Modernism was made for California. Just as it was on the West Coast that the twentieth century’s dominant art form, the movie, was to flourish, so Modernist architecture blossomed unencumbered by the concerns and limitations of the Old World.
Here was a climate that adored flat roofs and a hilly topography of brilliant views that called for structural daring, a place with a self-conscious lack of history in which displaced Europeans – and Americans freed from the waspish East Coast – could create whole new worlds and lifestyles facing the seemingly boundless freedom of the desert and the Pacific.
Superlatives abound: the ‘cast stone’ of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute is perhaps the most sublimely generous construction of post-war architecture; while right at the beginning of the century, Greene & Greene and Bernard Maybeck’s Arts & Crafts was as vivid a reimagining of William Morris as you can imagine. Equally remarkable are the cities, from the captivating milieu of San Francisco to its unfathomable cousin Los Angeles, the City of 4 Ecologies: hills, mesa, littoral, autopia.
The chutzpah of patron and architect hasn’t let up in the twenty-first century with Richard Meier’s hilltop Getty Center, Raphael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Our Angels – both in L.A. – and Herzog & de Meuron’s de Young Museum in San Francisco.
If one looks for a beginning to all this, beyond the fragments of the Pueblo and the Spanish Mission architecture, it is found in Frank Lloyd Wright. While Europeans spent the 1920s and 30s playing catch-up to Wright’s disciplined Prairie houses, he went wild in the West.
In Los Angeles, beginning with the extraordinary Hollyhock House, he demonstrated a virtuosity on California’s slopes equal to that he’d achieved on the flat expanse of the Midwest. Wright’s approach was extended by his ex-pupils Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra who threw away the cloak of their native Vienna to create a series of exquisite, ecologically responsive dwellings that would lead to the ‘Case Study Houses’ and the ‘Bay Area School’ around San Francisco.
Wright also built his combined home and fellowship at Taliesin West in the desert outside Phoenix. Gradually shaped over thirty years, this complement to his earlier Taliesin East, is Wright at his most successful – and moving. A blurring of building and landscape formed from desert rocks and sand, its inspiration lies in the light touch of the native Sinagua Indians.
Paolo Soleri’s eco-city of Arcosanti, still being constructed today far out in the Arizona desert, pays homage to Taliesin and is either a suggestion of an ecologically viable future, or the American Dream at its most indulgent and eccentric.
London to Phoenix (Arizona). Fly at c. 2.45pm from London Heathrow to Phoenix (direct flight; time in the air: c. 10 hours). Located in salubrious, suburban Scottsdale, our hotel was built in 1929 under the supervision of Frank Lloyd Wright, a luxurious low-lying complex with lawns, pools and landscaping. Arrive in time for dinner. First of two nights in Phoenix.
Phoenix, Taliesin West. The morning is dedicated to Taliesin West, Wright’s desert camp and means of escape from Wisconsin winters. The tour includes desert shelters, performance spaces and offices. The afternoon is free back at the hotel. Overnight Phoenix.
Arcosanti, La Jolla (California).Deep in the Arizona desert, Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s dream city, is built around objectives of self-sufficiency and a resistance to urban sprawl. Begun in the 1970s, it remains work in progress. Fly in the afternoon to San Diego and drive north to the seafront town of La Jolla. Overnight La Jolla.
La Jolla, Palos Verdes, Los Angeles. In La Jolla, visit Louis Kahn’s magisterial Salk Institute (1958), designed to create an inspiring space in which to carry out scientific research: pozzolanic concrete, travertine marble, oak, and, above all, natural light. In the afternoon, drive north to Los Angeles with a detour to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Wayfarer’s Chapel (1951), the most highly acclaimed work by Lloyd Wright Jr, has a spectacular ocean setting; a perfect integration of architecture and landscape. First of four nights in Downtown Los Angeles.
Los Angeles: Santa Monica, West Hollywood. Drive out to beachside Santa Monica to see Frank Gehry’s own house (exterior only), a reworking of a conventional Californian suburban residence. Up above in Pacific Palisades, visit the house-cum-studio of Charles and Ray Eames (Case Study No. 8, 1948): prefabricated cabins, colour panels, glass, in a meadow with ocean views. Meier’s hilltop Getty Center, an astonishing sequence of travertine, glass and steel structures interspersed with courtyards and gardens; modernist objectives of space and light dictate but the effect is overwhelmingly contemporary. Free time to see the extensive art collections and immaculate gardens. Overnight Los Angeles.
Downtown Los Angeles. Downtown is spread over an extensive, often hilly, grid, nevertheless today provides a rare opportunity to dispense with vehicular transport and walk. See the intricate Bradbury Building (1893) and Moneo’s Cathedral (2002) of gargantuan proportions flooded with warm light. Close by are the Walt Disney Concert Hall (Gehry, 2003), Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art (1983) and The Broad (Diller Scofidio + Renfro, 2015). Free time here to see the excellent collection of post-war and contemporary art. Overnight Los Angeles.
