By Michael Webb
Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940-1990, compresses half a century of the city’s growth and architectural expression into a few small galleries at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The sheer volume of information and exhibits could have made this show as congested and frustrating as traffic on the 405, at the bottom of the hill. Instead, it’s a joyful celebration of urban exuberance, an opportunity to make discoveries and be reminded of the rich diversity of this sprawling metropolis. Curators Wim de Wit and Christopher Alexander have made inspired choices, and they have grouped images, models, artworks, and videos within five thematic sections. The Getty’s design department collaborated with students at the Art Center College of Design to create a dynamic installation with plenty of open space for circulation.
It’s a history lesson on the past importance of LA—as a producer of oil, a hub of aerospace, movie production and innovation (the first theme park and the first airport designed for the jet age), with an acclaimed streetcar network and an enthusiastic embrace of the future. Disneyland was shaped by small-town nostalgia, but it originally featured Tomorrowland, with Monsanto’s plastic house of the future and a rocket that simulated a ride to the moon a decade before Apollo. Like a movie, Overdrive is full of arresting sequences and sharp cuts. The foolish extravagance of overstyled cars and Googie coffee shops abruptly shifts to a video of Shirley Temple introducing streamlined street cars, just before they were supplanted by freeways. Visionary schemes for rapid transit were proposed, long before today’s much-reduced network of light rail and subways.
Here are LA’s icons, from Watts Towers, S. Charles Lee’s Bijou Theaters and the Capitol Records building to the ephemeral structures of the 1984 Olympics and the tortuous evolution of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Overdrive chronicles the disasters, too—notably the racism and political hysteria that killed Neutra’s housing plan in Chavez Ravine (now the site of Dodger Stadium) and the botched redevelopment of Bunker Hill. Extraordinary houses are juxtaposed with the mediocrity of business, academia and suburban development. The curators present their examples without comment, but it becomes clear that LA lost its optimism and squandered much of its potential over these 50 years, and on to the present.
There are many provocative might-have-beens, and that will be the focus of Never-Built LA at the A+D Museum in July. Overdrive is a rich experience in itself, and an introduction to Getty-sponsored exhibitions in ten other LA institutions. Check pacificstandardtimepresents.org for a schedule. Tours and events will flesh out these shows—most immediately an LA Conservancy walking tour of Venice on April 20 and two moonlight promenades downtown in May. Information and tickets at laconservancy.org.