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LAX – Theme Building – Update

William Pereira, Charles Luckman, Paul Williams, Welton Becket, James Langenheim, LAX Theme Building, 1961, World N Way, Los Angeles

The terminal building at which we arrived was nothing special. The border controls were nothing unknown to most of us. Everything here could have happened or been at any place in the world – common airport architecture. A corridor here, a large window with a view onto the airfield there, a crowded arrival hall over there.

The first minutes in Los Angeles were quite ordinary.

We were looking for a driver to bring us to our hostel. We had not much time to look at the things around us. The first moments outside of the airplane did not promise any objects of interest.

As the taxi started to roll, we finally realized where we were. Now we had the opportunity to scan our surroundings without being forced to find a fast way to get from a to b. And then the moment arrived. The moment which showed that we were not anywhere on this planet. We were in Los Angeles. The taxi drove around a corner and we could look at the LAX Theme Building. We had just a few seconds to get an impression. Small and plump were the first words, which came to our minds. The Theme Building looked as if it was quite lost or had been unattentively dropped between the control tower and a lot of uninteresting constructions. I was in some way disappointed about the scale of the building, disappointed also about its surrounding.

Nevertheless, the expected function as a sign was still given. The Theme Building crushed the monotony of its place. It made us want to see more of the city. It had shown that we were in a city where modern architecture is much valued – on the most cases by the initiative of private owners.  A city which is open for contemporary architecture but somehow stuck in the middle of the last century. It has a lot of hidden places. Places you must look for. Because they are well hidden amongst ordinary constructions.

Julius Emmel

LAX – Theme Building

William Pereira, Charles Luckman, Paul Williams, Welton Becket, James Langenheim, LAX Theme Building, 1961

After an eleven-hour flight the pilot would say a few words to prepare us for the landing in Los Angeles. He would give us some information about the weather in LA and the baggage claim at the airport. After wishing us a pleasant stay, he would then will bring us back to earth. Meanwhile I would look out of the window. In case of clear sky, I would maybe have a chance to take a glance on the roll field and the terminal buildingsand a strange construction right in the center, beside the control tower. As if there were not only planes to land in LAX, but also UFOs. Is the building between the international and the regional terminals an interstellar gateway?

This could be a possible first impression of Los Angeles. And first impressions are the most important ones as there is no second chance for a first impression. They shape our view on persons and places. They are the initial point for every other judgement of impressions in the future. If the first impression is a bad one, the whole level of expectations will be low.

The fact that we will land at the airport sets the place of our first impression there. It is the first and probably the last impression we will have. This could also be a thought of Paul Williams. He and Welton Becket, James Langenheim, Charles Luckman and William Pereira are the architects who were involved in building the LAX Theme Building in 1961.[1] It is a construction between the regional terminals.

It stands secluded on a roundabout traffic. In its ground level it has a round one story building. This base of the building is hard to see, because the building is surrounded by a wall. This wall is made of bricks, which are comparable with William Krisel’s Shadowbricks in his Palm Springs houses. In the middle of the building stands a post of blue colour. On its top is another one story level. This part has a circumferential glass front and a large roof, which is connected to the arcs. These two crossing arcs support the construction .

The futuristic design of the Theme Building is probably a good first impression of the architectural Los Angeles: solitary modern architecture surrounded by traffic. If you refer o Reyner Banham’s essay on the so-called four ecologies of Los Angeles, this building is his theory in short.[2] It also fits with his burger restaurant comparison.[3] By  this, Banham describes an crucial evolution of architecture in Los Angeles. He argues, that there were buildings, which also functioned as landmarks, especially restaurants. Their architecture was extravagant and draws the attention of the pedestrians to the building. They needed no signs or lights. This changed in Banhams opinion. The architecture became more and more simple and the restaurants began to put signs in their front, which overlaid the architecture. For Banham, the Theme Building would probably be a good example of detached architecture which does not need any signs and lights to draw somebody’s attention to it.

