February milestones in La La Land
In February we celebrate two icons whose careers intersect in that magical place called La La Land – architect Paul Revere Williams (1894-1980) whose birthday falls on the 18th and “Oscar” whose award ceremonies are set for the 26th.
Mr. Williams, the versatile architect to the stars who designed homes for Hollywood celebrities in a wide range of historic revival styles was equally gifted in the mid-century school. At the peak of his career, he served as a joint venture team member for the world’s first purpose-built jet age airport, Los Angeles International. The most famous part of that massive project, the LAX Theme Building (1964), still stands under historic preservation as a symbol of the optimistic, future-thinking world of the Boomers.
Oscar, of course, speaks to our fantasies and dreams, bringing fresh interpretations, fresh visions each year. Like the Boomers themselves, Oscar’s tastes are always evolving.
Ironically, this year one of the nominees for Best Picture is titled La La Land – a term coined as a put-down by critics but happily embraced by Los Angelenos because, dude, mellow is what SoCal is all about.
Stereotypes 150 years in the making: why LA is a better metaphor for the Boomers than is Frisco (ouch!)
For over 150 years America has looked at California with a mixture of awe, envy, titillation, dismay, condescension and grudgingly, for better or worse, as a forerunner.
Whether it’s the brainiac Bay Area, home to three of the world’s top five most valuable brands – Apple, Google and Facebook, all founded on knowledge technology – or hedonistic SoCal with its endless sunshine, glamour and glitz, California always seems to be in the lead of some new trend.
The personality difference between Los Angeles and San Francisco is immediately clear from the way the locals refer to their hometowns. Down south it’s just LA, laid back, go with the flow, whatever. Up north, only tourists refer to Frisco – the residents groan at the informality.
After all, the Bay Area has always been the studious, well-behaved first-born in the California family, seeking the approval of mom and dad back east but secretly envying LA, its rambunctious, free-spirited, do your own thing sibling who never seems to grow up.
Built on huge profits from the region’s gold and silver discoveries and the arrival of the first ever transcontinental railroad, by 1870 San Francisco was one of the 10 largest urban places in America. With prosperity came a desire for social acceptance. Culture flourished, great universities were founded – UC San Francisco (1864), Berkeley (1868), Stanford (1891) – and San Francisco soon acquired its present persona, a western city with eastern manners … Boston on the Pacific.
Southern California was slower to adopt mercantile Yankee hustle and bustle: in 1900 the population of Los Angeles was less than one-third of San Francisco’s. The sunny mindset of the Spanish hacienda heyday lingered on; adopted by the Americanos, it morphed into a beguiling, relaxed culture strong enough to absorb explosive early 20th century growth triggered by the
theft acquisition of distant water supplies, the discovery of vast oil reserves and the raucous arrival of the movie industry.
In 1920, when LA finally blew past San Francisco on the top 50 urban places list, the city celebrated with typically déclassé exuberance: “Here was retribution for a century of patronizing abuse … the city had finally outgrown its toddler’s outfit, or escaped its guards, depending on which point of view you accepted” (Sunshine and Wealth, Bruce Henstell, 1984)
So, which city is the better metaphor for Boomers? No brainer. It’s LA.
As has often been said, it’s not so much a place as a state of mind. Derided by elites as a cultural wasteland it is, nevertheless, a state of mind that everyday Boomers all across America, with everyday interests, everyday ambitions and – especially – everyday budgets, could relate to.
Brash, crass and middle class, from the west bank of the Hudson to the Oakland city limits we’ve been doing our own thing for so long it’s way too late to ditch Applebee’s for Petrale Sole Almondine .
Building La La Land
That meant a whole lot of construction and a whole lot of new thinking to go along with a new way of living.
Southern California, in the vanguard of modernist architecture since the 1920s, was ready. Of course, unlike hillside showplaces that featured walls of windows, regular families looked for more privacy in the tight confines of the typical housing tract; however, angular lines, modern materials and limited ornamentation still made for a very different experience than the homes they knew back in the midwest and the east.
And when it came to places to eat, shop, gas up or wash the car the newcomers were surrounded by a playful blend of modernism and space age motifs known as Googie style.
Eventually, Googie would go national, evolving into the design language of the Boomers’ early years, from furniture to automobiles to iconic airport buildings in the nation’s centers of power – the TWA terminal at New York’s JFK and Washington Dulles International. Meanwhile, back where it all began, in low-brow La La Land, even humble diners would one day become beloved nostalgic landmarks.
Of course, what helped make SoCal architecture unique was the influence of Hollywood: it wasn’t called the dream factory for nothing.
Hollywood set architects free to build a Tudor mansion next to a Mediterranean villa next to a French chateau next to a Mayan temple – coexisting in perfect harmony with stunning mid-century homes that still set the standard for the ultimate La La Land living space.
At the pinnacle sits Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22, also named the Stahl House for its original owners. In a typical tinsel-town plotline, regular guy Buck Stahl – an aircraft engineer – and his wife Carlotta were told their dream home was impossible to build until, five years after they bought the lot, disruptive young architect Koenig agreed to execute the project.
There’s a lesson here for all who say this or that or the other is impossible just because it goes against the “experts.” With the right kind of imagination anything is possible – even advertising mainstream brands to Boomers. Come, gaze with us out over La La Land.