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California’s architecture is as diverse as the state’s population, its economy, and its natural landscapes. As much a state of mind as a geographic area, the “Golden State” draws people seeking freedoms of great variety: religious, entrepreneurial, personal, cultural, and otherwise. Its architectural history has a similar mythology. For generations, California has been a place where architects found opportunity to experiment far from the entrenched attitudes and customs of Europe and the East Coast. Indeed, in the post–World War II period, Los Angeles became a pilgrimage site for young architects. They came to see the work of early modernists like Greene and Greene and Irving Gill, to study avant-garde contributions to residential architecture by European ex-patriots Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, and to participate in the world of designers Charles and Ray Eames, with a first stop often being their home and studio, Case Study House No. 8. Perhaps as important, however, these young architects came to drive the massive networks of freeway infrastructure, participate in a growing surf culture, and join in the state’s experimental living communities.

While there is some truth in these myths of architectural self-determination, the state’s built environment cannot be fully understood without acknowledging its citizen’s struggles to accept, house, and serve its constantly expanding and diversifying population. California’s architectural history has been shaped by discriminatory policy and legislation that facilitated the subjugation of Indigenous peoples, the Asian Exclusion Act, Mexican repatriation, Japanese internment, racial housing covenants, red baiting, and mass homelessness. The state’s official architectural histories largely reflect contributions by a white male demographic. Still, historians have worked to recognize significant contributions by diverse peoples while also highlighting the structures that have become synonymous with California’s contributions to the traditional architectural canon.

California’s natural environment is remarkably varied in climate and topography. The western edge is bordered by the Pacific Coast and coastal mountain ranges. In the east, the Sierra Nevada mountain range extends from the Central Valley through the northernmost portion of the state and includes North America’s largest alpine lake, Lake Tahoe; the tallest peak in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney; and Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Sequoia, along with Redwood National Park at the northwestern tip of the state, is home to the world’s tallest, largest, and oldest trees. In California’s southeasterly reaches lie the state’s deserts, including the Mojave and Colorado deserts with their Joshua tree preserves and Death Valley sand dunes. In California’s center lies a long, flat valley that extends about 450 miles from just south of Bakersfield north to Redding. This valley is largely dedicated to agricultural production, much of which provides the bulk of the country’s nuts and produce.

Before European contact, California had one of the largest populations of Indigenous peoples in the country. An abundance of food and temperate climate in most parts of the state supported over 500 different tribes or groups. Reservations have preserved some Indigenous territories, and archaeological sites such as the La Jolla and Pauma complexes reveal prehistoric cultures oriented toward resources based on location. The Miwok Tribe in the north was largely ordered around hunting and gathering, and they developed large bedrock mortars or chaw’se to grind acorns and other seeds. The Miwok’s grinding rock is the largest in North America, its 1,185 mortar cups preserved at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park (1962).

Native Californians encountered Europeans at different stages, beginning in the mid-sixteenth century with the arrival of Spanish and British explorers. They remained largely undisturbed, however, until the implementation of the Spanish mission system. The twenty-one missions in the system were part of Spain’s efforts to colonize their claims in North America through building projects that ran the length of Alta California, from San Diego de Alcalá (1769) in the south to San Francisco Solano (1823) in the north. A few of the missions were developed in concert with a nearby pueblo or town, and a military fortification or presidio. Los Angeles’s original Spanish pueblo settlement (El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles), follows a grid plan that reflects the basic outlines of the Spanish Crown’s Law of the Indies. The settlement included a central square surrounded by adobe houses, a church, and land set aside for communal agriculture. Still standing here today is a section of the oldest house in Los Angeles, the Avila Adobe (1818).

