Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Discover all the ways you can make a difference.
Support Icon
The Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams are here to help.

The Future Fulfilled? Modernism's Effect on the California We Know Today

San Diego Freeway
Support Provided By

There was no Big Bang of California modernism. The ether of post-World War II American culture did not enter our lungs suddenly amidst euphoric celebration over the Second World War’s conclusion. Rather, it had been there for decades, finding expression in film, art and architecture, slowly seeping into our bloodstream modulated by a California context surfacing in the capillaries and veins of the state’s physical and cultural landscape. California modernism reached maturity just as America emerged to a radically altered international scene; the U.S., the world’s first atomic power, spared from the kind of devastation visited upon Europe and Asia, radiated its economic, political and cultural influence.

While no one can deny New York’s centrality in the early post-1945 period, California served as the emblem of the American dream, the ideal of modernity and purveyor of modernism, which it broadcast to the nation and larger world. In this regard, Southern California, and Los Angeles in particular, captured the American imagination. “Los Angeles was the place you wanted to be: where Disneyland opened in 1955, where the Brooklyn Dodgers migrated to in 1957, where freeways integrated suburban idylls into a sprawling region, and where you find Annette Funicello and Franki Avalon frolicking on Malibu’s beach,” writes historian Eric Avila.[1

During the first few decades of the twentieth century, it was the interurban Red Car system that established both suburbanization patterns and future highway construction, as many of the freeways constructed in the postwar period followed the path laid by hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of streetcar track.

Road building sought to expand modernism’s obsession with order and flow. Los Angeles’s engineer for street design, H.Z. Osborne Jr., frustrated by the Southland’s lack of through highways departed from municipal employment and formed the non-profit Traffic Commission of the City and County of Los Angeles in 1921. The commission consisted of planners, engineers and members of civic groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and Automobile Club of California.

Few innovations embodied the ideals of modernism than the automobile. Providing economic and physical mobility, cars represented unbounded freedoms and new horizons. Perhaps no other state embraced automobility like California. In 1915, Los Angeles County counted over 55,000 privately owned cars; three years later, it led the nation in the category.[2] By the mid-1960s, it accounted for one ninth of the nation’s automobiles.[3]

In many ways, the car’s expansion into the lives of Californians paralleled that of modernism. Automobiles, encapsulated and even transported modernism’s impulses regarding movement, flow and order, reshaping not only the landscape, but also our interaction with and understanding of it. “In L.A., a car is everything. It is how a person relates to the world, and it is how he sees himself in the world,” Nixon protégé Benjamin Stein wrote in the 1970s.[4]

Automobiles served as the midwife to midcentury suburbanization and man’s control of the built environment.  “Cars, cars, fast, fast. One is seized, filled with enthusiasm, with joy ... the joy of power,” wrote Le Corbusier in 1924. “One has confidence in this new society: it will find a magnificent expression of its power. One believes in it.” The famed Swiss-French urban planner and modernist embraced the new age with fervor, promoting function, flow and efficiency; he advocated “killing the street,” taking it from the people and handing it to the machine age; the promise and peril of modernism and those of the automobile intertwined.[5]

Within three years, it produced the Major Traffic Street Plan of 1924; Le Corbusier published his famed urban planning manifesto, “The City of Future” the same year. “[W]rapped in the authority of hired experts,” the plan covered the Los Angeles basin in boulevards. To no one’s surprise, the highway-centric Los Angeles Times applauded the commission’s work.[6]  

The 1924 plan set into motion the “boulevarding” of the city and led to the Mulholland and Pasadena Highways (the latter originally known as Arroyo Seco Parkway) and Olympic and Whittier Boulevards in the ensuing years. While it clung to the tenets of modernism — emphasizing humanity’s conquest of the built environment, establishing an ordered landscape and contributing to an efficient, mechanistic flow of human and machine — road and highway building also set into motion one of the tragedies of highway construction: the destruction of community, particularly for immigrants and minorities. Highways would be more severe, but boulevards displaced residents, gobbled up potential parkland, and disrupted and destroyed neighborhoods. “Sixth Street Bridge and Whittier Boulevard did not create the barrio,” argues historian Matthew Roth, “but they did establish the kind of path dependencies that are most difficult to overcome — the kind that are poured into concrete.”[7]

