Los Angeles, one of the earliest settled cities on the West Coast of the USA, has a remarkable history of architecture. There is diversity in the various styles, but importantly, Los Angeles' architecture tells a story of its history. Much of Los Angeles' notable architecture is period architecture, and reflects a certain era of Los Angeles' culture at any given time, such as the googie architecture built in LA between the late 1940's and mid 1960's. The architecture is a memory, an icon of a certain time. Historic revivalism is often demonstrated in LA's architecture, with many buildings, both commercial and domestic, built in the style of the Franciscan missions that dominated California's landscape in the latter half of the 18th Century.
Although New Spain had known about California since the early 16th Century, the first expeditions into Baja California and Alta California (as modern California was once referred to) were lead by Spanish explorers in the 1540's sent from a then Spanish-controlled Mexico, specifically the City of Mexico, aka Mexico City. It was not until the late 1760's, about 250 years after initial exploration, that Spanish settlement began in California. It was primarily a military operation intended to protect the northern frontier of New Spain, which was then potentially threatened by a perceived Russian interest in California.
The Spanish method of settlement was to build a presidio (a fort with soldiers), a mission (lead by the Franciscan missionaries), and a pueblo (civilian town). The City of Los Angeles, now the second largest city in the USA, had a modest beginning in 1781 when it was built to take command over the secular concerns of the San Gabriel Mission. It was called El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula. El Pueblo was established near the present day Union Station in what is now downtown LA (DTLA). The founding of El Pueblo was orchestrated by Spanish Governor Felipe de Neve, who reported to the viceroy of New Spain, who ruled on behalf of Spain's Charles III. Felipe de Neve brought in 44 settlers, referred to as the Los Angeles Pobladores, to make new lives in this wilderness on the Pacific after a 1,000 mile journey from Mexico.
The original plaza was about 300 feet long and 200 feet wide, and contained essential buildings for a small town. In 1800, the plaza flooded when the Los Angeles River changed course, and a new plaza was built in a different, though nearby location around 1815. That plaza partially exists today as El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historical Monument, and contains the oldest buildings in Los Angeles, including the oldest church in Los Angeles: Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, built 1818-1822 - not to be confused with the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, completed in 2002 by Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo, and one of LA's latest examples of high architecture. Many of El Pueblo's earliest buildings feature Spanish and Mexican themes, and later buildings, such as Pico House, have Italianate details common in the 1870's.
The architecture that dominated the Los Angeles landscape and most of California from settlement through the 1880's reflected the Spanish mission lifestyle and later, during Mexico's rule of Alta California, the pastoral lifestyle of the Mexican Rancheros. Mexico acquired Alta California when it declared independence from Spain in 1821. Mexico ruled Alta California until 1846, when an event known as the California Bear Flag Revolt occurred, and the short-lived California Republic ruled the land. The California Republic graciously surrendered to the Americans 26 days later when they arrived to occupy the area during the Mexican-American War.
During Alta California's Mexican rule, the Franciscan missions were secularized and more than 800 land grants were authorized by the government. Ranchos were built on these land grants and included housing, work space, grazing fields for cattle, and farming sections. These ranchos were the basic form of California's architecture during Mexico's rule, following the period of mission architecture during Spain's rule.
California was a territory of the United States until it was admitted to the Union in 1850. The architecture of this era continued to use elements of the mission and rancho architectures, and much of LA's contemporary architecture continues to reflect and pay homage to these Spanish and Mexican heritages.
It wasn't until the 1880's that the architecture of the Eastern US had firmly transplanted itself in Los Angeles, this due mainly to the fact that Los Angeles was cut off from practically the rest of the United States until 1876, when the Union Pacific Railroad reached LA via San Francisco, and connected the growing City of Los Angeles with the East. This is where you begin to see the loosely defined Queen Anne mansions move into the region, particularly in the Bunker Hill area of downtown, which was a wealthy residential district until post World War II. The majority of these fanciful and frilly houses were demolished or relocated after 1955 when the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project began (it is still in progress). The Queen Annes were replaced by much larger, modern buildings and plazas. Today, Bunker Hill is home to many of Los Angeles' civic and cultural buildings, including the Department of Water & Power Building (John Ferraro Building) and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. One of the few remnants of Bunker Hill's previous life is the Angel's Flight funicular railway, which has been moved from its original 1901 location.
