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

Comments (0)


Mon, Feb 13, 2012 at 12:00 PM
  • 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.

  • 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."

  • 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.

Follow us on Facebook, and on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts.

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets


  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.
  • 21st Annual Classic Cars "Cruise Night" in Glendale
    On Saturday, spectators of all ages were out in multitudes on a beautiful summer night in Glendale to celebrate the 21st annual Cruise Night. Brand Boulevard, one of the main streets through downtown Glendale, was closed to traffic and lined with over 250 classic, pre-1979 cars. There was plenty of food to be had and many of the businesses on Brand stayed open late for the festivities The evening ended with fireworks and a 50th anniversary concert from The Kingsmen, who performed their ultimate party hit, "Louie, Louie." All photos by Jared Cowan.
  • Moonlight Rollerway Jubilee and Skate Party!
    Ambassador of Americana Charles Phoenix and Dominic's Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale hosted a jubilee featuring skating stars and world champions performing in a variety of costumed musical acts. The best part? An post-show all-skate party! All photos by Star Foreman.