'Overdrive' Engages a Public Understanding of L.A's Architectural Spaces

Whether you drive, bike, walk, or crawl L.A.'s vast urban landscape, you are likely to notice aspects of its built environment. The question becomes whether you have an internal framework to understand L.A.'s evolving architecture, and its relation to the region's continued social, economic, and civic growth.

Curated by the Getty Research Institute's architecture curators Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander, the Getty's recent exhibition Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 set out to be the first major museum exhibition to explore L.A.'s unique built environment. Alexander hopes the exhibit can show how "the 420 objects on display reflect the ambition, innovation, and artistry of the diverse architects, planners, and designers that reshaped this complex landscape."

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On a recent visit to the exhibition I was not only appreciative of the exhibition's various models, designs, and plans on display, but of its framing of the built environment in relation to the historic human settlements and the people who continue to migrate to L.A. Building on Reynar Banham's "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies," which focused on "Autopia," "Surfurbia," "the Plains of Id," and the "Foothills," "Overdrive" acknowledges this continued landscape with its inclusion of exhibit sections dedicated to "Car Culture" and "Urban Networks."

A departure from the 1970s orientation of a L.A. landscape that "Four Ecologies" summons, "Overdrive" emphasizes a built environment heavily influenced by more contemporary uses of mass human settlements that populate the architecture we see today, through exhibits that display "Engines of Innovation," "Community Magnets," and "Residential Fabric." This expanded framework allows the exhibit to personally engage visitors by nudging them to think of the architecture in relation to human intent, versus an urban physical form devoid of intent that typically clouds the understanding that Los Angeles was actually planned, designed, and built according to human decisions -- whether in the right or wrong direction.

Overdrive: Stereograms | Courtesy of the Getty Trust

UC Riverside: Engines of Innovation | Courtesy of the Getty Trust

The emphasis on human intent and the evolution of L.A. architecture exposes itself in the "Engines of Innovation" section, which considers industrial, studio, and campus design in relation to higher education, aerospace, international commerce, and media and entertainment.

In the "Community Magnets" section one is exposed to the architecture of cultural destinations, such as Disneyland, Dodger Stadium, the Music Center, and the 1984 Olympics, whose iconic structures were built for large groups of people to collectively experience L.A. arts, spectacle, and sports fandom.

The "Residential Fabric" section moves visitors from the clichéd appreciation of atypically designed abodes, such as the "Case Study House No. 22" by Pierre Koenig, to attempts at socially just planned housing and communities, such as the Aliso Village housing project, which encouraged racial diversity in the face of racial covenants that plagued most parts of the city in the 1940s. Included is an actual "Meet the Families" of Aliso Village, a book published in the 1940s that profiles families of Asian, Latino, Black, and Caucasian ethnic backgrounds who lived in the housing project.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the exhibit is how it inspires one to make a venture to the actual completed constructions in the city. Alexander says that "'Overdrive' inspired them to visit many of the buildings on display with their family and friends. It's exciting to know that visitors leave the galleries eager and empowered to explore and enjoy the region."

This was definitely the case for me, as I was very enamored by a model featured in the "Car Cultures" section of the exhibit, of the Kentucky Fried Chicken designed by Grinstein/Daniels and constructed in 1990, in the Koreatown/East Hollywood neighborhood that I grew up in. Seeing the model not only made me revisit the structure by driving by it, but also brought back memories of its opening and the six years of my life in which I passed by it twice everyday on a bus from my neighborhood to Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard; of the 101 freeway on-ramp that transported my school bus to Woodland Hills for my middle and high school years. To be featured as a piece of architecture within the story of L.A.'s built environment argues for the case that L.A. has a collective urban landscape history that is slowly being appreciated, and in need for continued exploratory engagement by its settled and immigrating residents that populate the region.

Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 has just ended its run at the Getty, but will be opening in October for an exhibit run at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

Case Study House No. 22 by Pierre Koenig | Photo by Julius Shuman, 1960. Courtesy of the Getty Trust.

Kentucky Fried Chicken by Grinstein/Daniels Inc., 1990 | Courtesy of the Getty Trust.

The Kentucky Fried Chicken building on Western Ave. and Oakwood Avenue | Photo by George Villanueva

Top: Entrance to the "Overdrive" exhibit. Courtesy of The Getty Trust.

About the Author

George Villanueva, Ph.D. is a native Angeleno born and raised in the intersecting spaces of East Hollywood, Koreatown, and the Temple-Beverly corridor (now Historic Filipinotown).
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