Archive for the ‘architecture’ category

City of Dreadful Joy: Random Ponderings on the Paradoxical Mechanics of a City in Search of Self.

Confession: I love Los Angeles. It’s not my favorite city in the world– that crown rests in the heart of my old home across the Pond– but I’ve pretty much reconciled to the fact that I do love Los Angeles.

Problem is, I hate L.A.

Yes. There is a difference.

For me, Los Angeles is the tangible city:  its sun kissed sloping hillsides and stretching curves of blue coast; its whimsical architecture that blends neoclassicism, deco and Moorish sensibilities with carefree abandon; the farm town framework disguised under a bustling metropolis; those knockabout formative years with the industry that would one day come to consume it ….  I love all of it.

However, a key factor in the definition of a city’s character is the people who live in it. They are the ones who choose what to make of the tangible city, and what not to make of it. And modern Los Angeles has amassed a considerable part of its population that does not seem to be remotely interested in that tangible city– but rather, the image it projects.

A problem, because a city cannot be truly great unless its organic self is allowed to become a part of the flesh of the people who live there. Perhaps this great distinction is what leads many a visitor to Los Angeles to label it  ‘fake’ – the absence of the organic city as an inherit part of its people is perhaps both obvious and inexpressible and therefore described as, simply, a “feeling” one gets.

Real Los Angeles – Angel’s Fligh

Fake L.A. -  Plastic Fame

Perhaps, however, this is something that has more to do with Father Time than anything else. Los Angeles is, after all, just a toddler. (History Alert: restless readers are hereby forewarned and apologies sincerely offered for any gross factual inaccuracies… the title of this post, after all, is random ponderings…) Sure, Los Angeles has Spanish roots that reach as far back as the 16th Century, but it has only been an incorporated city since 1850. At 160 years old, Los Angeles therefore trails her East Coast counterparts in both experience and maturity by some two hundred years—and by her European counterparts, upwards of a millennium. By way of perspective: when her shores were first spied by Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo in 1542 (which he rightly dubbed Baya de los Fumos– that smoke-like morning fog still a natural fixture) , his Spanish home had long been a formidable world presence, and was soon to battle her mortal enemy, the powerful, proud England, in the naval battle of the millennium.

The wilds of Baya de los Fumos was not to be officially recognized as a civilized township for some 300 years.

And even then, from the very beginning, Los Angeles was a North American curiosity. It should not have been a metropolis, this arid chaparral. And yet, America had fought for it. The  Mexican American War claimed California as its own, and with it the progressive reality of transcontinental railroads, the unsavory-but-necessary enterprise of irrigation, and the delicious reward of Oil.

Even so, this outpost of American civilization quite literally had to will itself into being– its purpose and place in the American tapestry very carefully curated by its boosters and backers. Well into the early 20th century, this city without a solid identity was being furiously fought for. The Los Angeles Times power players and the wealthy Maritime institutions fancied it a WASP wet-dream  … a delusion not to materialize (at least, not permanently) thanks to a vibrant, unstoppable ethnic population and a sleepy little farm town hamlet to the west called Hollywood. This pepper tree-lined enclave suddenly became the center of Los Angeles’ foremost export:

Motion Pictures.

Hollywood pre-1920 was a small-town USA community steeped in strict Conservative morals. Winding dirt roads and General Stores and church picnics with sweet lemonade and knitting bees. On the other side of the spectrum was the motion picture industry which had been birthed a million miles away, in the bowels of New York City and New Jersey, by immigrants– many of them Jewish. Los Angeles fought its newly forced upon identity as the entertainment center of the world, and even into the Sound-era, only Conservatives such as Cecil B DeMille were admitted into the city’s established circles.

The rest created their own.

It was from these Garden of Allah dens of devilish delight that the incoming thronging masses from the world over– Iowa to Istanbul– fabricated their own realities in a city of conflicted identity. The respectable Theodosia Goodman from Ohio became the vampiric Theda Bara and circus performer Archie Leach from Bristol became the debonair Cary Grant.

The city’s reputation was now beginning to precede it. Los Angeles was not the sleepy Spanish hamlet of Jacaranda and Pepper Trees; the wide-eyed Chicago of the Pacific with its Downtown sky-climbers; not even the Riviera of the West with its dramatic coastline so very similar to Cannes and Monte Carlo. Los Angeles was now synonymous with one word: showbiz. And Hollywood was its fated patron saint.

There is to this day, a very tangible dichotomy.  Those who emigrate here desperately, searching for the smoke-and-mirrors dream of a selective reality, and those who simply live here

Novelists from Raymond Chandler to F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway belabored their frustrated romanticism of it.  Aldous Huxley’s observations were rather more acidic. He wrote of it in 1926: “Thought is barred in this City of Dreadful Joy, and conversation is unknown.” And, of course, there’s Woody Allen famous summation of the City: “I cannot live in a city where the only cultural advantage is making a right turn on a red light.”

Funny as hell. And true too– if you’re judging on appearances.

The dichotomy here is tangible and one can find truth absolutely in both sides. Those who emigrate here desperately, searching for the smoke-and-mirrors dream of a selective reality, conduct a conspicuous manner of ‘living the life plast-astic’ so loud that onlookers can’t help but assume ‘that’s all there is’.

But… it’s not.

You just gotta do a bit of digging.  The real Los Angeles belongs to boarded up crumbling black alleys, old Spanish estates, the foothill wilds and reaching Deco spires. Its a past that time has yet to blacken over completely. It’s still there, living and breathing and waiting to be discovered…

All you gotta do is know where to look.

