When first embracing Los Angeles as a surprisingly livable city to be explored and appreciated 40 long years ago, what I found absolutely essential was a copy of the second edition of Robert Winter and David Gebhard’s An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, priced at $13.95. Now a new century, and nearly a score of years after the fifth edition, comes an ambitious sixth, fully revised by Robert Inman, intelligently reorganized, and containing several hundred new additions, and fresh photographs. The revitalized and, not incidentally, costly guide ($45), put out by a persevering Angel City Press, is much welcomed in these days of waning print, and is being appropriately celebrated locally.
Actually, the first edition had been a modest booklet surveying the whole of sprawling Southern California, as well as the fractured cityscape of Los Angeles, and was assembled in 1964 for a national gathering of architectural historians. The effort dragged past the meeting and was published in 1965. It was enthusiastically received, proved a coveted guide for locals in addition to visitors, and was expanded in a 1977 edition.
My copy quickly became dog-eared and battered, squeezed as it was into the glove compartment of a trusty convertible that was de rigueur transportation for migrants from Manhattan. You had to love the benign, sunny weather and then relatively light traffic that made touring with the top down so pleasant; an accessible — and free — parking space was a given, too.
So I snapped up the next edition, dated 1982, and then the next, in 1985, which in a short time became essential in my work as the design critic of a then ascending Los Angeles Times, as well as in my labors over the architectural history LA Lost & Found, illustrated with the photographs of the indefatigable Julius Shulman.
Over the years, which included the untimely death of Gebhard in a bicycle accident in 1966, Winter continued to update and tweak the contents, which were invariably wrapped in the same blue cover, displaying iconic towering palm trees. In this latest noble effort, Winter was aided by a former student, Robert Inman, who has written some modest urban walk handbooks.
Notable is the fact that the cover of the revised edition is accented by a background of smog brown, evoking the dystonic mood of the classic sci-fi film Blade Runner and an unappealing futuristic L.A. There are no palm trees on the new murky cover, but rather an uplit historic, classical City Hall, foregrounded by a distinctly high-tech modern government edifice, the Caltrans District 7 Building, which was designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Thom Mayne of the edgy local firm Morphosis, and a plaza with shadowy figures in a descending darkness. Gloomy.
How intentional that effect was must be asked of book designer Amy Inouye, cover photographer Martin Summers, or Paddy Calistro of Angel City Press. But as indicated in Nathan Masters’s breezy preface, the city is changing, and, to the authors, “seems a different place in many regards.”
Indeed, though single-family houses do dominate as in past editions, this one features more multiple-family, mixed-use buildings, and star architect conceits, including, of course, several singular constructs by the ubiquitous homegrown Frank Gehry. Though cited, there is no accompanying photograph of his signature, sculptural, and frankly off-putting Disney Concert Hall, though the adjacent welcoming, veiled Broad Museum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is illustrated.
More importantly, the guide does hint at an encouraging social consciousness. Masters writes: “the aesthetics and originality of form are often secondary considerations of how a building addresses or fails to address some social goals, such as the need for sustainability and housing many people.” Noted are the protests and political muscle of status quo-conscious homeowner groups and the pressure of changing neighborhoods.
The compilers are to be particularly commended for citing the persistent, and growing, challenge of homelessness: “The centerpiece for any discussion about the future of Los Angeles County is the long term homelessness that, as this book goes to print, forces more than 50,000 individuals onto the streets.” Homeless encampments are very much in evidence in an otherwise gentrifying central city.
With its emphasis on social change and a new focus on public architecture, on top of the past editions’ wealth of historic landmarks and buildings of cultural interest, the sixth edition is (cover notwithstanding) a refreshing guide beyond its original intent as a professional and academic resource. It offers both locals and visitors a rich survey of the past, present, and future built environments of our ever-evolving city.