Take a look around Los Angeles. Clearly this town has a thing for mid-century design. Ikea and Mad Men surely stoked the flames but the fever for the movement’s clean lines and implied democratic, informal lifestyle was in full swing before we puzzled over assembling affordable Scandinavian furniture or Don Draper made his mark on TV history. That fever is fueled in part by nostalgia, as baby boomers and Gen Xers gravitate to styles and visual tropes from their childhood. But no matter which generation you belong to, some of the most evocative memorabilia from the middle decades of the 20th century can be found in a very specific art form: the architectural rendering.
As the Los Angeles County Arts Commission continues its two year survey of sites for the civic art baseline inventory, such drawings of County facilities–fire stations, libraries, parks–collectively offer a vivid impression of postwar Los Angeles as a rapidly developing region that was putting its own indelible stamp on modern design.
The renderings were in one sense a pragmatic part of the building process used within County government capital projects as a less expensive alternative to scale models. But they’re also artifacts from the pre-digital age, done by artists whose other work can be found everywhere from the Smithsonian Institution to hip Eagle Rock galleries. As Ruth Wallach, Director of Arts and Humanities Division Libraries at USC, notes, the nostalgia for architectural renderings is not just for the style they capture, but also because they were done by hand.
Nowadays, design software such as AutoCAD is widely used in the field of architecture. And while Wallach acknowledges that “in some ways you can do more sophisticated stuff” via computer, the personal touch of an artist’s brush on paper produces a unique and idiosyncratic image. The late Michael Graves, a renowned postmodern architect, championed hand rendering in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. “Drawings,” he wrote, “are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands.”
That’s why even a drawing of something as seemingly mundane as a fire station can be an accurate portrait and a statement of the artist’s sensibility. Though they had a practical purpose at the time of their creation, renderings are unquestionably works of art. Today they’re valued and collected, sold on eBay and in boutiques. Major museums hold architects’ drawings in their collections, and one in Berlin is devoted solely to such work.
That’s something of a paradox, Wallach says, noting that in earlier periods these “presentation drawings” were often treated as disposable workaday items. “The ones that I’ve discovered in the collections here at USC seem to be done using just regular cardboard that was acidic,” she says. “Some of them are falling apart; they’re held [together] by masking tape.”
Thankfully, most of LA County’s architectural renderings have been treated with care. Matted and framed, they’re often hanging in the building they represent. And though in some cases they might have become part of the décor over the years and taken for granted–civic art field registrar Bridget Campos recalls that the first rendering she came across had been all but eclipsed by a conference room monitor–many of the drawings get a place of honor. That’s particularly true in libraries and fire stations.
That place of honor is usually an employee work space rather than an area that’s open to the public, but the renderings do get their day in the sun. Ron Bleier, Principal Facilities Project Manager for the County Fire Department — whose collection of architectural drawings ranges from historic structures to state-of-the-art 21st century buildings — points out that the artworks are center stage at groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies. Beyond serving as great photo ops for County Supervisors and other civic leaders, these events can capture a historic sense of community and progress — powerfully evident in a photograph of the 1963 groundbreaking for Mary McLeod Bethune Park, named after a revered educational advocate and civil rights leader.
Because it’s a black-and-white image, though, that photo doesn’t convey such finer points as the brush strokes and palette of the artist’s drawing on display. The architectural renderings that have been inventoried so far are mostly watercolors, although Campos has also come across works in charcoal, acrylic paint, and pen and ink. Their details can be lush or whimsical or delightfully realistic. Campos says she especially appreciates the way a painting of the Edward R. Roybal Comprehensive Health Center captures the texture of the building’s distinctive bands of brightly hued tiles. Among Angelenos, the facility’s Spanish nickname is “La Clínica de Colores” and it’s hard to imagine it in any other major American city.
Though their subjects vary from playgrounds to jails, the theme of wide open spaces is a common one in the renderings. An image of the Rosemead Library — or the West San Gabriel Regional Library as it was known at the time — is dominated by sky to breathtaking effect. A striking study in blue, green and silvery gray, the watercolor hangs in a prominent position in the office of Library Manager Sue Yamamoto, who appreciates its artistry. “To me,” Yamamoto says, “all architectural renderings are beautiful.”
The civic art inventory reveals that even within the constraints and requirements of the architectural rendering genre, beauty takes many forms. One of the most stylized pieces depicts Valinda County Park (now part of Allen J. Martin Park in La Puente) as an unearthly blue baseball diamond with russet red trees. The artist, lifelong Californian Harold “Hap” Fraser (1917-2013), had a knack for cheery illustrations (with titles like Happy Couple) that epitomize a certain mid-century innocence.
At the other end of the spectrum is the dramatic sky above Renato Moncini’s rendering of Twin Towers Correctional Facility near Chinatown. Though this work is relatively recent, it has an intriguing link to mid-century notions of optimism and expansiveness through its Italian immigrant creator. Before Moncini became lead illustrator for Fluor Daniel, the engineering and construction firm involved in the Twin Towers project, he worked for NASA creating technical renderings, concept drawings for its Apollo program and paintings of Cape Canaveral rocket launches.
Reaching for the moon was as much a declaration of 20th century modernism as the expanding residential grid of Southern California, where artists and architects were bringing to life a location specific version of modern design that emphasized streamlined horizontals and a connection to the outdoors. In renderings of County buildings, this finds expression in such nuances as playfully paired palm trees, sleek sedans, and fire stations that look as inviting as ranch houses.
Greta Magnusson Grossman, a leading figure in Los Angeles’ mid-century architectural scene, said in 1951 that California design “is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions … It has developed out of our own preferences for living in a modern way.”
Those conditions might have changed but not the preferences. And if 50 plus year old images are artifacts, they’re also emblems of ideals that we still recognize. As Wallach puts it, architectural renderings of any vintage are “selling an idea” — a reality that Don Draper and his fellow Madison Avenue denizens would understand. “It is an idealized vision,” Wallach adds, “and I think that’s a particular function of painting.”
For public projects in postwar Los Angeles, the idea being sold was a collective vision of a region defining itself. And that vision often connected to the larger, national story: Mary McLeod Bethune Park opened the same year as the landmark March on Washington.
The architectural renderings that chronicle Los Angeles County’s history communicate far more than the building designs that were their immediate raison d’être. Each hand painted drawing captures an idea at its inception, but it’s more than a time capsule. It reflects back to us how that idea adapts and thrives in an ever evolving landscape.
By Sheri Linden