It is always eye opening to play tourist in the city you call home. My mom – a long-time lover of all things Art Deco – came to town and signed us up for an architectural Art Deco walking tour of Downtown organized by the Los Angeles Conservancy. Although I work Downtown, time for exploration and lingering to take in views can be limited, so the opportunity to play urban tourist with my mom was a welcome occasion.
From a landscape designer’s perspective the tour was a lot of looking up at object-oriented architecture. During the 20s and 30s architectural styles were changing in the United States, transitioning from the favored Beaux-Arts neoclassical style to what was then considered a more modern style, Art Deco, a pastiche of many styles from all over the world. Our tour began in Pershing Square, a place of controversial style in and of itself. The historic Biltmore Hotel across the street was used as a Beaux-Art foil to the more modern styles of the surrounding Art Deco buildings.
The former headquarters of the Southern California Edison building is an interesting example of the evolving urban environment. As we stepped in to view its beauty you could tell the workers there took pride in the architecture. Our tour guide showed our group an image of the Victorian homes that once inhabited Bunker Hill, all eventually torn down. Bunker Hill itself had been slightly leveled to accommodate new construction. In the 1980s the interior of the Edison building was “modernized” with drop ceilings and carpets, covering up the ornate details original to the building. Thankfully the current owners are now removing those alterations and taking steps to restore the building to its original glory.
As we continued on our walk, we looked up at the towers that had replaced the Richfield Tower, an Art Deco landmark of 1929 that was demolished in 1969 to make room for the construction of newer and more modern construction. It was interesting to see such strong opinions of style come from the tour group. One woman shouted “What a shame!”.
Other buildings were described as “Disco”. I couldn’t tell if the group reaction was favorable or not. Our tour guide mentioned that she saw some public opinions starting to shift in favor of Disco Era architecture. I myself couldn’t help but feel a certain affection for them.
Some buildings represented a transition in style, such as the Los Angeles Public Library. To get the full story you’ll have to go on the tour, but my favorite takeaway was that architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue had allegedly switched out the neoclassical dome he depicted in his drawings – a style he knew would sell – for the Egyptian-inspired pyramid you see today. Apparently the cultural influence that led to this switch was the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.
We all struggle to understand the world around us, and these struggles often manifest in what we create. Style is political, personal, reactionary, and unpredictable. Style reveals priorities, views on nature, and technology, and is far from passive or innocent. When we got back to Pershing Square I couldn’t help but feel a certain empathy for the park, with its funky and seemingly outdated style, and wondered how opinions of it might change after it’s gone.
A city could be imagined as the sum of its various architectural pasts. If so, then our city’s historical and evolving urban environment are inherently the roadmap to Los Angeles’ future.