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the mission’s landholdings were often organized into large ranching establishments whose landholding rancheros depended on the exploited labor of the Indigenous people to maintain a relatively self-sustaining economic model. These conditions altered significantly after the Mexican War of 1846, when California was acquired by the United States and landholders were faced with their new country’s tax and labor laws. While initially removed from the active centers of the East and Midwest, by the mid-nineteenth century a series of events came together to propel California toward economic growth: the state’s gold rush in the north (1849), the acquisition of the transcontinental telegraph and telephone (1861 and 1916), the completion of the transcontinental railroad (1869), the extension of the railroad between San Francisco and Los Angeles (1876), and the development of active ports along the coast.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad and its connection to the state’s Southern Pacific Railroad enabled families to more easily migrate west, greatly contributing to California’s population growth and facilitating land development. It also helped connect production sites and move goods between the port and the rest of the country. But production and urban expansion also required water, the acquisition and dispersal of which has always been a contested issue. In the early twentieth century, Los Angeles’s developers and Department of Water and Power worked together to seize water from the Owens Valley and transport it via the 230-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct to supply the region’s expanding suburban developments. The aqueduct was later extended another 100 miles north to the Mono Basin. The projects largely depleted the Owens and Mono lakes and remain highly controversial. Into the twenty-first century, California’s many dams continue to provide water storage, hydroelectricity, and help irrigate farms in the Central Valley. The massive Shasta Dam, which created Shasta Lake in the 1940s, was crucial to the state’s contribution to the war effort, providing power to California’s World War II production sites. Despite this legacy, the dam has been criticized for changing the Sacramento River ecology and having a negative impact on salmon runs.

As gold mining activity declined in the late nineteenth century, many laborers stayed in California to work in logging in the northern reaches, oil in the southern portions of the state, and agricultural production across the Central Valley, central coast, and in Southern California. The capitalists who profited from these growing industries commissioned houses, mostly traditional, that reflected their wealth and status, such as Eureka-based lumber baron William Carson, whose Queen Anne Carson Mansion (1885) is an example of the eclectic styles and brilliant colors typical of Northern California’s Victorians. The most renowned is newspaper publisher William Randolf Hearst’s Hearst Castle (1919) on the central coast, a massive neoclassical retreat designed by Julia Morgan, who had been trained at the École des Beaux Arts and completed significant commissions across the state.

California’s economic growth throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was propelled by immigrant labor. The Chinese contribution is but one example. By 1851, over 25,000 Chinese immigrants attracted to “Gold Mountain” came to California. They were crucial in constructing the railroad and farmed actively in almost every major agricultural region of the state. The implementation of California’s 1913 Alien Land Act prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land, which contributed to the dearth of Chinese-built communities along its agricultural valleys. In the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the Locke family circumvented these laws by leasing a portion of their land to Zhongshan merchants. They developed it into a rural town called Locke (1915), where all businesses and residences were operated and occupied by the local Chinese community.

The period from the 1920s through the 1960s saw significant technological innovation, economic expansion, and population growth across California. With Hollywood’s Golden Age came increasing attention to the state’s movie and music industries, the latter symbolized by the iconic Capitol Records Tower (1956), and their celebrity cultures. Extension of the state highway system and increased automobile acquisition, promoted by the Automobile Club and Sunset Magazine, made travel by car a key leisure activity. Roadside motels, such as the Milestone Mo-Tel (1925) in San Luis Obispo, popped up to serve this recreationally nomadic population. The Googie architecture of coffee shops, drive-in churches, and gas stations with upward sweeping roofs, neon lighting, and Atomic Age typography, such as Jack Colker’s Union 76 Gas Station (1965) designed by Gin Wong, reflects a culture characterized by rapid motion and the space race. The opening of Disneyland in 1955 in Orange County’s formerly agricultural landscape married nostalgia for small town America with Disney “Imagineering” and its engagement with technological innovation and futurology.

California’s midcentury period in design was in part a creative response to innovations in materials and manufacturing developed in the state’s wartime production factories, as well as the need to house the swelling populations that came to work in them, most of whom stayed after the war’s end. Faced with a postwar housing shortage, some architects sought to combine design with progressive politics through the development of public housing. Targeted by McCarthy-era red baiting and racially restrictive Federal Housing Administration mortgage regulations, only a few public housing projects, including Aliso Village (1942), came to fruition. Progressive cooperatives, such as Gregory Ain’s Avenel Homes (1947), were initially barred from racially integrating. At the same time, “slum” clearance projects swept away the older housing stocks in many of California’s downtowns, making way for cultural acropolises like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (1964) in downtown Los Angeles.

