Can Preservationists Save L.A.’s Late Modernist Landmarks?

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Danny Heller's painting LAX Theme Building — Ground Level (2011)
Danny Heller’s painting LAX Theme Building — Ground Level (2011)

Squeezed between the Los Angeles International Airport’s ever-honking traffic and its jam-packed parking lots, the iconic spacecraft-shaped Theme Building peacefully overlooks the chaos. Designed by architects William L. Pereira and Charles Luckman (with Paul Williams and Welton Becket) and one of the last original pieces of the airport master plan, the building opened in 1961. Its architects envisioned it as the centerpiece of the airport, a jet-setting gateway to the futurist city of Los Angeles. Today, you have to dodge a few shuttle buses to get to it, and its retro cocktail lounge and restaurant closed in 2013. Still, the space-age structure stands as a worthy destination for those daring enough to make their way to its observation deck. Designated as a Historic-Cultural Monument by the city in 1993 (a move that protects it from demolition or substantial changes), it’s an essential piece of architectural history.

The Theme Building fits within an era of expressive architecture that is sometimes called “Googie” or “Populuxe” — commercial styles meant to capture in streamlined form L.A.’s aerospace ambitions. Think of the jaunty roofline of Norms on La Cienega Boulevard, a diner by Googie masters Armet & Davis, which was saved from demolition last year. The diner sign, with its Jetsons-style cometlike shapes, literally points to the optimism of the midcentury.

But the rosy future promised by that era didn’t exactly materialize. Some buildings that once were architectural harbingers of coming urban utopia now have to prove their relevance or risk being erased completely. Rampant growth across Los Angeles — from new biomorphic and monolithic museums to extended Metro rail lines to Blade Runner–like proposals for bigger, denser development in the Arts District — suggests that it’s more important than ever that we preserve our architectural past.

L.A. is full of architecture that tells us stories of the city — but not all of it is pretty. After all, architecture is the wardrobe of our city, although styles change; some pieces remain classic while others go out of fashion. Architecture is also a tangible reminder of ideas, hopes and dreams, a visual representation of the brilliant (and not so brilliant) thoughts of a particular slice of time.

Midcentury architecture in L.A. reflects many great ideas, but should all midcentury buildings be preserved? Hollywood loves the modern homes in the hills — cool, cinematic lairs for socialites and villains alike. What about the era’s ugly ducklings — those buildings that don’t easily fit into our Mad Men reminiscences? The Theme Building and the Pereira & Luckman LAX master plan also fall into a category of late modernism — a period after the famous designs by Silver Lake–based Austrian architect Richard Neutra and the Eames Office — that begins at midcentury and stretched into the 1970s, when it quietly died. […]