Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Reyner Banham adjusting his rear-view mirror.

Reyner Banham adjusting his rear-view mirror.

I was surfing the net today and came across an amazing artifact from LA’s past. Reyner Banham was an achitectural theorist and historian. He was born in England, but came to America and fell in love with the place, especially Los Angeles. In 1972 he made a film essay about the city for the BBC. He called it Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. These days that title might not strike you as unusual, but back in the early seventies LA was seen by most architects and planners as a disaster on a massive scale. For Banham, a respected writer and professor at UC Santa Cruz, to proclaim his love for LA, loudly, frequently, unabashedly, was really controversial.

I’m not going to tell you it’s a great film, because it’s not. But I think anybody who cares about this city will be fascinated. First, you’ve got this really smart, perceptive guy giving you his thoughts on what most commentators at the time thought was an urban wasteland. Second, the movie gives you a good, long look at what LA was like back in 1972, and if you weren’t around in those days, you’ll find the contrast startling.

The film is slow in places, and kind of disjointed. Also, because it’s only an hour long, Banham doesn’t have time to take more than a cursory glance at some aspects of LA. The worst part is that the print is badly faded. In some scenes it’s hard to even make out what’s on screen. But you get to see images of Watts, Hollywood, Downtown and Venice as they looked over forty years ago. It’s a real time capsule. Here’s the link.

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

The film is an entertaining artifact, but it just gives you a taste of what made Banham such an interesting and provocative character. If you want to learn more about him, check out his 1971 book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Don’t be put off by the academic sounding title. It’s a fresh and entertaining exploration of the aspects of this city that make it unique. I recommend it to anybody who wants to gain a better understanding of LA.

Time to Move On

LAC 0B Tunnel

You may already know that LACMA is planning a major overhaul. I think it’s a good idea. The original design has been pretty badly compromised, and the campus is kind of a mess. The biggest mistake was the addition of the Anderson Building, but there are other changes that contributed to the general feeling of chaos. So, yeah, it’s time to hit reset. Peter Zumthor’s design for the new campus is pretty interesting. You never know how these things will work out in the long run, but I’m ready to climb on board. (I do have serious reservations about the plan for funding it, but that’s another story.)

I have to admit, though, I’ve got a fondness for this funky collection of buildings that don’t really fit together. There’s a lot about the current set-up that I’ll miss. So even though we’re probably still a long way away from starting construction, I thought I’d take a trip down to the old place and snap some photos.

The museum was originally designed by William Pereira, and in its first state there was a real sense of space and light. Now the plaza seems claustrophobic. Just to give a sense of Pereira’s orginal concept, take a look at the photo below.

LAC 05 Plz Wom

On the left side you can see the Ahmanson Building, which has been there since the beginning. Back in the 60s you walked up a broad set of stairs onto a wide plaza that was surrounded on three sides by structures like this. It was a fantastic space, and a quintessential example of LA architecture. Now I move the camera to the right….

LAC 10 And Rt

…and you can see the Anderson Building, which was built in the 80s. It was great to have more gallery space, but the building always seemed like a massive intrusion. And if you look at the central plaza…

LAC 25 Plaza Brg

…you can see that the columns and the bridge and the canopy intrude even further. Nowadays this space just seems really odd and awkward. It doesn’t work at all.

But there are still things to enjoy about the plaza. Like Jesús Rafael Soto’s Penetrable.

Penetrable by Jesús Rafael Soto

Penetrable by Jesús Rafael Soto

I love this installation, and kids love wandering through it. I know museums aren’t always a big favorite with children, so I think it’s great that Soto’s work is right out on the plaza, almost like it’s saying, “Come on in and play.”

Another one of the original Pereira buildings houses the Bing Theatre, which I’ll really miss.

LAC 32 Bing Lobby 2

LACMA used to have incredible film programming. They did amazing retrospectives on Marlon Brando, William Wyler, Erich von Stroheim, FW Murnau and others. My friend Brian and I used to joke that there were times we were going there so often it seemed like we were living at LACMA.

LAC 40 Cafe Red

I’ll miss the cafe, too. I’ve spent lots of time there, either taking a break from the galleries or waiting for a movie to begin. Occasionally I’d take a cup of coffee outside…

LAC 27 Red Tbl

…and find a quiet place somewhere. In spite of all the people milling around the campus, it’s not too hard to get away from the crowds.

Inside the Ahmanson Building, Tony Smith’s Smoke rises up through the atrium. It’s a cool piece, but it probably needs more room to breathe. Maybe when the new museum is built they’ll create a better space for it.

