Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles


Choy Residence by architect Eugene Choy, 1949. Photo by Julius Shulman (c) Getty

The Chinese American museum kicks off 2012 with a new exhibition that explores the lives and work of four Chinese American architects, three men and one woman, responsible for some of Los Angeles’ most iconic buildings and design styles.

On view beginning January 19, 2012 through June 3, 2012, Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980) is the Chinese American Museum’s (CAM) newest exhibition and the latest contribution to the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative sweeping through Southern California. Breaking Ground showcases the achievements of four pioneering Chinese American architects whose contributions were critical to the development of Los Angeles’ urban and visual landscape between 1945 and 1980. While these architects remain largely absent from most critical treatments of architectural history, their designs are still gleaming landmarks from the Post-World War II years. As Los Angeles exponentially grew in size, scale, and prosperity during the Post-War years, these architects ingeniously responded to the demands of a growing city population by embracing—and defining — the vibrant spirit of a modern metropolis through the functions of urban, suburban, and highway developments.

Occupying two galleries, Breaking Ground will feature original and reproductions of photographs, blueprints, renderings, and drawings of works produced by the featured architects. Exhibit highlights include six three-dimensional stereoscopic slides of landmark Googie buildings by Jack Laxer; nine original photographs by acclaimed architectural photographer Julius Shulman, and a hands-on Design-Your-Own-Dream-Home gallery interactive where visitors are encouraged to envision and create their ideal home using materials provided by the museum.

The four architects featured in this exhibit are:

Eugene Choy, the first Chinese American to join American Institute of Architects in California, served a diverse clientele in designing small residences to large scale industrial buildings. Despite racial covenants preventing non-whites from purchasing homes in Silver Lake, a suburb of Los Angeles, architect Eugene Choy walked around the neighborhood asking for permission to design and construct his Modernist home on a 50-foot-wide hillside lot. With a clever approach to the site, modern construction details, and functional sensibilities, the smartly designed Californian home became a feature in national architectural magazines. His most well-known building in Los Angeles’ Chinatown community is the Cathay Bank building, located on Alpine and Broadway Streets. Though the building was an example of Choy’s use of International Style of Modernist architecture, the decorative elements of the building, however, were not done with the same Modernist approach, but instead used elements that reflected cultural pride and heritage, at the request of the founding members of the bank.

Gilbert Leong was the first Chinese American to graduate from University of Southern California’s architecture program. Initially trained as an artist, Leong invested a significant part of his professional career in developing the architectural landscape of Chinatown. Two of his most notable projects were the Bank of America building and the Kong Chow Family Association and Temple. The sheer presence and scale of both of these buildings illustrated the permanent establishment of the Chinese American community in Los Angeles. Leong would also later help design early suburban tract housing in throughout Southern California.

Helen Liu Fong, a designer for the commercial architectural firm of Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, was instrumental in helping to create what is now known as the Googie Architectural style. The vernacular flair is characterized by cantilevered roofs, boomerang angles, colorful synthetics, strategic lighting, playful typography and neon signage. Fong crafted unique interiors for coffee shops, bowling alleys, and other commercial buildings, whose roadside architectural style quickly spread across the rest of the nation and is immortalized in well-known restaurants such as Norms, Denny’s, and Bob’s Big Boy.

Pann's, designed by Helen Liu Fong

Gin Wong, an internationally-acclaimed architect, has designed buildings in the U.S., China, and across the Pacific Rim. He was also instrumental in the early development of Los Angeles’ built environment. While working for Pereira & Luckman Associates in the 1950s, Wong designed CBS Television City and was pivotal in the creation of the masterplan for the original Los Angeles International (LAX) Airport. Wong’s creative impulse brought modern technological innovations and intelligent designs without losing sight of the clients’ more practical requirements. In particular, his creation of LAX’s satellite system, which enabled millions of people to move quickly through a complex system arrival, departure, and baggage terminals, is now considered as the blueprint for how airports are designed throughout the world today.

The Chinese American Museum is located at 425 North Los Angeles Street in El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, across from Union Station. Hours are 10 a.m.– 3 p.m., Tuesday – Sunday. Admissions are suggested donations of $3 for adults and $2 for seniors and students. Members are admitted free. Website: www.camla.org.

The exhibit runs through June 3, 2012.  Website GiantRobot has a nice feature piece on the exhibit as seen last night, along with pictures of Gin Wong, one of the featured architects and the Cathay Bank in downtown L.A.