Through the tireless, passionate efforts of nonprofits like The Los Angeles Conservancy, The Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, and their fight to protect and preserve, there is a bright hope that this tangible city will indeed remain just that.

Westwood Village in 1941 (via the Neat Stuff Blog)

The Bendix Sign today, Downtown LA. Copyright James Herman

Pershing Square, Downtown Los Angeles in 1965

The Vine Manor Hotel, at Vine and Yucca St. 1953

Sunbathers at The Hollywood Roosevelt, 1956 (via ElectroSpark)

Downtown’s beautiful Eastern Building, today. Copyright A.C. Thamer

La Cienea Blvd at sunset during the 1950s

Towards the Pantages at Hollywood and Vine, 1962

Musso & Frank’s Restuarant today, with its legendary bartender, Manny. Copyright Arturo Sotillo.

View of Hollywood Blvd and Hills from the Roosevelt, 1956 (via ElectroSpark)

Mary Pickford’s "Wilshire Links"

Los Angeles in 7 Days is a firsthand account of Los Angeles as it was in 1932. Long out of print, the book is an delightful resource in reconstructing the geography of Depression-era L.A.  Written by Lanier Bartlett and his wife Virginia Stivers Bartlett at the behest of a local publisher, the book details (what I presume to be a completely fictional) visit of a pair of out-of-towners and their induction to Los Angeles by the Bartletts.

I will be posting some of the more intriguing highlights here on the Pictorial, starting with this little blurb about a miniature golf course that used to occupy the corner of Wilshire Blvd. and La Cienega:

After passing the handsome Fox Wilshire Theater, Mrs. Guia again brought a gasp from Miss Jones by announcing: “Mary Pickford’s Wilshire Links.”

“You mean—this place is run by Mary Pickford?”

“Well, it belongs to her. Isn’t it crazy looking, with all those grotesque artificial trees and toadstools and gigantic colored umbrellas—everything twisted and tortured into futuristic hobgoblinism? Is it popular? I should say so! That is, as miniature golf goes nowadays.”

Doug and Mary tee off at the dedication of Wilshire Links

Wilshire Links

The '60s Turn 50 Photo Contest

The LA Conservancy is celebrating Los Angeles’ wealth of 1960s architecture with a fun photography contest.  Enter as a professional, amateur or student for a chance to win a free 1-year membership to the Conservancy. Details are on the Conservancy website:

(500) Days of Summer Walking Tour

Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Zooey Deschanel

Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Zooey Deschanel

OK all you Los Angelinos, mark your calendars: this Sunday, August 30, the Los Angeles Conservancy is holding a (500) Days of Summer architectural tour.

If you’ve had the chance to see this excellent indie rom-com, you’ll no doubt remember that the biggest scene-stealer in the film was the city of Angels herself. It is a singularly unique ‘LA movie’ in that it is in no way affiliated with anything Hollywood or Westside, but rather it revels in the neglected beauties of Broadway and Hill and Hope and Fig.

If you’re interested in seeing these gorgeous pieces of architecture first hand and are looking for something free to do, join the Conservancy on Sunday at 3:00pm for what will surely be a fascinating walking tour.

Here’s the lowdown from the Conservancy’s Flavorpill page:

Do you love the hit movie and want to know more about the locations where it was filmed? If so, join two film experts on Sunday, August 30 from 3 – 6 p.m. for a tour of some of the sites. Harry Medved, author of the SoCal movie location guidebook Hollywood Escapes, and Marty Cummins, a key assistant location manager for the film, will host and lead the tour. The tour starts at  Old Bank DVD, 400 S. Main St.

There’s no charge, although donations are welcome. Harry will be selling copies of Hollywood Escapes before and after the tour, with proceeds going directly to the Conservancy.

Pledge Your Support to Save the Century Plaza Hotel!

The infinitely noble Los Angeles Conservancy has just issued this important alert for all interested in preserving the architectural heritage of Los Angeles:


The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Century Plaza Hotel to its list of  America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places on Tuesday, April 28. Now’s the time to take action to save this mid-century modern landmark from the wrecking ball. Take a pledge and support preserving it today! Take the Pledge

On the Conservancy’s website you can learn interesting facts, read recent articles, and view TV broadcast pieces on the hotel. Go to the LAC Site

On the National Trust’s website you can learn more about the Century Plaza, share your stories, and view a historic timeline. Go to the 11 Most Site

If you’re on Facebook, join our fan discussion about the Century Plaza’s significance. If you aren’t a fan, become one now to get updated information on this issue. Go to Facebook.

About the Century Plaza:

Completed in 1966 by architect Minoru Yamasaki, the Century Plaza Hotel is a highly significant example of mid-century modern architecture and an important part of Los Angeles history. The hotel has played host to U.S. presidents, most notably Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, whose frequent stays at the hotel earned it the nickname “The West Coast White House.” Richard Nixon held the first Presidential State Dinner outside of the White House at the Century Plaza in 1969 to welcome the Apollo 11 astronauts back to earth after the first manned moon landing. Countless entertainment, charity, and political events have been held at the Century Plaza over the years, not to mention numerous weddings and other family celebrations.

Minoru Yamasaki designed the hotel with its unique arc that conveys the optimism of the 1960s and of Los Angeles at that time. Yamasaki also designed the World Trade Center twin towers, the twin Century City Towers, and many other buildings across the country and the world. As one of only about a dozen architects ever featured on the cover of TIME Magazine, Yamasaki was a highly influential architect, and the Century Plaza Hotel is one of his greatest works.