By the 1890's, Los Angeles was looking more and more like an actual city, and large, commercial buildings influenced by the Chicago School of Architecture and the development of the skyscraper, as well as Boston's H H Richardson, started appearing in what is now Historic Downtown Los Angeles, and later in Hollywood. Perhaps the most remarkable building of this kind is George Wyman's 1893 Bradbury Building on Broadway, with its Romanesque/Italian Renaissance revival exterior and beautifully lit internal atrium, characterized by ornamental ironwork and exposed cage elevators.
Historic revivalism crept its way into both commercial and domestic architecture, not only in the form of Spanish mission revival, but in revival influences from all across Europe throughout the first decades of the 20th Century. Simultaneously, there was the introduction of craftsman architecture, which was related to the prairie school introduced in the Midwest by Frank Lloyd Wright. The architectural firm of brothers Charles and Henry Greene was active in popularizing the California bungalow and helped develop a regional expression of the American Arts and Crafts Movement. Greene and Greene began their firm in 1894, and peaked with their 1908 Gamble House, an exemplar of the ultimate bungalow. In 1893, the Greene Brothers moved from Boston to Pasadena (where they opened their firm), and along the way they stopped at the World's Columbian Exposition, aka the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. There they saw the Japanese Pavilion - the Ho-o-den, which presented the first opportunity for American exposure to authentic, Japanese architecture. This exhibit was also said to have greatly influenced Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie school.
The California bungalow and other craftsman variations were popular housing choices beginning in the early 1900's through the late 1930's. The declining construction beginning in 1939 is directly attributed to wartime restrictions and the onset of World War II. For a prime example of this type of architecture, visit the Hollywood Grove Historic District for a glimpse of some of the most lavish examples of craftsman houses and California bungalows. The location of Hollywood Grove invited a number of celebrities from the film industry into the neighborhood, and it continues to be a middle to upper income residential community only steps away from Hollywood Boulevard.
Frank Lloyd Wright paved the way for modern architecture in Los Angeles with his concrete textile block houses of the early 1920's, and equally, if not more so, in his role as teacher and employer to Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, and John Lautner before their formal careers began. Schindler and Neutra were instrumental in establishing a West Coast interpretation of the international style, which initially emerged in the work of European architects, many of whom were inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie school architecture as seen through his Wasmuth Portfolio, published in Berlin in 1910. Schindler and Neutra were both born, raised, and trained in Vienna, Austria, before coming to LA, and both architects worked for Frank Lloyd Wright for a time. Schindler followed Wright to Los Angeles to act as a representative for the oversight of the Hollyhock House while Wright spent time in Tokyo for his Imperial Hotel commission. Neutra met Wright at architect Louis Sullivan's funeral in 1924 in Chicago, and Wright offered him a job at his Taliesin home and studio in Wisconsin. Neutra worked briefly for Wright, and then made his way to Los Angeles when his old friend Rudolph Schindler invited him to live and work communally in his Kings Road House.
Neutra, Schindler, their wives, and the Neutra's son Frank (named for Frank Lloyd Wright) lived in the King's Road House in West Hollywood from 1925 until 1930 (but Schindler's wife Pauline left in 1927). During their time of cohabitation and after their less than amicable separation, Schindler and Neutra created some of the most distinguished examples of international style residential architecture in Los Angeles. Schindler continued to design modern homes in Los Angeles until his death in 1953, and Neutra built his last LA project in 1964 (though he worked until his death in 1970). While Schindler's Kings Road House is arguably his best work, so too is Neutra's VDL Research House that he built in 1932 and stayed in for the rest of his life. The work of these two architects resulted in a new type of modern home - one that is structurally expressive with minimal ornament, conceived with new conceptions of space and proportions, and built with the modern materials of steel, glass, and concrete.
Architect John Lautner studied and worked under Frank Lloyd Wright as an apprentice at the Taliesin Fellowship beginning in 1933. He left Taliesin in 1938 to establish his own practice in Los Angeles, but remained professionally associated with Wright through the early 1940's and supervised construction of Wright's Sturges House, and a redesign of the Ennis House, both in LA. Lautner enriched Los Angeles with dozens of modern houses, and his work can be described as a fusion between Schindler and Neutra's California version of the international style, Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture, and futurism. Lautner's googie Coffee Shop became a prototype of what was named googie architecture in a 1952 article in House and Home magazine by Douglas Haskell that named the flashy, new style. Googie architecture is primarily characterized by symbols of motion in its form and ornament - a commercialized and sensationalized post-art deco solution for the consumerist automobile age, often employed in the design of drive-ins, coffee shops, gas stations, and roadside motels.
