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LA: Where it s modern all the time
LA International Airport.

"LA is a great big freeway, put a hundred down and buy a car..." Burt Bacharach & Hal David

Well, in my case, rent a car. But there is a lot more to Los Angeles than freeways. An interest in modern design and architecture is taking me to places off the usual tourist track.

Despite a reputation as a cultural desert, Los Angeles has always been a hub for creative people and not just in the movies. Major artists such as David Hockney and Ed Ruscha have long called Los Angeles home.

But in architecture it has always been a star. Frank Lloyd Wright built several houses here, as did the seminal modernists, Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra and John Lautner. And more recently Frank Gehry started his journey to world domination with the renovation of his home in Santa Monica.

I'm starting my cultural tourism at the Getty Centre, a massive Richard Meier designed arts complex on the hill overlooking the city and the Pacific. It's free but, more important, parking is free after 5pm on Saturday.

On a drizzly evening, the little tram takes me up the steep hill from the parking lot. At the top, the clouds part to illuminate the sweeping views. The actual exhibits are quite small, carefully curated themed shows, in separate buildings set in manicured gardens. The Getty is the world's wealthiest art institution and no expense has been spared here.

Next, I head downtown to see Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall. The billowing sculptural form is similar to the famous Guggenheim Museum in Spain but was, in fact, designed earlier but not built until a few years ago.

Across the road is the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has an impressive review of post-war American art - Rosenquist, Warhol, Lichtenstein and a whole room of Rothko as well as lots of photography.

Contemporary photographer Lewis Baltz says in a caption: "I always thought God would destroy LA for its sins. Then I realised that he already had destroyed it and left the bits around as a warning".

Which brings me to South Central LA - home of the riots in the 1960s and the place where drive-by shootings were invented - to see Watts Towers.

Watts Towers is difficult to describe. A kind of "outsider art" installation, it has gone from being a planning violation due for demolition to a National Historic Monument.

Italian immigrant Simon Rodia spent 20 years up to 1954 building a series of structures in his back yard from scrap steel, concrete, broken pottery and junk. It culminated in three towers, the highest being nearly 30m tall.

Fascinating, an incredible feat of engineering and yes, art.

Then a total contrast, to leafy, posh Pasadena to visit a 1907 masterpiece of architecture by Greene & Greene - the Gamble House. These guys took the principles of the British Arts & Crafts movement and applied it to their local vernacular but with an added Japanese influence.

A horizontal emphasis in timber and shingles with wide overhanging roofs became the basis of the Craftsman style, the standard Los Angeles house from the 1920s to the 1950s.

This in turn, is the basis of what we call California Bungalow in Perth.

West Hollywood, something of a gay enclave, is famous for what is known as exterior decorating, which makes it a fascinating place to drive around. But I'm here to see the restrained austerity of the 1922 Schindler House.

Rudolf Schindler trained in Vienna, worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and later set up on his own. This house, which he designed to be shared with his family and another couple, is quite small but with a very well integrated big garden.

He used a radical building technique of tilt-up concrete panels with thin glazed strips between, completely devoid of decoration, which must have been incredibly shocking at the time.

There is only one Frank Lloyd Wright house open to the public in Los Angeles, the Hollyhock House. It is part of a planned complex on a huge hilltop site for a nutty heiress.

For architecture buffs, this is a must-see, one of his "Mayan" style, with elaborate cast concrete decoration and any number of design innovations.

But I have kept the best till last - the Eames House in Pacific Palisades. Charles and Ray Eames were, and remain, the doyens of American mid-century design.

The husband and wife team created many classic pieces of furniture between the 1940s and the 70s. Their house and studio, designed in 1949, are fairly modest and nestle in a very beautiful setting, surrounded by Australian gum trees.

FACT FILE

> Getty Centre: www.getty.edu/visit.
> Walt Disney Concert Hall: www.laphil.com/philpedia/wdch-overview.cfm.
> Watts Towers: www.wattstowers.us.
> Gamble House: www.gamblehouse.org.
> Schindler House: www.makcenter.org.
> Hollyhock House: www.hollyhockhouse.net.
> Eames House: www.eamesfoundation.org/visit_house.html.