Los Angeles & early Modernism. The Schindler House is one of the finest examples of environmentally conscious architecture anywhere, designed in the 1920s as an experiment in co-operative living. Built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1922 for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, the recently restored Hollyhock House departed radically from his previous prairie-style houses (and his patron’s brief), resembling instead a Mayan temple. In Pasadena, visit the brilliant collection of the Norton Simon Museum and tour the Gamble House (Greene & Greene, 1908), a perfect Swiss chalet with original furnishings; Arts & Crafts with a twist. Overnight Los Angeles.
Train from L.A. to San Francisco. Depart at c. 10.15am on the Coast Starlight to Oakland. The 12-hour journey passes through spectacular scenery: long stretches of sandy beach, abundant in birdlife, give way to emerald green fields rolling gently into the distance, the overwhelming sense of isolation interrupted only by livestock, the odd rodeo ranch and the mission town of San Luis de Obispo. Lunch and dinner on board. Short drive from Oakland to San Francisco for the first of three nights.
San Francisco, Berkeley. A morning walk includes the Hallidie Building, the world’s first glass-curtain-walled structure (Willis Polk, 1918), Frank Lloyd Wright’s Morris Gift Shop (1948), a prototype for the New York Guggenheim and the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Mario Botta, 1995; Snøhetta, 2016). Time to visit the collection independently. Drive mid-afternoon to the university town of Berkeley. Bernard Maybeck’s First Church of Christ the Scientist (1910) is an almost fairy-tale construction, incongruously tucked between the modern halls of residence. Overnight San Francisco.
Marin County, San Francisco. Drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to Frank Lloyd Wright’s final commission: the Marin County Civic Center (completed after his death in 1962). Spend the afternoon in the Golden Gate Park, home to Herzog & de Meuron’s landmark De Young Museum (2005), built from recycled redwood, eucalyptus and copper, the oxidising exterior is progressively blending with its environment. Opposite is Renzo Piano’s ‘green museum’, his extension to the California Academy of Sciences (2009). Overnight San Francisco.
Stanford. Walk through the Stanford University campus (Cantor Art Center, Anderson Collection and the McMurtry Building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro). The tour ends at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hanna House (mid 1930s), home to the professor and family for nearly forty years and Wright’s most sophisticated ‘Usonian’ house. Fly from San Francisco at c. 7.30pm.
Arrive London Heathrow at c. 1.30pm. A number of these buildings are not usually open to the public and it is possible we will not be able to include everything listed.
Professor Harry Charrington
Architect and Head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Westminster. He read Architecture at Cambridge, where he was the founding editor of Scroope: Cambridge Architectural Journal, and subsequently combined academia and practice in both England and Finland. He has a particular interest in the history of modernism. He obtained his PhD from the LSE on Alvar Aalto and has published widely on his work. His book Alvar Aalto: the Mark of the Hand won the RIBA President’s Award for Research 2012.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £5,970 or £5,200 without international flights. Single occupancy: £6,960 or £6,190 without international flights.
Flights with British Airways London–Phoenix, San Francisco–London (aircraft: Boeing 747); and from Phoenix to San Diego with American Airlines (Boeing 737); 1st-class rail travel from LA to San Francisco; private coach throughout; hotel accommodation as described below; all breakfasts, 1 lunch and 7 dinners with wine, water and coffee (this includes lunch and dinner on the train, plus meals on flights); all admission charges; all tips; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager and guides on site.
British citizens can enter the USA without a visa by applying for a visa waiver online. We will advise on this. If you have travelled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria since March 2011 you are not eligible for the waiver and will need to apply for a visa.
We can request flight upgrades to World Traveller Plus, Club or First Class and can request extra nights in the hotel at the end of the tour and delay your return flight. Please contact us for a quote. An amendment fee will apply.
Arizona Biltmore, Scottsdale: an attractive hotel complex in beautiful grounds with numerous swimming pools, a good restaurant and comfortable rooms. La Valencia, La Jolla: colourful hotel with eclectically furnished rooms, gardens and pool overlooking the Pacific. Omni Los Angeles, Downtown: well-equipped, functional hotel with spacious bedrooms. Palace Hotel, San Francisco: an elegant 5-star hotel, located within walking distance of Union Square, Embarcadero and Yerba Buena Gardens and a 30-minute coach drive from the Opera House. Rooms are classically furnished, of a good size and excellent standard.
There is a lot of walking and standing around and getting on and off coaches. Some visits are on rough ground (desert) and require sure-footedness. With transatlantic flights, a day-long rail journey and four hotels, the tour is tiring. Average distance by coach per day: 55 miles.
There may be performances in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Programmes will be available nearer the time.
Between 14 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.
'Our lecturer was excellent – deeply knowledgeable but patient and informative in responding to questions.'
'The tour exceeded our exceptions and we are recommending MRT to our friends.'
'The lecturer was a most knowledgable and informative guide. The tour manager looked after every detail of the tour impeccably.'