“Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design,”  the first exhibition to present the life and work of  McCoy (1904-1989), opens Wednesday, September 28, at the MAK Center.

The exhibition recognizes her as an American original and affirms her unassailable role as a key figure in American modernism.

Esther McCoy and Marshall Ho'o, Zuma Beach, Malibu, California, c. 1933. Courtesy of Esther McCoy Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Co-curated by MAK Center director Kimberli Meyer and writer Susan Morgan, “Sympathetic Seeing” will be on view until   January 8, 2012. It’s part of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-organized initiative that brings together more than 60 Southern California cultural institutions to explore the birth of the Los Angeles art scene.

“No one can write about architecture in Southern California without acknowledging her as the mother of us all,” declared Reyner Banham. In 1945, McCoy’s formidable career was launched with the publication of “Schindler, Space Architect.” Now, the Schindler House hosts the first Esther McCoy exhibition, a resonant homecoming, a celebration of McCoy’s work and the rich legacy of California architecture.

Early on, McCoy bought a small house on Beverly in Ocean Park in Santa Monica that was built in 1907. Schindler set out to remodel it, but never. completed it. McCoy lived and worked in the house for the rest of her life. She is buried in the tiny Westwood Cemetary.
The MAK Center for Art & Architecture at the Schindler House is located at 835 N. Kings Road in West Hollywood. Public hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Regular admission is $7/$17 with the

guidebook, Schindler By MAK; students and seniors, $6/$16 with book; free for Friends of the MAK Center and on Fridays, 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Parking is available at the public structure at the northeast corner of Kings Road and Santa Monica Boulevard.

Esther McCoy at her drafting board, mid-1940s. Courtesy of Esther McCoy Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

For further information, the public may contact MAKcenter.org or call (323) 651-1510.


Like James Corner, who’s designing the Palisades Garden Walk in the Civic Center, Peter Walker, who’s designing the Esplanade at the western end of Colorado Avenue, is a “world-class” landscape architect. As noted in “Santa Monica Talking Hype, Not Truth” (see below), the Santa Monica City Council is crazy about “world class” people and “world class” stuff.

Since the Garden Walk and the Esplanade bracket the Holiday Inn, its guests will have front row seats at the battle of the world class landscape architects. It may even want to promote its proximity to the epic battle. After all, here and now, Corner and Walker are the hottest landscape architects in America, and possibly the world, and they’re right here in our town. WOW!

At last night’s Planning Commission meeting, a partner from Peter Walker and Partners made a power point presentation of some of the firm’s relevant projects, including part of the World Trade Center memorial, which opened Sunday. Noting that he and Walker both grew up in Southern California, he went on to describe in some detail the firm’s notion of what the Esplanade should do and be.

Like Corner, he talked a lot about “icons” and features that should be “iconic.” He also talked about gateways,” as in the “iconic” Esplanade will be a “gateway” to the Santa Monica Pier, the beach and the ocean.

City officials have said repeatedly that the station at the end of the Expo light rail line, at Colorado and Fourth, should be a “gateway,” welcoming disembarking passengers to Santa Monica, the pier and the beach, as if they’re afraid that if passengers aren’t properly “welcomed,” they’ll refuse to disembark and
go back to Culver City.

The beach and the ocean can’t be topped, and shouldn’t be embellished or tricked up. They are irresistible, and are quite capable of speaking for themselves.

The pier has long been a world-famous icon. In 1983, after a pair of storms had ripped the west end of the pier off and taken a 45,000 square foot bite out Of the southwest corner of the deck, photos of the battered pier appeared on the front pages of newspapers in Japan. Film footage of the pier appears in the run-up to virtually all the local TV news programs. The arched sign at the entrance to the pier, which went up in 1941, is an icon all by itself, as are the Carousel building and its merry-go-round.

And the broad beach and the Pacific Ocean are both icons and iconic. In the same way, Palisades Park, which spans Santa Monica from its northern border to the Pier, but is only several yards wide, is an icon.

Do Corner and Walker, our planners and the Council actually believe that they can and should top the park, the pier, the beach and the ocean? In fact, they can’t and they shouldn’t try. Rather than tricking up Palisades Garden Walk with an “arroyo motif,” “water features” and viewing cages, Corner should make a pleasant, serene green way station in which people going to the beach or the pier or returning from it could pause. And Walker’s principal task should be creating some simple means of separating pedestrians, cyclists and cars – on their way to and from the beach.

