Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

January 5, 2017

Modern Love

Can Preservationists Save L.A.'s Late Modernist Landmarks From the Wrecking Ball?


Architecture, Articles, Charles Luckman, Paul Williams, William L. Pereira

Squeezed between the Los Angeles International Airport’s ever-honking traffic and its jam-packed parking lots, the iconic spacecraft-shaped Theme Building peacefully overlooks the chaos. Designed by architects William L. Pereira and Charles Luckman (with Paul Williams and Welton Becket) and one of the last original pieces of the airport master plan, the building opened in 1961. Its architects envisioned it as the centerpiece of the airport, a jet-setting gateway to the futurist city of Los Angeles. Today, you have to dodge a few shuttle buses to get to it, and its retro cocktail lounge and restaurant closed in 2013. Still, the space-age structure stands as a worthy destination for those daring enough to make their way to its observation deck. Designated as a Historic-Cultural Monument by the city in 1993 (a move that protects it from demolition or substantial changes), it’s an essential piece of architectural history.

The Theme Building fits within an era of expressive architecture that is sometimes called “Googie” or “Populuxe” — commercial styles meant to capture in streamlined form L.A.’s aerospace ambitions. Think of the jaunty roofline of Norms on La Cienega Boulevard, a diner by Googie masters Armet & Davis, which was saved from demolition last year. The diner sign, with its Jetsons-style cometlike shapes, literally points to the optimism of the midcentury.

But the rosy future promised by that era didn’t exactly materialize. Some buildings that once were architectural harbingers of coming urban utopia now have to prove their relevance or risk being erased completely. Rampant growth across Los Angeles — from new biomorphic and monolithic museums to extended Metro rail lines to Blade Runner–like proposals for bigger, denser development in the Arts District — suggests that it’s more important than ever that we preserve our architectural past.

L.A. is full of architecture that tells us stories of the city — but not all of it is pretty. After all, architecture is the wardrobe of our city, although styles change; some pieces remain classic while others go out of fashion. Architecture is also a tangible reminder of ideas, hopes and dreams, a visual representation of the brilliant (and not so brilliant) thoughts of a particular slice of time.

Midcentury architecture in L.A. reflects many great ideas, but should all midcentury buildings be preserved? Hollywood loves the modern homes in the hills — cool, cinematic lairs for socialites and villains alike. What about the era’s ugly ducklings — those buildings that don’t easily fit into our Mad Men reminiscences? The Theme Building and the Pereira & Luckman LAX master plan also fall into a category of late modernism — a period after the famous designs by Silver Lake–based Austrian architect Richard Neutra and the Eames Office — that begins at midcentury and stretched into the 1970s, when it quietly died.

“In many ways the midcentury modern–era buildings and places from the 1950s to the 1970s best tell the story of Los Angeles during its greatest period of growth and prosperity,” explains Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy. The preservation group, founded in 1978 to protect the city’s architectural heritage now finds itself calling attention to later and later designs, including two that are at the center of redevelopment fights, Becket’s 1955 Police Facilities Building, later renamed Parker Center; and Pereira Associates’ original suite of structures for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“At a time when the city was essentially coming into its own, each one imparts an important aspect of how Los Angeles was rapidly growing, from one of the most modern and advanced police headquarters in the nation to the city’s first real cultural arts museum,” Fine says.

Part of Pereira’s legacy is in danger of going extinct, too — his original buildings for the L.A. County Museum of Art soon will be demolished, while others face an uncertain future, such as his brown behemoth addition to the L.A. Times offices and Echo Park’s grand but now derelict hilltop Metropolitan Water District building. Welton Becket & Associates, best known for the Capitol Records building, has an edifice on the chopping block, too: the LAPD’s former downtown headquarters, Parker Center, a minimalist cube straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

All across Los Angeles, buildings by the city’s most important firms face preservation threats. Rejected and outmoded, can late modernism find love?

