The Five Buildings That Epitomize L.A. Architecture

Los Angeles’ vibrant and diverse energy is perhaps best represented through these iconic architectural structures
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Video produced by Andrea Carcovich; Graphics by Ed Mann

Adrian Scott Fine is the director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, where he’s spent the last 10 years focusing on saving at-risk buildings and structures across the city.  

An urban planner by trade, Fine has developed a trove of knowledge on L.A.’s architectural evolution—from its initial boom years in the 1920s and 1930s to the modern-day culture that has come to define what makes the city as vibrant and energizing as it is today.   

The Bluebeam Blog spoke with Fine on the architectural styles that have come to represent L.A., as well as the buildings that are perhaps among the most historically significant to the millions of people who visit each year. Edited excerpts follow.  

Bluebeam Blog: Is there a certain architecture or style that best represents Los Angeles? 

Fine: You can certainly look at the periods when L.A. had its population growth and a lot of development, so the 1920s and 1930s for sure. So, we’ve got some fantastic examples of art deco, streamline modern, and then a proliferation of a Spanish-Colonial style that is especially prevalent in the residential architecture throughout L.A.  

Then you look at the other period of growth, the late 1950s and 1960s, and that’s where L.A. really was put on the international map in terms of architecture around the styles of mid-century modernism and case study house design and religious innovative futuristic design.  

I tend to think L.A. is pretty much a 20th century city. We’ve got stuff from the 19th century and earlier, but our main story is really about these boom periods early in the 20th century. 

Bluebeam Blog: What’s your take on these five buildings, which we think are among the most notable architecturally in the city? 

  • The Bradbury Building
  • The Eastern Building
  • The Theme Building at LAX
  • Union Station
  • The Walt Disney Concert Hall

Fine: I’m familiar with all of them to a certain degree.  

The Bradbury Building …  

I would say the Bradbury Building is one of those places that we run diagnostics on our website and know which pages get the most hits as well as who calls the most for something. It’s always been the Bradbury Building. It’s just one of those buildings that if you’re a tourist, you’ve got to see. Anybody that lives here, if they don’t know about it, they’re probably under a rock someplace. But most people know about the Bradbury Building just because it’s one of those stunningly beautiful buildings and one of the oldest buildings, certainly in the downtown area, that still remains.  

When you walk into that building, it is a massive light-filled court with this skylight glass ceiling detail and these barren railings. And it’s just such a rare sight, especially in a place like L.A. You go other places and they have more spaces like this. But I think that’s one of the things that’s really such a surprise, because you don’t expect to see that by looking at the building on the exterior. It’s fairly plain. I mean, it has light details, but I wouldn’t call it a standout architecturally from the exterior. The story is really about the interior of this light-filled court. It’s also been in a number of films, so from a pop culture standpoint, people know it as well. I think those are some of the reasons why it’s one of those buildings that everyone wants to see and experience. 

The Eastern Columbia Building …  

It’s a massive structure. It was built big. Even for its era it was big. It’s one of those buildings that just calls out and says, ‘look at me,’ but not in a garish kind of a way. It’s like you can’t help but notice the Eastern Columbia Building, starting with its color, where we have a handful of buildings that have used that polychromatic terracotta detailing, but not as boldly as necessarily at the Eastern Columbia, which has got the kind of turquoise clad terracotta that’s also gold detailing and blue—and those are not colors that typically we expect to go together. And, somehow, they work really well on that building. So that’s part of it, the color. It stands out from its neighbors and everything around it. The other piece is the massive clock detail. 

It just was built monumental and built to wow. And that’s part of what you expected a lot with the jazz age association with Art Deco design. It was thoroughly modern for the era where it was kind of stripping down from the earlier fear period of architecture. And it has detail but it’s a very austere or again modern approach to dressing up a building.  

So, it was unique and different for its time, and it’s stood the test of time. It still stands out and is very different, but it’s just in terms of art deco design, it’s one of the best in L.A. and probably in the list of art deco buildings across the country and internationally. 

The Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) …  

The Theme Building—it’s like a flying saucer that is perched there hovering. It’s Googie architecture. So that alone is unique. L.A. is known for its Googie architecture, but usually in coffee shops and diners and car washes and other types of buildings. This is a very unique application of that style, which was all about ‘look at me’ in a much different way than like the Eastern Columbia building was. Look at me and my exaggerated forms and futuristic styling and then this case plan ‘Jetsonian’ architecture and elements attached to it. 

It’s just a unique, iconic building that was always intended to serve that role. It was originally designed with a master plan for LAX to have a much larger structure that was sort of like the Theme Building that’s much, much larger in terms of size-wise with this glass dome that would connect all the terminals to this one central hub. And obviously that’s not happened. The terminals all kind of split off and did their own thing, but they still wanted to maintain some semblance of that idea. And that’s why the Theme Building was built, sort of as a trolley with some use, but it’s certainly a much scaled down version of its original intent. 

Union Station …  

One of the most beautiful buildings I would say in L.A. It’s this unique blend of both Spanish-Colonial and Art Deco. So, this fusion of a few styles, which you rarely see, or you don’t see a lot of. I would say it’s the last big wave of those big Union Stations that were being built in major cities across the U.S. I believe it’s the last one that was built in 1939 in terms of that function. It’s again another must-see if you’re going to visit L.A. or if you’re obviously coming through on some transportation route.  

To experience Union Station is really a delight because there’s so many wonderful spaces and details throughout the building that are so unique. And it’s another building that has a very interesting past and history and connection to so many different things in terms of its origin. It’s most recently taken on some new uses and some old spaces that had been long vacant have come back for restaurants and operations. So, in terms of its original function, it’s thriving in a way that for many years it was quiet when transportation wasn’t what it was today. 

The Walt Disney Concert Hall …  

This is thoroughly Frank Gehry in terms of his kind of work and his design aesthetic, but it’s all about creativity and thinking outside the box. My understanding is Gehry is an avid sailor and that’s part of the inspiration for these kinds of sculptural forms that wraps the box of what is Walt Disney Concert Hall.  

Gehry’s intent with Disney was all about creativity and imagination, so he wanted to do something that was in line with that. And I think he certainly achieved that. But it’s another building that anybody that’s visiting L.A. they want to see and it’s great to see on the outside and it’s also great to see on the inside. It’s a different field certainly on the inside, but it’s a great space to experience a performance. So, it’s not just a show piece or the eye, it’s also for the ears.

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