Beside this theoretic aspect, there stands also an architectonical reference in the Hollywood Hills: the Malin Residence, the so-called Chemosphere, by John Lautner from 1960,[4] finished just one year before the Theme Building. Its structure is kin to Williams’ restaurant building. Lautner also conceived a round, one-story house on a post . But the construction site and the use of supports instead of arcs is quite a difference. Both seem very futuristic and give the impression of an UFO.

The Theme Building is therefore not only a landmark for its own, but a symbol of the architecture of its time and place. So, if Paul Williams’ aim was also to create a good first impression of his city, it might be accomplished.


[1] Gazey, Katja: Architektur A-Z, 2010, p. 404.

[2] Banham, Reyner: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 2001.

[3] Ebd., pp. 93.

[4] Campbell Lange, Barbara Ann: Lautner, 2005, p. 45.

Julius Emmel



Between mountain ranges and the Pacific beaches, Los Angeles is embedded in a sort of paradisiac garden. A place where the earth is soaked with creativity and the minds can bloom. Where ideas can rise, and become something more than just illusions . The finish line of the western, modern final frontier seems to be the essence of civilizing development . All the cultural accomplishments of mankind are represented here and it could come to your mind that there is no further level to be reached. That there is only one step for us to take before bringing our science fiction fantasies to earth and space . But we must overcome ourselves to reach it. It’s an escape for those who seek for a new kind of freedom and a room to let their spirit fulfil itself, some might say . This all sounds too much for one place to be real and we are willing to proof these words right or wrong.

We, students of the art historian faculty at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, have dedicated ourselves to this place of desire in the past semester. We searched for the trails of modernist architecture at the shores of the pacific and the slopes of the foothills. Our ledgers were architectural masterminds like Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, John Lautner and Frank Gehry. During our studies one main statement was frequently repeated by many architects: Los Angeles is an ugly place.[1]  And it seems to be true when also Reyner Banham describes the metropolis as dictated by the automobile and divided by its freeways.[2] But this statement doesn’t really fit in our idea of Los Angeles. The place of palms, beaches, beautiful, creative and rich people. So, for us there is still the question, if we could picture us the city correctly, when we are only looking on singular buildings – as those in Julius Schulman’s photographs . Do we require the aspects of mobility, reality and three-dimensionality, to understand the city of angels completely?

There is only one way to get some satisfying answers: boarding a plane.

So, we will follow the example of two European exiles and leave our continent: Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, two Austrian architects, were attracted to the United States from hearsay of a place where they could fulfil their architectural dreams. As their new mentor, they had chosen Frank Lloyd Wright.[3] After stops in New York and Chicago, where they first met their idol, they found Los Angeles as their place to be . There they laid the fundament for modern architecture and following generations of architects. John Lautner and others followed and conquered the foothills by planting extraordinary structures, opening new sights on difficult sites.[4] But modernism seemed to be just a privilege for upper classes. Till the Case Study House Program was announced and tried to find forms which could be replicated for everyone.[5] While the program stuck in theory, some architects took on practical, often in suburbs or new settlements: William Krisel for example experimented in big scales, in the desert town of Palm Springs, to bring modernism to the masses. Another approach for modern architecture in everyone’s everyday life is, to build  in a modernist way not only in the housing sector. Franklin D. Israel and Frank Gehry tried to think factories and cultural institutions modern. They were not the first, but especially Gehry managed to put this commercial architecture to a new level.

Like Banham we will drive on the freeways through architectural space and time. Neutra and Schindler are the starting point, followed by John Lautner. We will search for the starting point of modernism  for the people in the Case Study House Program and practical approaches by William Krisel. Franklin D. Israel and Frank Gehry then will be the finish line for our excursion, but not for modern architecture in Los Angeles

[1] Olsberg, Nicholas, Between Earth and Heaven, 2008, p. 18.; James Steele and Franklin D. Israel, Interviews, 1994, p. 13.

[2] Banham, Reyner: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 2001.

[3] Hines, Thomas S., California Calls You, 2010, p. 273.

[4] Campbell Lange, Barbara Ann: Lautner, 2005, pp. 19.

[5] Announcement, The Case Study House Program, Arts and Architecture, January 1945, p. 37-38.