A Research Report and First-Person Narrative regarding Southern California Architecture in the 1930s
Introduced in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes and coined by Bevis Hillier, Art Deco was a 20th century art form that still exists in California. Besides characterizing architecture and industrial design, the art style also appears in painting and film.
BY ALAN DO
Throughout the 1930s, domestic housing developments erupted. With the establishment of suburban neighborhoods during the 1920s, housing became more affordable than ever. With an influx in the creation of housing, new architectural styles thrived. The aesthetics of domestic housing reflected contemporary architectural philosophy. New houses emphasized function and efficiency, not just beauty. Bungalow houses, residential structures developed during the late 19th century, popularized during the 1920s and 1930s due to the economy. They were simple, modest, and, most importantly, affordable. Once the lower middle class could afford private houses as opposed to apartment housing, bungalows became extremely popular. Marketed to the middle-class American society, bungalow houses offered a small, yet comfortable place for families to reside. Some common characteristics of bungalow houses are their center-oriented living rooms and rooms connected without hallways.1 Bungalow houses represented an all-American housing type—though they were structured around numerous types of architectural styles, and though they all served the same purpose. The Arts and Crafts or Craftsman style boomed throughout Southern California; however, other styles such as the Spanish Colonial revival and the Cottage style were also popularized.
The American Craftsman style concerned itself most with the rapid expansion of middle-class housing. Culturally, the Craftsman style rebelled against the formality and excessiveness of the Victorian Era. As opposed to Victorian homes, Craftsman homes instilled a greater sense of openness inside. Additionally, Craftsman simplicity contrasted the excessive decoration and ornamentation of a Victorian home. Though heavy and dark like Victorian homes, the woodwork of Craftsman houses was usually squarer and void of multiple stories. This design reform movement capitalized simple form, originality, local natural materials, and visibility of handicraft. Local materials included wood, glass, metal work; architects emphasized simple yet elegant construct materials. Craftsman architects also incorporated clean lines and a sturdy-looking structure.2
The California bungalow, an architectural style that responded to the industrial age, was derived from the Arts and Crafts movement. Because of the large demand for housing, Californians believed the bungalow to be the most practical type of housing. California bungalows typically featured a gable with sloping roofs of wood shingle.3 They were usually horizontal in massing, and they utilize stucco exteriors. Most California bungalows contained a porch that is asymmetrically situated in the front of the bungalow. Larger bungalows often bore an “L” shaped porch.4 Because these houses were built for the middle-class, architects did not design quarters for maids and servants. However, they did include a library for the man of the house and a workspace for the woman. Upon entering the home, visitors entered a simple living room with the focal point being the fireplace. California bungalows accommodated the typical American family—since they were family-oriented, the design of the house was as well.
The Spanish Colonial revival style was especially prominent along California’s coastal cities. Spanish colonial style revolved around the architecture of the Mediterranean. Buildings from the Spanish-Mexican period, whose architecture included Missions, influenced the style’s revival during the 1930s. Another influence was the growth of the film industry in California.5 The Spanish revival was a very eclectic style—it combined various aspects of different architectural styles. Its structures unified the use of arches, courtyards, form as mass, plain white wall surfaces, and tiled roofs.6 This style is also recognized by clearly-defined geometric patterns and shapes and coastal Mediterranean vegetation.6 A large scale assimilation of the Spanish Colonial style was done by Santa Barbara County after an earthquake in 1925. After the earthquake, the county adopted a unified Spanish character.7
The bungalow cottages of California made during the 1920s and 30s were meant as an imitation of Late Victorian English cottages.8 Unlike other bungalows, these cottages were designed with a very high-pitched roof. Like the Californian bungalow, these cottages also had tiled or shingled roofs; in contrast, however, bungalow cottages had extended eaves and exposed beams. Cottages were generally smaller in size than a typical suburban bungalow.
Beginning in the 1920s, modernism became a prominent architectural style. Even more so than the Arts and Crafts movement, modernists emphasized the simplification of form. Modernist housing unified indoor and outdoor spaces, as well as integrating nature into the architectural structure. Booming from World War I, the modernist movement focused on functionality and modern materials. Little to no ornamentation was featured on modernist structures. Though more families were attracted to the housing of the Arts and Crafts movement, residencies of the modernist style still existed. Modernist housing was normally catered to the wealthy, and renowned architects were commissioned to design private residencies.
A sub-modernist style of architecture particularly oriented toward California was Desert Modernism. This branch of modernism capitalized on the sunny skies and warm climate of Southern California. The desert landscape—the rocks, cactuses, and shrubs—were integrated into the building. Expansive glass walls and windows held the structure together. Modern materials, such as steel, collided with wood and stone.9 Palm Springs, California holds the most housings of desert modernism.
Architect Richard Neutra led the Desert Modernism movement by combining a Bauhaus modernism influence with Southern California building styles. He worked with multiple styles such as Bauhaus, Desert Modernism, and International Style. Neutra worked with his clients, defining their needs rather than imposing his own artistic talent. Conforming to modernist ideals, Neutra always blended his structure with landscape.10
A contemporary and dear friend of Neutra was Rudolph Schindler. He was an American architect whose more well-known works can still be found in Los Angeles. Also advocating the modernist movement, Schindler used complex three-dimensional forms, warm materials, and striking colors. Many of his structures, which included commercial buildings and domestic housing, utilized concrete.11 His domestic architecture was a blend of art, landscape, and practical comfort.
