A Walking Tour of Los Angeles Architecture: From Art Deco to California Bungalow

When archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an Reyn­er Ban­ham wrote Los Ange­les: The Archi­tec­ture of Four Ecolo­gies (1971), quite pos­si­bly the most influ­en­tial book pub­lished about the South­ern Cal­i­forn­ian metrop­o­lis, he saw fit to dis­miss the cen­ter of the city with what he called “a note on down­town.” He con­cedes that it has its land­marks, like the Cathe­dral of San­ta Vib­iana and the much-filmed Brad­bury Build­ing, “one of the most mag­nif­i­cent relics of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry com­mer­cial archi­tec­ture any­where in the world.” But he finds the urban scene that sur­rounds them hope­less­ly deplet­ed: “Many US cities have had their down­town areas fall into this kind of desue­tude,” but “in none of the oth­ers does one have quite such a strong feel­ing that this is where the action can­not pos­si­bly be.”

Things have changed since The Archi­tec­ture of Four Ecolo­gies came out more than half a cen­tu­ry ago. After count­less abort­ed attempts at revival, down­town Los Ange­les seems final­ly to have found its way to becom­ing a true city cen­ter once again.

This has to do with a num­ber of fac­tors, includ­ing its posi­tion­ing as the hub of the rail tran­sit that’s been open­ing in stages since the ear­ly nineties, its lev­els of com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial den­si­ty at which today’s zon­ing laws make dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble to build, and the sheer diver­si­ty of its built envi­ron­ment. In the Archi­tec­tur­al Digest video above, Los Ange­les archi­tect Valéry Augustin pro­vides a walk­ing tour of that diver­si­ty, intro­duc­ing a strik­ing build­ing from each era of the city’s devel­op­ment.

Ban­ham and Agustin agree on the impor­tance of Los Ange­les’ City Hall and Union Sta­tion. But Augustin also high­lights the Art Deco East­ern Colum­bia Build­ing, the Chur­rigueresque Mil­lion Dol­lar The­ater, and a cou­ple of major struc­tures that Ban­ham did­n’t live to see, the Broad Muse­um and Ramon C. Cortines School Of Visu­al And Per­form­ing Arts. (Notably absent is Frank Gehry’s Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall, whose once-shock­ing metal­lic curves have per­haps been over­ex­posed over these past cou­ple of decades.) But what­ev­er the won­ders of down­town, it’s long been argued that Los Ange­les’ has more of a pri­vate archi­tec­tur­al her­itage than a pub­lic one; to under­stand the city’s archi­tec­ture, in oth­er words, you can’t ignore its hous­es.

Hence Archi­tec­tur­al Digest’s hav­ing also put out a video in which Augustin breaks down the five most com­mon types of Los Ange­les home. These include exam­ple of the roman­ti­cized Mis­sion Revival style, the idyl­lic Cal­i­for­nia bun­ga­low, the board­walk beach house (as seen in ocean enclaves like San­ta Mon­i­ca and Venice), and more cul­tur­al­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive hous­ing forms such as bun­ga­low courts (as seen in Par­ty of Five) and post­war ding­bat apart­ments. With their broad car­ports, their play­ful­ly exot­ic names, and their box­like con­struc­tion front­ed, as Ban­ham observes, by a range of styles from “from Tacoburg­er Aztec to Wavy-Line Mod­erne, from Cod Cape Cod to un-sup­port­ed Jaoul vaults, from Gourmet Mansardic to Poly­ne­sian Gabled and even — in extrem­i­ty — Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture,” they may well be the most Los Ange­les build­ings of all.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Sto­ry of Goo­gie Archi­tec­ture, the Icon­ic Archi­tec­tur­al Style of Los Ange­les

That Far Cor­ner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Ange­les – A Free Online Doc­u­men­tary

1,300 Pho­tos of Famous Mod­ern Amer­i­can Homes Now Online, Cour­tesy of USC

Take a Dri­ve Through 1940s, 50s & 60s Los Ange­les with Vin­tage Through-the-Car-Win­dow Films

Watch Randy Newman’s Tour of Los Ange­les’ Sun­set Boule­vard, and You’ll Love L.A. Too

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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