A.C. Martin, Department of Water and Power Building, 1965.
Credit: Julius Schulman

A.C. Martin, Department of Water and Power Building, 1965.

Water, real estate, imagery, and cars: Those are the four elements out of which Southern California has emerged. Water made habitation possible; real-estate speculation was the mechanism for settlement; through mass-produced imagery, Los Angeles was sold, and later “the industry” became its most visible manufacturing mode; and trains, trolley, and later cars strung it all together, while airplanes and space craft helped pay for it. These days, the Southland is about a lot more than that, but "Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future 1940-1990" documents the forms that came out of the combination of those four elements and the four ecologies in which they interacted and which Reyner Banham identified.

The exhibition—part of "Pacific Standard Time Presents"—is big and brash, filled with models, original drawings, photographs, and period videos. I am afraid that I should have been more excited than I was when I walked into the Getty Center’s cavernous special exhibition space out of the heat, the smell of sage and eucalyptus, and the instant ruins of a White City that Richard Meier has decreed as the summation of California culture.

Perhaps it was the disconnect between both the reality of the landscape and the refined image of the place that made me feel as if the architecture on view is too bold and given to one-liners to act as a true record of the best that Southern California can claim from the last sixty or seventy years. Still, the exhibition does not want for earnest contextualization, starting with a time-lapse video projection mapping the growth of population centers, parks, and institutions across the Southland. "Overdrive" traces all the major components that make up L.A., from the original geology to the shape of the cars (though it stops, a bit nostalgically, with the ferocious fins of the fifties), and from power lines to houses perched on the precipice both of that geology and of architectural convention.

What troubles me is precisely the combination of earnestness and imagery. What I think makes L.A. so remarkable is its sheer size and diversity, not the exceptional moments—however much I love those points of high design. When those eruptions of expression occur, they are all the more remarkable because they are surrounded by so much stuff. "Overdrive" makes you believe that the Southland is filled with moments of brilliance. Even the freeways and dingbats are aestheticized into objects worthy of contemplation.

Sussman/Prejza, sonotube columns for the Los Angeles Olympic Games, 1984.
Credit: AIGA

Sussman/Prejza, sonotube columns for the Los Angeles Olympic Games, 1984.

That is what an art museum should do. They are places to show beautiful and significant objects and images, not sites of historical or sociological record. But I would have preferred to see an exhibition either of just things consciously designed to be beautiful, or of that stuff, even if it might occasionally coalesce into moments of beauty. I certainly am grateful to the Getty and its curators, Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander, for collecting and presenting so much of the key material that lets us appreciate the beauty of L.A.’s forms.

What gave me much more perverse pleasure was the perversity on display on curator Sylvia Lavin’s little gem of an exhibition, "Everything Loose Will Land," at the MAK Schindler House. Taking its title from a Frank Lloyd Wright statement that if you were to shake the continent, all the loose stuff would end up in California, the exhibition presents the riot of experimentation that burst forth in L.A. from the 1960s through the 1980s. Not restricting herself to architecture—but restrained by the amount and quality of space in which she is working—Lavin presents architecture, graphic design, and art from that period. She shows that the work at hand for all these makers was not so much the construction of buildings, images, or objects. Instead it was figuring out, condensing, and transforming a number of elements: the confluence of technology; the incessant movement of people, goods, and ideas; the selling of the place to itself; and the liminal condition that all together made up the emergent landscape of modern L.A.

See part 1 of the Beyond Buildings tour of "Pacific Standard Time Presents." 

Lavin makes it clear that makers in all media were figuring out how to make something out of that landscape, using the elements at hand, including the landscape, light, technology, and the kind of graphic imagery you can read at a distance. I remember how the Jon Jerde– and Deborah Sussman–designed Olympic Games gave Los Angeles coherence with painted sonotubes, but I did not know of Ray Kappe’s proposal to revitalize a Riverside cement plant purely with graphics. Frank Gehry’s project for I. Magnin, which he created with the artists Larry Bell and Don Chadwick, brought the Light and Space movement to suburban shopping. The painter Peter Alexander’s self-built Tuna Canyon hideaway (which was destroyed by fire) was a mixture of Archigram and Whole Earth Catalog realized in a dramatic setting. These were experiments that resulted in the building blocks out of which some of the best L.A. art and architecture—some of the best American art and architecture, period—have since been made.

"Everything Loose Will Land" is the perfect antidote to the sprawl and import of "Overdrive." But the reverse is also true. Together, these exhibitions make you realize how serious and seriously beautiful the architecture of L.A. really is.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.