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 (or disposability), even its architecture. The whole city seems a bit larger than life. As a result, L.A. is a veritable Disneyland of architecture and is home to an amalgam of distinctive styles, from Art Deco to Spanish Revival, to coffee-shop kitsch, to suburban ranch, to postmodern -- and much more.
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, 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 former Chiat/Day offices in Venice, known affectionately as the "Binoculars Building" .
Santa Monica and the Beaches -- When you're strolling the historic canals and streets of Venice, be sure to check out the Binoculars Building 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.
The spacey Jetsons-style Theme Building, which has always loomed over Los Angeles International Airport, has been joined by a more recent silhouette. The main LAX 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.
L.A.'S Westside & Beverly Hills -- The bold architecture and overwhelming scale of the Pacific Design Center, designed by Argentine architect Cesar Pelli, aroused controversy when it was erected in 1975. Sheathed in gently curving cobalt-blue glass, the six-story building houses more than 750,000 square feet of wholesale interior-design showrooms and is known to locals as "the Blue Whale." In 1988 a second boxlike structure, dressed in equally dramatic Kelly green, was added to the design center and surrounded by a protected outdoor plaza. The long-delayed Red Building towers are scheduled to finally open in the summer of 2011.
A protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright and contemporary of Richard Neutra, Austrian architect Rudolph Schindler designed the innovative Schindler House for himself in the early 1920s. It's now home to the Los Angeles arm of Austria's Museum of Applied Arts (MAK). The house is noted for its complicated interlocking spaces; the interpenetration of indoors and out; simple, unadorned materials; and technological innovations. Docent-guided tours are conducted at no additional charge on weekends.
Hollywood -- Opened in 1956, the 13-story Capitol Records Building tower, just north of the legendary intersection of Hollywood and Vine, is one of the city's most recognizable buildings. The world's first circular office building is often, but incorrectly, said to have been made to resemble a stack of 45s under a turntable stylus.
Conceived by grandiose impresario Sid Grauman, the Egyptian Theatre is just down the street from his better-known Chinese Theatre, but it remains less altered from its original design, which was based on the then-headline-news discovery of hidden treasures in Pharaohs' tombs -- hence the hieroglyphic murals and enormous scarab decoration above the stage. Hollywood's first movie premiere, Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks, was hosted here in 1922. The building has undergone a sensitive restoration by American Cinematheque, which now screens rare, classic, and independent films.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Freeman House, built in 1924, was designed as an experimental prototype of mass-produced affordable housing. The home's richly patterned "textile-block" exterior is the most famous aspect of the home's design. Situated on a dramatic site overlooking Hollywood, Freeman House is built with the world's first glass-to-glass corner windows. Dancer Martha Graham, bandleader Xavier Cugat, art collector Galka Sheye, photographer Edward Weston, and architects Philip Johnson and Richard Neutra all lived or spent significant time at this house.
Downtown -- 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 often appear on the silver screen.
The Bradbury Building, a National Historic Landmark, built in 1893 and designed by George Wyman, is Los Angeles's oldest commercial building and one of the city's most revered architectural achievements. Legend has it that an inexperienced draftsman named George Wyman accepted the $125,000 commission after communicating with his dead brother through a Ouija board. Capped by a magical five-story skylight, Bradbury's courtyard combines glazed brick, ornate Mexican tile floors, rich Belgian marble, Art Nouveau grillwork, handsome oak paneling, and lacelike wrought-iron railings -- it's one of the great interior spaces of the 19th century. The glass-topped atrium is often used as a movie and TV set; you've probably seen it before in Chinatown and Blade Runner.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, completed in September 2002 at a cost of $163 million and built to last 500 years, is one of L.A.'s newest architectural treasures and the third-largest cathedral in the world. It was designed by award-winning Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo and features a 20,000-square-foot plaza with a meditation garden, more than 6,000 crypts and niches (making it the largest crypt mausoleum in the U.S.), mission-style colonnades, biblically inspired gardens, and numerous artworks. The exterior of this austere, sand-colored structure is rather uninspiring and uninviting, but the interior is breathtaking: 12,000 panes of translucent alabaster and larger-than-life tapestries lining the walls create an awe-inspiring sense of magnificence and serenity. The 25,000-pound bronze doors, created by sculptor Robert Graham, pay homage to Ghiberti's bronze baptistery door in Florence. Free self-guided tours are available, and there's a small cafe and gift shop as well.
Built in 1928, the 27-story Los Angeles City Hall was the tallest building in the city for more than 30 years. The structure's distinctive ziggurat tower was designed to resemble the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The building has been featured in numerous films and television shows, but it is probably best known as the headquarters of the Daily Planet in the Superman TV series. When it was built, City Hall was the sole exception to an ordinance outlawing buildings taller than 150 feet. Take the elevator to the rarely used 27th-floor Observation Deck -- on a clear day you can see to Mount Wilson 15 miles away.
