By MORRIS NEWMAN
The contrasting fate of two buildings designed by Frank O. Gehry, the celebrated Santa Monica-based architect, symbolize the state of architecture in Los Angeles for most of the ’90s.
The first is the renowned Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a building that has been met with a near-rapturous critical reception. Images of its pointed, metal-covered towers have been published all over the world.
The second is the Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A., a project that also has received critical kudos, but remains unbuilt as organizers finish raising private funds for its construction.
For most of this decade, Los Angeles-area architects were finding themselves in much the same situation as Gehry. There was great demand for their work almost everywhere except Los Angeles.
The recession, constraints on development, the increasing conservatism of popular taste all conspired to keep architects cooling their heels.
But now that’s changing, and changing fast. The robust return of the real estate market has brought with it a renewed demand both for new construction and renovation of existing buildings.
Perhaps more importantly, L.A. has entered a new era of public-oriented construction starting with the opening of the Getty Center last year.
More is on the way. The Staples Center sports arena downtown is already under construction, and the seat of the largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in the country, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, is scheduled to open downtown in 2000.
Disney Concert Hall, which came close to being written off, is now expected to open its doors in 2002.
Other big projects are on the drawing board, including proposed terminals for Los Angeles International and Burbank airports and a possible new football stadium.
“The architectural market has come back with a vengeance,” said Herb Nadel, president and chief executive of Nadel Architects Inc. in West Los Angeles. The market, he added, “is as strong now as it was in the mid-’80s.”
In 1992, near the beginning of the recession, architectural and structural engineering firms in Los Angeles County employed 6,200 people, according to County Business Patterns, a publication of the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1995, employment in the same category fell to 5,200 people.
Since 1996, however, employment has been growing in the category, and should soon top 6,000 jobs, according to Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County.
Architecture is a small industry, to judge by its earning power. Architectural and structural engineering businesses in the county generated $634 million in 1992, the most recent year for which census figures available (1997 figures have been collected but are not yet published).
But the influence of L.A.’s architectural community goes far beyond revenue. Design, in fact, is arguably one of the most influential of L.A.’s exports.
During the lean years of recession, when construction cranes were a dim memory, Los Angeles-based firms like DMJM/Keating, Johnson Fain Partners, and Martin Partners (formerly A.C. Martin and Associates), as well as the L.A. office of Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc., San Francisco-based Gensler, and Omaha-based Helmuth Obata Kassabaum Inc., were designing billions of dollars worth of projects overseas, including resorts in Guam, office buildings in China, hotels in Saudi Arabia, sports stadiums in Japan and shopping centers in Indonesia.
Additionally, building types that originated here, such as the entertainment-retail complexes pioneered by Los Angeles-based Jerde Partnership Inc., could be described as a “cultural export” of L.A. architecture, according to Michael Hricak, principal of Rockefeller Hricak Architects of Los Angeles.
Now the changing tides of the world economy seem to be bringing L.A.’s architects back home. “There is an irony in this, in that a lot of the overseas work has dried up and now it is the local development business that is red hot,” said Kyser.
The resurgence of work on the drawing boards and computer terminals of local architectural firms underscores the role of Los Angeles as an architectural center.
But how did Los Angeles become such a center in the first place?
“Patronage” is an obvious reason, according to architect Julie Eizenberg, who is co-principal of Santa Monica-based Koning Eizenberg. Los Angeles, she explained, was a rapidly growing city with room to build, and contained an affluent, sophisticated population that wanted architecture and could afford it.
Additionally, L.A.’s history of innovative architecture has attracted a “critical mass” of architects and designers who, in turn, “attract more critical mass,” Eizenberg said. Just as Silicon Valley tends to attract more and more computer-related firms, L.A. tends to attract more and more architects, she said.
Schools of architecture, which employ good architects as teachers and serve as hatcheries for new designers, have been crucial in maintaining L.A. as a design capital. Los Angeles has five accredited architectural schools, which is unusually high for any city: UCLA School of Art and Architecture, USC School of Architecture, Southern California Institute of Architecture, Cal Poly Pomona and Woodbury University.
Those factors alone do not explain the uniqueness of L.A. design. In Eizenberg’s view, Los Angeles has “a culture of independence” that has encouraged non-traditional architecture.
L.A. has tended to attract people who wish to “reinvent” themselves, and living in unconventional houses has been a time-honored way of expressing one’s freedom from East Coast traditionalism.
The aspect of L.A. culture that rewards risk-taking and experimentation has made the area fertile ground for experimental building, according to Hricak.
“The avant garde calls Los Angeles home,” he said.
That tradition goes back at least as far as the 1920s, when Frank Lloyd Wright built his so-called “textile block” houses in the Hollywood hills. Several followers of Wright, including Austrian-born Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler and the American John Lautner, furthered the reputation of Los Angeles from the 1930s onward as a place where bold and uncompromising building was taking place.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the architectural magazine Arts and Architecture commissioned a set of then-futuristic houses to show that quality homes could be built at affordable prices using low-cost materials and commercial construction techniques.
They included the now-famous Eames House in Pacific Palisades, designed and built in 1949 by Charles and Ray Eames and described as the first “high-tech house” for its use of industrial materials, as well as the Stahl Residence in Los Angeles, designed by Pierre Koenig and built in 1959-60, a radically simple design of steel and glass cantilevered over a steep hillside.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the architectural avant garde emphasized the sculptural aspect of design. Gehry is the avatar of the group, which some call “the Santa Monica School” because of Gehry’s association with that city. Adherents include Morphosis of Santa Monica, Eric Owen Moss of Culver City, Frederick Fisher of West Los Angeles and Koning Eizenberg.
The innovation shown by L.A.’s home architects has not been matched by commercial architecture, which looks very much like the buildings in any other American city, except for roadside wonders (now fast vanishing) like the giant hat of the Brown Derby restaurant in Mid-Wilshire or inspired novelties like the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
Exceptions to the hum-drum include the Center West building in Westwood, by Romaldo Giurgola; the 1999 Avenue of the Stars in Century City, by Johnson Fain Partners; the Gas Co. Tower in downtown L.A., by Skidmore Owings Merrill, with Richard Keating; 777 Tower, also downtown, by Cesar Pelli; the Chiat/Day headquarters in Venice, by Gehry; and the ongoing series of renovated warehouses in the Hayden Tract in Culver City, by Moss.
With the current resurgence of new construction, L.A. might once again become the locale of innovative projects. Eisenberg, however, is concerned that current conditions make it hard to construct non-traditional buildings.
“In any big project, from Playa Vista to Farmer’s Market, there is a sense that what was there (originally) is better than what we will build there, irrespective of the truth,” she said. “There is a fear of change.”
Consulting with local community groups has now become a routine part of designing major projects, but Eizenberg said she fears that may have a “leveling” effect.
“The whole community process is a means to make more adventurous design more difficult,” she said.
Also, there has been a tendency by developers, whether out of snobbery or insecurity, to opt for well-known East Coast architects for important projects, rather than local talent.
The choice of Richard Meier, a New York-based architect, to design the $1.3 billion Getty Center is the most obvious example. Others include the decision to hire New Yorker Edward Larrabee Barnes to design the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood, and Spanish architect Rafael Moneo to work on the new Cathedral of Los Angeles.
Even so, Los Angeles remains an exciting place for young architects who can undertake projects small enough to pass beneath the radar of community protest, according to Eizenberg.
“It’s a great scene,” she said. “You have this culture of design. It’s still possible to buy the plywood (a favorite material of avant-garde architects) and do the experiment. For the new people, I think it’s great.”