I’m a Los Angeles girl, born and bred. My hometown is Pasadena, about 12 miles northeast of L.A.’s downtown, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. My husband is another Angeleno, raised in Hawthorne, in far southwest Los Angeles County, on the South Bay flatlands abutting the Pacific Ocean. Hawthorne was then a postwar working-class paradise (the big employer was Northrop Corporation, now Northrop Grumman) that was socioeconomically and geographically diagonal to snooty, old-money Pasadena. Later, Hawthorne, its fortunes much deteriorated, became the iconic crud-Los Angeles setting of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994).
My husband and I thus had a keen interest in seeing a mixed-media exhibition titled Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 at the National Building Museum in Washington. The exhibition was organized by the Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum—Los Angeles entities that promised a vision of the city that would be a welcome break from the typical traffic-choked, freeway-riven, City of Quartz dystopia of dying palm trees that is East Coast intellectuals’ stereotype of America’s second-largest city.
We were only slightly disappointed. The show’s opening wall text declared: “Los Angeles’ identity is inextricably linked with the automobile.” True enough. Los Angeles County is so enormous—more than 4,000 square miles, with the city of Los Angeles alone taking up nearly 500 of them—that it can only be gotten around efficiently by motor vehicle, meaning that the automobile inevitably shaped L.A.’s man-built geography. Yet even though the show was titled Overdrive, the wall-text authors didn’t seem to know what the overdrive mechanism on a car is. “The term . . . alludes to the fact that an engine churning at top speed may overheat,” they wrote. Actually, the overdrive prevents overheating by reducing the engine’s RPM while the car is at peak velocity.
In truth, aside from some tub-thumping for the Metro Rail (Los Angeles County’s far-from-finished and astoundingly expensive current experiment in public transportation) and an inexplicable demographic reference to Los Angeles’s white population as “Northern European”—as though it consisted of recent immigrants from the Netherlands—the exhibition was commendably ideology-free. And there were many wonderful things to be seen among the hundreds of photographs, maps, models, architectural drawings, and videos that the Getty people collected.
The most riveting of them was Pop artist Ed Ruscha’s 1973 black-and-white tracking shots, taken by a car-mounted 35-millimeter camera traveling along the entire length of commercial Hollywood Boulevard. Ruscha duplicated his Hollywood Boulevard tour de force in color in 2002, so it was possible to watch both filmstrips simultaneously and see which buildings, businesses, and ways of living disappeared or persisted as the boulevard changed. The Ruscha filmstrips, exhibited in a room titled “Car Culture,” displayed the crucial understanding that Hollywood Boulevard, like all the arteries in Los Angeles constructed during the 20th century, was designed and built primarily to be driven through, not walked along. Street intersections in Los Angeles were (and remain) dauntingly wide, unlike the walkable intersections of older American cities. And at least through the early 1970s, there was scarcely a shady tree on Hollywood Boulevard to deflect the blinding Southern California sun from the seemingly interminable blocks of low-slung storefronts.
A vintage video clip in the exhibition celebrated “cruising,” the now-defunct practice of Southern California teenagers during the 1950s and early ’60s of jamming themselves into a car in which they could see and be seen by their peers as they showed off their vehicles, their girlfriends, and their hoped-for sex appeal as they drove at millipede speeds up and down their town’s main drag on Friday and Saturday nights. Cruising formed the narrative spine of George Lucas’s 1973 coming-of-age flick American Graffiti. Graffiti was set in Lucas’s more northerly hometown, Modesto. But that only went to show that Los Angeles’s car culture quickly became the culture of the entire state, except in a handful of bohemian redoubts such as San Francisco.
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.
The most important architectural history of Los Angeles—and its most important cultural history as well—is Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, published in 1971 but not at all out of date. The then- (and still-) prevalent perception of Los Angeles was that it’s essentially a formless, sprawling, infrastructural ectoplasm: “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis,” as Aldous Huxley wrote. Banham was a Londoner, and he saw that Los Angeles was very much like London, which began as a series of villages along the Thames that, over time, agglomerated themselves into a large city. Banham viewed Los Angeles as a similar collection of populated nodes, some of them descending from Indian, and later Spanish, settlements, and only one of which was L.A.’s downtown. Each of the “four ecologies”—the foothills with their luxury real estate; the plenteous beaches (“Surfurbia” in Banham-speak); the vast flatlands that housed the working class; and the vaulting connector freeways—fostered its own architectural culture. Banham relished all of them. He understood, too, that Los Angeles architecture was fundamentally vernacular, catering to popular taste and desires, not architects’ sensibilities.
Los Angeles architecture was also an architecture of boundless optimism. Both my husband and I, growing up at opposite ends of Los Angeles County, were certain not just that we lived in a city that was constructing its future but that we ourselves were living in the future. My father would often take our family for Sunday drives along the Hollywood Freeway as it was being built, out to whatever exit happened to be its end at the time. We harbored a genial contempt for the cramped, shabby cities of the East Coast, with their freezing winters and summer humidity; who would want to live there? A 1950s photograph in the Building Museum exhibition showed a promotional display poster for the Department of Water and Power: “Be Thankful That You Are an American and Live in Los Angeles.”
That was us.
As the Building Museum exhibition moved past the mid-1960s, it foundered. That was because Los Angeles architecture did as well, trading in its lowbrow homegrown exuberance for a range of dreadful but undoubtedly more sophisticated-seeming international styles and configurations. These included: concrete-block Brutalism (best exemplified by the Death Star-like campus of the University of California, Irvine, a Pereira folly of 1965); Lincoln Centeresque “total design” complexes, such as the Los Angeles County Music Center, located downtown; marble-faced poshlost (Edward Durell Stone’s grandiose Ahmanson Center on Wilshire Boulevard, built in 1970); and the skyscraper mania of the 1970s and ’80s that filled the skyline with towering but uninteresting office structures.
Los Angeles is now pretty much like every other city, with impassable freeway traffic and myriad urban problems. But, paradoxically, that may be all for the good. As auto travel between the numerous component parts of this vast urban entity becomes ever more difficult, it is gradually reverting to what Reyner Banham once recognized it as: a network of distinct neighborhoods and subcities, each with its own individualized features and cultures. In that sense, Los Angeles really is becoming more like London.
Charlotte Allen is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.