The L.A. Central Library is one of L.A.'s early architectural achievements and the third-largest library in the United States. The city rallied to save the library when arson nearly destroyed it in 1986; the triumphant restoration has returned much of its original splendor. Working in the early 1920s, architect Bertram G. Goodhue employed the Egyptian motifs and materials popularized by the discovery of King Tut's tomb, and combined them with a more modern use of concrete block to great effect. Free docent-led art and architecture tours are given daily -- call tel. 213/228-7168. Walk-in tours last about an hour; they're led Monday through Friday at 12:30pm, and Saturday at 11am and 2pm. Union Station, completed in 1939, is one of the finest examples of California mission-style architecture and one of the last of America's great rail stations. With its cathedral-like size and richly paneled ticket lobby and waiting area, it has the attention to detail that characterizes 1930s WPA projects. When you're strolling through these grand historic halls, it's easy to imagine the glamorous movie stars who once boarded The City of Los Angeles and The Super Chief to journey back East during the glory days of rail travel; it's also easy to picture the many heartfelt reunions between returning soldiers and loved ones following the end of World War II, in the station's heyday. Movies shot here include Bugsy, The Way We Were, and Blade Runner.
Designed by renowned architect I. M. Pei, US Bank Tower (also known as Library Tower) is L.A.'s most distinctive skyscraper (it's the round one) and is the tallest building between Chicago and Singapore. Built in 1989 at a cost of $450 million, the 76-story monolith is both square and rectangular, rising from its 5th Street base in a series of overlapping spirals and cubes. The Bunker Hill Steps wrapping around the west side of the building were inspired by Rome's Spanish Steps. The glass crown at the top -- illuminated at night -- is the highest building helipad in the world.
Watts -- Watts became notorious as the site of riots in the summer of 1965, during which 34 people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured. Today a visit to the Watts Towers and Art Center is a lesson in inner-city life. Watts is a high-density land of gray strip malls, well-guarded check-cashing shops, and fast-food restaurants; but it's also a neighborhood of hardworking families struggling to survive in the midst of gangland. Although there's not much for the casual tourist here, the Watts Towers are truly a unique attraction, and the adjoining art gallery illustrates the fierce determination of area residents to maintain cultural integrity.
The Towers -- the largest piece of folk art created by a single person -- are colorful, 99-foot-tall cement and steel sculptures ornamented with mosaics of bottles, seashells, cups, plates, pottery, and ceramic tiles. They were completed in 1955 by folk artist Simon Rodia, an immigrant Italian tile-setter who worked on them for 33 years in his spare time. Closed in 1994 due to earthquake damage, the towers were reopened in 2001 and now attract more than 20,000 visitors annually. Tours are by request.
Pasadena and Environs -- The two-story Gamble House, built in 1908 as a California vacation home for the wealthy family of Procter and Gamble fame, is a sublime example of Arts and Crafts architecture. The interior, designed by the famous Pasadena-based Greene and Greene architectural team, abounds with handcraftsmanship, including intricately carved teak cornices, custom-designed furnishings, elaborate carpets, and a fantastic Tiffany glass door.
Additional elegant Greene and Greene houses (still privately owned) abound 2 blocks away along Arroyo Terrace, including nos. 368, 370, 400, 408, 424, and 440. The Gamble House bookstore can give you a walking-tour map.
In the late 18th century, Franciscan missionaries established 21 missions up the California coast, from San Diego to Sonoma. Each uniquely beautiful mission was built 1 day's trek from the next, along a path known as El Camino Real ("the Royal Road"), remnants of which still exist. The missions' construction marked the beginning of European settlement of California and the displacement of the Native American population. The two L.A.-area missions are located in the valleys that took their names: the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel Valley. A third mission, San Juan Capistrano, is located in Orange County.
Established in 1797, Mission San Fernando once controlled more than 1 1/2 million acres, employed 1,500 Native Americans, and boasted more than 22,000 head of cattle and extensive orchards. The fragile adobe mission complex was destroyed several times but was always faithfully rebuilt with low buildings surrounding grassy courtyards. The aging church was replaced in the 1940s and again in the 1970s after an earthquake. The Convento, a 250-foot-long colonnaded structure dating from 1810, is the compound's oldest remaining building. Some of the mission's rooms, including the old library and the private salon of the first bishop of California, have been restored to their late-18th-century appearance. A half-dozen padres and many hundreds of Shoshone Indians are buried in the adjacent cemetery.
Founded in 1771, Mission San Gabriel Arcangel retains its original facade, notable for its high oblong windows and large capped buttresses said to have been influenced by the cathedral in Cordova, Spain. The mission's self-contained compound encompasses an aqueduct, a cemetery, a tannery, and a winery. Within the church stands a copper font with the distinction of being the first one used to baptize a Native Californian. The most notable contents of the mission's museum are Native American paintings depicting the Stations of the Cross, done on sailcloth, with colors made from crushed desert flower petals.