Smoke by Tony Smith

Smoke by Tony Smith

Same as above.

Same as above.

Same as above.

Same as above.

I’m glad that LACMA draws as many people as it does, but sometimes I miss the good old days, before the blockbuster exhibitions, when it was just you and the janitorial staff. Still, some of the galleries are less crowded than others. The spaces where they display contemporary American art are often pretty busy, but if you just head upstairs…

LAC 80 Gallery

…you’ll find the older European art. I used to mainly look at painting from the last couple of centuries, but lately I’m getting into the older stuff. Like these Dutch landscapes.

Beach with a Weyschuit Pulled up on Shore by Willem van de Velde, the Younger

Beach with a Weyschuit Pulled up on Shore by Willem van de Velde, the Younger

Landscape with Dunes by Jacob van Ruisdael

Landscape with Dunes by Jacob van Ruisdael

One of the great things about LACMA is that when you’ve maxed out on the art, you can leave the galleries and head for the park just behind the museum.

A view of the park from the museum plaza.

A view of the park from the museum plaza.

Another view of the park looking toward the west.

Another view of the park looking toward the west.

And since I’m talking about change, I might as well mention the May Co. building right next door.

LAC 95 May

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is planning to build a museum devoted to film on this site. The plan is to restore the May Co., and to construct a new wing behind it, which will be designed by Renzo Piano. Not sure when work will start, but you can click on the link below for more info.

Academy Museum

This last shot is a view of Fairfax looking down towards Wilshire.

LAC 97 May Side

It’s interesting that with all the activity happening at LACMA and the May Co., just across the street you have Johnie’s, a classic coffee shop from the fifties designed by Armét & Davis, that’s been neglected for years. Closed since 2000, the City of LA recently declared it a historic landmark, but nobody seems to know what’s going to happen to it. The MTA is currently working on the Purple Line extension, and supposedly there will be a subway stop at Wilshire and Fairfax by 2023. Is it too much to hope that Johnie’s will be open again by then?

The Ennis House

En 20 Sky

I’d read about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House for years, but I’d never actually been to see it.  So this last weekend I decided I was going to pay a visit.

The gate at the driveway.

The gate at the driveway.

It’s an amazing structure, built using the “textile block” process that Wright explored during his time in the LA area.  Unfortunately, as beautiful as the house is, it started falling apart even before it was finished.  Wright’s idea of mixing granite from the site into the concrete used for the blocks probably sounded like a good idea at the time.  In practice, though, it made the blocks unstable.  Millions have been spent restoring the Ennis House over the years.  For a while, it was owned by a foundation that tried to rehabilitate it, but the process proved too costly and they ended up putting the house on the market.

The front of the house.

The front of the house.

Selling Wright’s LA area houses isn’t as easy as it might seem.  The Ennis House was on the market for years, and the price had to be lowered significantly before a buyer was found.  As far as I can tell, La Miniatura in Pasadena is still on the market.  The problem seems to be that beyond the purchase price, buyers know that they’ll have to spend a fortune on upkeep.  And because the houses are on the National Register of Historic Places, the standards for restoration are very strict.  If you need to patch a wall, you can’t just slap on some spackle.

The back of the house.

The back of the house.

But the Ennis House is lovely, and absolutely one of a kind.  Wright was influenced by Mayan architecture, and the house seems at once both ancient and modern.  To see what it looks like inside, visit the web site by clicking the link below.

The Ennis House

And if you’re not familiar with Wright’s work, you might want to visit the Wikipedia page devoted to him.  Aside from the quality of the work he did himself, he had a huge influence on American architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright at Wikipedia

Wright thought he was creating a practical approach to constructing homes with his textile block system.  In reality, it turned out to be terribly inefficient and outrageously expensive.  But the fact that people have been willing to invest the time and money to maintain them over several decades is an indication of how precious these homes are.  Their value goes way beyond anything you can measure in dollars.

Another shot of the back of the house.

Another shot of the back of the house.

The Neighborhood Is Changing, and Not for the Better

The main gate that used to lead to the Cat & Fiddle.

The main gate that used to lead to the Cat & Fiddle.

I was with with my brother and my nephew last week when we decided to go to the Cat & Fiddle for dinner. What a shock to find out that they were closing the place down. Apparently the owners are looking for a new location, but at this point they haven’t found anything. When I dropped in a couple days ago, the restaurant was almost cleaned out. I’ve had so many good times at the Cat & Fiddle, hung out there with so many good friends. It was strange to be standing there, surrounded by boxes and furniture. Nobody sitting in the booths. Nobody standing at the bar. No music. No conversation. Just silence.

