Created By: Friends Of Residential Treasures: Los Angeles
TRAILBLAZER: EMILY BILLS
Emily Bills is an educator, curator, and author with research interests in urban history and architectural photography. She is Assistant Adjunct Professor in the Urban Studies program at The New School in New York and directs the development of new sustainability programs for Woodbury University in Burbank, California. In her former role as managing director of the Julius Shulman Institute, she collaborated on exhibitions featuring photographers Hélène Binet, Pedro E. Guerrero, Catherine Opie, and Richard Barnes, among others. Emily is the coauthor of California Captured: Marvin Rand Mid-Century Modern Architecture (Phaidon, 2018), and the author of Wayne Thom: Photographing the Late Modern (The Monacelli Press, 2020). She curated an exhibition on Thom’s work for the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California, which opened in October, 2022.
BLAZING THE TRAIL
Los Angeles is well-known for its pathbreaking midcentury architecture, but its contribution to innovative design didn’t stop in the mid-1960s. Established architects and young practitioners alike helped mark the 1970s as a period of experimentation in building materials, form, and concept. A number of significant events and historical conditions helped identify Southern California as a leader in Late Modern architectural design.
Southern California’s urban transformation provided ample opportunity for new construction across sectors and spurred commissions in the region’s architecture offices. This included new tower construction in downtown Los Angeles and along Wilshire Boulevard; the expansion of Southern California’s high tech and research and development sectors, which transformed Orange County’s open fields into low-slung campuses of slick mirror glass buildings hiding laboratories and new computers; and the increase in college attendance that spurred widespread campus construction projects.
In the academy, students and faculty debated new approaches, attracting teacher-practitioners from the east coast and abroad. In 1972, Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steven Izenhour published Learning from Las Vegas, a project developed out of their Yale studio course but initially inspired by Scott Brown’s interest in Los Angeles’ streetscapes during her tenure at UCLA in the mid-1960s. Peter Cook and other members of the experimental group Archigram also came to teach at UCLA in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, bringing their impressions of Southern California as a “way of life” back to the UK. Brewing discussions surrounding urban development, high tech materials, and postmodern approaches shaped a series of conferences at the university throughout the 1970s, and established L.A. as the place where architects were hashing out new directions in design. In 1972, Reyner Banham’s BBC Films production, Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, a companion piece to his 1971 book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, reflected a global fascination with L.A. as a non-traditional city that welcomed architects eager to test radical ideas. Locals did the same. In 1972, Ray and Shelly Kappe, Thom Mayne, Jim Stafford, Glen Small, Ahde Lahti, and Bill Simonian founded the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or SCI-Arc, in Santa Monica as an independent, experimental “school without walls.” This alternative to more traditional architecture programs in the region celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
With the 1970s turning 50, preservation organizations are working to bring pubic attention to this important and innovative stage in the city’s architectural heritage. Buildings from this period are loosely grouped under the term “Late Modern” (and can include early examples of “decontructivist” and “postmodern” experiments), but their formal and conceptual characteristics vary widely. This is what makes Late Modern architecture of the 1970s so exciting. It is a period marked by diversity, from large poured-concrete forms that are more lyrical than brutal; to the application of sleek curtain wall technology; to wooden shed forms influenced by the Sea Ranch in Northern California; to expressions in humble materials that articulate L.A.’s ordinary and everyday streetscape. Many people know Frank Gehry’s 1978 personal residence as an icon of this period, but there are many more “Late Modern” residential treasures that are worth checking out. I hope this trail can bring attention to some familiar, as well as some lesser known, Late Modern contributions to residential architecture.
Like most people, I often learn about architecture through photographs before I experience it in person. This was the case with many of Los Angeles’s Late Modern buildings. I met photographer Wayne Thom while still immersed in midcentury projects on architectural photographers Marvin Rand and Pedro E. Guerrero. Wayne’s work opened up a whole new area of interest for me. As a child of the 1970s, I had a familiarity with this period in design. It vibes with me aesthetically on some deep-seated level, particularly the use of raw, weathered wood so common in Northern California, where I grew up. I also like that the work from this period can’t be easily categorized into a single set of aesthetic or theoretical criteria. It eschews easy categorization, and that makes research into this period exciting. For the book project Wayne Thom: Photographs of the Late Modern (Monacelli, 2020), I spent months reviewing negatives in Wayne’s archive at USC, and then followed that research with day-long adventures driving around Southern California, tracking down the buildings pictured in the photographs. While residential design doesn’t comprise a large portion of Thom’s collection, when those designs did appear, they were always fabulous. I include a few stand-out examples in this trail.