It’s true that I’m writing a biography of the architect Louis Kahn, so I’ve been looking closely at a lot of good architecture (mainly his) over the past few years. But recently I had a series of architectural adventures that had nothing to do with my Kahn project—proving, if proof were needed, that architecture is in fact a part of daily life and not something set apart.
Two weeks ago my husband and I went down to Los Angeles for a few days to visit some friends, and it turned out to be an extended architectural tour. On one day we visited the new Broad Museum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro to house Eli Broad’s massively self-congratulatory, extremely expensive, and frequently atrocious collection of contemporary art. The building is better than the art, but it too has its self-aggrandizing aspects. The weirdly cavelike and at times intestinal corridors which funnel you around and upward are supposed to feel organic but instead struck me as imprisoning. The galleries themselves are mainly standard white boxes, unimaginatively designed. And the hole-punctured surrounding “skin,” which is supposed to let in natural light, does so in a frustrating and barely view-producing way. It was a relief to leave this imposing new structure and wander across the street, passing the chaste little MOCA building and its pleasant exterior courtyard, and head deeper into downtown LA, where we encountered the thrilling vertical tram called Angel’s Flight (now, alas, not in use), the lively Grand Central Market, and finally the Bradbury Building.
If you have watched TV or movies over the last forty years, you’ve probably seen the Bradbury Building’s interior—it appears in Blade Runner and elsewhere—but nothing can replace the experience of actually being inside it. An early twentieth century structure composed of nondescript brick on the outside, it features a glorious atrium where delicately carved terra cotta, elegant brickwork, ascending galleries bounded by wrought-iron railings, and a marvelous skylight at the roof level combine to produce a sensation that is like nothing else in Los Angeles. There are lovely old cage elevators, but only tenants of the building are allowed to use these, and only tenants can go above the second-floor landing of the staircase. Nonetheless, the building remains an attraction for casual visitors, locals and tourists alike, all gazing in quiet wonder at this preserved bit of LA history.
The next day we drove out to Pasadena to look at the Greene & Greene houses. These wonderful, mainly residential structures, built by the Greene brothers early in the twentieth century, are made of wood in a style that draws on Japanese and early Modernist elements, but with a craftsmanship that is all their own. Most of them can only be seen from the outside, but one of the best—The Gamble House, built for the man who was half of the founding pair of Procter & Gamble—offers hourly tours to groups of about a dozen at a time. Our group was led by a sprightly, fascinating man who knew a great deal and knew how to convey it, and his ability to point out which details we should be looking at, and what they signified to both the builders and their clients, made all the difference to our visit. When we got to the cunningly designed kitchen (where the extra leaves for the dining room table were cleverly stored in a vertical rack, and where the table cloth was kept on a roller so it never had to be folded), he said, “If you’ve seen Downton Abbey—well, of course you’ve seen Downton Abbey…” and proceeded to explain the differences between that period piece and this one. The house was a bit dark by modern standards, because it had been constructed to cool its inhabitants during the long Southern California summers without the aid of air-conditioning, but this relative darkness was countered by the presence of charming outdoor sleeping porches adjoining each large bedroom. I can’t possibly list every architectural virtue of the place—the beautiful joins in every carpentered element, the incised designs on the wooden walls, the unexpected interior windows, the indescribable curve of the ornamental fishpond, the delicate pattern of the stained glass in the front doorway, and on and on—so you will just have to go there sometime and see it yourself. If I had to tell visitors about one thing to see in the Los Angeles area, it would be the Gamble House.
Returning to Berkeley, I went the following week to the newly opened BAM/PFA, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives building recently completed by the same Diller Scofidio + Renfro who had done the Broad. This too is a building that outshines its collection (though that is not hard to do at the University Art Museum) — in some ways delightfully, in some ways more irritatingly. There is a willfulness to the design, with its blood-red (or actually tomato-red) stairwells, its strangely angled and sometimes vertiginous views, its galleries that lead confusingly one into another and then end up in the central ground-floor space, that can be either fun-house amusing or annoyingly coy, depending on your mood. The building also repeats a standard Diller Scofidio motif — the amphitheater seating looking down at nothing in particular, which they used both in the Juilliard/Alice Tully remodel and on the High Line — and here it makes much less sense. I also deplore what they’ve done with the museum café, Babette’s: it used to be one of Berkeley’s best casual meeting places, with its outdoor seating area facing onto a pleasant, enclosed lawn; now it occupies a single long corridor on the second floor, with no outdoor space whatsoever. But the actual PFA theater, renamed to honor the donor Barbro Osher, is a pleasure in every respect, with wonderful sightlines, comfortable seats, and a sense of expansiveness that enhances any film you might happen to see there. (My choice, in that first week of the theater’s opening, was Douglas Sirk’s Tarnished Angels—but that’s another story entirely.)
As the last item in our impromptu architectural tour, my husband and I sought out the Hearst Memorial Mining Building on the UC Berkeley campus. Our Los Angeles friends had brought it up in connection to the Bradbury Building and were surprised we knew nothing about it. To my shame, I have been living within a mile of this marvelous structure for nearly forty years now, but last Saturday was the first time I had ever seen it, and I was frankly amazed. Its entrance atrium makes the Bradbury’s look like a toy: it is stately and wide and thrillingly illuminated, and it rises to the full height of the four-story building. Like the Bradbury’s, this atrium has wrought-iron-railed galleries and connecting staircases, but here you can actually climb them up to the roof level, where a canopy of Guastavino tiles set within their characteristic ceiling arches curves above your head, touchably close in places. Light pours into the whole space from tall side windows, and the adjoining lab space (which we peeked at through an interior window) is lit by an old-fashioned skylight held up with iron girders. A 1907 monument to the silver-mine-derived fortune of the Hearsts — the Broads of old, as it were—this building was originally constructed to teach Berkeley students the art and science of mining. (An architect friend tells me that it used to connect with a sample training mine, tunneled into the hillside.) Now devoted to more modern forms of science and engineering, the structure has been restored with great delicacy and skill; it even rests on an earthquake-proof base, having been lifted up wholesale and put back in its place. Walking through it, I wondered if Louis Kahn, who visited the Berkeley campus for three days in 1958, had ever been inside it. It certainly felt like one of his buildings — the Yale Center for British Art, say, or the Exeter Library, both of which have wonderful central atriums. And yet it also felt like the buildings of antiquity that had directly influenced him, so the parallel could have been just that: a result of parallel developments from a similar source. In any case, it was wonderful to think that something so grand, beautiful, and inspiring had arisen on the campus of a California public university, and even more wonderful to find that it had been so lovingly preserved.