You needn't have visited Long Beach in Southern California to enjoy 'The Unexpected Metropolis,' Cara Mullio and Jennifer M. Volland's eloquent and revealing love letter to the city. No, no matter, you'll recognize similar architectural hubris and bliss in the sharp light and shadows of your home town...
The book opens with a witty foreword by DJ Waldie, "Detractors called Long Beach Iowa-by-the-Sea - The city for the "newly wed and the nearly dead.." (Oh dear, why did we come here?). Cara and Jennifer then set about 100 notable Long Beach buildings with gusto. Structures alive, structures struggling into life and structures, sadly, (in some instances) no longer with us. As quick as they are to burnish some, one suspects, given the chance, these ladies would not be slow to wield the wrecking ball on many others. They are the Trinny and Susannah of the World of Architecture... Unsurprisingly then, this book is supremely well dressed. It's handsome; it's simply great to look at. And the cover shot of the International Tower should have won Jonathan Ames' Phallic Building Contest. Damn! You could own a copy even if you're far too lazy to read.
When I met with Cara and Jennifer they were enduring the promotional whirlwind of book signings, walking tours and coffee mornings in bookstores. Not exactly No Sleep Til Hammersmith, not exactly rock'n'roll, but not exactly far from it. I'd been anticipating far more matronly, foreboding and physically imposing, more Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson than the two women joining me directly from their yoga class. Gregarious, warm and effusive, they quickly impress upon me that architecture is their abiding passion. They're as measured, erudite and serious, as I am flip and glib.
"Studying the architecture of a city, is the study of how a city has culturally evolved," Jennifer says, "We always try to remain broad in our perspective." Undoubtedly this contributes to the success of their book. It's so accessible and compelling, it's a page-turner like a salacious biography.
The book evolved from an article they had co-authored on the status of Tacoma and Long Beach, as second cities, in the shadow of Seattle and Los Angeles, respectively. Their research left them certain that while most major cities offer guides to their architectural heritage, the rich diversity of Long Beach's buildings had remained untrammeled for too long. Publishers were truculent, and several rejections preceded the deal which saw Hennessey and Ingalls, issue the book at the back end of 2004.
It took two years of research, writing and editing to complete the book.
They generously acknowledge the editorial help and expertise they received. But how did they get that look? Credit goes to their British designer Michael Worthington. "He had worked on numerous catalogs for MOCA, and that was what was needed here, to break the stereotype of an ugly port town, to make it more vibrant, there is such a vitality in the city." Jennifer reveals, "He chose the International Tower for the cover early on, from a selection of images we'd given him, we love what he's done."
Knocking Down Buildings:
After this enormous two-year outpouring of love for Long Beach architecture, what we're interested in is what they would actually bulldoze, given a chance... "One building?" They ask archly. The inference being, that the list could be exhaustive! "Well, if there could only be one..." Jennifer muses, "Mine would have to be...Aqua." She's right, I thought it was an ocean front IKEA, the Aqua website scarily depicts a Steve Wynne-style monstrosity, a soul-less Stepford Wife world. Cara simply says, "The Pike." The new Pike would get it too. The Pike is 21st Century restaurant park conceived by Long Beach visionaries in a nightmare.
I suggest that the new City Place mall too, might have it shortcomings, I pretty much find its usefulness limited to Wal-Mart's no questions asked policy to parking validation.
Knocking over buildings is not a nihilistic fetish, "When you think about demolishing a structure, you think it will be replaced with something better." Cara offers, timorously defending the City Place development, "The building that was torn down, the Long Beach Downtown Mall was a concrete, internalized, sad, sad mall. It didn't have any windows. I remember when I was growing up and visiting that place, it really scared me." "A child molester mall." Jennifer adds. "Yes," Cara agrees, "A child molester area and they demolished it. They tore it down. City Place is better, but it could be anywhere, Irvine, San Diego, L.A. Anywhere. In Long Beach when you look at the downtown Farmers' & Merchants Bank building, that's distinctively Long Beach, why not carry on with the tradition of excellence in architecture?"
They acknowledge that in times of decline, cities may be less able economically to be as critically rigorous with architects and developers as they need to be. They cite Long Beach's new so-called Mediterranean-style ocean front condo's. The deep pockets developing those high-risers arrived from out of town when Long Beach was deep in recession. That these apartments are in great demand is incredulously dismissed by Jennifer as some form of blight-like, Thomas Kinkade syndrome, "He's in 1 in 20 American homes, if you equate that with what's going on over there..." Jennifer sounds like she's ready to take a long list of names, come over and not entertain any excuses about how the highlights of your Kinkade matched your sofa.
"The million dollar question," Cara says, "is how to get around that, how do we educate that there's something better, more engaging, more interesting, more challenging?"
Apart from buildings here are other things Jennifer and Cara like or dislike or that you should know about them generally.
In no particular order:
Shoes. (They can be architectural)
The book selling out in April. (Buy it from Amazon)
The good price people can pay for it
August 3rd. They share a birthday.
The central California coast.
Drinking Straws (Jennifer)
Drinks at Jennifer's
Kitchens are Cara's worst room.
The line about Matt Damon: "Met Matt Damon, rather intelligent compared to the rest of his cohorts."
About GOAT: "Our book has never been compared to GOAT."
About Frances Anderton:
Cara is too discreet to dish any dirt on NPR's Frances Anderton; even after I tell her about my dream in which Frances called me and left a message in that voice.
Cara and Jennifer's next project will be a monograph on the life and career of Edward Killingsworth. Renowned as a social-minded architect and for his case study houses (DJ/Producer Greyboy lives in 1957 Killingsworth house), Cara and Jennifer regard him as a mentor. "He hired us to do oral histories and we met with him every week for 2-3 hours." The transcriptions are in the city archive. For the new project Cara says, "So much about him has not been documented. There is not even a complete register of all of the buildings he built."
They have high hopes that a publisher will come forward soon to support the project through the research phase. "We're digging deep." Say Jennifer. With the success of their Unexpected Metropolis, with Killingsworth's reputation, and with the enduring love for all manner of mid-century matter, one might expect that a company like Taschen might seem like a perfect home. They seem optimistic despite Taschen having passed on the Unexpected Metropolis. "Maybe they didn't think it was sexy enough." Cara says.
Damn! They really should judge a book by its cover.
Long Beach Architecture The Unexpected Metropolis by Cara Mullio and Jennifer M Volland is published by Hennessey and Ingalls and is available from some good book stores, or online at Amazon.com
For use of the main image on this page, 'Jennifer and Cara look down on the Farmers & Merchants' thanks to Adam Wheeler.