10 questions for architectural historian Thomas Hines
Two years after accepting a position as an acting assistant professor in history and architectural history at UCLA, Thomas S. Hines moved with his wife into an apartment building near campus that was flagged as architecturally significant in an architecture guide.
The architect? The modern master Richard Neutra.
Hines couldn’t have known that his decision to move there would set the course of his career. The building’s manager introduced Hines to Neutra and his wife, who, in turn, introduced the young academic to a circle of seminal Los Angeles modernists.
Forty years later, Hines is now the world’s foremost authority on the architect, who is credited with helping to popularize modern architecture on a residential scale. In addition to a range of other topics, Hines has published extensively on Neutra. He also has organized three museum exhibitions of Neutra’s work, the most recent being a critically acclaimed display last year of Neutra’s drawings at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Now single and retired, Hines lives in the Neutra-designed Kelton Apartments near campus. His latest book is “Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970” (Rizzoli), a 755-page, illustrated history of the larger modern movement in Southern California. Writer Meg Sullivan talked to Hines about the magnum opus, which was a decade in the making.
What is Los Angeles’ contribution to architectural history?
Los Angeles is one of the half dozen or so most important places in the world in the development of modern architecture. It has to do with the climate and the geography. Mountains with snow on them all year. Beaches. Deserts. A big city with a downtown and sprawling suburbs. Anything a movie location scout wanted also attracted architects. And the same factors led to an indoor-outdoor informality that was very much in sync with the larger modern movement.
What makes a great dwelling, and what does a great dwelling do?
Los Angeles modernist architecture, like all great architecture, has provided a shelter from the woes of the world and a stage for confronting and enjoying life. That would be my short answer. And one version of that doesn’t fit everyone’s needs. There are many different versions of modernist dwellings.
How did you get interested in the history of architecture?
My father was a college administrator but his real love was history. Whatever writing talent I have, I got from him. My mother was the visual person. She took me hand-in- hand as a small child to building sites. Whenever a new building was going up anywhere, I was there with her. We would trespass on the building site and study the work in progress. It’s nice when you can thank both of your parents for what they gave you.
Why does your book start in 1900?
I began in 1900 because what I’m calling Los Angeles modernism began then with Pasadena craftman designers Charles and Henry Greene and the rational modernist Irving Gill, both of which had firms that were active in the century’s first decades.
Why do you end in 1970s?
In some ways, it’s a symbolic date. It’s the year Neutra died and a year after the death of Welton Becket, who designed the Capitol Records Building, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and the old UCLA Medical Center — among other modernist landmarks. It was also symbolic in that Reyner Banham, the author of the influential book, “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” and one of L.A.’s greatest champions, decided that 1970 was the year that modernism — as he put it — “ceased to have world-wide dominance.” Also, it was just after the end of the Case Study program and the beginning of the post-modern critique of modernism.
What was the Case Study program, and what was its significance?
The Bailey House (1956-1958) is an example of a Case Study project. Architect Pierre Koenig is pictured.
It was a design program launched by an architecture magazine that ended up popularizing modern architecture in a residential setting. The idea was the brainchild of John Entenza, who bought an old journal called California Arts and Architecture in 1938 and changed the name to Arts and Architecture. Entenza figured — rightly — that the postwar boom in construction would lead to a lot of less-than-distinguished design. In Arts and Architecture, he wanted to offer modernist prototypes — and models — that returning GIs could aspire to. He asked key architects to come to him with clients and with plans and ideas that the magazine could designate as case study houses, which he published and opened to the public for tours. Only 27 were built; 10 were designed but not carried through, but the program was one of the most important factors in popularizing residential modernism and in keeping Los Angeles on the map as the center of modernism.
What was your goal with “Architecture of the Sun”?
I wanted to trace the genealogy of modern architecture in Southern California. Of course, the father of them all — to use the genealogical metaphor — is Frank Lloyd Wright. The Greene brothers did not work with him. They were contemporaries. But they knew and were influenced by him. Irving Gill worked with Wright in the Chicago office of
Irving Gill, who designed the Dodge House (1914-1916), worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. It was subsequently demolished.
Louis Sullivan, considered one of the fathers of modernism, before Gill came to San Diego and Los Angeles. Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, Lloyd Wright, worked in his father’s studio, as did Rudolf Schindler and Neutra. John Lautner was the last of the architects from Wright’s studio, Taliesen, who came here. The disciples of Schindler and Neutra were Gregory Ain, whose modernist residences you see in Mar Vista, and Raphael Soriano and Harwell Hamilton Harris, who also designed modernist homes. You can’t make a direct link to Frank Lloyd Wright with the influential Southern California modernists Ray and Charles Eames, Wilton Becket or William Pereira, but just about everybody else you can.
Is there something about the people who gravitated here that made them more predisposed to experimental architecture?
Of course, many different kinds of people gravitated here. Hence, the Hansel and Gretel cottages and Spanish colonial revival fantasies. So you can generalize only to a point. But there was an openness in Southern California. Maybe just the act of coming here, being reminded that things were different here, that you could take off more of your clothes, or all of your clothes — metaphorically and architecturally — emboldened potential clients. Whatever the explanation, this receptivity to architectural experimentation is one of Los Angeles’ greatest cultural achievements.
Your book analyzes hundreds of modern masterpieces. Of these treasures, how many have been leveled?
I’d say one-fourth — at least.
If you could rescue just one of the demolished treasures, which one would it be?
The von Sternberg House (1935) was one of Neutra's greatest masterpieces.
There are several — not just one — and their losses are all equally regrettable. But Neutra’s von Sternberg House in Northridge would be one of them. It was one of his greatest buildings and one of the most important buildings in the history of modernism, and it has a rich cultural history. It was designed for the distinguished Hollywood director Joseph von Sternberg, who directed “Blue Angel.” Marlene Dietrich lived there with him much of the time. After he sold it, it went through another owner. Then it was purchased by novelist Ayn Rand (“The Fountainhead,” “Atlas Shrugged”). After she left, it was knocked down over one weekend in 1971 before anybody knew about it.
A patio nestles into the dramatic curve in front of the von Sternberg House.
Equally deserving would be Irving Gill’s Dodge House. Located in what today is West Hollywood, it was Gill’s greatest work, and it was one of the iconic buildings in the history of modern architecture. It figured in every history and every course taught in the history of modern architecture. Both buildings were razed for condominiums of no particular distinction.
Thomas S. Hines will discuss "Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism, 1900-1970” from 1 p.m. to 1:25 p.m. on Saturday, June 26, at the Dwell on Design show at the Los Angeles Convention Center. For details, see this.