The silent courtyard.

The silent courtyard.

The empty booths.

The empty booths.

The deserted bar.

The deserted bar.

According to the LA Weekly, the building was purchased by its current owners, an investment group headed by Jesse Shannon, in 2005. When the Cat & Fiddle’s lease was up, apparently Shannon wouldn’t consider renewing it. At this point he has not revealed who the new tenant will be. No doubt one more upscale bar/club/restaurant of the type that’s been spreading like a virus through Hollywood for the past decade. Shannon does say that his group plans to spend millions to renovate the building.

This is good news. I hope he’s serious. The building is a beautiful example of the Spanish Colonial Revival style, with some very cool Churrigueresque decoration. I hope the money Shannon spends is matched by a real desire to restore the building, rather than to make it a glitzy magnet for club-hopping kids.

A few links. The first is to the story in the LA Weekly. Next, a link to a Facebook page that was created in the hope that the Cat & Fiddle could stay at its old location. It has some photos that show how full of life the place was. And last, an article on LA Eater in which Shannon talks about the reasons for not renewing the restaurant’s lease.

Farewell to the Cat & Fiddle

Let’s Save the Cat & Fiddle

Why the Cat & Fiddle Had to Go

I look forward to checking out the next incarnation of the Cat & Fiddle whenever it finds a new location, but I’m really sad to see it leave the building on Sunset. Sad because it was such a great place to hang out. And also sad because it’s just the latest casualty of the gentrification craze that’s sweeping through LA. The new tenant may have an amazing menu and a fabulous bar, but I seriously doubt it will have one tenth of the character that the Cat & Fiddle had.

A photo of the Cat & Fiddle from September of this year.

A photo of the Cat & Fiddle from September of this year.

Another One Bites the Dust

Oswald Bartlett House, Los Feliz

Oswald Bartlett House, Los Feliz

Got this in my e-mail this morning. More bad new for those who care about LA’s history.

Press Advisory, Immediate Release

DEVELOPER SET TO DEMO LA’S CULTURAL HISTORY

Reprieve Denied: Historic Oswald Bartlett House Goes Down Today

WHAT: Demolition of the 100-year-old Oswald Bartlett House is set to begin today and members of the community are expected to be present to document and bear witness to the house’s undeserved and sad destruction in the middle of the season when Jews and Christians celebrate – instead of destroy – their history and traditions.

WHEN: Demolition work is set to begin at 7 am, today, Thursday, December 18, 2014.

WHERE: 1829 N. Kenmore Ave., Los Angeles – the Los Feliz neighborhood

BACKGROUND: The Oswald Bartlett House has been recognized by preservationists as a pristine and rare example of architect A.C. Martin’s work. Martin, one of Los Angeles’ leading architects in the first half of the 20th century, designed LA City Hall and a half-dozen other notable structures now designated as landmarks. The Bartlett House was designed by Martin for a friend and is a rare example of Martin’s youthful work in domestic design; his more lasting reputation was founded on his design of major public and religious buildings. Despite the recognition by experts of the cultural and historic significance of the Bartlett House, City Hall turned a deaf ear to the experts (including the LA Conservancy) and community’s appeals to spare the house from demolition to make way for a six-unit townhome project whose building entitlements were gained through misrepresentations about the historic nature of the Bartlett House. Last Wednesday the City Council gave the developer, a business ally of one of Mayor Garcetti’s top campaign fundraisers, the green-light to proceed with demolition. Today the sledgehammers and bobcats will start taking the house down.

For Additional Information Contact:
John Schwada, MediaFix Associates
john.schwada@gmail.com
310 709-0056
310 597-9345 w

So one more historic building bites the dust. Garcetti seems determined to let developers have their way, no matter the cost to the city’s cultural heritage. Some of you may remember that the Mole-Richardson building on La Brea was recently demolished, in spite of the fact that it was a classic art deco building by Morgan, Walls and Clements. If you missed that story, here’s a link to a piece on Curbed.

Art Deco Buidling Destroyed

Other historic structures currently being threatened are the Warner Pacific Theatre, the Mosaic Church, and the Chase Bank building at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights. But who cares about history, when you can have a shiny, new mixed-use skyscraper?

The photo of the Oswald Bartlett House was taken by Michael Locke, who has spent a fair amount of time documenting the Los Feliz area. To see more of his work, click on the link below.

