November 2, 2016

A Silent Reminder

"The Clock Tower that Never Sounded" (Miniature in the Mail #27), 4x6in, oil on masonite

I've been doing a bit of research. Union Station in downtown L.A. was completed in 1939 just before the start of WWII, during the days of the mighty Harry Chandler, president of the L.A. Times, eugenicist, and ringleader of the Anglo power structure.

It was the California oil boom and L.A. was split between the Anglos in the saddle; the Catholics and Jews in Hollywood, then the outskirts; and the Mexicans, Chinese, African Americans, and everyone else in the slums.

In an effort to clear the messy, noisy, chaotic slums from the downtown, Chandler and his accomplices dislodged the original Chinatown and raised in its place an inversion, Union Station.

In the words of Chandler's L.A. Times, today, the station was conceived in a "retrograde but winning blend of Spanish Colonial Revival, Mediterranean, Moorish and Art Deco styles."

The design harked back to "some mythic pre-modern Los Angles," which is extraordinary because from this point forward everything would be future obsessed, concrete and hard edged, "in the modern style...flat roofs stripped of red tile." The architecture of the crowd, in other words, would be wiped clean and instead the private individual we're so familiar with would be celebrated in planning and policy.

Of course art at the scale of architecture, with budgets that can pay for schools or hospitals for generations, is more than for the beauty alone. Unlike every other major train station in the world, the designers of Union Station aspired for quiet. And so streetcars (yes!) unloaded at the distant ends of the terminal, and the clock tower, front and centre, never sounded because it was built without chimes.

Aesthetically, I love the design, but the salient point about it is its negation, both symbolically and in a very real sense, of the human messiness that was there before. Sure, it connected to the past, but it also blew it to smithereens.

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