Contract publishes many new workplaces that are filled with light and feature midcentury modern furnishings. If rendered in color, the office interior below could pass for a break room/collaborative area within a creative company in 2016, but in fact the space existed within the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) headquarters in Los Angeles, as photographed by Julius Shulman around the time it opened in 1963.
The MWD headquarters, which are under threat of demolition, were designed by William Pereira. If you don’t know his name, you’re probably familiar with his work: He was a pioneer of midcentury modern architecture in Southern California. He might not be as well known as Frank Lloyd Wright or Richard Neutra, but like them, he is one of the few architects to grace the cover of Time magazine. Born in Chicago of Portuguese descent, Pereira moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s and went on to design many significant buildings and master plans, including the pyramidal Transamerica Tower in San Francisco, the swoopy and futuristic Theme Building at LAX, the original pavilions comprising Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), as well as campus plans for the University of Southern California, the University of California, Irvine, and Pepperdine University.
Pereira’s MWD headquarters are located just outside downtown Los Angeles along Sunset Boulevard. The campus comprises three-story structures that featured perforated concrete sunscreens mounted along exterior balconies, offset from floor-to-ceiling glazing. A series of twin tapered exterior columns supports heavy concrete beams above the buildings’ rooflines, allowing their interiors to remain open and free of columns. The headquarters, which wrap a palm-filled courtyard, originally included a stunning auditorium/boardroom, futuristic escalators, geometrically patterned floor tiles, and, of course, midcentury furnishings and light fixtures.
Also designed by Pereira as part of the complex, an adjacent nine-story tower built in 1973 was recently adapted for residential and commercial use by Linear City Development, who worked with local firm David Lawrence Gray Architects. However, another developer purchased the low-rise portion of the headquarters and plans to demolish it and build a new mixed-use development. An application was filed by Linear City with the Cultural Heritage Commission to landmark the complex and spare it from demolition.
Unfortunately, some of the MWD complex’s original details have been compromised. The most recent owner was a church, and in the 1980s it built an addition that was not in line with the original architectural character and eliminated its grand entry procession. Then the complex sat empty for many years and was subject to vandalism. And recently the current owner removed the exterior sunscreens. But the integrity of Pereira’s innovative structures remain, with their vast open spaces and geometric floor tiles still intact.
Though this is clearly not a situation that calls for white-glove preservation, the bottom line is that MWD is an important example of midcentury Southern California architecture designed by an iconic architect and it should not be demolished. Its flexible interiors could be adapted for many uses, including commercial and residential. A hearing will be held in mid September to decide the fate of the structures.
To learn more about the efforts to save Pereira’s MWD headquarters, view a video interview with architectural historian Alan Hess, and listen to KCRW’s recent Design and Architecture show discussing landmarking efforts.
All images within this post are by Julius Shulman, © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).