Nexus

L.A. Only Looks Ugly

Sure, We’ve Got Lousy Public Architecture. But There’s Much More To Appreciate.

L.A. River

Los Angeles is a city of architects but not a city of architecture—not public architecture, anyway. For more than 100 years, its residential designs have been some of the best in the world, and yet, in that long span, most of its public buildings have been resoundingly mediocre.

On the list of path-breaking private houses is everything from Irving Gill’s Dodge House of 1916 to Tadao Ando’s Malibu residence, still under construction. Yet the list of path-breaking public structures is pitifully short, especially for a city that has been a mecca for architectural talent. Once you’ve named the Bradbury Building, City Hall, Bullock’s Wilshire, the Department of Water and Power headquarters, the American Cement Building, Disney Hall, and the occasional gem like the Coca-Cola bottling plant on South Central Avenue, the roster quickly turns kitsch or plebeian.

The LADWP Headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles—an exception to the city’s rule of mediocre architecture.

Los Angeles has not one thrilling subway station portal and not one inspiring modern skyscraper. And all the billions of dollars spent by the Los Angeles Unified School District in the past decade on innumerable new campuses have produced nothing of any architectural value except a singular spiral folly that ascends from nowhere to nowhere, atop the main auditorium of the Ramon C. Cortines School Of Visual And Performing Arts.

Given this dismal record of public structures, can we even say architecture has mattered to Los Angeles? For all its talents and blessings of natural splendor, L.A. is a model dystopia. Wide swaths of the city are dull, sometimes even bleak. You can go for blocks and blocks without encountering a single, consistent architectural motif, and much of the landscape is encrusted with buildings that are little more than studio props decorated with a thin commercial patina of advertising—buildings as billboards.

All true. But this would be a misreading of Los Angeles and the nature of its architecture.

For starters, Los Angeles is perhaps the world’s first modern and almost purely “infrastructural city.” With no central force driving the city’s design—no Daniel Burnham, no Robert Moses—with an official sanction and scepter to wield, every effort to adopt a citywide plan floundered, leaving Los Angeles to the whims, and tightwad budgets, of developers. So the greatest public monuments in Los Angeles are not buildings at all. They are the enormous public works projects wrought by engineers: William Mulholland’s 1913 aqueduct, a siphon that, without a single pump, drew water from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley; the freeways that crisscross the basin, designed by the state’s highway department; the more than a dozen bridges spanning the Los Angeles River, built between 1909 and 1944, the majority constructed by city engineer Merrill Butler; and the river itself, cemented and rip-rapped by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Without the foreign supply of water, without the easy means to cross the river, without the freeways (creating and abetting sprawl), and without the channelized river (liberating the plains south of downtown from the vicissitudes of a sometimes drunken, mad river), the free-form city would never have emerged. These engineering marvels are at once the framework of the city and among its most beautiful creations.

All this infrastructure—and countless smaller bits and pieces of engineering magic—allowed the city to spill out of the center, willy-nilly, and with alarming briskness, causing the center to decline in importance as rapidly as it emerged. Even by the 1920s, when downtown Los Angeles was booming (and when many of the buildings we are anxiously converting to lofts today were built), the civic center was loosening its grip on the city at large. The expansive fury spawned by all that poured-in-place concrete permitted architecture to become a mutt. There was no slow movement of time that allowed a progression of building types that might have been native reflections of the landscape.

The Day of the Locust author Nathanael West, an Eastern snob with a phony pedigree and an excoriating pen, described the result: “Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles,” which, he peevishly suggested, ought to be dynamited. Mostly, we’ve just remodeled them—or left them to a slow decline.

Within this permissive chaos, a vernacular architecture has emerged. The design has less to do with the original appearance of the buildings than with how they have since been occupied and bent to new purposes. Cruise the boulevards and you’ll see a noisy clash of storefronts vying ceaselessly for attention—in a multiplicity of languages, scripts, fonts, colors, and materials. You’ll see entire buildings decorated in florid hand-painted murals or flooded in the fluorescent whiteness of illuminated plastic signs.

Typically, the facades have all but disappeared. What was once an undulating Zig-zag Moderne market, or a vaguely Rococo Spanish Colonial Revival restaurant, or an ordinary concrete block auto repair, has now metamorphosed into a Laundromat or a pawn shop or a storefront church.

This is architecture as it was once understood in the early New England village and in the original Spanish land grant. It is not a time capsule or shrine. It is an evolving collection of places in which citizens engage one another within a world of their shared making. This kind of architecture is about settling in, adapting, and accommodating a shift from one set of aims and hopes and desires to another.

And this is the architecture that matters in Los Angeles. It comes from the bottom up, not the top down. It springs from a multiplicity of influences, rather than just one. Outwardly, it appears messy, even ugly, especially to outsiders. It is also what gives our city its life and vitality. Without this percolating, mutable, and, yes, frustrating form, Los Angeles would be a city with less visual clutter—and a far duller place.



