The A+D Museum’s “Never Built: Los Angeles” has been one of its most popular exhibits ever, drawing weekend crowds to a small Museum Row institution not known for such. It’s a smart, accessible show playing off the perception of L.A. as a few Case Study houses surrounded by bland suburgatory. As a gallery label asks, “Why is Los Angeles a hotbed of great architects, yet so lacking in urban innovation?”
The conventional answer is that the city’s power structure smashed every brilliant idea with a mallet. There is some truth to that, though the show’s objects tell a more nuanced story. A large fraction of its unbuilt plans are megalomanic-wacky, such as the 1965 Causeway, a freeway-close string of Florida Keys to be built in Santa Monica Bay, or the ski slope once planned for Culver City (left). The source of snow was to be determined. The subjunctive alpine wonderland was to be on La Cienega Boulevard, in the heart of today’s gallery row, and would have delighted Yutaka Sone and Benjamin Weissman.
Lorado Taft’s Dream Museum, planned for Griffith Park, was intended to add humanist ballast to the Griffith Observatory’s cosmic mysteries. It promised a court of Michelangelo sculptures—all fake—and a life-size replica of the Parthenon. Taft, a famous and now rather thoroughly forgotten sculptor, planned his museum for Chicago but decided that L.A. was the only city progressive enough to build it. He got as far as a 1934 ground-breaking ceremony captured on film. (For more on the Dream Museum, see this post.)
In short, you may leave A+D with the heretical thought that brain-dead boosters, bureaucrats, and NIMBY’s can sometimes be a good thing. I don’t think you can say that the city has been unduly resistant to the innovative or downright odd. Look at the outlandish things we did build: Forest Lawn, Disneyland, the LAX Theme Building, the Cinerama Dome, the Brown Derby and a gamut of programmatic architecture up to and including the Getty Villa—plus the world’s largest public transit system, which we tore down and are now rebuilding. I suspect that Los Angeles has historically attracted architectural dreamers and schemers and whackjobs, resulting a backlog of visionary proposals. Naturally they didn’t all get the green light. That makes it easier to do a show like this here than in Minneapolis.
One takeaway is that great architecture requires a great architect and a client who’s not completely out of his or her mind. It would be nice to look up at the Hollywood Hills and see Frank Lloyd Wright’s futuristic Sports Club and Play Resort (1947, above), commissioned by A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford. But Hartford’s track record as a promoter of failed vanity projects does not inspire confidence in his scheme’s long-term viability. As we now know, the upkeep on Wright buildings isn’t cheap. Subdivision developers would have been circling like vultures over every financial statement. Even in the Philip K. Dick universe where Hartford’s pleasure palace had been built, it would have gone bust and been torn down decades ago.
At right is a 1979 plan for Grand Avenue that includes a “Museum of Modern Art,” i.e. MOCA. It’s a dream-team collaboration of Charles Moore, Frank Gehry, Cesar Pelli, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, and other big names. Yet it looks dated and I wouldn’t swap it for the incipient Grand Avenue we’ve building now.
You might play the game of asking yourself, what’s the best “Unbuilt L.A.” structure that might realistically have been built and mattered and lasted a while? I’d nominate Rudolph Schindler’s sleek 1933 design for Union Oil gas stations. Schindler predicted it would be the template “for all future gas stations.” Amen to that.