The West Coast has one of the greatest legacies of mid-century modern architecture in the world. Everybody knows its legendary icons, like Pierre Koenig’s Case Study 22, the Eames House, and the timber homes of Sea Ranch. But there are so many surprises hiding in plain sight, showcasing the exceptional talent and variety within the modernist movement, and taking you to places you’d never go. Here are a few of the best.
First United Methodist Church
Designed by Reginald Inwood
San Diego, California
Perched on a steep slope in San Diego’s Mission Valley, this white, parabolic-shaped wonder is clad with a wavy concrete screen that creates intense light patterns that change throughout the day.
Bell Beach House
Designed by Dale Naegle
San Diego, California
Attached to a cliff-hugging home by a 300-foot-long funicular, this disc-shaped, exposed concrete guest quarters hovers above a narrow, tube-shaped base, protected from the surf of La Jolla’s Black’s Beach by a surrounding wall.
Compton City Hall and Civic Center
Designed by Harold Williams
This little-known complex is well worth a visit to South L.A. It includes a glassy City Hall shaded by giant concrete fins, a 12-story courthouse wrapped in white concrete and continuous slit windows, and a central sculpture consisting of angular white components connected by a metallic ring.
Robert Lee Frost Auditorium
Designed by Flewelling and Moody
Culver City, California
Conjuring the sculptural work of Eero Saarinen and Felix Candela, this heroic structure features a brick-clad drum wrapped by an undulating thin formed concrete shell.
Designed by Edward Durell Stone
Located at the end of a grassy mall in the center of the Caltech campus, the pristine circular pavilion appears to be a modernist interpretation of the Temple of Hercules in Rome, from its rounded colonnade to its shallow, overhanging cone roof. What makes it distinctly Stone is its patterning, creating unique views and eclectic shadows everywhere you look.
Designed by Harry Gesner
Studio City, Los Angeles, California
When you drive by these twelve single-family residences, spaced around the tight curves of Woodrow Wilson Drive and Pacific View Drive in the Cahuenga Pass, you wonder if you really just saw what you just saw. These small, wood clad homes project off the hillside via stilts, resembling, yes, boats.
First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto
Designed by Carlton Arthur Steiner
Palo Alto, California
This A-frame ‘Contemporary Gothic’ church near downtown Palo Alto consists of poured-in-place concrete piers and precast roof panels, inset with 1,500 brightly hued small glass inserts. Sitting inside the dark sanctuary is like experiencing a light show, as bright colors emanating from the thousands of stained glass pieces bombard your senses.
Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Lewis and Clark College
Designed by Paul Thiry
Paul Thiry’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel at Lewis and Clark University—a wooded campus in the hills south of Portland—exemplifies his unique vernacular. The building looks like nothing else you’ll see this side of a hobbit’s village, its shingle-clad, upside-down funnel roof inspired, reportedly, by a Tlingit ceremonial rain hat. The 460-seat interior, lined with horizontal timber slats and supported by arching laminated beams, features a circular 5,000-pipe Casavant organ, hanging from the ceiling like the display in the center of a sports arena. A circular band of stained glass clerestory windows, designed by Gabriel Loire of Chartres, France, depict the creation story in the book of Genesis.
St. Joseph’s Hospital
Designed by Bertrand Goldberg
This hilltop structure overlooking the Commencement Bay in Tacoma looks like a mashup of rocket ships, grain silos, and cake icing tubes, dotted with amazing porthole windows that frame unique views from the rooms inside. The building’s curved shell reinforced concrete walls, smoothed with a white fiberglass finish, help create the building’s organic form, which wraps like fabric around nine towers, all propped on thin columns, floating above a two-story base building.
University Unitarian Church
Designed by Paul Hayden Kirk
Any church with Eames chairs as pews wins the mid-century modern stamp of approval. The building is designed as an architectural mixing bowl, bringing together sublime, modulated light, Pacific native culture, and mid-century simplicity in what is an utterly unique form.