By 1950, Los Angeles had a population of just under 2 million people and was the fourth largest city in the United States, but "the look" of the city was not as dense as New York or Chicago, which are both urban centers with vast and centralized, skyscraper-laden downtowns. For more than 50 years, the height limit of Los Angeles' buildings was 150 feet and 13 stories. Many think this was because of earthquake concerns, but the ordinance went into effect in 1904 -two years before San Francisco's great earthquake of 1906, which was modern man's realization of California's susceptibility to mass destruction from such natural disasters. Among the various reasons for height restrictions were concern of skyscrapers blocking out natural light from pedestrian areas, a general skepticism towards the structural stability of skyscrapers, and city planners' desire to limit the density and encourage a decentralized growth. This height limit was in effect until 1956, and surely affected the visual appearance of the Los Angeles skyline. The only exception made for height restrictions was for City Hall, which was authorized to be built at a height of 454 feet - more than three times the height limit, in 1928.
The largest concentration of skyscrapers is located in downtown LA, however the long-enforced height restrictions, and later an extensive freeway system allowed for decentralized growth and several business districts in the Greater Los Angeles Area, rather than one central business district. While the so called "urban sprawl" of Los Angeles seems random and, at times erratic, there is an underlying transportation system that has existed in one form or another as dirt trail, railroad, or freeway since Los Angeles was first settled by the Spanish colonists centuries ago.
The El Camino Real was the Spanish Royal Highway that originated in Baja California and connected all of the missions along its 600 mile route at approximately 30 mile intervals. Today, freeways crisscross the LA landscape -and the freeways roughly follow the same pattern as the original five railroads that were built out of El Pueblo as early as 1868. Angelenos in the 1870's could take a train from El Pueblo out to Santa Monica, San Fernando, Anaheim, Pomona, or Wilmington, much like today's Angeleno can take any of the several freeways to those same destinations in his or her private automobile.
One of the most popular modes of transportation into the 20th Century was the Pacific Electric Railroad, whose extensive map mirrors that of Greater Los Angeles today - where the trains went, buildings went, and people went. The Pacific Electric Railroad was in operation until 1961, but the automobile became a serious threat to the PER as early as 1915 with the introduction of jitneys to transport people. In the 1920's, the idea for Wilshire's Miracle Mile evolved into an innovative concept for a linear downtown with shopping and consumerism designed for the driver, not the pedestrian.
By the 1930's there was serious talk of a freeway system, and in 1940, most of the Pasadena Freeway was open for traffic, making it the first freeway on the west coast. Consecutive freeways were built mostly after World War II, prompting even more development - both commercial and residential, along and at the terminus of the freeways. With this new freedom to travel great distances in short amounts of time came architecture that physically reflected speed, as seen in art deco streamlined motifs and the later googie architecture, and psychologically captured the driving consumer with massive roadside advertisements and convenient parking lots.
Post War residential architecture in Los Angeles evolved from the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, and Rudolph Schindler and was further influenced by Arts & Architecture's Case Study House Program, which from 1945 until 1966 produced 36 prototypical designs for modern homes, mostly built in and around Los Angeles. Among the reputable architects invited to participate were Richard Neutra, Charles Eames, Craig Ellwood, and Pierre Koenig, all of whom made considerable contributions to modernism in Los Angeles. The Case Study House Program was, in a way, an "ideas competition" to create a series of modern homes fit for Southern California's climate, that could theoretically be reproduced on a mass scale for post-war living. Upon completion, the public was invited to examine the Case Study Houses over a period of 6-8 weeks, and hundreds of thousands of curious people toured the houses.
After the City of Los Angeles lifted the 150 foot height restriction in 1956, high-rises began to appear abundantly in Los Angeles in the 1960's, and with those convenient freeways and auto oriented thoroughfares like Wilshire Boulevard, skyscraper construction occurred not just in downtown LA as one central business district, but rather sporadically throughout the city and with multiple concentrations of skyscrapers or "downtowns" in Hollywood, Century City, Westwood, West LA, and Beverly Hills (Beverly Hills, like West Hollywood is its own municipality, surrounded by LA, and a part of LA County). While most major American cities developed from a central downtown outward, Los Angeles' mass transportation network represented by the Pacific Electric Railroad and later the freeway system allowed for a decentralized growth that created several clusters of business districts surrounded or combined with residential districts. The freeway system extends far beyond the boundaries of the City of Los Angeles and directly influenced the rise of the Greater Los Angeles Area as the nation's second most populous megaregion. The Greater Los Angeles Area, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Ventura Counties, has continual, interacting metropolitan regions that are home to an estimated 18 million people.