The agricultural fields of the future East Los Angeles in 1921. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.
The agricultural fields of the future East Los Angeles in 1921. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.
Same view of East Los Angeles in 1930, looking northeast from Whittier Blvd. and Atlantic Blvd. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.
Same view of East Los Angeles in 1930, looking northeast from Whittier Blvd. and Atlantic Blvd. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Two decades of highway construction followed, culminating in the East Los Angeles Interchange, a behemoth structure completed in the mid-1960s connecting five different highways in the process displacing thousands of Latino, black and Jewish residents. Those that remained struggled with air and noise pollution while having to traverse an endless array of vehicular traffic. “A resident walking from Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights to Los Angeles County General Hospital, less than half a mile away,” writes Gilbert Estrada, “would have to cross forty-one lanes of freeways.”[8]

Just as boulevards predated highways, the conceptual roots of postwar modernism were preceded by a darker, European variant, reshaped under a Southern California sun.  During the 1920s, wave after wave of newcomers arrived in Los Angeles, at first mostly Midwesterners but soon after, largely during the 1930s, a number of European émigrés sought refuge from their increasingly troubled continent. What they discovered in Los Angeles swung between ambivalence and contempt. Despite municipal efforts aimed at reconstructing the built environment, the city still lacked “public spaces, sophisticated crowds, historical auras and critical intellectuals,” writes historian Mike Davis. “Amid so much open land there seemed to be no space that met their criteria of ‘civilized urbanity.’”

The Southern California exile of Bertolt Brecht, Theodore Adorno, Billy Wilder and other European intellectuals “ultimately transformed the terms for understanding the impact of Modernism.” Refracted through their alienated Southern California experience and broadcast through art, literature and film, Los Angeles became the “crystal ball of capitalism’s future,” “an ‘anti-city’, a Gobi of suburbs.”

Its pervasiveness (or at least what they perceived as pervasive) the ultimate demise of “Enlightenment Europe.”[9]

Not that all European émigrés found the “capitalist city” so distasteful; some saw opportunity and profit. As boulevards and the city’s first highways first began stretching across Los Angeles, they intersected with a modernism bubbling below the surface. As car ownership and roads proliferated, the boom times of the 1920s facilitated a rising consumer culture and in particular a retail innovation binding transit and commerce, one pioneered by Southern California: the drive-in market. Though the first example which opened in 1923, Ye Market Place lacked any speck of modernist influence, the proliferation of this commercial architecture eventually afforded architects and designers “a unique opportunity at the time to apply modernist concepts” particularly as part of “an urban order where movement by car was the primary generating force,” observes historian Richard Longstreth.

Arroyo Seco Parkway 10
The Figueroa Street Tunnels were constructed in 1931. They became a part of the Arroyo Seco Parkway after the freeway was completed in 1940. |  Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Viennese émigré Richard Neutra found the idea of the drive in market as “a billboard” appealing and prepared numerous unrealized designs “as a means to refine his ideas of a machine-age aesthetics and perhaps to secure clients in a potentially lucrative sphere.” Even dormant, his designs may have cast an influence. Midwestern transplant and son of Frank Lloyd Wright, Lloyd Wright emerged as a leader in drive-in market design in California and across the U.S. between 1930 and 1950; some of his ideas, reminiscent of Neutra’s models.[10]

One might argue such symmetry a fitting complement and parallel to the city’s immigration and migration patterns. During the 1920s, immigrants like Neutra and Rudolf Schindler along with Frank Lloyd Wright also constructed some of the most iconic modernist homes of Los Angeles. During the 1930s, a new wave of modernists, Pierre Koenig, A. Quincy Jones, Raphael Soriano, Gregory Ain, J.R. Davidson, and Craig Ellwood built on these earlier examples. While avant-garde designs would not be incorporated into most suburban tract housing, they did help to shape them, in part as contributors to the Case House Study program during the 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s.[11]

More than most, California benefitted from the post World War II boom. The U.S.’s new position as an atomic power and the beginning of the Cold War with its emphasis on military buildup, technocratic expertise and scientific exploration poured federal money into the state. Modernist impulses smoldering before the war exploded in the euphoric optimism of a victorious America. “[W]hen many Americans were still experiencing the residual fears of World War II and the specter of the atomic bomb … a more utopian vision persisted in California,” notes Palm Spring Art Museum Director and curator of the 2008 exhibition, “The Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury,” Elizabeth Armstrong. “Between 1949 and 1965 the population of this ‘frontier of so-called civilization’ more than doubled, providing newfound status and independence.”[12]

New homes under construction in Lakewood, 1950 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
New homes under construction in Lakewood, 1950 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

By this time, the red car system had faltered due to several factors including customer dissatisfaction, the public’s embrace of automobiles, and the lobbying interests of oil, rubber, glass, and asphalt industries; the latter’s ubiquity captured in physical manifestation with the construction of the 1936 South Gate Ford plant, the Union Oil Building in 1957 and the completion in 1958 of the Firestone Stores, Offices and Warehouses in Los Angeles. As with drive in markets, they served as totem poles for modernism, commerce and automobility.