Greg Goldin is a curator at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum > Los Angeles. He is a regularly contributor to The Architect's Newspaper and from 2000 to 2012 was the architecture critic at Los Angeles magazine.
Primary Editor: Joe Mathews. Secondary Editor: T.A. Frank.
*Lead photo courtesy of calwest. Interior photo: Department of Water and Power Building at Night. Building by A.C. Martin and Associates. Gelatin silver print by Julius Shulman, 1965. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10).
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  • abstract668

    The architecture of Los Angeles reflects the reality of the best climate in the world. Because is it usually 76 degrees and sunny, and we don’t have the humidity of other mild climate cities, we live outside as much as possible, we are typically in good humor, and we enjoy interacting with each other. Our homes reflect this orientation to our neighbors and to the streets. They also reflect our individuality–homes in Los Angeles have charming fences and most neighborhoods have at least one house with a mural, a mosaic, or other example of an artist using his or her home as a canvas. These days I am seeing more vegetables in the front yard, too, as available land is used for more environmentally sustainable landscaping.

    The architecture also must acknowledge the earthquakes and fires that are our bane. Just as cities with rivers have houses with high front staircases and ground floor “basements”, our roofs must be fireproof, and glass must be used with caution, though we don’t need to worry about losing heat or cold through glass walls as they do in, say, Wisconsin. In many parts of Los Angeles, air conditioning is optional if you have good cross-ventilation.

    I believe that architecture is an important way of paying respect to the natural environment in which we live. I don’t think any building should be considered outside of its context in its neighborhood, its geology, and its micro-climate. Los Angeles is full of public, commercial, and residential buildings that acknowledge the joy and privilege of living in this place.

    After all, there is a reason that cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland are shrinking, and we complain about density and traffic here, where on a day in February you can walk to the beach in your flip-flops.

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

    • MIke Sinkov

      I am intrigued by your use of the Unitarian-Universalist chalice symbol because I am very active in a local UU church. Would it be rude to ask who you are?

  • John B
  • Dan C.

    While I agree with the general idea that LA’s civic/urbanculture is more shaped by its infrastructure than by its buildings, and that the influence and quality of its private residential architecture far outshines its public buildings, I disagree with the oft-repeated trope that Los Angeles lacks great public architecture. For an American city that did not come of age in the beaux arts era of architectural triumphalism, we still have an impressive collection of iconic public buildings and venues. Our parks and true public spaces are lacking, but I disagree that “Once you’ve named the Bradbury Building, City Hall, Bullock’s Wilshire, the Department of Water and Power headquarters, the American Cement Building, Disney Hall, and the occasional gem like the Coca-Cola bottling plant on South Central Avenue, the roster quickly turns kitsch or plebeian.” Here are some more for the roster that aren’t kitsch or plebian; and many of them are essential to the LA experience:

    Union Station
    Griffith Observatory
    Central Library
    LAX Theme Building
    Eastern Columbia
    Memorial Coliseum
    Dodger Stadium
    Getty Center
    Capitol Records
    Hollywood Bowl
    Library Tower
    USC/UCLA campuses
    Pasadena City Hall
    LA Times Building
    CalTrans District 7 Headquarters
    Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels
    Wilshire Boulevard Temple
    Angelus Temple
    Oviatt Building
    Fine Arts Building
    Pelissier Building
    Southwest Museum
    Federal Courthouse and Post Office
    Pan Pacific Auditorium

    Also, it’s unfair to dismiss kitsch in this city… some of
    our greatest public buildings are our theaters, many of which are
    simultaneously kitschy and awe-inspiring at the same time:

    Pantages
    Wiltern
    Million Dollar
    United Artists
    Shrine Auditorium
    Los Angeles

    And then you have a few places like these that walk the line
    between kitsch and true innovation, and in my opinion represent the LA spirit
    better than any other public structures:

    Crossroads of the World
    Granada Shoppes and Studios
    Watts Towers

  • Rodolfo Orlando Duriez

    As an Orange County resident, being used to ‘perfect’ neighborhoods packed with neo-Spanish villas, I must say I have a lot of fun going through many of L.A.’s old neighborhoods and delighting in the beauty and diversity of it all. (Though we have some nice older exceptions in OC: Tustin, Orange, Santa Ana – the last of which has many beautiful homes that unfortunately have become decrepit since they can now be found in mostly poor immigrant neighborhoods, where funds for renovation don’t come easily.)

  • DMalcolmCarson

    I don’t really get this “L.A. is ugly” trope. L.A. has more beautiful residential neighborhoods than any other city I’ve ever been in. It’s ringed by majestic mountains and beautiful beaches. There are hundreds of individually beautiful buildings from every era of the last century or so. I think the issue is that there is no architectural uniformity or theme that unites the city, and that our commercial corridors are, with a couple of exceptions, pretty ugly. But that’s a small part of the totality of the city.