CSULA alumna takes her degree to Los Angeles streets

California State University, Los Angeles – Vol 173, No. 34
By Amy Flaa

The rumble of a V8 engine is my soundtrack for the day, or at least for the next two-and-a-half hours on a blazing Saturday morning as I ride shotgun in a 1962 vintage black Cadillac. Fins included. The white vinyl seat cradles my limbs as the car turns left on 1st Street.

It’s a normal day on the job for Laura Massino, the owner of Architecture Tours L.A and the woman sitting behind the wheel of the Cady. She proudly displays a Frank Lloyd Wright pin on her lapel. Her blonde hair flashes in the wind as she avoids the glare from the chrome on the steering wheel with black sunglasses. She’s on a mission to educate people about Los Angeles history through architecture. And not just with a glimpse at the skyscraper, either; Massino offers a peek into the cultural influence of the city.

She paints a picture of the early settlers living in Los Angeles: the Spanish who colonized California, the Chinese who came to work on the railroads, the Japanese who came to start businesses.

“There are all sorts of ethnicities living here,” she says, “and that’s reflected in the architecture.”

We drive along the streets that most people pass every day and are oblivious to the fact that we are driving over a battleground of the Mexican-American War, through the original Chinatown or right pasts the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. Architecture Tours L.A. provides a well-rounded description of the development of Los Angeles as we know it today.

The downtown tour begins in the front of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) on Grand Avenue, the beginning of the cultural corridor.

“MOCA was built in 1986 by Arata Isozaki, the Japanese architect,” says Massino. “He used Indian clay stone on the outside. You’ll see the pyramid skylights which give nature light to the galleries.”

She turns the corner and points out the Disney Hall designed by Frank Gehry. It is a beautiful metal sculpture that will be the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Three years into her bachelor’s degree in interior design, Massino developed an interest in her art history classes. The New York native adopted Los Angeles as her home and began working on her graduate degree at Cal Sate L.A., determine not to go into debt to achieve it. She started writing papers on Frank Lloyd Wright and ended with a thesis on postmodern architecture.

“After I finished my master’s degree in architectural history at Cal State L.A. in 1995, I had a really specialized knowledge and love and a passion for architecture and I couldn’t think of a way to share it with people,” Massino says. “Other people had suggested that I write a book, but I thought, you know, it’s just right over there. So I thought by getting a vintage car and driving people around would be the best way to see it in 3-D.”

She started the business three years ago and has since built up her routes into six areas: Hollywood, Silver Lake, Hancock Park/Miracle Mile, West Hollywood/Beverly Hills, Pasadena and Downtown. She can even tailor a specialized tour if you want to see a particular era or architect. Every tour has at least 50 sites.

“When planning a tour, I take an area, figure out the most significant architecture and drive around for weeks and weeks to figure out the most efficient way to see each spot,” Massino explains.

As we pass the Los Angeles Herald Examiner building, built in 1912, she mentions the qualities that make the structure unique. Julia Morgan, the architect behind Hearst Castle and one of the few female architects working at the time, designed it. “It’s in the Spanish mission style,” Massino informs the tour. “The domes are part of the Moorish North African influence when they occupied Spain for many years.” A variation of Spanish architecture also can be seen on the United Artists Theater on Broadway.

Los Angeles is known for tearing down old buildings, which used to upset Massino, but not anymore: “There’s only so much you can do. My purpose is really to educate people.”

She is a member of the Los Angles Conservancy, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of historical architecture. “We almost lost the Central Library after two arson fires in the mid-’80s, and the city wanted to tear down the building. That’s when the L.A. Conservancy was formed and they saved the building.”

She points to a tall building with green windows across the street from the library, which used to be the First Interstate Bank building and is now the Library Tower.

“It s the tallest building on the west coast, at 75 stories high with a granite facade, designed by the firm I.M. Pei, a Chinese architect,” she says. Next to the building are the Bunker Hill steps, which were fashioned after the Spanish Steps in Rome.

After looping around Downtown, she drives to the first suburb in Los Angeles, Angelino Heights. Says Massion, “This is my favorite part of L.A. because it’s so unexpected.”

Just north of the 101 is the hidden cluster of Victorian homes. These 19th-century houses include decorative wood siding, turned spindles and ornate exteriors. Massino explains that the affluent people who worked in Downtown lived in this area. As we pass a house that has been stucco-ed over, she offers information about the HPOS: “All these houses are in a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, which doesn’t mean they can’t be torn down, but it does offer them more protection.”

One of the most surprising buildings is the Coca-Cola bottling plant on South Central Avenue. Its facade resembles an enormous ship complete with portholes for windows. Massino comments that the bottling plant is complemented by its style, which focuses on the “efficiency and speed of an ocean liner.” The building, built in 1937, is part of the art deco period but is called “Streamline moderne.” Unlike the Eastern Columbia building, bult in 1929, which has a traditional ornate art deco style, the Coca-Cola building’s design is a scaled-down version of the period – the result of the stock market crash and the Great Depression.

A few blocks away, near the edge of Downtown, is Sci-Arc, L.A’s architecture school, which moved from its Culver City home in 2001. Students now go to classes in a freight depot, built in 1907. Massino explained that preserving the building and using it for a different purpose is called “adaptive reuse”. Another building using this concept is St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, which was damaged in the 1994 earthquake. Developer Tom Gilmore is restoring it and is going to let Cal State L.A. use it as a performing arts space.

A variety of people have taken a tour or two from Massino-everyone from architecture fans to realtors to tourists. “It’s a real diverse group of people. I get people who are more interested in riding around in the vintage car. Then I get people who could care less about the car and we do all the tours in the minivan.”

The temperature has increased a few degrees in the past two hours as we head back to the starting point. The rumble of the car has gone virtually unnoticed until she turns off the engine. “We call her Cady (pronounced Katie),” she says, referring to her Cadillac. “I used to be opposed to naming cars after females but not anymore. She’s definitely a girl and she doesn’t like the heat.”

Everyone who takes the tour receives a guidebook to give people the opportunity to explore on their own. It includes a listing of all the sites, dates, addresses, architects’ names and a map.

As Los Angeles continues to change, Laura Massino will be there to point it out to the curious.