From the 1940s into the late 1960s, boosted by the 1947 California Collier-Burns Act and later by the federal 1957 Interstate Highway Act, highway construction in California commenced. Suburbanization crept out along the burgeoning system with housing and commerce planting their respective flags along the way. John Entenza, the editor of the influential Arts and Architecture magazine, commissioned his Case House Study series, in which prominent architects and designers of the day such as Neutra, Ray and Charles Eames, Craig Ellwood and Pierre Koenig among others produced cutting edge modernist homes. Julius Shulman’s photography, which captured many of these houses, as well as commercial architecture of the period, conveyed a “domestic cool,” notes art historian Elizabeth A.T. Smith positioning California as “the brightest national beacon of a better way of life.”[13]

Postwar consumerism found modernist themes in newly developed shopping malls, an evolution of its drive in market forbearer. “Southern California’s contribution was among the most significant,” writes Longstreth. Victor Gruen, also from Vienna via New York and a friend of Neutra’s, arrived in Los Angeles in 1941 and in the years following World War II, spread the gospel of the shopping mall across the United States. An acolyte of Le Corbusier’s grand vision, Gruen recognized the centrality of automobiles, but at the same time, argued that car and human were not one. Instead, he sought to “divorce customers” from their cars as quickly as possible, ushering shoppers into a pedestrian retail district, a utopian indoor town center, informed by his modernist origins in Vienna and the California mid-century milieu.[14] 

Admittedly, considering their association with Los Angeles, Gruen and the Eames completed few projects in the region, but their work filtered through the nation; the former erecting temples of commerce off highway ramps and at major metropolitan intersections, offering the finest in mid-century modernist retail; the latter filling American homes with modernist furniture and designs while providing larger scale subdivisions with watered down suburban modernism. “In essence, the Eameses are the proverbial ‘glue’ of midcentury modernism,” asserts Armstrong, “providing the link between the intellectual and formal elements of modernism and its crossover into popular and corporate culture.”[15]

Yet for all its promise of modernity, flow and order, the ideal of modernism, at least in terms of highway construction failed to achieve its larger ends. In her groundbreaking work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961), Jane Jacobs took Los Angeles to task: bemoaning the quality of its air, deriding it for failing to create neighborhoods that “belong to the whole city,” and lamenting that its dependence on automobiles had negated normal social relations.[16] New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury argued that for all the construction, the idea of “movement” on them, due to the proliferation of accidents and an ever increasing number of drivers, had become hard to believe: “The truth is that a horse and buggy could cross Los Angeles almost as fast in 1900 as an automobile can make this trip at 5 p.m. today.”[17] Road construction failed to bind the region into coherent whole but rather transformed it into a constellation of satellite suburbs and municipalities, argued critics like Jacobs.

Jacobs’s critiques as Avila and others have noted, served as model for a defense. For Reyner Banham, yet another European émigré residing in Los Angeles, one needed to take the region on its own terms. Autotopia, as he put it, gave Angelenos “a special way of being alive.” Contra to naysayers, Banham asserted it gave Los Angeles coherence: “I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original.”[18]  David Brodsly expressed similar admiration. “In Los Angeles, at least, the freeway is organic as any product of a boomtown built in a desert can be.” The freeways are to Los Angeles as the Mediterranean is to Italy or snow capped mountains to the Alps.[19] Even though we know better, this vision of the city has been amplified in movies like “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” where audiences spend large swaths of the film gazing at Brad Pitt driving dreamily across late 1960s Southern California streets and highways.

Joan Didion, who once described driving in Los Angeles as “secular communion” had come to, as she had with much of Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, view freeways warily. Traffic jams and accidents snarled Los Angeles highways, efforts by Caltrans to alleviate such conditions with “diamond lanes” met with rancor as drivers "splashed paint and scattered nails" along the new lanes; occasionally hurling a projectile at maintenance workers.[20] Didion’s objection remained more prosaic: Caltrans policies had turned the freeway into a parking lot, though more likely that was the inevitability of road construction more generally.