Michael Locke at Flickr

Taking a Closer Look

Hlwd CS 03 Frnt Hills 2

It’s so strange how you can pass by something a million times, and not really even notice it. Until it’s in danger of disappearing. The Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, at the corner of Hollywood and La Brea, was built just after I was born. I’ve been driving by it or walking by it all my life. I remember thinking that it was kind of an unusual building, but I never stopped to take to take a closer look. It was always just part of the landscape.

So recently I did take a closer look, and I started to realize what a beautiful building it was. The site is no longer home to a Christian Science congregation. For the last few years it has housed Mosaic, a non-denominational Christian church. The current congregation recently renovated the building, and I’ll talk more about that later.

Actually, the first version of the church was built back in 1915, according to the Pacific Coast Architecture Database. Back then Christian Science was a growing denomination, and the original design stuck to a pretty traditional classical revival style. But in the 1950s the congregation must have decided they needed a different look, and they hired an architect named Howard G. Elwell.

Very little is known about Elwell. One source I found said that he was active in the LA area as early as 1916. I’ve searched the net, but there’s not much documentation of his work. I found a few photos of a movie theatre in Victorville. I found some images of a doctor’s office he may have designed, but the site is unknown. Apparently he also worked on some houses in Pasadena and San Marino.

But the guy definitely had talent. A walk around the church at Hollywood and La Brea shows that it was created by someone fluent in the modern style. Here are a couple photos of the building as it originally appeared.

Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist seen from Hollywood Blvd. circa 1977

Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist seen from Hollywood Blvd. circa 1977

Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, also from Hollywood Blvd. circa 1977

Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, also from Hollywood Blvd. circa 1977

It’s too bad they’re in black and white, because the color scheme was one of the unique aspects of the design. If I remember correctly, the curved section at the corner was clad in lavender tile, and the arched windows were painted a similar pastel shade. The effect was subtle and unobtrusive, which is maybe part of the reason it didn’t attract my attention.

Here’s how the church looks today.

Mosaic, Hollywood seen from Hollywood Blvd.

Mosaic, Hollywood seen from Hollywood Blvd.

The Mosaic congregation did a nice job of renovating the building. They didn’t touch the structure, but they completely rethought the textures and colors. Removing the tile cladding to reveal the brickwork gives the corner of the church a rustic look, and painting the arched windows grey creates a nice contrast. The building definitely has more of a presence than it did before.

a view of the church from La Brea Ave.

a view of the church from La Brea Ave.

another view of the church from La Brea Ave.

another view of the church from La Brea Ave.

But the structure still retains Elwell’s design, which is a unique and interesting adaptation of the modern style. The building has the dignity appropriate to a church, but without the rhetorical flourishes that make some other sacred structures look pompous. It occupies the site beautifully, with the curved wall at the corner giving way to symmetrical rows of arched windows on either side. And while some churches are basically a façade stuck on a box, Elwell thought about the whole structure, making sure that the rear of the building adheres to the same pattern of curved surfaces and strong verticals.

a view of the church from the parking lot

a view of the church from the parking lot

another view from the parking lot, this time facing La Brea Ave.

another view from the parking lot, this time facing La Brea Ave.

Now here’s the bad news. This building will probably be gone in a year or so. Developers want to build a project called Horizon Hollywood, which will consist of 400 residential units with retail and restaurants on the ground floor. Some people think the renderings look pretty nice. Honestly, to me the project looks like another set of generic mixed-use towers. But here’s a link to a write-up at Building Los Angeles. You can judge for yourself.

Hollywood and La Brea’s High-Rise Complex

Personally I’d rather have the church. But I don’t think there’s much chance of saving it. The building has not been designated as a historic landmark. And I don’t see any way it could be incorporated into the high-rise project.

But they won’t start construction on the Horizon Hollywood for a while, so if you’re interested in architecture you might want to take a trip over there. It’s a striking example of mid-century modern, and one of the few known buildings by Howard G. Elwell.

The larger concern is that it seems like historic buildings are once again being threatened by the current development boom. We’ve already lost the Morgan, Walls and Clements building on La Brea near Melrose. This one is probably a goner. And there’s talk of demolishing the Pacific Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. For a while it seemed like LA was getting better at preserving the past. But these days I get the feeling that money is more important than history.

[For an an update on the status of the Mosaic Church, click here.]

Hlwd CS Frnt Angle 1

The two black and white photos above come from the Security Pacific National Bank Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library’s photo archive. No photographer is credited.

