Before the proliferation of air conditioning, designers devised lots of clever ways to keep buildings cool: cupolas, external blinds and awnings, transom windows. But none were as useful and affordable—or had as much panache—as breeze blocks.
The name refers to a perforated concrete wall made up of individual blocks, each pierced with the same shape, most commonly a cross or circle. Mounted together, they form a striking pattern.
Breeze blocks caused a sensation in the 1950s and ’60s. In those two decades, Americans shunned classical designs in favor of simple lines and experimented with concrete and prefabricated building techniques. Breeze blocks were the perfect companion to modernist buildings. One of the hallmarks of the style—floor-to-ceiling glass windows and walls that blurred indoor and outdoor living—were terrible insulators. But a barrier of breeze blocks could be placed in front of the glass, filtering sun without hindering ventilation.
The blocks were cheap, and local manufacturers, who organized a big publicity blitz, created hundreds of patterns.
“Everybody could order a bunch of concrete blocks and use them,” says Alan Hess, a Southern California architectural historian. “It became a real way to popularize modern design.”
Images of breeze blocks in West Coast magazine articles and advertisements ultimately linked breeze blocks to California style, according to Chicago-based architectural historian Anthony Rubano.
They encircled swimming pools, wrapped around churches, and screened parking garages. They served as ornamentation on hotels and storefronts and bedecked the entryways of ordinary homes. On some buildings, the fences and grills were small and discreet; other times, they were mammoth in scale. They were perfectly suited to Southern California, the land of sunshine and the cradle of modern design. The fad ultimately fizzled out in the 1970s. But breeze blocks had staying power; many are still around today.
What do they do
- Filter sunlight
- Let breeze in
- Create privacy
Also known as
- Decorative blocks
- Screen blocks
- Vented blocks
Who created the breeze block?
The breeze block craze is deeply rooted in Southern California, but it was ignited half-way around the globe in 1954, when American architect Edward Durell Stone designed the new American Embassy in New Dehli. The embassy was a simple white box, but it was enclosed behind an ornate screen formed from hundreds of one-foot square cinderblocks. Each of the blocks was punctured with the same intricate pattern, and together they formed a concrete wall that looked like a delicate lace curtain. According to the New York Times, the embassy “became one of the best‐known pieces of American architecture of the decade.”
But the curtain wall wasn’t a totally original idea; think of the brise-soleil. For centuries, “screens of stone, wood, and clay shaded and ventilated buildings in arid regions.” As Ron and Barbara Marshall observe in Concrete Screen Block, the curtain wall outside the American Embassy closely resembled the cast concrete walls of Notre Dame du Raincy, built in the early 1920s. In that decade, Frank Lloyd Wright was also using textile concrete blocks to pioneer a new Southern California aesthetic. The difference? Wright’s blocks, while also decorative, were designed to bear weight.
Stone’s blocks were functional, but not structural. In 1956, he brought his decorative breeze blocks to Los Angeles—and the rest of the U.S.—with the Stuart Company headquarters in Pasadena. The company’s owner charged Stone with devising a “completely new building concept” that would be efficient but timeless, and make use of the Southern California climate. With smashing success, Stone and the landscape architect incorporated a large atrium, reflecting pools, courtyards—and a long, gauzy screen constructed from blocks hollowed out to create a circle motif, each embellished with one gold knob.
With the Stuart building, Rubano says Stone “cemented the image of the screen block into the minds of architects, builders, and homeowners.”
I think it serves not only to satisfy a wistful yearning on the part of everyone for pattern, warmth and interest, but also serves the desperately utilitarian purpose of keeping sun off glass and giving privacy. —Edward Durell Stone
Alhambra City Hall
A dramatic screen of breeze blocks two stories tall wraps around Alhambra’s civic building. A 1958 write-up of architect William Allen’s plans in the Los Angeles Times says the screen would be “similar in appearance” to the American pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair, which was designed by none other than Edward Durell Stone, who pioneered breeze blocks.
Palm Springs is the bastion of breeze blocks, and the Parker Hotel is its mecca. The giant, curving wall was built, unusually, two blocks deep, likely to stabilize it, say the Marshalls. Its sheer size makes it a popular photo backdrop. It’s not just its monumental size. The pattern, Vista Vue, “exudes that hip coolness that you want,” says Ron Marshall.
Seventh Day Adventist Church
One of the more peculiar buildings in Los Angeles, the violet church is separated from busy Hollywood Boulevard by a wall of breeze blocks in the Maltese pattern. The boat-like church was designed by Robert Burman, who, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy, was a “prolific producer of Modern ecclesiastical design in Southern California.”
The flamboyant architectural style known Googie symbolized the spirit and optimism of the Space Age, and is most famously executed in this spider-like structure that’s often mistaken for LAX’s control tower. Its steel and concrete legs protrude out over a low, circular wall of concrete bars punched with egg-shaped holes. Rubano says the screen closely resembles sculptor Erwin Hauer’s Design No. 5.
Saga Motor Hotel
Breeze blocks adorn dozens of motels across Los Angeles, from the Pink Motel in Sun Valley to the Hollywood Premiere Hotel to the Sea Sprite Motel in Hermosa Beach. But the Saga Motor Hotel is among the most elegant and understated. Architect Harold Zook cleverly used traditional cinderblocks to create vertical ribbons on the property’s exterior.