The bumper crop of architecture exhibits on show on this summer are looking at “Modern” LA buildings. But one of LA’s most important architects had his roots in the Beaux Arts, did not come from Vienna (like RM Schindler and Richard Neutra) nor dabble in progressive politics or an experimental lifestyle. He is John Parkinson and this weekend he’s getting his due, as part of Britweek, the week-plus of events that celebrate the “creative fusion” between the UK and California.
On Friday May 3rd, Councilman Tom LaBonge will recognize John Parkinson Day in the City of Los Angeles. On Saturday, May 4th The LA Conservancy will run a special edition of its Downtown Renaissance Tour, featuring John Parkinson’s architectural footprint in Downtown. On Sunday, May 5th, Stephen Gee, author of Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles will also host a tour that will explore his work across the city. Caroline Chamberlain talked to Stephen Gee about the legacy of John Parkinson.
Chamberlain: Why does John Parkinson matter?
Gee: His buildings are an essential part of Los Angeles. City Hall (above) is still the hub of political power in the city. There are thousands of people who live and work in Parkinson’s buildings. Union Station is still a tremendously important train station on the west coast. These structures are just as important now as the day that they opened.
C: What are Parkinson’s most important buildings?
G: So we have the ‘Greatest Hits Collection’. We’ve got Union Station, the last great train station built anywhere in the world. We’ve got the Coliseum (under construction, below), Bullocks Wilshire (bottom), City Hall and Parkinson’s administration building at USC. The administration building paved the way for USC to become a premier academic institution. On Spring Street in downtown- you can see a Parkinson structure in any direction. He built the first world class hotel in the city. There were so many buildings he did that played an important role then and play an important role now.
C: Parkinson predates some of Los Angeles’ ‘experimental’ architects, namely Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. Do you think their legacy overshadows Parkinson’s?
G: I don’t think he’s received any of the credit he deserves. He was the most important architect in Los Angeles when the city invented itself. He developed Los Angeles, and in many ways that’s more important than developing a style. He did it at a time when Los Angeles was an outpost. It also wasn’t the case that he didn’t experiment. Bullocks Wilshire was possibly the most complete experimental architecture in Los Angeles. I don’t think it’s about his legacy being obscured by other architects. If his firm had survived, he would be celebrated. John Parkinson’s son Donald died fairly young. There was no one to take over that firm. There is no one really to champion his legacy.
C: Going back to the contrast with Parkinson and other architects, some have argued that he’s fairly conservative. Do you think that is a fair assessment?
G: John Parkinson came from a working class family in the industrial North West of England; he comes from a very working class background. He went by the idea that if you work hard, you get on, that’s kind of how he lived his entire life. He felt as much pride at a staircase he built as a young man, as he did at the Coliseum. Yes, I think he was traditional, but I think that was how he was raised.
G: There were no real expectations for him that he would ever amount to anything. I think it would have been unimaginable to him to grow up to define a city on the West Coast of California. He was also remarkably charismatic. In architecture, you have to be a great negotiator. He was exceptionally good that. I think his social skills played a large part of his success. I also don’t think he ever lost that connection to Britain. He was viewed as a well-respected Brit. There was an important sense of fairness to him. When John Parkinson found out that Los Angeles Public Library was given to Betram Goodhue, Parkinson was outraged.(Parkinson was offended that the Board of Library Directors decided to appoint an architect to the $2 million project, as opposed to holding an open competition.) He thought there should be some sort of discussion, some sort of process for other architects to compete for that structure.