Koreatown

This is the plaza above the Wilshire/Vermont Red Line station.

Ktwn 01 Plaza Woman

And here’s a wider view of the plaza.

Ktwn 10 Plaza Guy

The intersection at Vermont and Wilshire is a busy place. People live here, work here, eat here, shop here.

Ktwn 12 Bldg Bullocks

This is Koreatown. It’s the most densley populated neighborhood in LA County. While the exact boundaries are hard to nail down, roughly speaking the area is bordered by Beverly, Vermont, Olympic and Crenshaw.

It’s important to remember that even though it’s called Koreatown, the majority of the people who live there are Latino. About half the population is of Latin American descent, compared to about a third who are of Korean descent. The area came to be associated with Koreans because the vast majority of businesses are Korean-owned.

Ktwn 13 Vendor

On the sides of the residential complex that rises above the Wilshire/Vermont plaza, you can see April Greiman’s mural “Hand Holding a Bowl of Rice”.

Ktwn 15 Bowl

You can visit the artist’s web site by clicking on the link below.

April Greiman.

Ktwn 16 Bldg New 3Directly across the street is The Vermont, a recently completed residential development comprised of two high-rise towers. This is the kind of high-end project that developers are pushing for all over LA, since they can be extremely profitable. But, not all Koreatown residents are happy about this trend. One concern is that projects like this will push rents up, making it harder for long-time residents to afford housing. Just to give you an idea, a one-bedroom apartment at The Vermont starts at $2,300 a month. In the near future, this trend will almost certainly continue, since The Vermont was recently sold for $283 million. With that kind of money being thrown around, you can be sure that developers will be knocking each other down in their rush to stake a claim in Koreatown.

Ktwn 17 Wiltern 2There are some beautiful older buildings in Koreatown, such as the Wiltern Theatre, designed by Stiles O. Clements of Morgan, Walls and Clements. This firm was a major player in LA back in the thirties and forties, designing local landmarks like Chapman Plaza, La Fonda Restaurant, and the El Capitan Theatre. The auditorium was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, who also created interiors for the Palace and the Orpheum in downtown. I saw Tom Waits there years ago, and I can tell you that the inside is just as impressive as the outside. The Wiltern is actually part of a larger structure called the Pelissier Building, which was completed in 1931. It’s an amazing example of art deco architecture, with its blue-green tile cladding worked into elaborate zig-zag moderne designs. They don’t make ’em like this any more.

And on this stretch of Wilshire you can also find a number of bland office towers occupied by banks and financial services.

Ktwn 18 Bldgs Tall 2

Among the oldest buildings in Koreatown are the churches.

Ktwn 19 Ch Imm Wide

Immanuel Presbyterian Church was constructed in 1928, and for decades was a center for the Anglo community that populated the area up through the middle of the twentieth century. In recent years, many of these older churches have become home to multi-cultural congregations, and have services conducted in multiple languages.

Ktwn 19b Ch Imm Sign

The media has given a lot of attention to Koreatown in recent years, but mostly the stories tend to focus on the night life. Sure, there are plenty of good restaurants, and tons of bars and clubs. But Koreatown is more than just a place where you can scarf kalbi and guzzle soju til you pass out. Like any community, it has many different sides. It’s a place where art, business, technology and politics mingle and collide on a daily basis. Aside from the Korean American population, there are Central Americans, African Americans, Latinos and Anglos. Really it’s impossible to define in terms of a single ethnicity or culture.

Koreatown is relatively young, even by LA standards. The number of Koreans in the city was pretty small until the sixties. It wasn’t until 1965, when the US rewrote its immigration policies, that Koreans started arriving in large numbers. The area we now call Koreatown didn’t really come together until the seventies. Since then it has continued to grow, in terms of both population and area.

The Korean Consulate is located on Wilshire not too far from Vermont. As I was walking by one day, I saw that community members had created a memorial to the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster.

Ktwn 20 Ferry

Here in the US, the coverage of the Sewol incident was pretty limited and faded from the scene quickly. In Korea, it sparked a huge scandal, as a growing body of evidence suggested it could have been prevented. A series of protests were held in Seoul, with many people accusing the government of a cover-up and demanding that President Park Geun Hye resign. Here’s an article from the Washington Post that gives further details.

Grieving Families Want Independent Probe

Not too far off Wilshire is the Pío Pico Koreatown branch of the LA Public Library. Pico was the last Mexican governor of California before it was annexed by the United States. For many years he was one of the wealthiest and most influential people in the state, but by the time he died he was living in poverty.

