Atlantic Cities

L.A's Sprawling Modernism, and the Places That Came Before

The prodigious expanse of the valley is painted in rich, dark colors, cut up at regular intervals by the bright orbs of yellow light organized into loose patterns of freeway networks. "For so many of us, this is our one image of L.A.—this vast landscape," says Martin Moeller, senior vice president and curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.


Peter Alexander. "PA and PE." 1990

It's a fitting introduction to an exhibit about the built environment of Los Angeles, particularly one focusing on those frenetic post-WWII boom years. The painting in question, by L.A.-based artist Peter Alexander, hangs in the front entrance of "Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990," an exhibition on modern architecture in Los Angeles that opened this week. The show, which also ran at the J. Paul Getty Museum in L.A. for several months this spring and summer, is a collaboration between that institution and the Getty Research Institute, and will continue its run in D.C. through March.

The show itself covers the long period during which L.A., with the help of the media and aerospace industries and the general boom of Sunbelt America, grew from the fifth to the second most populous city in the country. Two small photographs that sit on the wall across from the Alexander painting underscore this point. They are two aerial views looking north across Wilshire Boulevard, separated by the twenty years between 1935 and 1955. In the earlier image, the street grid cuts through open fields. Two decades later, the recognizable development of Central L.A. has totally filled in these once-empty plots.

The story of L.A.'s hyper expansion is by now a familiar one. With more than a dozen miles sitting between downtown and the beach, Moeller explains, for the city’s budding school of developers, planners and modern architects, at the beginning of this period "it looked like they had as much space as they wanted." But within this narrative of expansion and experimentation there is an embedded history of how a feverish pace of building changed the face of a city that was actually far from empty.

Take the story of Bunker Hill, a downtown neighborhood once made up of rows of Victorian homes. Even in the early 1940s, the neighborhood looked more like Providence or parts of San Francisco than what we think of as Los Angeles today. But by the 1950s, the area had become victim to L.A.’s sprawl, its population declining in terms of both numbers and wealth. Bunker Hill’s historic Victorians were carted away, the hill was leveled, and eager downtown developers swooped in. In the intervening decades, some of the most iconic landmarks of Los Angeles sprung up on the same land, including Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall—which the exhibit features in an entire corner of drawings and models just a few rooms further on.

As L.A.-based architect Barton Myers explains in the video below, "Bunker Hill was one of the largest urban lobotomies in the history of urban renewal."

Even in less striking cases, the story of modern Los Angeles has no shortage of change-focused narratives. Artist Ed Ruscha's continuous photographs comparing the stores and buildings along Hollywood Boulevard in 1973 and 2002, are often subtle: trees grow (as do the size of the cars); billboards are dismantled.

As the curators explain, the show's title refers to both "the extraordinary pace and global impact of L.A.'s impressive trajectory" and "the fact that an engine churning at top speed may overheat." Notably, the exhibit stops two years short of the most cataclysmic event in the city's modern history: the 1992 Los Angeles Riots following the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers.

 

 

The focus on this first part—"L.A.'s impressive trajectory"—gives visitors a sense of how the sprawling landscape of light that Peter Alexander captures came to be. The final room of the exhibit showcases the "visionary architecture" of L.A.'s residential buildings. In this last section, visitors are left with one of the most famous images of modern L.A. architecture: Julius Shulman's photograph looking through and out over the Stahl House in the Hollywood Hills. Two women sit encased in the glass room, perched out over Alexander's same grid of streetlamps. It's an image nearly as quintessentially L.A. as the Hollywood sign. But this vision of modern architecture overlooking a city's expansive sprawl is far from simple. As Moeller explains, “Stories in Los Angeles are often more complicated than they seem.”

Right: Julius Shulman, Case Study House #2, J. Paul Getty Trust

Stephanie Garlock is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

Join the Discussion