The skyscrapers of the 1960's and 1970's in LA are primarily categorized as variations of the international style and characterized by clean lines, open spaces, and a rejection of ornament and historicism. Albert C. Martin's architectural firm is one of Los Angeles' most prolific, and responsible for several of the tallest buildings standing in downtown Los Angeles today, including the international style Bank of America Plaza on Bunker Hill.
Beginning in the late 1970's, postmodernism developed as a reaction to, and evolution of, modernism in skyscraper design, nationwide. When the modern materials of steel, glass, and concrete had been mastered, the structural engineering techniques developed during the reign of the International Style carried over into postmodernism. However, with this new movement, came the addition of ornament and historical references, which were previously rejected by modern purists. Firms like Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) - triumphant in Chicago's John Hancock Tower and Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) - experimented with form and facade, and replaced the then-traditional steel and glass boxes popularized by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with towering monuments of fantasy. SOM's Gas Company Tower, built 1988-1991, takes the structural precedents of modernism while adding a post-modern twist with it's crown of blue glass, emblematic of the Southern California Gas Company's blue flame logo.
Skyscraper construction occurred consistently throughout the second half of the 20th century, with buildings rising taller as the decades passed, peaking with a building boom in the mid to late 1980's (that spilled over into the early 1990's) and produced 13 of Los Angeles' 25 tallest buildings to date. Among these postmodern, late-eighties skyscrapers is the 1,018 foot Library Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, built 1987-1990. Massive skyscraper construction has come to a virtual halt since the early 1990's, with only one skyscraper taller than 500 feet built since 1992: Gensler's 667 foot LA Live Hotel & Condominiums in 2010.
While skyscrapers were shifting from modern to post-modern, several architects were building unconventional, fragmented structures in and around Venice beginning in the late 1970's into the 1980's. Thirteen unassociated architects, including Frank Gehry, Eric Owen Moss, and Eugene Kupper, were identified as comprising this so called "LA School of Architecture" in 1981. London's Architectural Association School of Architecture hosted an exhibition in 1983 titled Los Angeles Now that featured the architects and architecture of the LA School, though the term "LA School" has had trouble entering mainstream architectural dialogue. The importance of labeling the LA School as such is not to definitively categorize or restrict the architects to any specific style, or to detract from individual merit, but rather, to recognize an underlying architectural language that permeated the Los Angeles and greater Southern California coast in the 1980's.
Love his work or hate it, Frank Gehry is Los Angeles' world-renowned architect, and his architecture undeniably causes a scene on the urban landscape. Included among Gehry's LA area works are his own Santa Monica residence (1978), Santa Monica Place mall (1980, severely altered in 2010), Edgemar Retail Complex (1984) in Santa Monica, the Binoculars Building and the Frances Howard Goldwyn Hollywood Regional Library (1985) in Venice and Hollywood, respectively. Frank Gehry is also associated with the loosely structured countermovement of postmodernism known as deconstructivism, which surfaced as a response to the return of Classicism in architecture.
(btw, Gehry didn't refer to himself as a deconstructivist, much like a hipster wouldn't refer to himself as one)
The focus of contemporary Los Angeles architecture since the end of the skyscraper boom has been on diverse projects of every scale, though not necessarily buildings of extreme height. Programmatic architecture made a return in Grinstein/Daniels' Kentucky Fried Chicken building (1989) that looks like a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Who would have thought fast food could be so interesting? And Richard Meier's highly praised Getty Museum (1997) relates to it site in the Santa Monica Mountains, while its cream colored travertine recalls the monumentality of great public buildings of the past, it clearly breaks with historicism in its modern form.
Los Angeles has manifested a diverse, and often outspoken and underrated collection of architecture that interacts and plays with the culture and ecology of Southern California. This rare garden of Eden (when water is added) has invited local architects, as well as scores of national and international architects, to create a medley of architecture that reflects the physical landscape, climate, and history of Los Angeles. When it comes to architecture, there is a little bit of everything in LA. Some of it revives the Spanish Colonial and Mexican eras of Los Angeles. Some of it is flashy. Some of it recalls the Golden Age of Hollywood. Each building is a piece of the puzzle that is Los Angeles, and collectively they tell a remarkable story about the modern development of this one of a kind, American city.