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Architecture

'Breaking Ground' at Chinese American Museum Shows That Not All L.A. Architects Are Old, White Dudes

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Mon, Feb 13, 2012 at 12:00 PM
click to enlarge PANN'S CIRCA 1950: PHOTOGRAPH BY JACK LAXER
  • Pann's circa 1950: Photograph by Jack Laxer

Common thinking is that architects are predominantly old white dudes (and they mostly are), but the Chinese American Museum's exhibition "Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980)" highlights four astonishing designers who eclipsed the profession's exclusionary demographic and changed L.A.'s look and feel in the 1950s and '60s.

click to enlarge CATHAY BANK: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN KAUFMAN / STUDIO KAUFMAN
  • Cathay Bank: Photograph by Dan Kaufman / Studio Kaufman

As part of the citywide Pacific Standard Time exhibition, co-curators Steven Wong and Floridia Cheung could have highlighted the work of Chinese Americans in film, animation, fashion or the arts during L.A.'s postwar era. But the four architects featured in "Breaking Ground" cast such a wide influence over life and buildings in L.A., their stories made a perfect fit for the themes in Pacific Standard Time's scope.

"There were so many different genres of modernism in postwar L.A.," says co-curator Steven Wong, "These individuals were representative of modernism and modernism's ability to connect the city to the community. They played a huge role in that."

The further Wong and Cheung dove into the work of Gin D. Wong, Helen Liu Fong, Eugene Choy and Gilbert Leong, they discovered they had hit midcentury design gold.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KRISTEN LUNA
  • photo by Kristen Luna

It's hard to imagine LAX without Gin D. Wong's iconic, flying-saucer centerpiece. It's even harder to imagine L.A.'s homegrown Googie style without Helen Liu Fong's streamlined angles, ubiquitous interior gardens and color combinations at Pann's diner and the sadly demolished Holiday Bowl in Crenshaw, to name a few.

A decade before -- in the 1940s -- Gilbert Leong and Eugene Choy found work designing new banks and other businesses that served the recently displaced Chinatown community. (The 101 freeway forced old Chinatown's move up to the Broadway-to-Hill-Street corridor it's in now). Discriminatory lending practices forced Chinese Americans to open their own banks, not to mention other businesses like stores and clubs. But what the cold, closed door of discrimination had denied them, Leong and Choy turned into a lucrative niche market for themselves and other Chinese American architects in L.A.

"They ushered in the move of the Chinese American community out of Chinatown and into the suburbs, because as builders they could advocate against racial covenants, which kept people of color out of communities," Wong says.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KRISTEN LUNA
  • photo by Kristen Luna

Wong and Cheung didn't have to look far for living history, either. The relationship between Eugene Choy's son -- architect Barton Choy -- and CAM was an established one long before the idea for "Breaking Ground" ever germinated. Barton Choy had retrofitted CAM's 1890s-era building years ago and is designing the future expansion of it. Says Wong, "Barton's been involved since the beginning -- with the building and the museum, and he's been a great adviser in this project in particular, as you can imagine. The L.A. Conservancy was also a huge help."

But reaction among the current generation of Chinese American architects in L.A. took Wong and Cheung by surprise. "The current group in L.A. -- and there are many more today -- many of them aren't aware of these histories."

click to enlarge CHUN-WONG PROCESSING PLANT IN COMPTON: JULIUS SHULMAN PHOTOGRAPHY ARCHIVE
  • Chun-Wong processing plant in Compton: Julius Shulman Photography Archive

These would be constructive lessons to re-learn for anyone. "Breaking Ground" is a reminder that modernism in L.A. was wide-open enough for a myriad of designers to make space for their ideas, even as underrepresented minorities facing deep-seated institutional discrimination. The '50s and '60s might have been the last time L.A. truly thrived as a testing ground of innovation in architecture precisely for that reason. (Arguably, there was also a heyday in the '80s and early '90s too, but no one's writing books about that era quite yet.) Back in their day, Leong, Choy, Wong and Liu Fong exhibited innovation in design not only in terms of form and structure but also in ideas about expanding communities and reimagining meeting places citywide.

"Breaking Ground" runs through June 3.

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