Because it's more receptive to experimentation than some other American cities, Los Angeles is a veritable Disneyland of architecture. The city is home to an amalgam of distinctive styles: Art Deco, Spanish Revival, coffee-shop kitsch, suburban ranch, postmodern -- and much more.
The movie industry, more than anything else, has defined Los Angeles. The process of moviemaking has never been confined to studio offices and back lots; it spills into the city's streets and other public spaces. The city itself is an extension of the movie set, and Angelenos have always seen it that way. All of Los Angeles has an air of Hollywood surreality, even in its architecture. The whole city seems a bit larger than life. Cutting-edge, over-the-top styles that would be out of place in other cities are perfectly at home in L.A. The world's top architects, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry, have flocked to L.A., reveling in the artistic freedom here. Between 1945 and 1966, Arts and Architecture magazine focused the design world's attention on L.A. with its series of "Case Study Houses," prototypes for postwar living, many of which were designed by prominent émigrés like Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra, and Eero Saarinen. Los Angeles has taken some criticism for not being a "serious" architectural center, but in terms of innovation and style, the city gets high marks.
Although much of it is gone, you can still find some prime examples of the kitschy roadside art that defined L.A. in earlier days. The famous Brown Derby is no more, but you can still find a neon-lit 1950s gas station/spaceship (at the corner of Little Santa Monica Blvd. and Crescent Dr. in Beverly Hills), in addition to some newer structures carrying on the tradition, such as the "Binocular Building" offices in Venice.
L.A.'s Top Architectural Tours
The L.A. Conservancy (tel. 213/623-2489; www.laconservancy.org) conducts a dozen information-packed walking tours of historic Downtown L.A., seed of today's sprawling metropolis. The most popular is Broadway Historic Theatre and Commercial District, a look at movie palaces, among other area attractions. Other intriguing tours include Angelino Heights, Art Deco, Downtown's Modern Skyline, and tours of the Biltmore Hotel and Union Station. Most tours take place on Saturday mornings at 10am and last about 2 1/2 hours. Call Monday through Friday between 9am and 5pm for information, or, better yet, click on the "Walking Tours" link on the website.
In Pasadena, various tours spotlighting Old Pasadena or the surrounding neighborhoods are intriguing, given this area's history of wealthy estates and ardent preservation. Call Pasadena Heritage (tel. 626/441-6333; www.pasadenaheritage.org) for a schedule of guided tours, or pick up one of the self-guided walking or driving maps available at the Pasadena Convention and Visitors Bureau, 300 E. Green St. (tel. 626/795-9311; www.visitpasadena.com).
Santa Monica and the Beaches
When you're strolling the historic canals and streets of Venice, be sure to check out the old Chiat/Day offices at 340 Main St. What would otherwise be an unspectacular contemporary office building is made fantastic by a three-story pair of binoculars that frames the entrance. The sculpture is modeled after a design created by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
When you're on your way in or out of LAX, be sure to stop for a moment to admire the Control Tower and Theme Building. The spacey Jetsons-style Theme Building, which has always loomed over LAX, has been joined by a more recent silhouette. The main control tower, designed by local architect Kate Diamond to evoke a stylized palm tree, is tailored to present Southern California in its best light. You can go inside to enjoy the view from the Theme Building's observation deck, or have a space-age cocktail at the Technicolor bachelor pad that is the Encounter at LAX restaurant.
Constructed on a broad cliff with a steep face, the Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes enjoys a fantastic spot overlooking the waves of the Pacific. It was designed by Lloyd Wright, son of celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Known locally as the "glass church," Wayfarers is a memorial to Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish philosopher who claimed to have visions of spirits and heavenly hosts. The church is constructed of glass, redwood, and native stone. Rare plants, some of which are native to Israel, surround the building. The church is open daily from 8am to 5pm and is located at 5755 Palos Verdes Dr. S. Call tel. 310/377-1650 or visit www.wayfarerschapel.org in advance to arrange a free escorted tour.
L.A.'s Westside and Beverly Hills
Don't miss the Beverly Hills Hotel, and be sure to wind your way through the wide rural streets of Beverly Hills between Sunset and Santa Monica boulevards.
Greystone Mansion -- If you've seen The Witches of Eastwick or War and Remembrance, then you already know how beautiful and opulent the Greystone Mansion and surrounding gardens are. On a gentle slope overlooking Beverly Hills, the 19-acre park is a prime filming location where dozens of TV episodes, movies (Spiderman, X-Men, Batman, Ghostbusters, The Bodyguard), commercials, and music videos are filmed annually. It's worth a visit just to admire the matriarch of Beverly Hills mansions and the meticulously groomed gardens. A self-guided tour takes you through the Formal Gardens, Mansion Gardens, and Lower Ground Estate. Picnics are welcome in designated areas. The park is at 905 Loma Vista Dr., just off Doheny Road, and is open daily from 10am to 6pm (to 5pm in the winter). tel. 310/285-6830. Admission is free. For more information, log on to www.greystonemansion.org.
Don't miss the Griffith Observatory and Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and the Roosevelt Hotel, Hollywood.
For a taste of what Downtown's Bunker Hill was like before the bulldozers, visit the residential neighborhood of Angelino Heights, near Echo Park. Entire streets are still filled with stately gingerbread Victorian homes; most still enjoy the beautiful views that led early L.A.'s elite to build here. The 1300 block of Carroll Avenue is the best preserved. Don't be surprised if a film crew is scouting locations while you're there -- these blocks appear often on the silver screen.
A definite must-see for architecture buffs is the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Pasadena and Environs
For a quick but profound architectural fix, stroll past Pasadena's grandiose and baroque City Hall, 100 N. Garfield Ave., 2 blocks north of Colorado Boulevard; closer inspection will reveal its classical colonnaded courtyard, formal gardens, and spectacular tiled dome.