Beauty and the brutalist

Recently, there’s been renewed interest (both good and bad) in late-modern architects and designs. In December, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) posthumously awarded Paul Revere Williams the 2017 AIA Gold Medal, the organization’s highest honor. Williams, who died in 1980, is the first African-American architect to receive the award. His built works include the LAX Theme Building and residences for Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. But why did it take 37 years for Williams’ late-modern designs to be recognized?

Susan Macdonald, project director of the Getty Conservation Institute’s (GCI) Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative, says answering that question is tricky and subject to cycles of public taste. There’s a time lapse between an architectural fall from grace and renewed recognition. “Typically, people start to see places as heritage some 30 to 40 years after their construction,” she says. “First are the aficionados and professionals such as architects, historians and preservation organizations.”

Part of the problem is that it can be difficult for the public to recognize a building as historic. There’s little debate that the wondrous Sheats-Goldstein Residence, designed in the early 1960s by architect John Lautner, is worthy of landmark status. Not only is the home architecturally unique with its templelike concrete walls, sharp edges and pointed roof — famously featured as pornographer Jackie Treehorn’s home in The Big Lebowski — but last year the property’s rakish owner, James Goldstein, donated it to LACMA to ensure its long-term preservation. And no one can deny the importance of GCI’s most recent conservations of the Eames House — where Charles and Ray Eames put their minimalist philosophies to work — and the beautifully brutalist Salk Institute as significant contributions to modern heritage. But what about an office tower or civic edifice that lacks the same sex appeal?

Painter Danny Heller would argue that those less sexy structures are just as inspiring. Heller grew up in the San Fernando Valley surrounded by the generic sprawl of the postwar boom. His meticulously detailed oil paintings celebrate midcentury architecture — both the icons and the everyday stuff. “Painting helped me describe the beauty of modernism by teaching me how to really observe,” he says. “I always hope that in some small way, my artwork can expose [the era] more to the masses.”

Heller is particularly fascinated by the landmarked Los Angeles Department of Water & Power headquarters in downtown L.A. — the John Ferraro Building — by A.C. Martin & Associates. Perfectly rendered reflecting pools and louvered façades show up in several of Heller’s works. He emphasizes the drama and the beauty of the stark structure. “I think folks who find modernism ugly just don’t understand it — they see it as plain, simple, uninspired,” he says. “If people learned more about it and saw these buildings at the time of their conception, they would realize how revolutionary they were and are.”

Pereira in peril

So, was architect William L. Pereira really a revolutionary? Yes and no. The man who designed the master plan for Irvine Ranch in Orange County and the iconic Transamerica tower in San Francisco — and was featured on the cover of Timemagazine in 1963 — was equal parts visionary and insider.

Born and trained in Chicago, Pereira was lured West by Hollywood to work as an art designer and architect for Paramount Pictures. In the late 1940s, he established the firm Pereira & Luckman with classmate Charles Luckman. The office, which is said to have had upward of 400 employees, designed such classics as the Theme Building and CBS Television City, in the Fairfax District. Later, Pereira spun off to form his own successful firm, which he ran until his death, in 1985.

A quote from Pereira in his L.A. Times obituary captures the architect’s essence: “To design plans to satisfy the future.” His work addressed a time beyond his own. Despite that ambition, many of his structures are either lost to the dustbin of history or threatened.

Stirring up controversy from the start, Pereira’s design for LACMA first welcomed the public in 1965. Ed Ruscha’s oil painting The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-68) perhaps best represents the architect’s original vision of a museum in a park (minus the flames): three pavilions arranged in a U and connected by outdoor plazas. The whole ensemble seemed to float in a large lagoon. The pools were always a problem — tar leaked into them and inflammable gas would bubble to the surface. By the ’70s, they’d been drained.

Over the past five decades, critics of LACMA’s design have routinely reiterated that the choice of Pereira as architect was a compromise. LACMA’s board of directors had stalemated between Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, the famous German-born architect then based in Chicago, and the New York–based Edward Durell Stone, who was known for a more playful, decorative approach to modern architecture than his austere competitor.

