If Miesian Modernism, with its black grids and image of efficient grandeur, is a memorial to capitalism, and Corbusian Brutalism, with its often-failed flexing of concrete muscles to make both housing for the poor and homes for their institutions (city halls and open cultural centers from Boston to London), reminds us of our social-democratic better nature, then what are we to make of the attenuated forms of the sort of stripped-down Modernism that floats in-between these two, and that is typified by buildings such as those designed by William Pereira in California? The tenor of our times seems to be: Tear them down, as they do not have much of a constituency.
I find it heartening to see the reappraisal of Brutalism, complete with books and exhibitions, as well as movements to save not only its most well known monuments, but also even lesser examples such as a block of apartments in Sydney, from the wrecking ball. The move to preserve lesser modern monuments follows by several decades the complete rehabilitation both of Neo-Brutalism's display of raw, concrete muscles and of those intricate spaces' dark other, the taut boxes that house offices, apartments, or civic spaces with few clues and little variation on their perfectly proportioned rooms.C So we have saved the overalls and the little black party dresses, now what about those semi-couture creations that are less clear in their lineage or effect?
It would be difficult to argue that William Pereira and his firm produced work that was either as startling or as disciplined as the dueling extremes of Modernism and Brutalism. Like much of the formal and semi-formal architecture that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, the work has a quality of hedging its bets. There are grids and rhythms, but also expressive elements, ranging from fins that stand in for columns to staircases that split and gesture with abandon. Pereira’s most famous work, the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, is a deformation of the office tube that, as it tries to express structural forces, leaves its cores to stick out at the top.
A deeper indictment of the work might be that it did not respond to its context, whether social or physical. Most of Pereira’s work has little interest in the street or even the neighborhood in which it appears, preferring instead the it-landed-from-Mars approach to inserting a modern structure in its site. Nor was it ever particularly responsive to a mix of cultures that was, even by the time most of the work went up, quite varied and vibrant.
For all that, I have long loved buildings such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which the institution now is proposing to tear down in favor of an expensive, equally insensitive, and functionally problematic mega-blob that has oozed from the hands of Peter Zumthor. Can’t we just admit that this highly talented architect has, for whatever reason, produced a monster? Can’t we instead figure out how to reinvigorate the existing buildings, as the current administration has done with such success?
Now at least two of Pereira’s other designs, the 1963 Metropolitan Water District headquarters and his 1971 addition to the Los Angeles Times headquarters, are under threat of demolition. The latter is at least being partially preserved, though a several parts of it might soon disappear. There might be a good case for preserving its integrity, but the Times addition will be a harder battle. Its massive structure slots into the original, Art Deco-ish structure with either bravura or insensitivity, depending on your perspective (literally, depending on where you stand to look at the complex), and its interior spaces are not very efficient.
None of these structures attain the level of perfection in proportion, siting, or detailing that would make them masterpieces, but they do offer a kind of tentative grandeur and bold restraint—as well as a lot of good materials that it would be a shame to waste—that makes it worth preserving them. If we can drool over the models of triumphant capitalism and failed socialism alike, why not the temples of democracy, however compromised and awkward they might be?
Los Angeles preservation group Esotouric asked architectural historian Alan Hess to talk about Pereira's Metropolitan Water District in the video below: