of them, it is often in passing and with a deflection of their gravity, as if to say before a judge, yes, I stole the money, but I spent it wisely.
The scholarly agenda is driven by the desire to see L.A. given its due, acknowledged not just as a demographic phenomenon but also as a city that defined a new and desirable kind of urbanism. The environmental and social costs of the enormous freeways that cut through L.A. are acknowledged, but these concrete behemoths are also presented as works of austere, modernist beauty, an inspiration to drivers and artists alike.
In a catalog essay on parkland, we learn that the legendary Olmsted Brothers landscape design firm took part in an ambitious 1920s plan to create a regional park system; the scheme was never realized, and people simply retreated to their back yards, which are small, privatized little parks. One chapter of the exhibition is devoted to car culture, which is explored without any basic questioning of the term itself: Was there indeed a genuine car culture or simply a nexus of desires and habits that depended on needing, owning and using automobiles?
In the catalog essays you find rhetorical tics that give one a better sense of the larger intellectual ambition: The city should be judged not by “orthodox urban hierarchies” but rather with respect for its “sprawling vernacular landscape.” L.A., they argue, isn’t an ordinary city with a compact downtown and walkable streets; it is a democratic revolution, with the car in the vanguard, allowing people new kinds of freedom, new choices, new opportunities.
The suburb isn’t just the cheap and only place for most people to live; it’s a thing of beauty, a personalized piece of the American pie. Those endless strips of fast-food chains, gas stations and shopping malls aren’t just a world we’re born into whether we like it or not but rather an intentional form of urbanism that was created to serve our needs and inspirit our souls.
Some, but not all, of that is true. The exhibition does a good job of showing the nostalgic allure of buildings from the middle of the last century: the coffee shops with huge plate-glass windows and fanciful roofs; the modernist high-rises that defined the corporate world of entertainment, aerospace technology and oil extraction; the sleek residential architecture inspired by avant-garde European designers. Some of the architects will be familiar, giants including Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.
Others will be new names unless you have a fascination for commercial architecture. Architects who specialized in restaurants or coffee shops — Armet & Davis, John Lautner — created delirious confections of space, conflating architecture and signage into gorgeously awful hybrids that will make your mouth water in anticipation of the fried food, gelatinous pies and char-broiled everything they once offered.
“The more forms you used, the better,” said one prominent architect who was famous for his mid-century bowling alleys. To find a similarly hyperbolic architecture today, you would have to head to parts of the world where there is more wealth than good sense, more appetite than actual need, places like Dubai and the burgeoning megacities of China. But the mid-century architecture of L.A. is now being preserved, and deserves to be preserved, as a lost bit of history. In retrospect, we can admire two things: how well it served its function, and how far removed it is from the standardized corporate styles of today.
Looking at designs for what is now known as Googie-style architecture — the populist-futurist-luxe commercial design idiom named for the famous Googie coffee shop — gives a sense of why transparency was so essential to L.A. architects. City dwellers in New York or London might stroll by a restaurant or pub and peek through a small window to see whether it was open and whether the clientele was agreeable. In L.A., that basic part of the sale had to happen at 40 miles an hour, visible from a car that might be a hundred feet away or more. The function of a sign — to tell you what’s on offer and give you a sense of whether you want to buy it — was incorporated into the design of the entire structure. Or as architectural theorists Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour and Robert Venturi put it in “Learning From Las Vegas,” “the graphic sign in space has become the architecture of this landscape.”
Salesmanship runs throughout the exhibition as the fundamental leitmotif of L.A. design. Among the greatest of the architectural salesmen was a photographer, Julius Shulman, whose career was spent documenting the work of L.A. architects. His photographs, well represented in the exhibition, are exquisite, but it’s worth keeping in mind how carefully structured they are.
His image of a house by Pierre Koenig, a glass box perched on the side of a mountain, is one of the most alluring and famous architectural photographs ever made. But see it in the context of drawings and a model of the home, and you get a sense of how cleverly Shulman crafted the scene. The house appears to float above the twinkling city, laid out in a grid of lights below. Elegant women in dresses sit inside, magically illuminated not by the single glowing orb reflected in the windows but by more substantial photographic lighting, unseen and out of the frame of the image. Although the house is built on a hillside, the photograph obscures the vertical support column underneath the seemingly free-floating structure.
The world is often edited out of the work of photographers who amped up the glamor of L.A., seen either as a distant pattern, like an abstract painting, or not at all. Each house lives in solitary grandeur, related only to its landscape or inhabitants. Buildings become perfect sculptures, isolated and decontextualized. Representing the world that way makes it beautiful but obscures the connection of buildings to other buildings and of the built environment to the natural one. We don’t see the urban clutter, and we don’t have any sense of the cumulative impact these buildings have on the planet.
And, of course, most people don’t live in a Shulman fantasy. The freeways that got elites to their gorgeous modernist houses cut through barrios and poor neighborhoods, marooned them in concrete wastelands and subjected their residents to the toxicity of exhaust fumes. Those same freeways soon reached capacity; parkways became parking lots, and the original fantasy of a fast-paced, connected, on-the-move city became an untenable and sclerotic nightmare of bumper-to-bumper boredom.
The exhibition, which includes drawings, photographs and an impressive collection of models and films, traces the development of L.A. from its streetcar days, which laid the pattern for a decentralized city, through the age of the “sit-com suburbs,” as one writer describes the boom times of the 1950s, when there was still some attempt to distinguish individual houses in relatively small developments.
It continues with a more recent and depressing trend toward corporate suburbs built on a huge scale, with no deference to the land and no pretense at individuation. In early images of suburbia, you see vestiges of old-style living, clotheslines, patches of vegetable garden; in later ones, you see only uniformity and geometric repetition. Houses effectively had no outside, just a glorious inside of appliances and amenities.
Individual architects fought against that, sometimes with success. And there are now genuine moves toward building new livability into the city, including mass transit, parkland and restoration of environmental features such as the L.A. River. But this exhibition also makes one bristle, a little, at the idea that L.A. represents something to be emulated, that we should treat those old “orthodox hierarchies” of urbanism with contempt.Even the notion that L.A. somehow represents a “new vernacular” of urban design seems farcical.
Calling the sprawl of cheap suburban cookie-cutter houses and trashy commercial signage a “new vernacular” misuses the term vernacular, suggesting that this was a language involving genuine back-and-forth communication. It wasn’t a language at all, or even an architectural style; rather, it was a jumble of commercially dictated architectural styles aimed at gaining and holding consumer attention. Mostly people adapted to it. If they now embrace it, it’s because it feels familiar and they have few other options.
is on view at the National Building Museum through March 10. For more information, including admission fees, visit www.nbm.org.