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January 18, 2003

Earthquakes and Traditional Building Styles

Friedrich --

I've been happily following discussion of your review of the Moneo-designed new L.A. Cathedral, and was struck by a comment from one of your readers, Alicia Huntley (her website is here). She writes that earthquakes are an explanation for the non-traditional style in which the Cathedral was built. For one thing, the building itself has to be able to survive such big shocks; for another, traditional ornament is best avoided, for fear of it shaking loose.

I know nothing about such technical matters myself, although I spent part of a recent dinner talking to a San Francisco architect most of whose business consists of earthquake-proofing older buildings. (I now know that many of them need help. I also know that they've done pretty well to last this long.) Still, I wonder ... At least a few of the buildings L.A. is proudest of are old (by L.A. standards), tall and in traditional styles. (And the Moneo Cathedral isn't even especially tall.)

A couple of for-instances:

Pasadena City Hall, 1927

The Pasadena City Hall , designed by John Bakewell and Arthur Brown and finished in 1927. It's a beautiful landmark, exuberant but classy, a good-spirited old dowager decked out in her best jewelry, and dripping with traditional detail, from arches to domes to lanterns to urns.

Los Angeles City Hall, 1928

And the Los Angeles City Hall itself, designed by John Parkinson and completed in 1928. It's a glamorous, streamlined exercise in Art Deco, and was the tallest building in L.A. until the 1960s.

Google tells me that the LA City Hall got a "seismic retrofit" (there's some jargon that's just too good to be avoided) a few years ago -- but, heck, these two buildings are over 70 years old and are still standing. So I'm impressed. I'm also thinking: there doesn't seem to be all that much conflict between "building in traditional styles" and "surviving earthquakes." And I'm wondering if the Moneo is likely to be here in 70 years.

But, as I say, I have no idea whether these buildings have been near-disaster areas during the big earthquakes or not, and I imagine that Alicia Huntley knows much more about the subject than I do. Do you have any knowledge about this? Do any of our readers? Alicia?

I smilingly note that both of these much-loved 20th century (and hence "modern," though not "modernist") buildings make not only free but enthusiastic and un-ironic use of historical precedents. The Pasadena City Hall re-works quite faithfully some ideas of Palladio, while the top of the LA City Hall is meant to evoke what's known of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. (Thank you, Google.)

Bizarre, isn't it, how we've allowed ourselves to be talked into the idea that you can't build in this way anymore? You simply can't, argue the apologists for modernism: Modern life, modern consciousness, etc., etc. Hmm. Yet these buildings were completed in 1927 and 1928. When do we suppose this all-changing "modernity" rupture-thingee occurred? Perhaps in 1929?



posted by Michael at January 18, 2003


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