Photo Gallery: 20th Century Modernist Architecture in LA

At 765 pages, Architecture of the Sun, Rizzoli’s lavishly illustrated survey of Los Angeles modernism from 1900 to 1970, is as angular as an Eames building but with the warmth of a Charles and Henry Greene California bungalow. Perched on a coffee table, a monolith of receding straight lines and hard cover, the volume peers over an ocean of pacific blue rug and recalls Pierre Koenig’s famous Case Study #21 house. But like the modernism the book examines, there is more here than form; there is content too.  To give proper due to the buildings and the men who built them, author Thomas Hines needs all the pages he can get.

Southern California, Hines mentions, quoting the writer Helen Hunt Jackson, is an “island on the land.” And though Jackson wrote that in the nineteenth century, much of the other worldliness of Southern California then has been translated into now an almost extraterrestrial strangeness, an irrigated concrete-and-Starbucks dystopia where television and L. Ron Hubbard are the only gods and tanning and driving the only activities worth doing. Much of the architecture one drives by in Los Angeles seems equally devoid of human warmth and dumb of cultural reference. It might be easy to catalogue the clean lines, window walls and poured concrete as part and parcel of the general skim latte sipping inhumanity. But you’d be wrong.

Hines’ book traces not only the architecture but the architects who emerged from the Arts & Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century to those who sat wake over the smoldering embers of modernism (burned alive by a bunch of savage post-modernists, many of whom were educated in academic halls of UCLA, designed by arch-modernist and progenitor of the International Style, Welton Becket). If only the men were as clean as their buildings. But that wouldn’t make for interesting reading. Instead, Hines’ lively tales of friendships gone south (Rudolph Schindler’s falling out with Richard Neutra is particularly interesting) and the petty crummy selfishness of Frank Lloyd Wright (he may have been the Daddy of modernism but he was not a nice guy) humanizes their work, work that, for the most part, remains as visually stunning in its audacious rejection of historical mode now, when it itself is history, as it did when it was built.

Watching a chance encounter with a Japanese temple at the 1893 World’s Fair, by Messrs. Charles and Henry Greene morph into the California bungalow to the minimalism of Irving Gill to personal syncretistic genius of Frank Lloyd Wright to the ascetic linearity of Richard Neutra to the massive industrial modernism of William Pereira where the form, in extremis, died embodied as an airport restaurant is like watching an architectural Koyaanisqatsi. As much as City of Quartz, Hines’ survey breathes life into those old buildings and reminds one even islands on the land were built by somebody.

Click through below for a gallery of our favorite images from the book.

© Thomas S. Hines, Architecture of the Sun, Rizzoli, 2010.