A Handy Guide To Exploring The West Coast’s Modernist Utopia

The country’s most progressive region was a natural home for architectural experimentation in the midcentury.

“Go west” has long been an unofficial rallying cry for people who want to exchange the establishment’s figurative shackles for the physical and intellectual space to develop new ideas. This was especially true for modern architects and designers who found a haven for creative exploration along the Pacific Coast during the midcentury.


“Modernism and the West Coast were the perfect couple in so many ways,” says Sam Lubell, author of Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: West Coast USA, a new book from Phaidon that chronicles more than 250 buildings in Washington, Oregon, and California that embody the spirit of architectural innovation present from the 1950s through the 1970s. “It really matches the sense of progressiveness in the region.”

Civic buildings, schools, spiritual structures, medical offices, skyscrapers, bowling alleys, auditoriums and stadiums, and even car washes received attention from midcentury architects. They express different styles of modernism, from the Bauhaus-rooted works of practitioners like Richard Neutra to the more organic sensibility of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Brutalist bent of William Pereira.

Lubell and photographer Darren Bradley visited each of the projects featured in the book–a strategy to show these historic buildings as they appear today, not as artifacts from decades past–which took a year to research and write. The book is divided by region–Pacific Northwest, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and San Diego–and Lubell picked buildings thinking that they could all be visited on a road trip. Each section has a numbered map so you can see the relative proximity of the buildings. For each featured project, there’s a color photograph (or two); a passage about its architectural significance including the year it was built and its designer; a street address; and info on if it’s open to the public, admission fees, and if there’s a cafe or bookshop attached (handy for the archi-tourist with a soft spot for souvenirs).


“We wanted to combine the buildings that are spectacular and important in the canon of midcentury architecture that are essential and stunning, but we also wanted to include a lot of surprises.” Lubell says. “There are buildings from Portland and Seattle, places people don’t associate with midcentury architecture; they often only think of L.A. or Palm Springs. Midcentury modernism is more than the Case Study glass box.”

Here’s how the West Coast expressed its own brand of modernism, in all its myriad facets.

Palm Springs, California: Kaufmann House, Richard Neutra, 1946.

A Democratic Approach To Design

“Modernism did not originate on the West Coast, but I think it found an amazing home there,” Lubell says. “There are so many different styles of modernism but when it started out, it was this simple architecture that was inspired by industrial techniques, which was very important for a developing area like the West Coast.”


Houses, however, embody some of the most adventurous ideas, thanks to their relatively small scale and the freedom that comes from having an individual as a client. To Lubell, the Case Study program–30+ houses commissioned by Arts and Architecture magazine, which include Charles and Ray Eames’s own residence–represent the modernism’s idealism as a democratic style and aspiration to provide “good design” to the masses. The program invited architects to build homes using economical materials (like reinforced concrete, glass, and steel), to rethink construction techniques (like cantilevers and space frames), and experiment with layout (like open-plan interiors).

“Today, the technical innovations wouldn’t blow you away, but they were revolutionary in making housing for everybody,” Lubell says.

San Diego: Bell Beach House, Dale Naegle, 1968.

A Deep-Set Environmental Ethic

The West Coast’s mild climate influenced how architects expressed modernism–and one of the characteristics that distinguish structures built in this region is how they commune with nature. It was a sensibility that aimed to work with the environment rather than against it.


“Instead of shielding from the elements, it embraces the elements,” Lubell says. He cites the Sea Ranch–a collection of houses on the northern California coast built in 1965 by the architects Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull & Whitaker in a landscape by Lawrence Halprin–as a prime example. The cedar-clad structures feature angular silhouettes that blend into the topography.

Palos Verdes, California: Wayfarer’s Chapel.

Lubell also calls attention to the Wayfarer’s Chapel in Palos Verdes, California, built in 1951 by Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright’s son). “Lloyd Wright never gets his due and is always overshadowed by his dad,” he says. “The chapel is built to be part of a forest of big trees. The idea is that it disappears. The columns are built of wood the same color as the trees around them and the entire building is glass–you can’t even see it when you look at it from afar. It’s spectacular architecture, but what makes it spectacular is what’s around it.”

Los Angeles: Cinerama Dome, Welton Becket & Associates, 1963.

Design Rooted In Technical Innovation

Advancements in building science and engineering allowed architects to construct more expressive structures during this era. The Geisel Library on the University of California, San Diego, campus (named after Dr. Seuss author Theodore Geisel) is one that really captured Lubell’s attention.

Geisel Library

“Technically and construction-wise it’s an achievement,” he says of the 1971 building by William Pereira. “It looks like a floating spaceship and had amazing exposed concrete. The way it was built is like an inverted pyramid or a ziggurat. It’s made from reinforced concrete and its structure works like a tree: Concrete branches go up and out and hold the rest of the structure. Modernism had reached a point where they could do some structural gymnastics, and architects were showing off, in a way. Here, the exterior is all glass so it looks like the building is floating across concrete branches–it tests the boundaries of concrete and glass.”

The Cinerama, a 1963 theater in L.A. by Welton Becket, is another example of technical achievement: The structure has the first concrete geodesic dome ever built.

Los Angeles: LAX Theme Building, Pereira and Luckman, 1961.

An Obsession With The Future

The West Coast has a reputation for looking to the future as opposed to the past. Built up during the postwar era, the region expressed the dominant technology of the time (for better or worse): the automobile.


“It was the capital of the Space Age, and this was reflected in Googie architecture,” Lubell says of the a bold style whose angular facades and vibrant signs were designed to catch the eye of motorists.

Norms coffee shop, designed by Armet & Davis in 1957, is perhaps one of the most famous examples of Googie architecture. The LAX Theme Building by Pereira is another that sports a Space Age aesthetic, as does the Chemosphere by John Lautner.

San Francisco: St. Mary’s Cathedral, Pietro Belluschi and Pier Luigi Nervi, 1971.

Architecture Of Experience

Today, there’s an obsession with experience design–but this is something midcentury architects were pioneering decades ago. Lubell thinks this is something missing from some architecture today; the way most of us consume buildings is through photography–and that’s impacting how contemporary practitioners design them.


“Photography is great in that it gets us aware, but it’s not how one experiences architecture–it’s a three-dimensional art, you need to see it and walk through it to experience it,” he says. “Being reduced to picture after picture is guilty of making architecture built to be photographed, not always to be experienced. Experience doesn’t always come first and it’s to the detriment of architecture. Architects are inserted in the flash and the outside, but what makes a building special is what you feel when you’re there. It’s such a tactile art. The feeling of the space, the materials, the light, the site that it’s on. There’s so much more to architecture than the way it’s portrayed. Imagery hurts how people understand architecture and how designers design it.”

One of the buildings that best represents the “you had to be there” ethos is St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, a concrete church by architect Pietro Belluschi and engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. The technically challenging concrete roof is based on the shape of hyperbolic paraboloids. Inside the ceiling is adorned with a triangular pattern and its steel slope pulls the eye upward.

“The second you walk in, your senses take over,” Lubell says. “There’s a difference between seeing a cool piece of architecture and your whole body being overtaken by awe. It’s exceptional. We need better architecture, and not just for fancy houses. Architecture affects you on every level and it changes how you live and how your community interacts. You can’t understand that just by looking at a picture. In two dimensions, it’s art not architecture.”


Part of Lubell’s impetus for writing the book was to inspire readers to get out there and see these sites in person.

“Dig in and look for surprises–that’s the fun part,” Lubell says. “And if you get this book, don’t just look at it; get in your car or on the train and see these things. It’s not about reading the book, it’s a travel guide.”

Happy trails.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.