Ktwn 25 Lib Ext

I love libraries. Maybe it’s the quiet. Maybe it’s being surrounded by people reading.

Ktwn 25 Lib Int

Something about this billboard caught my eye. K-Pop isn’t just huge in Asia. It’s got a significant following in the US, too. EXO is built around an unusual concept. The band actually consists of two groups. EXO-K performs their songs in Korean, and EXO-M performs the same songs in Mandarin.

Ktwn 60 Boy Grp Bldg Wilt

With groups like this, obviously the music is not the focus. Some promoter has gathered a bunch of cute guys that will look good in music videos. People have been doing this for decades, but to me it’s interesting that the Korean media have managed to turn K-Pop into such a cultural phenomenon.

Also on Sixth Street, I dropped in on Red Engine Studios. Actually, that was because of a misunderstanding. I thought the place was a gallery. Turns out it’s a school. The guy at the door seemed uncertain about letting me in, but I guess he finally decided I looked harmless enough. They do have some cool art on the walls, and you can view it by visiting their site.

Red Engine Studios

Ktwn 60 RE Guys 2

There are lots of skateboarders in Koreatown. I saw guys riding up and down the sidewalks everywhere, and there was this vacant lot on Sixth where a bunch of kids were practicing their moves.

Ktwn 60 Skate Comp

When I think of Koreatown, I think of malls. As I said earlier, Koreatown got its name because Korean entrepreneurs have been spectacularly successful in creating a vibrant community for businesses to thrive.

There are newer malls, that were built to house dozens of small shops.

Ktwn 30 Mall S&S

And there are older malls, where a bunch of businesses are crowded around a tiny parking lot.

Ktwn 32 Mall Kids

This one looks like it dates back to the sixties. I’m kind of fascinated by how spaces like this change over time, evolving as the neighborhood changes around them.

Ktwn 32 Mall Rock

Of course there are also massive indoor malls. Like Koreatown Plaza.

Ktwn 33 K Plaza

I went into Music Plaza looking for traditional Korean Music. They didn’t have much of a selection. But if you’re looking for the latest K-Pop releases, this is the place to be. It may not look too busy in this photo, but I had to stand in line to make my purchase. And I feel pretty certain that they make way more on the merchandise than they do on the music.

Ktwn 35 Music Plaza

I’m not sure why this bookstore seems quintessentially Korean to me, but it has something to do with the colors.

Ktwn 37 KBC

Like every other mall, Koreatown Plaza has a sizeable food court.

Ktwn 38 K P Court

Walking around the area you see that health and beauty are definitely marketable commodities. There are lots of spas and beauty parlors.

Ktwn 50 Bty All Rev

It was the stacks of firewood that made me want to take a picture of Pollo a la Brasa.

Ktwn 68 Pollo

As large swaths of LA get gentrified and prettified, it’s cool to see an old school restaurant that isn’t too worried about its appearance. And in addition to keeping the grills going…

Ktwn 69 Pollo Waiting

…the logs also serve as benches while people wait for the bus.

Yeah, LA’s sidewalks are a mess, but I have to say I have an affection for the huge, overgrown trees that are breaking up the concrete. The thick branches spreading over this stretch of Eighth Street made it seem like a small forest.

Ktwn 70 Eighth Shade

Ktwn 70 KIWAAnd right here on Eighth Street is the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance. KIWA has worked for years to defend the rights of workers, and is currently engaged in a campaign to fight wage theft, which is rampant in LA. One of their notable victories was helping Heriberto Zamora recover wages that had been denied him by Urasawa, a posh restaurant in Beverly Hills. Even after being cited by the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement for multiple violations related to wage theft, Urasawa resisted paying Zamora what he was owed until just before their final hearing before the DLSE. To find out more about KIWA’s work, click on the link below.

KIWA

Koreatown is changing rapidly, but pieces of the past still remain. I hadn’t been to Dong Il Jang for decades, and I’d been thinking about stopping by for a while.

Ktwn 91 Dong Int

The waitresses were friendly. The food was good. Even though I hadn’t been there for years, it felt familiar. And it was just reassuring to know that it was still there.

Ktwn 92 Dong Food

Don’t Destroy the Past

W&B in W Hlwd

This is pretty last minute, but I just found out about a historic building in West Hollywood that could be demolished as part of a proposed development. I hadn’t heard anything about it until I opened up my e-mail this afternoon. A friend forwarded a message to let me know that this structure, designed by Wurdeman & Becket back in the thirties, might be wiped off the map unless we take immediate action.