When everything’s an icon, nothing’s an icon. Santa Monica has a number of authentic icons, all of which had modest beginnings. The municipal pier’s primary reason for being was to carry the city sewer line out to sea. Arcadia Bandini Stearns De Baker gave the land for the very long, very narrow Palisades Park, but had no idea that it would become a magnate for successive generations of newly arrived immigrants. City Hall was a Depression era Public Works Administration project that turned out to be Streamline Moderne masterpiece. RAND’s original buildings were iconic, perfect representations of their era, while its current building is more bunker than building. Tony DeLapp’s “Wave,” which spans Wilshire, was commissioned by the City and designed to be an icon and a gateway, and is just a bore.

A studio executive, on viewing Fred Astaire’s screen test, wrote “Balding. Can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little.” Years later, at an American Film Institute event honoring Astaire, Mikhail Baryshnikof said, “The rest of us dance, Fred does something else.”

We think it’s time for the City. Corner and Walker to do an Astaire.


L.A. Observed reports that “the San Diego book store Mysterious Galaxy is opening a second store on Artesia Boulevard in Redondo Beach” later this month. And …”Diesel, a book store, Malibu’s beloved indie bookstore, is coming back….their new location to be up and running by mid-October…”

Santa Monica once had nearly a dozen independent book stores on and near Third Street. Only Arcana: Books on the Arts, an exemplary bookstore specializing in the arts, has survived the big City Hall broom that has swept the Promenade clean of virtually everything that’s truly valuable, original or unique.

The artful stewardship of owner Lee Kaplan has kept Arcana lively and vital.

But, after nearly 25 years on the Promenade he’s preparing to move early next year. He sought space in Culver City, but may still settle for Santa Monica.

Now, even as Diesel, the bookstore, returns to Malibu, if City Council members Bob Holbrook and Terry O’Day, have their way, Tesla, the $109,000 electric roadster, will pull up on the Promenade…possibly in the space currently occupied by Arcana.

In addition to its other assets, it is one of the few buildings on Third Street that has parking on the alley. It’s hard to decide whether a test run down a Santa Monica alley or whipping a hundred-thousand-dollar electric roadster through the throngs of pedestrians on the Promenade would be more amusing.

The notion of a car dealership on the Promenade is thoroughly daft, as is the notion of a West L.A. auto dealer leap-frogging all the Santa Monica car dealers at the invitation of two Council members — especially since it has been reported that Tesla “intends to sell the current version of the Roadster until early 2012, when its supply of Lotus Elise gliders is expected to run out, as its contract with Lotus Cars for 2,400 gliders expires at the end of 2011. The next generation is not expected to be introduced until at least 2013.”

But, as James Baldwin, one of this country’s wisest writers, has noted, “Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the battle field.”

More and more, we talk hype in Santa Monica, not truth. The Council is currently gaga over the “world class” parks now under construction in the Civic Center, the upcoming “world class” movie multiplex that apparently requires no parking, the “world class” shrinking urban forest, and now, possibly, a “world class” car dealership on a pedestrian mall. The Council is less effusive about our “world class” traffic and congestion, the principal product of its extended “world-class” commercial development boom, which has picked up speed again after a brief lull during which it approved two parking plans that are guaranteed to increase traffic in the mid-cities area.

Generally speaking, hype is constantly devolving, but once the Council gloms onto a word, a phrase or , God help us, a concept, i.e., “world class,” it never lets go. Virtually everything in Santa Monica now is “vibrant,” or “robust,” or both – but never both at once. And, now, “village” is overtaking both “vibrant” and “robust.”

Texas developer Hines, is currently promoting a 770,000 square foot (recently reduced from 960.000 square feet) commercial development that it and the planners call “Bergamot Transit Station Center Village,” and any day now work will begin on “The Village,” a mega-housing project in the Civic Center that will combine 130 affordable housing rental units, 134 luxury condos and the ubiquitous ‘retail,” Some of “the Village” buildings will be nearly 100 feet tall.

The Council, along with the City Hall hypesters, also seems pleased as punch that four new hotels are in the works — though one is guaranteed to fatally sully one of Santa Monica’s most cherished landmarks, and two will be located on Colorado Avenue in downtown Santa Monica, which is already on its way from congestion to gridlock.