Perhaps of even greater importance, due to federal housing and urban renewal policies, suburbanization crystallized structural inequality. Asians, Latinos and Blacks found little purchase in the burgeoning suburbs; highway construction disproportionately affected minority communities, especially working class ones; the modernist consumerism of the shopping mall and the products sold within, such as Eames designed furniture, all out of reach for many non-whites due to occupational and educational discrimination. Modernity has costs and those costs are rarely borne equally, no matter the rhetoric or vision.

Even some of the era’s leading practitioners looked back with regret. Late in life, Victor Gruen famously denounced the very thing he helped create: shopping malls. Too much of the business hinged on self-promotion and real estate speculation he would tell listeners. In his own designs, Gruen did promote “environmental and humane ideas” but developers, he argued, had jettisoned them for higher profits thereby degrading cities, environment, small businesses and community life. Gruen had strived to replicate traditional downtowns not displace them.[21]  The promise of shopping centers as the “civitas of public places,” which Gruen had envisioned, proved elusive much as the sort of movement and flow of traffic that policy makers and developers had championed in highway construction failed to live up to expectations for the general public.

Modernism gave way to the postmodern individualism of Frank Gehry and others. However, its presence never really faltered. Exhibits such as the Orange County Museum’s “Birth of the Cool” (2008) and the Getty sponsored citywide “Pacific Standard Time” in 2013, highlighted its persistent influence in postwar California, and America, into the twenty-first century. Art and architecture might not be able to save society, but it can inspire it.

If postwar modernism filtered into our proverbial conceptual lungs as an invisible, imperceptible, all-encompassing ether, today aesthetically, due to television series like “Mad Men” and the countless number of design/housing shows on channels like HGTV, it functions more as the air we breathe. It’s become the baseline vocabulary for a certain lifestyle, “backdrops for and symbols of confident urbanity,” one writer noted.[22] Whether its accouterments are now more widely accessible, is, perhaps a longer, more complicated conversation.

While highways and personal cars remain the primary mode of transportation in the region, advances in public transit have been made. Shopping malls are largely dying as e-commerce raises real questions about the future of brick and mortar retail, though The Grove and other shopping destinations survive. Air quality has improved, but it has backslid in recent years. Despite the joyous opening scene of 2016’s “La La Land,” traffic continues to bedevil drivers on a daily basis; according to the Los Angeles Times, from 2013-2019, it ranked as the “world’s worst.”

All this is to say, whatever one thinks of its impact, we’ve been breathing in the effects of modernism for decades.


[1] Eric Avila, “Essaying Los Angeles” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, ed. Kevin McNamara, 2010), 181.

[2] Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 192-3.

[3] “California Highways … 1964”, California Highways and Public Works 11/12, (1964): 7.

[4] Quoted in David Brodsly, L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 44.

[5] Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, (New York: Verso, 1981), 165- 166.

[6] Matthew Roth, “Mulholland Highway and the Engineering Culture of Los Angeles in the 1920s,” in Metropolis in the Making: Los Angeles in the 1920s, eds. Tom Sitton and William Deverall, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 51-52.

[7] Matthew Roth, Whittier Boulevard, Sixth Street Bridge, and the Origins of Transportation Exploitation,” Journal of Urban History 30 no. 5 (July 2004): 731.  

[8] Gilbert Estrada, “If You Build It, They Will Move: The Los Angeles Freeway System and the Displacement of Mexican East Los Angeles, 1944-1972” Southern California Quarterly vol. 87 no. 3 (Fall 2005): 290, 300, 306.

[9] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, (New York: Verso, 2006), 47-48.

[10] Richard Longstreth, The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), 33, 66-67,63.

[11] Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 295.

[12] Elizabeth Armstrong, “The Square and the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury” in Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury,

ed. Elizabeth Armstrong (Orange County: Prestel Publishing 2007), 25.

[13] Elizabeth A.T. Smith, “Domestic Cool: Modern Architecture and its Image in Southern California” in Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury, ed. Elizabeth Armstrong (Orange County: Prestel Publishing 2007), 65-67.

[14] Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1998), 309.

[15] Armstrong, “The Square and the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury,” 33.

[16] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of American Cities, (New York: Vintage House, 1961), 91, 119, 73.

[17] Quoted in The Death and Life of American Cities, 354-355.

[18] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), 196-197, 5.

[19] David Brodsly, L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 46. 

[20] Joan Didion, “Bureaucrats” in the White Album (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1979), pg. 81-83.

[21] Sandy Isenstadt, “Desperately Seeking a Center, in the Postwar American Suburb,” Journal of Urban History, August 27, 2019,

[22] Armstrong, “The Square and the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury,” 56.

Support Provided By
Read More