ModCom Lecture: History & Preservation of 1960s Cultural Landscapes

March 25, 2010

Last night I drove out to the Proud Bird restaurant to hear a lecture from The Sixties Turned Fifty series of events hosted by the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee . The lecture titled “Discussion: History and Preservation of 1960s Cultural Landscapes” was a collaborative effort between The Los Angeles Conservancy and The Cultural Landscape Foundation, presenting special guests Charles Birnbaum and Alan Hess, who both spoke about 1960s landscape architecture and its importance as an often overlooked key aspect of architecture.

Proud Bird Restaurant, Los Angeles

Alan Hess started the discussion by flipping through photographs of  ’60s building in Los Angeles. He discussed the subtle shift from ’50s post-war, International Style, post-and-beam architecture to the ’60s brutalist style that morphed into “corporate design” that celebrated the more sculptural qualities of buildings.  Hess spoke about how the 1960s marked the growth of the suburban metropolis, where a city was not focused on one center, but rather had multiple smaller centers. As people flocked to L.A. in the ’60s, the city began to evolve into a series of smaller cities. Thus cultural centers and corporate institutions began to scatter around these low-profile city centers. Hess additionally spoke about the “Miracle Mile” in L.A., which was created in the 1930s to be a “linear city”. This concept was based around the automobile and creating a city in which one could drive up and down one street to get all necessities. Continuing in his lecture, Hess presented us with examples of 1960’s architecture that has been destroyed due to their undefined styles. The ’60s was a time period in which architects began to explore and experiment, thus taking aspects from purely post-war buildings and then adding new elements. In terms of preservation, arguing that a ’60s building should be saved is difficult, especially to people who do not understand the experimental nature of the ’60s.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art designed by William Pereira, 1965

Charles Birnbaum, President of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, then spoke of the importance of landscape architecture and how it is frequently overlooked. This I found extremely interesting, because I had never thought about the additional landscape architects who created green-belts and public spaces in the ’50s and ’60s and their importance in the fabric of a community. Birnbaum was very passionate about landscape architecture and discussed the areas that have been lost and destroyed. Birnbaum spoke primarily of Lawrence Halprin and Ruth Shellhorn, two important landscape architects in the L.A. area. Shellhorn designed the landscape for the now-defunct Bullock’s department store, and the central landscaping elements of Disneyland.  A great majority of her work is now destroyed. Birnbaum asked us how we place value on these spaces, how do we measure success, and ultimately, what do these spaces mean to us? Birnbaum stated, “If we do not publish, they will perish”, and thus advocating that we get the word out there to save these important landscapes.

Lawrence Halprin, Lovejoy Plaza, Portland, OR, Photo from The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The lecture lasted about an hour and half and ended with a Q&A session. People were very interested and the room had a great energy. This is one of many events in the Sixties Turned Fifty series. If you are interested in architectural preservation, please go to the Los Angeles Conservancy website and check out the upcoming events.

*In the earlier post from yesterday I inverted the speakers, today the post is correct.

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