A Brief Introduction to Modernism in Los Angeles

By David J. Barboza

The LAX Theme Building, LA Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM) #570; Pereira Luckman & Associates, Welton Becket & Associates, and Paul R. Williams, 1961. Photo: Office of Historic Resources.

You know the old saying “a picture is worth 1,000 words.” Well, when it comes to defining architectural styles, that may be an understatement. How lucky then that the National Trust for Historic Preservation came out with a booklet called Los Angeles Modern: City of Tomorrow and made it available free online! Not only is it concise and well illustrated, it’s based on local examples.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but “modern” buildings can definitely be considered historically significant. Modernism is an important element of SurveyLA’s historic context statement, the document that guides the organization of historic resources data for the project. In fact, there are presently four Modernism-related themes in the Historic Context Statement (with sub-themes below each): “Prewar Modernism” “Related Responses to Modernsim,” ”Postwar Modernism,” and “Late Modernism.” Over at MyHistoricLA.org the “Post WWII Suburbia” and “Los Angeles History Favorites” categories are two places you could suggest modernism-related finds to SurveyLA. Let’s delve into Los Angeles Modern a bit to get a sense of the influence of Modernism on Los Angeles architecture.

Commercial Modern architecture in Los Angeles reflects the tendency of Modernism towards simplified forms and the structure itself as “ornament,” as opposed to something to be adorned. Well known examples include the Cinerama Dome (HCM #659), the Capitol Records Tower (HCM #857), and the Mark Taper Forum.

Hollywood's Cinerama Dome (HCM #659) was designed to showcase the ultra-widescreen Cinerama filming process. Welton Becket & Associates, 1963. Photo: Office of Historic Resources.

The Capitol Records Tower (HCM #857) bears the name of the firm that has signed artists from Snoop Dogg to Katy Perry to Ringo Starr and formerly released records for the likes of Nat King Cole, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles (among many others). Photo: Office of Historic Resources.

Interestingly, Downtown's Mark Taper Forum has no historic designations. Looks like a good candidate for MyHistoricLA.org!. Photo by the author/Office of Historic Resources.

On the residential front, modernism was often characterized by the use of innovative building materials like fiberglass and plastics, as well as minimization of interior walls and integration of indoor and outdoor spaces. After World War II, the baby boom, exploding levels of car ownership and available land in places like the San Fernando Valley caused a massive wave of suburbanization (see the photo of the Living Conditioned Home on p. 12 of Los Angeles Modern). Modern ideas were critical to the development of the vernacular ranch house in this period, and hence to the project of suburbanization itself. Low-rise vernacular apartment buildings in the modernist vein (sometimes called “dingbats”) often featured exotic names, starburst ornaments, tuck-under parking and swimming pools (see the photos of vernacular apartment buildings on p. 12 of Los Angeles Modern). Although not always shown a lot of love by critics, they are a part of modernism and our architectural heritage.

Of course there’s much more to Modernism than this, but hopefully it’s whetted your appetite to learn more (e.g. by reading Los Angeles Modern). SurveyLA is on the hunt for historically significant places from a variety of styles including those that fall under the umbrella of Modernism. So if you have some ideas, we’d be glad to hear about them!

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