The building, located at 9080 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, was originally the Jones Dog and Cat Hospital. Architects Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket created a classic example of the streamline moderne style to house the veterinarian’s practice. As a firm, Wurdeman and Becket were active in the thirties and forties, their most famous creation being the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, which burned to the ground many years ago. After Wurdeman’s death, Becket’s new firm, Welton Becket & Associates went on to design some of the city’s most striking structures and played a huge role in defining the look of mid-century Los Angeles.

For more info about the building, click on this link.

Los Angeles Conservancy

And then if you decide you want to tell the West Hollywood City Council how you feel about this, here’s another link. See the left hand column for contact info.

Save the SMB Streamline Moderne

LA has made great strides in preservation over the last several years, but we’re still losing important parts of our past. The recent demolition of a building by Morgan, Walls & Clements on La Brea was a shock, and should be reminder to those of us who care about our city’s culture that we need to be vigilant and vocal.

Hollywood Journal – Preservation Prevails

The Cinerama Dome under construction in 1963.

The Cinerama Dome under construction in 1963.

I spent a good part of 1998 freaking out over Pacific Theaters’ plans for “renovating” the Cinerama Dome. The initial proposal involved gutting the auditorium, removing the curved screen and putting a fast food restaurant in the lobby. The film and preservation communities protested loudly. To their credit, the people at Pacific met with the opposition and made a number of important concessions.

If you’re not into film, and if you don’t care about Hollywood history, you might be mystified by the uproar. So let me offer a little background….

Cinerama was a process that revolutionized the production and exhibition of films back in the early fifties. Three strips of film were projected in perfect synchronization to create the illusion of a continuous widescreen image, accompanied by stereophonic sound playback. The image was shown on a huge curved screen to produce an early version of what we now call immersive entertainment.

In the early sixties, Cinerama, Inc. unveiled an ambitious plan to create hundreds of Cinerama theatres based on a radical new model. They would construct geodesic domes using prefabricated panels, which would supposedly allow them to build a theatre in half the time and for half the cost of using conventional methods. They purchased a site on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood and hired the firm of Welton Becket and Associates to design what would become the Cinerama Dome.

The premiere of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at the Dome in 1963.

The premiere of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at the Dome in 1963.

Becket’s company was one of the major architectural firms in the city at that time, and played a large part in setting the look and tone of mid-century Los Angeles. To my mind the Dome is something of a companion piece to one of their earlier signature creations, the Capitol Records Building, which is just a few blocks away on Vine. Together these two icons helped to define space age architecture.

Of the theatres that were constructed to show films in the Cinerama process, only a handful are left today. The Dome is a unique creation designed by one of the most important architectural firms in the city’s history. That’s why so many of us got so crazy when we saw the initial plans to renovate it. I will always be grateful to Pacific for listening to the community and preserving the Dome.

The two pictures above are from the Los Angeles Public Library photo archive. The first shows the dome under construction. It was taken by Howard D. Kelly in 1963. The second shows the premiere of the film that the Dome opened with, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It was also taken in 1963, but no photographer is credited. Below are some photos I took of the Dome and the area surrounding it back in 1998. Sorry that the quality isn’t better. They were taken with a disposable camera, and have faded over the years. A couple of photos were taken from Morningside Court, which used to go through to De Longpre, but was closed off with the construction of the Arclight parking structure.

February, Nineteen Ninety Nine

For weeks I’ve been meaning to write abut the latest on the Cinerama Dome. Here it is.

Apparently the people from Pacific Theaters sat down and talked with the preservation people, and the end result was Pacific gave up a lot of the changes they were going to make. As I recall, these are some of the things pacific agreed to.

The entrance will remain at the front of the theatre.

The layout of the seating will stay basically the same, though they will be putting new seats in.

They won’t alter the ceiling of the auditorium.

And —

They’ll keep the curved screen.

I’m actually really grateful to Pacific for giving in on all this stuff. I doubt they understand why the Dome is such a great piece of architecture, so from their point of view the preservationists are going crazy over nothing.

Of course, we still don’t know what the Dome is gonna look like when they’re through. But at this point I’m cautiously optimistic.

The front of the Cinerama Dome in 1998.

The front of the Cinerama Dome in 1998.

Screen walls and landscaping on the periphery of the Dome.

Screen walls and landscaping on the periphery of the Dome.