With controversial plans on the horizon for a $600 million new museum campus by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, which would replace the Pereira buildings as well as the clunky 1986 addition along Wilshire by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, LACMA director Michael Govan has been asked repeatedly to defend his decision to raze the older structures. He mentions a laundry list of issues, ranging from narrow galleries and leaky pools to the $300 million that would be needed to bring the old structures up to earthquake code. “The cutest one I heard about was that women would get wet walking up the stairs,” he recalls. “The fountains were placed too close to the stairs. So, when the wind blew they’d be baptized by their visit.”

Govan argues that the original galleries have long outlived their usefulness, and the loss of the pools represents the loss of the primary design device. “If the Pereira buildings were still intact, we could try to do something,” he concedes, and suggests a better option for preservation is across the street: the 32-story high-rise at 5900 Wilshire, designed for Mutual Benefit Life by Gin Wong of Pereira’s office. Like the original LACMA, the 1971 tower sits back from the street, surrounded by open plazas and landscaping. Owned by the Ratkovich Company since 2005, the building’s interior has undergone renovations; a few years ago, the developer announced a new entry pavilion by contemporary designer Greg Lynn, who is best known for his use of digital software to create sci-fi architecture. Although those plans seem to have stalled since 2010, it’s likely that infill and additional redevelopment will continue.

How a piece of architecture changes over time — through additions or renovations — is critical to its long-term salvation. Sensitive adaptation for new uses can be a passive preservation technique, while heavy-handed retrofits, often done in the name of current taste or revised function, can doom a building. “If a building is an important architectural and/or cultural landmark, and if enough of it remains that it can be brought back to physical presence either in part or in totality, then, yes, a historic modern building should be saved,” says architect Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain, the firm that acquired Pereira’s office in 1987 and carries on the legacy. “Repurposing occupancy is usually the more difficult task and, in many ways, the most important one. We don’t need our cities to become shuttered museums of times past.”

Such is the problem with the once-spectacular Metropolitan Water District headquarters on Sunset Boulevard near Echo Park. Constructed between 1961 and 1963 by Pereira’s office, the three-building campus has seen significant alterations to its structures and landscape, including the removal of the entry pavilion and the addition of a high-rise in 1971. Period photos show elaborate water features and ponds on the site, making the whole complex a tribute to its client. But when Holy Hill Community Church took over the space and erected a new sanctuary building in the late 1990s, the original pools were removed. Now, owner Palisades Capital Partners proposes demolishing the complex (minus the recently renovated condo tower) in order to build a mixed-use residential project. Preservation proponents were hoping that the project would receive a landmark designation, but the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission denied that status this past fall. Too much damage had been done.

“The challenge with some of these buildings is they’ve suffered from deferred maintenance or inappropriate additions,” says Ken Bernstein, manager and city planner in L.A.’s Office of Historic Resources. “The complex was too compromised due to renovations and add-ons in the 1990s to be designated a Historic-Cultural Monument.”

For architect-historian Alan Hess, however, the project is distinct in its architectural style and celebration of water, and therefore worth preserving. “[It’s] one of the very best examples of Pereira’s expression of a new modernism for a new city — it’s not Bauhaus, not International Style.”

A prolific author, Hess is at work on his latest book, written with architect Pierluigi Serraino, an expansive survey of California modern architecture covering the state from the turn of the century to the mid-1970s. This broad view gave Hess the perspective to reflect on how Pereira’s office, as well as other large corporate practices headed by architects such as Becket, Luckman and Victor Gruen, shaped Los Angeles. Consider some of the classics: the Music Center, the Forum in Inglewood, CBS Television City. “Pereira was inventing new building types, as well as giving them architectural expression,” Hess says. “CBS was designed in 1950 for television, a brand-new industry. It’s still in use today, almost 70 years later.”

