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BBC - Culture - LA’s most fantastical architecture



Fantasy is built-in to LA’s sense of itself – not unsurprisingly, given Hollywood’s role as dream factory to the world – and many of its most distinctive buildings tap that energy. Whether it’s Chinese and Mayan-themed movie theatres, thrillingly Art Deco office-blocks, opulent hotels modelled on French royal chateaux or airport terminals that could double as extra-terrestrial vehicles, the City of Angels excels at architecture that’s a little unreal. 

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We’ve already picked a trio of favourite cultural buildings in the city, a suite of minimalist, modernist houses, a Beaux-Arts-style movie theatre, and a self-consciously show-offy contemporary art museum. But there are plenty more where they came from. Here are another three that push the architectural envelope even further – into outer space, in fact.

Griffith Observatory

Los Angeles is so studded with Art Deco gems that it’s hard to know where to start. Probably the most dazzling is the Eastern Columbia building in the Broadway theatre district, with its delirious turquoise facade; then there’s the serene Union Station, which melds Deco with Spanish Colonial in a Southern Californian take on the style. Los Angeles Central Library, Los Angeles City Hall, The Title Guarantee and Trust Company: the list goes on. 

But when it comes to cultural spaces, it’s impossible not to fall for one of the city’s most loved buildings, John C Austin and Frederick Ashley’s winningly elegant Griffith Park Observatory and Planetarium (1935). Perching on the slopes of Mount Hollywood, the project was the dream of the eccentric businessman ‘Colonel’ Griffith J Griffith, who had donated land in the late 19th Century to create “a place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people”. Inspired by telescopes elsewhere, Griffith had also left money for LA to erect one in his new park. In 1930, 11 years after his death, and soon after the Wall Street Crash, the city finally got around to commissioning an observatory of its own. 

Working alongside astronomer Russell W Porter and specialist engineers, Austin and Ashley opted for an eclectic style – typically LA, you could argue – that nods to Deco, while also tipping its hat to classical Graeco-Roman architecture and Moorish motifs. Its silhouette is dominated by the great dome of the central planetarium flanked by two smaller domes, which respectively contain a refracting Zeiss telescope and a ‘coelostat’ (solar telescope). 

Although it was constructed from thick, earthquake-proof concrete painted white, the Observatory was finished with top-quality materials – copper-covered domes, travertine-covered walls – and enlivened by sculpture and murals created by artists employed by the Depression-era Public Works of Art Project. Hugo Ballin’s ceiling mural for the main rotunda is gorgeously stylised, depicting figures from classical mythology in bright jewel-like hues, while a rocket-shaped 40-ft (12m)-high ‘Astronomers’ Monument’ includes figures such as Copernicus and Galileo. Out of this world in more ways than one.

Hollyhock House

Frank Lloyd Wright’s first commission in LA looked like a dream scheme: an oil heiress, a stunning hill-top site above Hollywood, and the brief to create a house that would be the envy of the West Coast elite. But Wright and his client Alice Barnsdall fell out, and even before it was finished she was manoeuvering to donate it to the city. She never even moved in.

The heiress’s loss was LA’s gain, and Hollyhock House, completed in 1921, is the crown jewel of Barnsdall Art Park – and what a jewel it is. A long, low-slung structure, it draws on the ‘Prairie Style’ houses that Wright had built in the Midwest, but moves in a fresh direction, borrowing stylistic touches from elsewhere in the world in an attempt to create a distinctively Californian architecture. (Even Wright couldn’t quite decide which style it was, variously referring to the building as Mayan, Aztec, Asian, Egyptian, even ‘California Romanza’.)

It became a template for cool-as-ice postwar Californian modernism

On the outside, the house is a series of rooftop terraces and colonnades, making the most of the temperate climate and the ravishing views. Inside, it’s open-plan, a sprawling complex of 17 rooms and seven bathrooms (too big, Barnsdall complained). The building is full of subtle details: a stylised hollyhock motif – the client’s favourite flower – runs across everything from a stone band on the outside walls to special ornamental windows, and the interior spaces manage to be both cosy and monumental, with bespoke furniture and fittings in honey-coloured wood. 

Yet it’s Wright’s handling of mass and scale that impresses: the building’s blocky rooflines give it the exotic look of a desert fortress, and you can see why it helped launch a craze for ‘Mayan Revival’ in LA. More than that: in its stripped-back appearance and clever integration into the surrounding landscape, it became a template for cool-as-ice postwar Californian modernism.

Capitol Records Building

If you could isolate LA’s architectural DNA – something that feels truly unique to the city – it would probably be so-called ‘Googie’, a self-consciously fun, futuristic mid-century style full of swooping lines, streamlined shapes and eye-popping colours that sought to capture the excitement of the space age in architectural form. Named after Googies, a now-defunct coffee shop in West Hollywood, it was originally a term of abuse, used by the critic Douglas Haskell as a way of dismissing an aesthetic he regarded as fundamentally unserious. Yet few things feel so authentically Southern Californian, especially given that the style, ultramodern in its day, now reads as charmingly retro – Jetsons rather than Apollo 11.

When it comes to LA’s Googie cultural structures, the most notable must be the Capitol Records Building (1956), a block north of Hollywood Boulevard. Designed by the young architect Louis Naidorf, working for local firm Welton Becket and Associates, it was purportedly the world’s first circular office building, thirteen stories high, and topped by a steel spire originally intended as a radio mast. Despite being primarily an administrative space, it contains a warren of ground-floor recording studios, through which an astonishing parade of musicians have passed, from Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole to Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. 

The spire even features a red light that blinks out ‘Hollywood’ in Morse code

As with all Googie, form beats out function: this is a brand as much as a building, the symbolic flagship of Capitol’s West Coast operation, and its silhouette featured on record sleeves for many years. The sign on the top is visible for miles, while the spire even features a red light that blinks out ‘Hollywood’ in Morse code (canny marketing by Capitol’s then-CEO). But its resemblance to a stack of records, often observed, is probably coincidental: the hooded sun shades that cover the dark windows are there for practical rather than ornamental purposes. This is Hollywood, though, so maybe the myth is more important than the reality.

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