Italian Architectural Evocations in Los Angeles


Italian Architectural Evocations in Los Angeles

By Edward F. Tuttle. All rights reserved. (See: EDUCATION, University Italian Studies, Graduate (M.A., Ph.D.), UCLA)

Italian-derived architecture in the Los Angeles area can be attributed to the broad enthusiasm for Mediterranean culture that still inspired the educated and well-to-do a century ago. As had Jefferson at Monticello, so too did the scions of Victorian Industry continue to dream of Italy. The McCormickís (=International Harvester), even employed a score of Italian masons for decades on their Riven Rock Estate. Boosters were convinced that coastal California would become Americaís Riviera, truly Our Italy, as Charles D. Warner entitled his 1891 enticing descriptions. While few evocations of Italy may quite rival Abbot Kinney's 1904 Venetian folly (see: ART & ARCHITECTURE, Points of Special Interest: Venice Beach, CA), in capillary fashion domestic builders made much use of the loggia and the porticoóamenities as expressive of this mild Mediterranean place as the olive and the vine. Recall, too, that longstanding admiration for Italy converged seamlessly with the simultaneous resuscitation of the Hispanic Missions. Ramona (1884) was born of Helen Hunt Jackson's collaboration with Abbot Kinney to ascertain the sorry state of the Franciscan Missions and their Native American converts. A kindred New England transplant, Charles Lummis, Los Angelesí librarian, launched the Landmark Club to save, most conspicuously, the Missions (circa 1895). The lovingly restored Missions stood as exemplars for many a mundane building (from train stationsósignally those of the Southern Pacific and the Santa Feóto schools and libraries, to markets and even Protestant churches). The common Roman ancestry of the arch and the column fostered a Mediterranean symbiosis, which proved prolific well on through the 1930ís. For ex., only an architectural historian rambling through, say, Palos Verdes (name coined 1932) can alert us that Wallace Neff's villas are often "more Italian than Spanish," or that the Gard House (Cutter) was "to be read as Spanish, but, in truth, many of its architectural details came from rural villas in Tuscany," just as the Schoolcraft House (Cline) is "a rural Tuscan villa with extensive tilework, windows and doors brought from Italy" (R. Winter & D. Gebhard, An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, revised ed. 2003, pp. 85-86). The porticoed Malaga Cove piazza even has a 2/3 scale Fontana del Nettuno from a 1563 Bolognese original as its centerpiece. Yet just as William Wrigley ordered Avalon "Mediterranean-ized" (ca. 1934 by Otis Shepard) and Santa Barbara's city fathers crafted a "Mediterranean" building code, Frank Lloyd Wright was deriving ispiration from Mayan excavations, while energetic Mitteleuropean ÈmigrÈ architects were bringing with them International Moderne. Stark flat surfaces, aimed at creating "pure" geometric volumes, rendered Mediterranean Historicism passÈ.

Yet the Wheel of Fashion ever turns: the American Academy still granted Rome Prizes and the Caput Mundi remained seductive. By the early Sixties, two Princetonians, stirred by their Italian sojourns, militated for a return to complexity and Italian allusions. Both Robert Venturi's radical Historicist recoveries (1966) and Michael Grave's chromatic evocations restored Italy as architectural inspiration. The affluent 1980's saw a new, post-modern wave of Californians eagerly (re-)discovering Italian wine, cuisine, and designóupscale, hip, and stylish. This new Italian wave, so conspicuous in the restaurant and design sectors, shows no signs of receding any time soon. Architecturally it is manifest in wide use of materials such as terracotta, marble, and tile, as well as structural recoveries such as arcades (with arches), courtyards, spaces focused around fountains. New sites vaguely reminiscent of Italian urban landscapes are rising (e.g., the hilltop Getty Museum, the grander malls such as the Grove, or the Beverly Hills Connection), while developers once again give Italian names to their creations (e.g., "Palazzo," and a plethora of "Villas").