By Ken Bernstein, Former Director of Preservation Issues, Los Angeles Conservancy
It is truly impossible to understand Los Angeles without understanding the San Fernando Valley, an area that accounts for more than half of Los Angeles’ land mass and 35% of the city’s population. Yet, to some cynics, the Valley remains a kind of backwater, representing nothing more than a land of sterile suburbia – repetitive tract housing, a homogeneous population, wide streets, and boring architecture – or even, in one waggish suggestion for naming a potential new Valley municipality, “Twenty-Nine Malls.”
But it’s far too easy to fall back on cliches, particularly cliches that no longer hold true, if they ever were. We hope that this tour will begin to change the way the rest of the city looks at the Valley, and the way the Valley looks at itself.
Today’s Valley is neither the sterile suburbia of the popular imagination, nor is it a truly urban environment. Joel Kotkin, an author and Senior Fellow with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy, has referred to the Valley as a “Midopolis,” caught between a fast-growing, high-tech-oriented suburban periphery and the traditional higher-density urban center. The Valley blends an increasingly urban reality, replete with all of Los Angeles’ big city dilemmas and challenges, with a primarily suburban built form and a somewhat more family-oriented, predominately middle-class ethos.
Over the last decade, many of the major influences on the Valley’s postwar growth have simply disappeared. In particular, the aerospace and manufacturing industries have largely packed up and gone, with the closure and relocation of the Hughes missile plant in West Hills, Burbank’s Lockheed plant, which still employed 20,000 workers in the 1980s, and the Van Nuys GM Plant, which employed over 5,000 workers at its peak. In their place, however, is a resurgent entertainment industry, particularly in the East Valley, shaping the new Valley just as it did the Valley of the 1920s.
The 1994 Northridge earthquake – the most expensive natural disaster in American history – created tremendous physical changes, but the Valley by and large proved resilient and has bounced back admirably. The earthquake’s immediate aftermath also had an intriguing social impact: with thousands of destitute, multiethnic residents living in the Valley’s parks in the weeks after the quake, it provided for all Valley residents a vivid visual illustration of the Valley’s new demographics. The Valley, whose population was predominately white in 1950, today has a non-white majority.
By evaluating the Valley’s built heritage within its cultural and historic framework, we hope to better understand how to approach historic preservation in the Valley. Much of the architecture from the San Fernando Valley’s great postwar building boom is now hitting the half-century mark – the age at which buildings are more likely to become eligible for historic designation in the National Register of Historic Places. What from the San Fernando Valley’s post-World War II building boom is worth keeping, and what should we allow to become disposable? How do we begin to separate the wheat from the chaff? While this tour does not constitute a formal survey of mid-century Valley architecture, it does represent a rough first cut at these questions.
However, we must also keep an open mind about our own aesthetic judgments about architecture, recognizing that these judgments may continue to evolve in the coming years and decades. It is common, even traditional, for the current generation to reject the aesthetic preferences of the previous generation. We often forget that Victorian architecture, so well-loved today, had fallen out of favor as too frilly, formal and ostentatious during much of the 20th century. The great Victorian mansions on Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill were demolished in the 1960s, just before San Franciscans began to appreciate and rehabilitate their Victorians in the ’70s. Later, our nation’s Art Deco architectural heritage – from Los Angeles’ great Wiltern Theater to Miami’s abandoned South Beach hotels – was considered passe and was facing the wrecking ball in the 1970s and early 1980s before becoming reclaimed as architectural jewels.
All of this should give us pause before we discard the Valley’s Modern architecture. While certainly not every Modern or mid-century structure is worth saving, we may want to err on the side of caution, particularly as the Modern aesthetic has already begun to rebound.
In reassessing the mid-century heritage of the Valley, we should also take care not to view the past solely with rose-colored glasses. The Valley’s mid-century development, while creating attractive lifestyles for many, has also had its drawbacks. The heavy emphasis on the automobile and low-density development has helped contribute to gridlocked freeways and a difficulty in creating workable public transportation. While many Modernist architects created pioneering, livable spaces to live and work, others created deadening, sterile locales. And, to be sure, the disappearance of the Valley’s orange groves, agriculture and open space was disheartening.
The year 2000 seems a particularly opportune time to evaluate the architectural legacy of the Valley.
In heralding a new century and millennium, it is only natural to look back and reassess the defining elements of the preceding era. We’re just beginning to appreciate and see with new eyes our Modern architectural heritage from the mid-20th century. Many of us are now noticing buildings that, just a few short years ago, either seemed a bit “outdated” or just blended into the landscape. Some examples of mid-century architecture are more immediately lovable than others, but all collectively make up the Valley’s built heritage.
As the Valley continues to evolve from what it has been to what it will become, the best of its mid-20th century architectural heritage will serve as welcome guideposts from our past. We hope that this tour serves as a roadmap to the rich Modern legacy of the San Fernando Valley, both today and in the years to come.