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City of Angles

Understanding—and appreciating—Los Angeles by design.

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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The exhibition focused admirably on Los Angeles’s frenzy of postwar commercial construction, as the city’s population increased from 1.5 million in 1940 to 2.4 million in 1960, thanks to the burgeoning Southern California defense industry, whose generous wages at all levels also made it possible for nearly every Southern California household to afford at least one car. The dominant architectural style of those two decades was a kind of vehicular futurism, with overtones of Space-Age optimism. Designers not only crafted buildings that would be automobile-friendly—with parking lots, ramps, and drive-in service—but that actually incorporated features of postwar automobile design. Gas stations, shopping centers, office buildings, bowling alleys, drive-in movie theaters, auto showrooms, and television studios (most notably CBS’s Television City, completed in 1952) mimicked the flamboyant design of the high-horsepower (gas was cheap) postwar vehicles that rolled from Detroit’s assembly lines. 

Standard design elements in buildings of that era included upward-tilted roofs (resembling tailfins); cantilevers (for an illusion of suspended airiness); wraparound glass windows; decorative elements that incorporated neon, boomerangs, and starbursts; and impressively ground-hugging horizontal length (because real estate was cheap). They tended to be stationary versions of V8-engined Cadillac Eldorados. Or they were stationary versions of flying saucers, such as the L.A. architecture firm Pereira and Luckman’s elevated concrete-and-glass “Theme Building” restaurant, which opened in 1961 at the Los Angeles International Airport.

The most emblematic commercial building of the 1950s was the coffee shop, typically featuring towering, free-standing signage (so as to be visible to passing drivers); capacious floor plans; luxurious, padded booths; sleek, elongated counters; floor-to-ceiling windows that gave the buildings an indoor/outdoor ambiance; pole-suspended aluminum light fixtures that exuded modernity and warmth; and a generous indoor use of flagstone and boulders, rough-and-ready materials that architects had heretofore employed only in outdoor landscaping. 

Art historians have dubbed Los Angeles’s pop-futuristic architectural style of the 1950s “Googie,” after a long-since-razed West Hollywood coffee shop called Googie’s that was designed by the midcentury architect John Lautner and that incorporated every element of futurism that had been invented. The leading practitioner of coffee-shop architecture, however, was the firm Armet and Davis, whose Pann’s—built in 1958 on La Tijera Boulevard near the airport—is still open for business, with its skyward-angled roof and boulder-and-palm-tree landscaping. The Armet firm’s most glorious creation was the Wich Stand (1957) on Slauson Avenue, the subject of some exquisite color photographs in the exhibition. With its towering, 35-foot spire and parking-lot configuration (100 cars) optimally designed for drive-through cruising, the “Stand” was also the epicenter of Los Angeles hot-rod culture (oddly ignored in the exhibition), in which young men used their shop-class training to soup up the cheap used-car-lot vehicles left over from their parents’ Depression youth. 

In fact, so enchanted were the curators of Overdrive with the first half of the 50-year period that the exhibition purported to span, that they paid little attention to much that was built after 1965. The vast bulk of Overdrive was devoted to more and more 1950s: the evolution of the freeway from a lushly landscaped East Coast-style “parkway” (Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco Parkway, opened in 1940) to a distinct architectural genre of its own, with its elevated parabolas and concrete ribbons of cloverleafs; the glass-walled residential creations of the high-end Austrian émigrés Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, and their numerous imitators; Disneyland’s Tomorrowland (opened in Anaheim in 1955), whose “Autopia” ride was and still is a miniature Los Angeles freeway, and whose showcase attraction was then the “TWA Moonliner,” an airline-sponsored model rocket ship. 

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