It Never Rains

It Never Rains


Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism, 1900–1970
Thomas S. Hines
Rizzoli, $95.00

Ardent modernists and book lovers have equal reason to celebrate this splendid production, and to congratulate its publisher. Succinct yet meticulously researched chapters explore the origins and flowering of the modern movement in Southern California. In contrast to so many mega-scrapbooks of stunning images and multi-lingual captions, it offers nourishment for the mind as much as for the eye.

Here are insights and visual delights of a quality you’ll never find online. The designer, Green Dragon, has done an exemplary job of seamlessly weaving text and pictures together and setting them off with luxurious expanses of white space. Architecture of the Sun is as cool as a vintage Richard Neutra house.

Tom Hines, a native of Oxford, Mississippi, arrived in LA in 1968, around the same time as Reyner Banham and David Hockney, and all three have enhanced perceptions of a city most outsiders disparage. Architecture of the Sun is his magnum opus, drawing on 40 years of teaching, writing, and exploring the modernist legacy.

He traces its roots from the Greene brothers’ Craftsman bungalows to the pioneering work of Irving Gill and Frank Lloyd Wright and Wright’s art deco houses. There’s a masterly comparison of Schindler and Neutra, the Austrian émigrés who embodied the twin strains of expressionism and rationalism that have shaped LA architecture down to the present. Neutra’s protégés—including Ain, Soriano, and Harris—receive their due, and Hines provides a judicious summary of Craig Ellwood as an impresario who inspired his associates but stole credit for their creativity. He evokes the regional tradition and sketches the context within which these architects worked.

The book provides a brilliant synthesis of a drama with many themes and players. The strongest sections, on Gill and Neutra, reprise the texts of Hines’ books on those architects, but there is much new material. Architectural descriptions are enlivened by portraits of remarkable clients who took chances and often sacrificed themselves in the cause of artistic experimentation.

But the last two chapters are anti-climactic. Hines seems to have little appreciation for John Lautner, whose achievements in the 1960s far outshone that of Neutra and the other rationalists. It’s ironic that his cursory or dismissive comments mirror those that were directed at Schindler during his lifetime.

More space is devoted to the corporate modernism of Welton Beckett and William Pereira, whose work (most notably the Music Center and LACMA) symbolizes LA leaders’ eagerness to settle for mediocrity. (It was the suits, remember, who fought Gehry’s vision for Walt Disney Concert Hall.) In essence, nothing has changed.

Architecture of the Sun concludes on the same low note as the architecture it chronicles: 1970 was a bad year all around. What matters are the decades of innovation that went before. Here is a body of work that captures the spirit of place and retains its power to inspire, in California and around the world.

Read all of AN‘s Friday Reviews here.