By Richard P. Townsend
The domestic architecture of A. Quincy Jones is the quintessence of Postwar Los Angeles, whether innovative tract housing or homes for high living for such luminaries as actor Gary Cooper or art collectors Frances and Sidney Brody. So it is all the more surprising that the excellent exhibition at the Hammer Museum until the 8th September is the first major museum treatment of the architect.
Then again, perhaps it isn’t. Part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., it is the next initiative in the PST brand, the endeavor which began in 2011 with Art in L.A., 1945-1980. It was all about recovering—and codifying—Southern California’s place in the history of art. The next logical enterprise was that to do the same—on a more limited scale—for its architecture. As noted architectural historian Thomas Hines has observed, “Los Angeles is one of the most important places in the world for the development of modern architecture.” This makes sense, especially due to Postwar socio-economic developments, but as in the case of A. Quincy Jones, prior efforts had been limited in their research and presentation—and certainly their broader contextualization—of key subjects. Thanks to the leadership of the Getty Foundation and the Getty Research Institute, we now have the opportunity to discover and better understand the major protagonists and trends in Modernist architecture in Los Angeles. After all, the Getty itself is a microcosm of architectural developments in Southern California in the second half of the 20th century. It reflects two powerful trends: thematic architecture represented by the Getty’s recreation of a 1st c. A.D. Pompeiian villa (albeit with a brilliant recent intervention by Machado and Silvetti Associates) and contemporary Modernism represented by the Getty Center, designed by Richard Meier.
First, a word on the overall initiative, Modern Architecture in L.A., which is now winding down after a long spring and summer run at various institutions. It was launched in April with the Getty’s own massive—indeed downright dizzying—exhibition Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 (closed the 21st July, opening at the National Building Museum, Washington, D.C. on the 20th October). It comprises an array of drawings, architectural renderings, photographs, video, models, archival material and contemporary art delineating the development of Los Angeles from settlement and focusing on the second half of the 20th century. The exhibition spans water and electrical planning to car culture and the postwar housing boom, to L.A. as entertainment capital and civic center. A number of exhibitions are still on view, most notably MOCA’s A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California until the 16th September and The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor reconsiders LACMA until the 15th September. Not to be missed is the sensational, small show of photographs at the Getty until the 29th September, In Focus: Ed Ruscha. It charts the course of the artist’s voyages—all of course by car, the conveyance by which so much of his art depends—through the desert on Route 66 (for Twentysix Gasoline Stations) and throughout L.A. (such as Every Building on the Sunset Strip). It is beautiful, cogent, and even a little poignant. This gem of an exhibition shows Ruscha both as a child of L.A. in his cinematic approach to photography while at the same time engaging with seriality and repetition, key components of Modernity.
To return to the Hammer’s A. Quincy Jones exhibition—in effect the only monographic treatment in PST Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.—it was especially appropriate that the Hammer should single out Jones. Not only had the museum already established a reputation for this sort of architectural exhibition with its 2008 take on John Lautner, but the present show is largely drawn from the museum’s parent UCLA’s holdings of the architect’s archive in the Library Special Collections. The effort is curated by Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher and Ellen Donnelly. The accompanying publication edited by Brooke Hodge is well organized around several interesting and complementary essays on facets of Jones’ career; an illustrated Projects section and apparently comprehensive list; and spectacular architectural photography commissioned from Jason Schmidt, who not only documents these buildings but emphasizes their exceptional aesthetic qualities through his own aesthetic approach.
The show opens with the first of several sections, Building Community. There are layers of meaning here, the overarching being Jones’ collaborative nature. His architectural practice emphasized work with other architects, designers, engineers and clients. This section reveals—from the design for the famed Case Study Houses to the Mutual Housing Authority development—his cooperative nature and long-held interest in planned communities with communal amenities and improved tract housing. The Mutual Housing Association (1946-50) was innovative as a co-op with shared spaces and amenities and its approach to FHA regulations. Jones built a house for himself in this Crestwood Hills development but sadly his home and sixty others were destroyed by fire in November 1961. Above all, it highlights Jones’ twenty-year relationship with business partner Frederick Emmons. Another key relationship was with renowned Modernist developer Joseph Eichler who built more than 11,000 homes in the Bay Area and Southern California, almost half of which were the 5,000 designed by Jones and Emmons between 1951 and 1964.
