7 modernist surprises in Southern California

Sam Lubell's new guide is a celebration of the West Coast's take on Modernism, a style and philosophy that embodied the sense of innovation and aspiration in the post-war years.

cover-straight-upSam Lubell is author of the newly published “Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: West Coast USA” (Phaidon).

The guide is a celebration of California’s take on Modernism, a style and philosophy that was imported from Europe but, he told DnA, “really suits this place the best.”

The architecture embodied the sense of innovation and aspiration in the post-war years and, he says, “really just reflects the spirit and the place. . . it’s California’s single most important contribution to the architectural world.”

Lubell travelled the West Coast with photographer Darren Bradley selecting public and private buildings, from San Diego to Seattle, and from early Case Study houses through to 1970s brutalist gems. He chose mostly buildings that tourists can enter at no cost or check out from outside, and says his travels revealed a lot of surprises.

Check out some of his discoveries in SoCal, and listen to our interview on this DnA.

Top Modernist Surprises in Southern California

Southern California has one of the greatest legacies of Midcentury Modern architecture in the world. Everybody knows its “celebrity” buildings, like Case Study 22, the Eames House and the Theme Building at LAX. But there are so many surprises hiding in plain site — startling buildings showcasing the astonishing variety within the Modernist movement, taking you to places you’d never go. Here are a few of the best:

First United Methodist Church (photo: Darren Bradley)
First United Methodist Church (photo: Darren Bradley)

1) First United Methodist Church, Reginald Inwood, San Diego, 1960

Perched on a steep slope in San Diego’s Mission Valley, this white, parabolic-shaped wonder is clad with a wavy concrete screen that creates intense light patterns that change throughout the day.

Bell Beach House (photo: Darren Bradley)
Bell Beach House (photo: Darren Bradley)

2) Bell Beach House, Dale Naegle, San Diego, 1968

Attached to a cliff-hugging home by a 300-foot-long funicular, this disc shaped, exposed concrete guest quarters hovers above a narrow, tube-shaped base, protected from the surf of La Jolla’s Black’s Beach by a surrounding wall.

Compton City Hall (photo: Darren Bradley)
Compton City Hall (photo: Darren Bradley)

3) Compton City Hall and Civic Center, Harold Williams, Compton, 1977

This little-known complex is well worth a visit to South L.A. It includes a glassy City Hall shaded by giant concrete fins; a 12-story courthouse wrapped in white concrete and continuous slit windows, and a central sculpture consisting of angular white components connected by a metallic ring.

Frost Auditorium (photo: Darren Bradley)
Frost Auditorium (photo: Darren Bradley)

4) Robert Lee Frost Auditorium, Flewelling and Moody, Culver City, 1964

Conjuring the sculptural work of Eero Saarinen and Felix Candela, this heroic structure features a brick-clad drum wrapped by an undulating thin formed concrete shell.

Beckman Auditorium (photo: Darren Bradley)
Beckman Auditorium (photo: Darren Bradley)

5) Beckman Auditorium, Edward Durell Stone, Pasadena, 1963

Located at the end of a grassy mall in the center of the Caltech campus, the pristine circular pavilion appears to be a Modernist interpretation of the Temple of Hercules in Rome, from its rounded colonnade to its shallow, overhanging cone roof. What makes it distinctly Stone is its patterning, creating unique views and eclectic shadows everywhere you look.

Ambassador Auditorium (photo: Darren Bradley)
Ambassador Auditorium (photo: Darren Bradley)

6) Ambassador Auditorium, DMJM, Pasadena, 1974

If you haven’t been to Ambassador College in Pasadena, you’re missing out. This eclectic campus, now home to Marantha High School, is focused around DMJM’s Ambassador Auditorium, a soaring, classically-inspired modernist building rising above Garrett Eckbo’s reflecting pool and curving concrete bridge.

Boat Houses (photo: Darren Bradley)
Boat Houses (photo: Darren Bradley)

7) The Boat Houses, Harry Gesner, Studio City, 1959

When you drive by these twelve single-family residences, spaced around the tight curves of Woodrow Wilson Drive and Pacific View Drive in the Cahuenga Pass, you wonder if you really just saw what you just saw. These small, wood clad homes project off the hillside via stilts, resembling, yes, boats.

Sam Lubell does not only write about midcentury modern marvels. This article explores one of LA’s less admired building types — the strip-mall — and the “6 Standout Eateries” you can find in some of them.