For our assignment to observe 1930s architecture and take photographs of various commercial and residential buildings, Albert and I embarked on a drive throughout Southern California. A huge thanks to my wonderful mom, who offered to drive us and study old architecture with us (she wouldn’t let me drive all the way to Los Angeles). Before heading out, we inputted the nine destinations we had researched into MapQuest and followed a calculated route that would take us in a circle: from Olive, to Fullerton, to Los Angeles, to Beverly Hills, and finally back home. With a full tank of gas, we began to drive off at 1 p.m. and aimed to return home in time for dinner.
Our first destination was a residential home in Orange. I found the location on Wikipedia; it is a Spanish Colonial Revival residence in Olive, California (Figure A). When we first arrived at the address, though, we could not recognize the structure. Like other houses of the Spanish Colonial style, vegetation dominated the landscape. Trees, shrubs, and flowers covered the front lawn. The house was surrounded by foliage; the east wing of the house, the side from which came, was nearly completely covered. As we began to circle the house, however, we recognized its contrasting red shingle roofing and white walls. Red brick created columns and enclosed windows. Steps of red rock led to the entrance. A stone wall fenced the property—another attribute of Mediterranean homes.
At this point, Albert and I were very excited to see the tall art deco skyscrapers in Los Angeles. As we were just exiting the freeway, Albert recognized our first skyscraper: the Eastern Columbia Building. It was coated in a bluish-green tint, separating itself from all the other buildings. The word “Eastern” was embedded on all four sides along with a clock on the top of the building. Vertical buttresses followed up the building; yellow sculptural designs decorated the building. In the front of the building, a yellow design, similar to a sun and its rays, stood on top of the entrance. An open space in the building led people to its entrance. Stripes of yellow, blue, and teal were directly above the open space. The Eastern Columbia building was a great introduction to the Art Deco style; its magnificent color and intricate designs definitely stood out.
The Garfield Building was only a couple blocks down; it was not as vertical as the Eastern building, but instead more horizontal. The name was clearly displayed at the entrance, and colorful rays attack the viewers. The building has some kind of design in between the windows of the upper stories—they were too small to accurately distinguish. Much of the lower levels were covered by large trees; little of the iron-work above the entrance was viewable. Mass was not emphasized by its verticality; though it may be lower like Los Angeles’ other skyscrapers, the width of the building made it feel massive.
Our last destination in Downtown Los Angeles was the Title Guarantee Building. At the top of the building, flying buttresses of Gothic architecture held down the tower. The building consisted of two main parts: the base and the upper levels. The lowest level seemed to be added onto the building after it finished construction; the building material differed from the main building. The base was wider than the top level, and at the top level of the base was glass windows enclosed in green metal. Though the upper level was supported by the base, it was pushed back. Furthermore, the building was symmetrical and tapered as it grows higher. At the bottom of the building, there were bas reliefs of nude muscular figures. Additional reliefs reappeared near the top of the building. The color of the building was light, but not bland; the building was clad in stone-covered terracotta tile.
Our last destination was supposed to be a modernist house designed by Schindler. Unfortunately, we could not locate the house. Though we were on the correct street, the address was missing. We assumed that the building must have been demolished and replaced by the parking structure that stood where it should have been. I was discouraged by the missed opportunity—I really did look forward to seeing a modernist house, especially one built by the famous Rudolph Schindler.
I could not let myself finish this project without seeing a modernist work. I settled on another house built by Schindler in the late 1920s. Unfortunately, all his other buildings from the 1930s where constructed in locations I could not travel too. The Lovell Beach House was erected in Newport Beach (Figure D). The lonely drive down to the coast made me even more anxious to see the structure. When I first arrived, I instantly recognized Schindler’s work. I first thought of how fortunate the owner was to have such a wonderful view—the house was situated right in front of the beach. I loved the combination of the off-white walls and the hints of teal. Looking from the front of the building, viewers will have noticed its symmetry; from the side, however, the building was very asymmetrical. Unlike the bungalow houses I previously observed, the Lovell house was minimal in its use of decorations. The structure was very simplified and was rectangular in form. The house was covered is a lot of glass—especially on the side facing the ocean. I could not have noticed that the house was built during the 1920s; there were really no signs of age or damage. I assumed the building went through a lot of remodeling and fixing.
My next destination was also in Newport Beach—Crystal Cove State Beach. The beach cottages of Crystal Cove were vacation homes, renovated to look just as they did during the 1930s (Figures F–J). They followed the same characteristics of cottage bungalows, except for additional windows and open space to allow for a beautiful view of the ocean. These cottages were very colorful, conforming to the laidback, free beach culture. Each of them was one-story and probably offered two to three rooms. The porches of the cottages faced the ocean, and they were located at the back of the house, not the front. Nevertheless, these cute little cottages looked very cozy and fun.
It was definitely beneficial to be able to see the actual structures in real life as opposed to seeing pictures in books. An important element to the skyscrapers of the Art Deco style was the emphasis on size—something not comprehendible through paper and ink. By actually stepping foot before these buildings, and seeing them with my own eyes, I truly appreciated their beauty. Additionally, by researching the styles and the history of these buildings, I observed the architecture from a new and more intellectual perspective. Rather than looking the building from a purely aesthetic point of view, I understood the influences of the style and the work required to construct the building.
1: Craven, Jackie. “1905-1930 Bungalow Styles.” About.com. New York Times Company, n.d. Web. 4 Jun 2010.
Alan Do was born on April 2, 1993. He lives in Irvine, California and currently attends Irvine High School. He enjoys doing school work and he is on the swim team. In his spare time, Alan Do goes out with his friends.
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