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Q&A with Robert Winter, author of LA’s seminal architecture guidebook

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The historian has strong opinions on LA's architecture old and new, including one showcase project he calls "Trumpitecture"

Robert Winter
Robert Winter at home in the Batchelder House in Pasadena.
Patrick Lee

You could call Robert Winter the father of Los Angeles architecture.

The architectural historian and emeritus Occidental College professor is perhaps best known for two things. First is his house, a Craftsman bungalow on the edge of Pasadena's Arroyo Seco that is the former home of tilemaker Ernest Batchelder, about whom Winter wrote one of his first important books.

Subsequent books made Winter partly responsible for sparking the 1970s revival of interest in the Arts and Crafts movement, a revival, he is fond of pointing out, that has lasted longer than the movement itself.

Second is his seminal Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, which he co-authored with David Gebhard in 1965. It is a carefully curated listing of the most significant buildings in Southern California that is now widely considered the bible of Southern California architecture. It is now in its fifth edition, with a major revision on the way. (Gebhard died in 1996; Winter is still going strong at age 92.)

His new collaborator is his former student Bob Inman, who is perhaps best known for his own books, A Guide to the Stairways of Los Angeles and Finding Los Angeles By Foot: Stairstreet, bridge, pathway and lane. He also came up with the "Inman 300," a 180-mile, 300-stairway urban hike of the city.

Architectural Guidebook
The cover of Winter’s seminal guidebook to Los Angeles architecture.
Courtesy Angel City Press

They plan to delete buildings that have been demolished; can’t be seen well from the street, such as Richard Neutra's Sten-Frenke house in Pacific Palisades and R.M. Schindler's Rodakiewicz house; and are “weak” or no longer significant, including John Parkinson and Edwin Bergstrom's LA Athletic Club.

Additions will include new work by architects Michael Maltzan, Michael W. Folonis, Koning Eizenberg Architecture, Stephen Kanner, Steven Ehrlich, Simon Storey, Heyday, Barbara Bestor, and Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects. Plus, parks, such as Tongva Park + Ken Genser Square and Grand Park, and creatively repurposed buildings, as The Standard in Downtown LA, the Ace Hotel and Columbia Square in Hollywood.

It may also feature old buildings that were missed in earlier editions, such as the J.R. Dennison house in Harvard Heights, the Breed Street Shul, the American Cement Building, and the old John A. Roebling’s Sons Co. warehouse (now Angel City Brewery).

Winter will be the final arbiter of all changes.

Curbed sat down with him recently to talk about trends and developments in LA architecture. Winter shared his strong opinions about the architectural changes happening in Southern California.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What do you think about Swiss architect Peter Zumthor's proposed design for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art?

Zumthor is going to build what I call Trumpitecture. And now I'm thinking much better than that would be the buildings that are still there. A really imaginative architect could do wonders with those by putting them together. There are things like that central patio. Lovely!

I've just been reading Joe Giovannini's article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, it was about two years ago, and it's brilliant. I have to defer to him. ...

Zumthor, I think he said he got his first idea for the thing, which I call an amoeba with its pseudopodia, from the tar pits. Bad, bad going. It seems to be sort of the thing that people with billions of dollars, it's their conception of what the great unwashed think is nifty. That's my first reaction. But it does seem to me absurd to cover all [that area] and crossing Wilshire Boulevard. What a gimmick. Ridiculous.

How do you describe LA's current architectural landscape?

That's wonderful. That's just wonderful. I remember when I taught at UCLA [after World War II], I lived first on Wilshire Boulevard, but then I got an apartment in Santa Monica. And I wouldn't have recommended anybody coming to Santa Monica. And now, like, my god, it's a changed place. And all around it ...

The best building in town in my estimation is the Frank Gehry Disney Hall. It makes me proud when I see that. When I used to go to concerts there, I carried a cane. It's no place for people with problems! Because no carpets on the floor and nothing to hold onto. But I remember with such pleasure going in. And the exterior is just lovely.

The library and City Hall and so on still stand beautifully. But what gets me is when I first came to Los Angeles, I taught at UCLA, and in Westwood, you had the feeling that you didn't have to go anywhere else. I didn't have exactly that feeling, because I knew about Greene and Greene and all the people and how good Pasadena was...

About six months ago, my chiropractor took me down to see the Broad. I don't think so much of the exterior, but what goes on inside is so wonderful. I'd love to take a bunch of kids there. They'd go ecstatic. And some rooms seem to have been built for the art that was going to go into them, which, you know, you can afford to do if you're Eli Broad.

Michael Maltzan just down the street, he's doing some interesting things. That bridge, for instance. The Sixth Street [Viaduct], it's a little different. But that's OK. I think he's a very gifted architect, as a matter of fact.

There are a lot of mixed-users and apartment complexes being built today that all look the same and are cheap-looking. Do you think someday in the future, Angelenos will think these buildings are cool, sort of like how dingbats are now popular?

I don't want to predict too far into the future. You know what's going on at Walnut and Lake in Pasadena. Where are all those people going to come from? I don't think anybody made a study whether these are needed or not. And that totally goes against the idea of Pasadena, which was a suburb.

So the idea that it's advancing into the future heroically, it's so absurd. I'm not sure what the motivation is. I think it's probably a developer sees open land, and they think money, and they want to increase density. Right up to the sidewalk. It's not Pasadena. But I don't want to be an old fogey. And if they put lower-income people in those houses, eventually, it's a great advance.

What do you think of the glassy contemporary spec houses that draw heavily on modernist influences but use the style as something luxurious rather than utopian?

It makes you class conscious. Why? Almost all of them are homely as the dickens. I mean homely in the sense of awful. It seems to me a wonderful reflection of our culture. That this goes on, that people can build houses that they're paying $15 million for or more, $35 million, and people are buying them when there ... are people starving. Even in America.

I hope they stay away from $30 million houses.

The Batchelder House in Pasadena.
Patrick Lee

This house I bought for $46,500. Well, that was in 1972. The idea now it is now worth more than $2 million ... I used to talk against millionaires, and now I'm one (laughs).

Ken Genser Square

Main St. & Olympic Dr., Santa Monica, CA

Columbia Square

6121 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA

The Broad

Grand Ave. & Second St., Los Angeles, CA 90012

Grand Park

S. Grand Ave. & W. First St., Los Angeles, CA

Tongva Park

Colorado Ave. & Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, CA

UCLA

405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles, CA

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

5905 Wilshire Boulevard, , CA 90036 Visit Website