Remembering Southland construction giant Paul Matt

It's one thing to design a building, but it's another thing to build it. We pay tribute to the late Paul Matt, the construction giant who realized many Southern California landmarks.

Paul Matt, chairman of Matt Construction and builder of a number of Los Angeles-area landmarks such as the Skirball Cultural Center, the Petersen Automotive Museum and The Broad, died on June 30 at the age of 85.

Those buildings seem so permanent and effortless it’s hard to remember that great struggles went into their construction.

Matt Construction also built the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, the LACMA Resnick Pavilion, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Beverly Hills, and the restorations of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the Hollywood Bowl and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

“He approached building as a kind of collaborative set of problems and challenges between the architect, the builder, the environmental engineer, everybody who’s involved in the life cycle of a building, and that these problems and challenges in turn can inspire innovation,” said Dora Epstein Jones, executive director of A+D Museum, now in a former warehouse in the Arts District. MATT Construction helped with the retrofit and has supported the grassroots museum over the years.

“Paul Matt was fearless. He was fearless when it came to innovation in these buildings, whether that was the new materials that an assembly that characterized now Los Angeles architecture or when we look at signature architecture in Los Angeles. I believe that his fearlessness inspired Los Angeles to be the birthplace that it is of progressive architecture and design,” Jones said.

Paul Matt started his career working as a welder on the Dalles Dam in Oregon after serving in the U.S. Air Force. Then he became a surveyor and in 1962, he was promoted to job superintendent on the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The project architect was Moshe Safdie. The Israeli-Canadian architect later designed the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which he worked on with Paul Matt. And that’s because, in his view, only Paul Matt was capable of achieving the quality of concrete construction that he wanted.

Safdie remembers Matt as “a builder at heart [who] had the pride of craftsmanship. Without it there’s no great architecture.”

Melody Kanschat is executive director of the Getty Leadership Council at Claremont Graduate University, and was previously president and COO at LACMA and worked directly with Paul Matt on the construction of several projects there, as well as, later, the Petersen. She says Matt was responsible for LA’s “cultural infrastructure.”

“In the case of the Petersen Automotive Museum – where an entire skin was removed and then replaced with a much more undulating skin, let’s say – Paul worked so hard to bring the right engineers, the right fabricators, the right team together that could understand what the structure could hold in a way that would still make it feel light and airy.”

Paul Matt was able to work with inventive architects while honoring the vision of his clients, and respecting “the importance of the institutions and the mission that they were trying to fulfill,” Kanschat said.

“When when you’re working with somebody that has that, honestly, aura of integrity like Paul had… he brought a calm and and a peace and a willingness to really call in favors to make a cultural organisation’s project a reality. And he was my knight in shining armor when I was working with him, and I’m sure that many people in Los Angeles felt the same way.”