Southern California Architecture

The architecture of our century that has actually been built, that everybody sees, and that is ordinarily commented upon in magazines and books, appears from cursory study to be relatively uniform in character. Of course, when we try to evaluate the architectural achievements of the present moment, many questions arise. Yet we can, historically, isolate and explain certain individual trends. If we are to believe the well-known survey books of modern architecture, there were processes of change in the advanced eclecticism of the nineteenth century, which gave rise to the nascent modern architecture and the formulation of doctrinaire principles and ideals. We are told that it was a logical step-by-step development, and that the many separate trends led to a common goal: the architecture of the mid-twentieth century. But this historical approach functions in reverse, as it were, interpreting the recent past from the vantage point of the present. Such accounts try to prove that today's architecture is the only possible outcome of a logical evolution of earlier tendencies. Their aim is not so much to provide historical explanation as to be an apologia for the architecture of the moment. Thus contemporary building is accepted as the architecture of the twentieth century and one of such vivid examples of such matter is US Post Office in Los Angeles.

It was not long ago that American architectural history consisted chiefly of biographies, thematic or typological studies, and synthetic surveys. The monographic approach, the thoroughgoing investigation of the patronage, design, construction, and iconography of a single building--like that accorded the monuments of ?urope--was unknown. But in recent years detailed monographs have begun appearing, and to scholarly acclaim. Joseph Siry's study of the US Post Office in Los Angeles received the Society of Architectural Historians' Alice Davis Hitchcock Award in 1992.(Hamlin, pp.11)

The US Post Office in Los Angeles (1887-89), which vaulted Louis Sullivan to national prominence, is regarded as his first mature work. It is a building of much complexity: a romanesque leviathan of granite and lime-stone occupying into which is tucked a hotel, an office building. (Hyman, pp.4) In neither style nor technology is it particularly innovative. It is an explicit paraphrase of H. H. Richardson's nearby Marshall Field Building (1885-87), from which it derives its blocklike massing, its colossal masonry, and the bold, ordered stride of its wall arcades. Its construction is likewise conventional for the period: load-bearing masonry for the exterior walls and a hybrid system of iron columns and steel girders within (Kostof, pp. 161-62).

Perhaps the US Post Office's most singular feature is the way it expresses its function--or does not. For the nineteenth century, the central challenge of opera house design was to signify rhetorically its function and interior spaces. The opera houses of Charles Garnier in Paris and Gottfried Semper in Dresden are memorable precisely because their expressive physiognomy is a kind of exultant precis of the spaces and happenings within. (Richardson, pp.76)

The US Post Office in Los Angeles, Siry's authoritative and well-illustrated study of this monument of the Chicago school, accomplishes precisely what a monograph should: it does full justice to the building in its specific historical and local context even as it illuminates those particular aspects that lift it above its age. Among the new material Siry presents on nearly every page, some of the most interesting concerns the US Post Office in Los Angeles 's patron, Ferdinand W. Peck (1848-1924). The scholarly literature on Sullivan has always contained more than a hint of hagiography, following the tone that he himself set. In consequence, the role of clients in his career, with a very few exceptions, has been slighted. In the case of Peck, this is especially lamentable. ...

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