A shot from the parking lot, looking north to Sunset.

A shot from the parking lot, looking north to Sunset.

A shot of Morningside Court, looking toward Sunset.

A shot of Morningside Court, looking toward Sunset.

Another shot of Morningside Court, this time looking in the opposite direction towards De Longpre.

Another shot of Morningside Court, this time looking in the opposite direction towards De Longpre.

This was taken from the parking lot behind the Dome, facing west.  The site just across the street is where Amoeba now stands.

This was taken from the parking lot behind the Dome, facing west. The site just across the street is where Amoeba now stands.

This shot was taken facing the opposite direction, now looking across the parking lot towards Morningside Court.

This shot was taken facing the opposite direction, now looking across the parking lot towards Morningside Court.

Braking Is Better Than Crashing

design by Renzo Piano for the proposed Academy museum

design by Renzo Piano for the proposed Academy museum

I’ve been reading the news about Zoltan Pali’s departure from the AMPAS museum team. There are a lot of ways to look at this. And it’s important to remember that expensive, high-profile projects like this often take longer and cost more than anyone imagined. I think everyone agrees that the ultimate goal, building a museum dedicated to film history in Los Angeles, is definitely worthwhile. I’m anxious to see it completed, but I also want to them to do it right. I certainly don’t have any credentials that would give me special insight into this process, but I do have a few thoughts to offer….

Renzo Piano is a great architect. With buildings for the Centre Pompidou, the Menil Collection and the Zentrum Paul Klee on his resume, everybody seems to agree that he’s a good choice for the project. But even great architects are human, and therefore fallible. I read this morning that some Academy staff members are concerned about unresolved problems with the design of the new theatre. Movie theatres are technically complex structures that present a very specific set of challenges. No doubt Piano is aware of this, but is he going to bow to the experts who actually have experience in this area?

I used to work at MOCA on Grand Ave.. Isozaki is another great architect, and the building is a beautiful and complex creation. But I was friends with one of the preparators at MOCA, and he was very critical of the design. Sure, he would say, it’s a gorgeous building, but it wasn’t properly planned as an exhibition space. He cited a number of problems with the design that made his job difficult. According to my friend, Isozaki didn’t take enough time to understand the specific challenges of creating an exhibition space. Piano needs to listen to the experts in designing the theatre. Whatever his vision as an architect, it has to function as a place for audiences to see and hear movies.

May Company store on Wilshire, photo by Anne Laskey from LAPL archives

May Company store on Wilshire, photo by Anne Laskey from LAPL archives

Some images of Piano’s design were first made public last year, and then views of an updated version were released just recently. Both versions have been criticized. I don’t have a background in architecture, and honestly, it’s hard for me to evaluate renderings. My impression is that Piano has some great ideas, but I can’t say it totally works for me. I wonder though, if rather than finding fault with Piano’s new building, we shouldn’t look harder at the building that exists on the site already. Many people praise the May Co. building, designed back in the thirties by A. C. Martin. I don’t share their enthusiasm. I love the building because it is an iconic part of the LA landscape. It occupies the corner at Wilshire and Fairfax with a lot of authority, and the gold cylinder rising above the intersection gives it a great presence. But in terms of design, I don’t think it’s very impressive. It’s a big, bland box. Piano is obviously trying for a dramatic contrast with this new addition. Unfortunately, I think starting the project with the May Co. building is like starting the project with an anchor around your neck. I’m glad the Academy wants to use it, because it’s been sitting vacant for years, but Piano faces a real challenge coming up with a design that incorporates it successfully.

The Times ran a piece yesterday by their architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne. He argues that the Academy needs to slow down and make sure this project is done right. I couldn’t agree more. Their public position is that everything’s going great and there’s no reason to reassess the timeline. Nobody’s buying it. Whatever the reason for Pali’s departure, it obviously signals a change of direction.

Rather than pretending everything’s hunky dory and pushing ahead, they need to pause and take stock of the situation. Why rush to break ground this year if the design isn’t right? I’m so glad the Academy is building this museum, but I also really want it to be something special.

A few links for those of you who want to read further. First is Hawthorne’s piece for the Times. Next a post that ran on Arch Daily back when Piano’s original design was made public in April of last year. And finally an article from the Hollywood Reporter that includes quotes from anonymous sources within the Academy. If these quotes give an accurate picture of what’s going on, there is good reason to be concerned about the viability of the project.

LA Times Commentary

Motion Picture Academy Unveils Designs

Academy Museum Architect Exits Amid Tension