The decades from 1920s to the 1960s were characterized by large privately developed housing subdivisions that propelled the state’s suburbanization. Leimert Park (1928), one of California’s earliest comprehensively planned communities for middle-income residents, saw a shift in its demographic from white-dominated in the pre-World War II period to its current status as an important center of African American art, music, and culture. The success of these decentralized communities was predicated on access to public transportation, such as Los Angeles’s extensive Pacific Electric Railway in the early twentieth century, or freeways that tied entire urban regions together in the postwar period, as seen in the San Francisco Bay Area and the greater Los Angeles area. Joseph Eichler’s midcentury developments, such as The Highlands (1956–1964) in San Mateo, featured over 700 modern houses for middle-income residents built near I-280, which connects cities in the region’s South Bay Area between San Jose and San Francisco.

Very few midcentury designers were California natives but rather brought their education and experience to a place where they found camaraderie with like-minded experimenters and opportunities to build on undeveloped, affordable land. Critics like Esther McCoy and John Entenza’s avant-garde journal Arts and Architecture promoted these first- and second-generation modernists. Accompanied by photographs by Julius Shulman and Marvin Rand, they established a highly effective mythology around an idea of California living that was intended to be both specific to the region and indicative of California’s rightful role as one of the world’s great centers of modern design. Residential midcentury architecture was in reality quite diverse—it extended from Craftsman and Ranch styles to modernist steel and glass boxes—but most environments shared qualities such as low-slung roofs, open plans for ease of tending to domestic duties, an engagement with the local ecology, and indoor-outdoor spaces. The Rudolph Schindler House (1921) is a key manifestation of the coming together of local materials and techniques, of new innovations in building technology, of the integration of interior and exterior environments, and of the bohemian culture and leftist politics nurtured in Pauline Schindler’s salons.

Generations have looked to California for leadership in social justice and environmental responsibility, and the state’s architectural counterculture (a term developed by Theodore Roszak, a professor in California’s Bay Area at the time) led the country in this regard. While architects expressed themselves through ephemeral structures, such as geodesic domes and inflatables, the main thrust was developing a design ethos focused on environmental sustainability. Berkeley-based architects led the way, focusing on process—the use of found and recycled materials or activating public parks (such as Berkeley’s People’s Park). Anna and Laurence Halprin held interdisciplinary, multisensory workshops in San Francisco and along the spectacular Northern California coast, including at their cabin at Sea Ranch (1963–1966), a cliffside community master planned by Halprin. The Big Sur community, long a mainstay of bohemian and beatnik culture, saw the establishment of the Esalen Institute (1962), an intentional community and education center dedicated to exploring human consciousness while in close connection with the natural world.

In the late twentieth century, architects began experimenting with the language of postmodernism and deconstruction. In his own residence (1978; 1992 expansion), Frank Gehry dismantled a traditional Dutch Colonial Revival house, and then wrapped it in ordinary and everyday materials characteristic of Los Angeles’s urban landscape. The convoluted wayfinding in John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel (1976) came to represent, in theorist Frederick Jameson’s characterization, the schizophrenic condition of the postmodern period.

Currently, California has the sixth largest economy in the world. Long Beach’s port (1911–1965), initially funded by Southern California oil money, is the second busiest container port in the world next to the port of Los Angeles, to which it is adjacent. In the late twentieth century, the San Francisco Bay Area, long characterized by fruit orchards and military defense production sites, became “Silicon Valley” for its leading role in computer technology development and digital innovation. Companies like Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Cisco, and Apple altered the cultural and built landscape of that region, creating vast tech campuses and introducing new “creative” workspaces. Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, “Googleplex” (2004), provides its workers with extensive amenities like yoga classes and free meals meant to encourage collaborative innovation and ensure commitment to long working hours that are part of the tech world’s corporate culture.

Despite California’s continued role as a leader in technology, agriculture, and media production, soaring housing prices and increasing income disparity has led some architects to design for a growing population of chronically homeless and marginally housed citizens, as seen in projects like the New Carver Apartments (2010). At the same time, the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has seen prominent firms, local and otherwise, win million dollar commissions to build museums, commercial structures, and concert halls across the state. Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (2003) in Los Angeles and Herzog and Herzog and de Meuron’s de Young Museum (2005) in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park are two examples that have gained global recognition.

Writing Credits

Emily Bills

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