Near the gallery entrance is a terrific installation evoking an Eichler Home living room and employing Eames furniture, the tone set by a photo mural of an actual Eichler from its living area across to an open-air central atrium, crowned with an A-shaped roofline and clerestory. It shows a gracious, Modernist environment that manages to be casual but well designed—very much the California sensibility—all at once. The exhibition design here—and effectively executed in earth tones throughout by Chu + Gooding Architects of L.A.—gives an immediate sense to the visitor what living in one of these cutting-edge tract houses was like.
In 1955, Eichler commissioned another type of house from Jones and Emmons, the X-100 Experimental House in San Mateo, California. Like the earlier Eichler Homes, it comprised an open plan filled with light and a connection to the outside, but this was further emphasized by its innovative steel construction (Jones had already designed a steel-framed house for himself in 1953). There was immense interest in the model, but Eichler never pursued it. It stands in stark contrast to the mass-produced but well-designed wood-framed tract houses being constructed by Jones and Eichler’s competitor, rancho architect and developer Cliff May.
As a result of these successes, Eichler sponsored the architects to design one of the influential Case Study Houses in 1961-62. Unlike Charles and Ray Eames’ famous example, or for that matter, Pierre Koenig’s chic, sleek Case Study House #22, Jones and Emmons’ Case Study House #24 went unbuilt. This is unfortunate, for it comprises a fascinating, progressive design of a mid-century Modern house nestled within the earth, surrounded by berms and landscaping on three sides. Clearly designed as eco-friendly, from its lack of impact on the horizon to its energy-efficient insulation, its communal owned amenities so confused the L.A. City Council’s zoning commission that permission was denied. In the exhibition, the project is represented by a marvelous model and imposing black-ink cross-section drawings which show the sunken living room and a kitchen separated from the sunken living area by an inventive combination dining table/kitchen island with sink that truly creates a “conversation” area. My question here concerns the lack of traditional views, the only afforded by this house were up, to the open sky.
The exhibition not only examines Jones’ domestic architecture, but
major public buildings for which he was responsible such as libraries, churches, and corporate headquarters. Jones designed a number of churches throughout Los Angeles, the most stunning being St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City (1960-62) with something of a traditional profile and footprint. The Northridge Congregational Church (1959-62) has a decidedly more avant-garde, squared plan with orientation on the bias. However, St. Michael’s—which dominates its gallery with a stunning color photo mural—features dramatic upswept beams that carry through the structure, forming Jones’ typical A-frame profile, and the rear altar wall of glass reveals a view to the forested hill outside.
The Working Places section features several innovative projects, including the building which remains the headquarters for Warner Brothers Records in Burbank (1971-75). Utilizing ideas Jones worked with throughout his career, its first floor is sunken below grade, as his Annenberg School of Communications at USC (1972-76) is deeply embedded in its site, all reminiscent of his Case Study House of 1961.
Most fascinating however are two buildings that both incorporate Jones’ progressive approach to expansion and efficient business practices. The impressive design for the interior for the Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation (1965-71)—despite a significant presence in the exhibition through a number of fine renderings—inexplicably doesn’t figure in the catalogue, either in the essays or the illustrated Projects section. Offset architectural prints on vellum show prefabricated nursing units or pods, the rooms like shipping containers lifted up and stacked on one another, presumably as needed. Annotations in red pencil read “Typical Pre-Cast Room” and “Progressive Poured in place conc[rete] Frame.”
