As Modern as We Could Be

Trying to Be Modern
| Photo: Author's collection

I went over to the Capitol Records building on Monday for a preview of Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. from the Getty, a kind of PST 1.5, which begins in April. The Getty museum will have the big show -- Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940 - 1990 -- and partner institutions, including LACMA and the Museum of Contemporary Art, will present complementary exhibitions and programs. (I've been involved with a couple of these programs.)

On Thursday, as part of the Central Library's ALOUD series, I moderated a conversation between Jenny Watts, photography curator at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and Christopher Hawthorne, architectural critic of the Los Angeles Times. Both wrote chapters for Maynard L. Parker: Modern Photography and the American Dream, published by the Huntington and Yale University Press. Jenny also was the book's editor. (I wrote a brief introduction.)

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The architect Eric Owen Moss, speaking at the Getty preview event, poked polemically at museums neatening up the past and letting exhibition patrons cast it in a nostalgic light. Watts and Hawthorne reminded their audience of the exclusivity in the modernism of John Lautner, Cliff May, A. Quincy Jones, Harwell Hamilton Harris, and many others. For people of color, the new mostly belonged to other people.

The neighborhoods were segregated, but those houses were beautiful and even affordable in their day. They were partial answers to a question, although today we might prefer a different answer to how we make a home here.

I cannot help but still think, as I wrote in introducing Maynard L. Parker:

They were dreams of shelter with a Californian exuberance for incorporating the outdoors inside. They were dreams of an alternative way of life, but with familiar symbols of safety, privacy, and stable family roles. They were dreams of the new and of liberation from the burdens of the recent past. They were dreams of the future, which nonetheless held terrors. They were the dreams, common to all Americans, of home.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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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