But if CBS still wins Angelenos’ hearts with its streamlined, black-and-white façades, Pereira’s later work draws jeers. “People are saying it’s ugly, it’s garbage, it’s a bunker,” Hess says of the 1973 structure the firm designed for the Los Angeles Times. Times Mirror Square, the name for the six-story addition to the paper’s art deco headquarters designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann, is a hunkering brown structure that fills its block at Broadway and First Street downtown. Once home to the Times-Mirror corporate offices, it now sits empty and is the subject of redevelopment plans by the Vancouver-based Onni Group, which would raze the building while preserving the property’s older edifices.

Hess asks haters to consider the building’s history, not just its abstract geometries and dark palette. In its time, it was a major commission from one of the most powerful clients in California, located across the street from City Hall. The design, although rendered in glass and stone, not concrete, bears a resemblance to brutalism, an imposing postwar style, from the period that often draws the public’s ire. The vintage interiors now are used as film locations. Maybe those shoots represent the beginning of changing public taste.

The boom of movies and TV shows set in the late ’60s and ’70s — from Inherent Viceto Good Girls Revolt — indicates this period has returned to fashion. Indeed, recent proposals for new megastructures in the Arts District by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and Copenhagen- and New York–based Bjarke Ingels Group both feature hefty, exposed-concrete construction and boxy forms that owe a debt as much to the area’s industrial past as to current brutalist trends in architectural circles.

Times Mirror Square is not the only piece of modernism threatened downtown. Just a couple of blocks away, Parker Center is at the heart of a redevelopment plan. Welton Becket & Associates built the LAPD’s former headquarters in 1955, and the eight-story, midcentury-modern building features strongly in Los Angeles’ cultural and political consciousness, from its role in Dragnet to its location as the site of protests after the Rodney King verdict. In November, the Cultural Heritage Commission nominated Parker Center as a Historic-Cultural Monument; the City Council has yet to vote on its landmark status. Meanwhile, the City Council recently cleared the way for a proposed 28-story office building to replace Parker Center.

Parker Center is also the subject of several of Heller’s paintings. His brushstrokes capture the blunt elegance of the building, as well as the trio of palms out front. He says the structure has a special place in his heart, and he’s been working with the Los Angeles Conservancy to help save it. “There’s a long, turbulent history there, but I think it’s important to preserve some of these buildings that might remind us of both the good — and bad — times.”

The L.A. Conservancy’s Fine says his organization recognizes that ours is a city of constant evolution, so architecture of one generation may not always serve the purposes of the next. But new development and preservation are not mutually exclusive. “Many of these midcentury buildings and landmarks are located on highly visible and valuable sites, posing an additional threat and challenge, as some see them as being in the way and ripe for redevelopment and perhaps greater density,” he cautions. “There are ‘win-win’ opportunities to integrate new development with the preservation and reuse of modern buildings.” He notes a couple of successful examples, such as the integration of Welton Becket’s Cinerama Dome into the Hollywood ArcLight complex and the preservation of Minoru Yamasaki’s crescent-shaped Century Plaza Hotel in Century City on the same site as a pair of new high-rises.

Sometimes preservation efforts for architectural underdogs succeed, too. This winter, the LA2050 organization awarded a self-proclaimed “coalition of artists, urban planners, civic leaders and L.A. enthusiasts” a $100,000 grant for the restoration of the Triforium, a six-story, 60-ton public artwork by Joseph Young, which stands in Fletcher Bowron Square at the north end of downtown’s Los Angeles Mall. Young’s “polyphonoptic” kinetic sculpture features 1,494 multicolored Murano glass cubes that were designed to light up in synchrony to music from a 79-note glass bell carillon. The tech-minded artwork, however, was ahead of its time — the lighting effects were glitchy and its computer eventually failed. With the grant, the group hopes to install a new control system and bring the Triforium back to life.

“Many Angelenos drive by these places and may take them for granted but often do not know why they look the way they do, who commissioned them, what happened there or why they matter,” Fine says. Los Angeles’ preservationists stress that the public’s curiosity and interest are the first steps in making sure some of the seemingly unloved pieces of the city’s late-modern history are saved from the wrecking ball.