The concept of the use of pods for flexibility and expansion was also used in Jones’ commission to design additions for the Herman Miller Furniture Company headquarters in Zeeland, Michigan (1971-79). No small thing, Jones added to three existing buildings designed by that doyen of mid-century Modern design, George Nelson (the company continues to manufacture furniture by Nelson—and the Eameses, for that matter—today). Jones’ concept unified the three buildings with a central, “organizational” Spine, which allowed for circulation along a raised catwalk and pods that could be added for meeting space and other uses as necessary. Taking the shape once again of the A-frame gable, it is top lit by a crowning skylight at the apex of the Spine. Jones also incorporated this roof ridge skylight into his third and last house and studio (1965-66), a concept earlier utilized in domestic architecture by Cliff May and Bruce Goff.
It is appropriate to end our discussion of Jones’ work with a final look at his grandest achievements in domestic architecture, the production of which dominated his practice and indeed, more generally dominates the story of Modern architecture in Los Angeles. In the cleverly titled section Living Large, featured are three key projects: the Brody House (1948-51), the Cooper House (1953-54) and Sunnylands, the estate designed for the Annenbergs (1963-66).
Frances and Sidney Brody’s house represents Jones’ first house commission on a large scale and his first collaboration with famed Hollywood designer William Haines. In the exhibition, a Jason Schmidt photomural sets the tone with an image of the glamorous black-and-white entrance; other photographs of the house are by Julius Schulman. Featured here are Haines’ magnificent, large gouaches for the Brody interiors, giving a good sense of the “formal informality” that he developed. (This would later devolve into a something of a “California chintz” feeling at Sunnylands.) The Brody’s were renowned art collectors. Frances Brody died only in 2009; in 2010 their 1932 Picasso Nude, Green Leaves and Bust set a then-record for the most expensive work sold at auction at over $106 million. Shortly after Jones and Haines finished the house, in 1952 the Brodys commissioned Henri Matisse to create a work for the outdoor living room. The result was his ceramic mural La Gerbe (The Sheaf) which Mrs. Brody bequeathed to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is currently the subject of a special exhibition there, Henri Matisse: La Gerbe until the 8th September, and includes the preparatory cartoon, which happens to be in the collection of the Hammer Museum.
The Brody House’s asymmetrical, shallow A-shaped roofline was given a far more dramatic and dynamic profile on the front façade of the home of actor Gary and Veronica Cooper (1953-54). Another luxe L.A. Modernist manse with open spaces, high ceilings and a strong connection to the outside, it was recently purchased by global art dealer Larry Gagosian, who uses it both for living while in the city as well as display for works by his stable of artists. On a visit there several years ago, I noted cleverly interspersed among various contemporary paintings and sculpture Richard Prince’s interventions with classic mid-century Modern furniture. It was pitch perfect.
Sunnylands—the Rancho Mirage retreat for the former U.S. ambassador to Great Britain and publishing tycoon—was Jones’ last collaboration with Billy Haines. It was built among other reasons to accommodate the Annenberg’s extraordinary collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Reproductions take their place at Sunnylands—although Auguste Rodin’s Eve still holds court in the center of the living room—and the house is now a center for high-level conferences and foreign leader summits. This particular focus is doubtless well served by the intimacy of what is otherwise a rather grand house, for it is essentially a one-bedroom home (there are servants quarters secreted away elsewhere in the house and guest quarters on the grounds). One cannot imagine Jones incorporating a “Mayan” pink stepped pyramidal roof other than in deference to his clients’ wishes—which was the case—and he as ever collaborated deeply with Haines. At the end of the day—despite the clients and a reported falling out with the designer—together they produced a legendary residence which tourists can visit today.
A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living joins the ranks of exhibitions and publications which have allowed us in recent years to better understand—and compare—significant works by these giants of mid-century Modernism. As a result, it is evident that the innovation, fluidity, exchange and cross-pollination of ideas typical of the period make this one of the most fertile moments in American architecture and culture.