'Living in a Modern Way' at LACMA

LACMA's survey of California-influenced design (California Design: 1930-1965 - Living in a Modern Way) is a smart, encyclopedic treat. It illuminates some of the many ways in which Californians reinterpreted international Modernism and marketed it to mid-century America as a sunny image of "the new."

(Preview some of the objects in the exhibition here, in a slide show from the Los Angeles Times.)

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I gave a short talk on Sunday at LACMA's Bing Theater about "living in a modern way" in post-war Los Angeles, focusing on suburbanization and the contentious issues that surrounded the building of the houses of tomorrow that post-war Los Angeles soon become known for.

In a way, my talk was less about the bright promise of the Case Study Houses or the more relaxed modernity of the the homes built by Cliff May and Joseph Eichler or even the run-of-the-mill newness of the Valley and Orange County tract houses that followed.

My talk was more about the conflicts beneath that optimistic surface and about the anxieties that Californian-style modernity was supposed to relieve.

Even today, the suburban build-out of Los Angeles remains enormously troublesome, whether it was the "undecorated sheds" of 1950s Lakewood on a strictly right-angle grid or Eichler-esque houses on their confusing cul-de-sacs or steel and glass boxes perched high on a Los Angeles hillside.

Some bitterly regret Southern California's answers to the problem of being new. Maybe because it was a compromised, ad hoc, and hybrid answer or maybe because the answer didn't contain enough of the gee-whiz future or maybe because -- in the end -- "the new" turned out to be just another house standing alone on its lot on a block of similar houses.

For fifty years at least, houses in an around Los Angeles projected an image of "the new" that made California seem like the home of the "better living" that Americans longed for after the World War II.

Critics -- pointing to these homes and their furnishings -- dismissed this expression of "the new" as pretty, even romantic.

Of course, that's exactly its unthreatening promise: that "the new" might deliver the egalitarian, ahistorical, and optimistic fabrication that Los Angeles thought the future should be. It was the kind of modern living that young husbands' wives longed to possess when Los Angeles invented the future.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page is from public domain sources.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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