Council members have never expressed concern, much less regret for the loss or displacement of virtually all of the Third Street booksellers, though it was their decision to court Barnes and Noble and Borders — the mega-stores that ultimately unhinged the book business all over West L.A. Indeed, if quizzed, they would probably take credit for saving Santa Monica from the chaos that afflicts the book business now — with Kindle eliminating the need for actual books, and Amazon et al simultaneously eliminating the need for actual bookshops, and publishers in a tizzy over e-books, and writers publishing their own books on-line — by killing the bookstores 20 years ago.

That’s the kind of twisted logic that seems to dominate Council decisions now. Another example is Pam O’Connor’s take on campaign contributions. Sure, she takes money from developers, but she also receives emails from residents and encounters people in public places who oppose developments and she listens to all of them. Perhaps. But she invariably votes for the developments and against the residents whom she was elected to represent.

The City announced a new website this week: “BE EXCITED, BE PREPARED!” it says. “ The future that Santa Monicans have envisioned for the city through the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) community visioning is beginning to break ground. www.SMConstructs..org will help you stay informed about the exciting projects coming soon to Santa Monica!”

Unfortunately, since the adoption of LUCE last summer, residents have seen little that they envisioned during the extended LUCE process, and a lot of what they thought they were done with — over two million square feet of new commercial developments in the area between 26th Street and the L.A. border, the fracture of existing residential neighborhoods, the further coagulation of traffic, more development in downtown Santa Monica, including “bicycle centers” that will be located in parking structures and include changing rooms and showers. Given the traffic jam-ups on the Olympic “corridor,” it may be necessary any day now to install showers and changing rooms for motorists at regular intervals on the Olympic median.

The new website is very well-made and artfully organized. As it carols all the projects in the works, it urges us to BE PREPARED! BE EXCITED!

But, looking at it, exploring it, one inevitably feels like a passenger on a train that is about to go off the rails, and when we try to contact the people in charge, we get the BUSY signal. We ARE excited, but not in a good way.

Residents have spent much of the last year dutifully attending workshops and meetings and talking truth to the planners, the developers, the Council. The projects are too big. There are too many. There are no discernible “public benefits.” The architecture is undistinguished. The planners have failed to prepare the vital documents – an area plan, an environmental impact report, and so on – that would permit them to accurately assess the projects — as a whole and individually. And traffic! It’s a nightmare! It’s already choking the streets. But the Council isn’t listening.. It’s working from a different script. The Bigger Better More script.

The Hypesters script. Vibrant…Robust…World Class.

In 1993, City Hall began calling itself the City, and everything else, meaning residents, the city. It was ominous, but clear. At least we knew where we stood — at the back of the line.

I not only read books. I write them. So I’m biased, but I believe that if the City hadn’t scuttled the book stores years ago, we might all be talking the same language by now.

Pugh Goes Solo. Adds “Urban Planning” To His Roster

Pugh + Scarpa Architects  announced yesterday that firm principal Gwynne Pugh FAIA ASCE LEED launched Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio on September 1. The new architectural and urban design firm that will  specialize in the design of structures, urban design, planning, sustainability, and consultation to companies and public entities.

Pugh + Scarpa will continue to operate under its current name, business structure and leadership under the direction of Lawrence Scarpa and Angela Brooks.   In 2011, Pugh + Scarpa will change its name to Brooks + Scarpa.

Together, Pugh and Scarpa led Pugh + Scarpa Architects for 22 years. It won over 50 local, state and national AIA awards.  Most recently the firm was awarded the 2010 AIA National Firm of the Year award.

As a member and chair of the Planning Commission during its review of the revised land use and
circulation elements of the General Plan (LUCE), Pugh persuaded the majority of the Commissioners to increase the height and mass  limits on new commercial buildings.

Subsequently, he and Hank Koning, fellow architect and commissioner, made a short presentation
to the City Council, urging it to approve the amended Planning  Commission LUCE,  rather tham original version  that the community worked on for six years. The SMRR majority bought the Pugh/
Koning  presentation.

McMillen at LA Louver = A Must

An exhibition of work by legendary Santa Monica artist Michael McMillen at LA Louver Gallery, Venice, opens Wednesday, September 15, from 6 to 8 PM.

The gallery is at 45 N. Venice Blvd. www.lalouver.com.

McMillen’s installations have been shown at LACMA and the Long Beach Museum of Art, as well as LA Louver.

If you have seen McMillen’s previous installations, you will want to see this new work. If you haven’t ever seen his work, you must see this exhibit.

He is absolutely original, and his works are mesmerizing. mysterious. and irresistable. GO!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *