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When people think of Southern California, the natural wonders are what initially come to mind. But we simply cannot forget the other side of SoCal’s beauty—the man-made side. From the region’s innovative mid-century modern houses to elaborate Spanish Colonial Revival mansions, no one can deny Southern California’s continued influence in the world of architecture.
Whether you’re an architectural nerd looking for fresh inspiration or just an aficionado of beautiful things, you seriously need to consider adding these Southern California architectural landmarks to your list when embarking on a trip to find California’s coolest architecture.
Must-See SoCal Architecture
After World War II, many soldiers returned eager to start their lives anew and begin families and careers in a promising land. A large number of those veterans who came to the Golden State were drawn by the prospect of great economic opportunities, stunning natural beauty, and pleasant year-round weather. They attended universities and colleges and helped develop the vast cities, highways, and suburbs we enjoy today.
This sudden and significant growth in development created a haven for a generation of architects, designers, and other creatives who contributed to the invention of entirely new architectural styles. Their influence quickly traveled beyond the Golden State’s borders, and architects from Southern California are now forever studied and admired by people around the world.
Standout San Diego architecture
Location: 1350 El Prado, San Diego
Architects: Irving Gill, Bertram Goodhue, Carleton Winslow
This intricately detailed piece of iconic Southern California architecture can be seen from miles around. Constructed for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, this San Diego landmark is rich in history and houses the anthropological Museum of Us.
One of the unique aspects of the California Tower is the fact that it is a total hybrid of many different architectural styles. The ornamentation, carvings and busts, arcades, and colorful tiles are reminiscent of Baroque, Churrigueresque, Plateresque, and Rococo architecture. Besides these primary styles, the influence from Spanish Colonial churches in Mexico is also apparent.
The Geisel Library
Location: 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla
Architect: William Pereira
The Geisel Library is a prime example of a brutalist (and slightly futurist) structure. Located on the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla, this attention-grabbing library is named in honor of Theodor Seuss Geisel, more popularly known as Dr. Seuss.
Although the exterior of this building doesn’t closely resemble Dr. Seuss’ imaginary worlds of color, it doesn’t fall short on breathtaking beauty. The library's arches, combined with the shape of the individual floors on top, are intended to look like hands holding up a stack of books. Pretty cool, right?
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Location: 10010 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla
Architect: Louis I. Kahn
Louis Kahn was not only an integral figure in San Diego’s architectural history, but also in that of the 20th century as a whole. His creations are known for not hiding their weight, their materials, or the way they are assembled. One of his most famous and celebrated architectural pieces is the Salk Institute in San Diego.
Jonas Salk, the founder of the first polio vaccine, wanted to build a collaborative environment where researchers could explore and contemplate discoveries for the future of humanity. In 1957, he approached Kahn with his dream and asked him to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.” Well, Khan delivered. Today, the Salk Institute is a world-renowned modern architectural treasure that also serves as a place for innovation in the biomedical field.
Can’t-Miss Los Angeles Architecture
The Getty Center
Location: 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles
Architect: Richard Meier
The Getty Center is not just for art lovers—people visit this top L.A. museum and landmark to admire its exterior beauty, too. This $1.3 billion, pearly white building perched atop a hill opened its doors to the public in 1997. Ever since then, it has garnered worldwide attention for its gleaming architecture, beautiful gardens, and breathtaking views overlooking Los Angeles.
The complex includes the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Research Institute, the Harold M. Williams Auditorium, and more than 86 acres of outdoor spaces. Need another reason to visit this Los Angeles architectural icon? The admission is totally free.
Schindler house Los Angeles
Location: 833 North Kings Road, West Hollywood
Architect: Rudolph Schindler
The Schindler House in Los Angeles is a popular example of modernist architecture in Southern California. This piece of SoCal architecture is a big departure from existing residential architecture not because of what it has, but rather because of what it does not have: a conventional living room, dining room, or even bedrooms. Confused? We don’t blame you.
This famous piece of Los Angeles architecture is an experimental take on communal living, realized by Schindler and his wife, Pauline, who were looking to share the space with another couple. Four separate bedrooms, outdoor sleeping porches, and two garden patios—the uniqueness of Schindler House in Los Angeles is hard to beat.
Iconic Palm springs architecture
Location: 37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage
Architect: A. Quincy Jones
Palm Springs is arguably the mecca of mid-century modern architecture. From Eichler homes to Alexander Steel Houses, many prominent 20th-century architectural styles have origins in this SoCal desert town. Since its completion in 1966, Sunnylands—the sprawling Rancho Mirage winter retreat of wealthy philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg—has famously welcomed presidents, heads of state, royals, and celebrities.
Today, the 200-acre desert community is celebrated as a mid-century modern masterpiece. From Thursdays through Sundays, you may visit the gardens of this Palm Springs architectural landmark for free, so add it to your Palm Springs architecture tour.
The “City of Joy”
Location: Joshua Tree Retreat Center, 59700 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree
Architect: Lloyd Wright Jr.
Creating some of the most innovative spaces in the United States, Frank Lloyd Wright elevated Southern California architecture to another level and cemented his place as one of the greatest architects of all time. Then came his son, Lloyd Wright Jr., who was no less of a visionary in his own right—he designed some of Southern California’s most innovative structures and landscapes, including the “City of Joy,” a collection of structures nestled in the 400-acre Joshua Tree Retreat Center.
This little-known Joshua Tree destination is a must-add to any Palm Springs getaway itinerary. Although never fully completed, this hidden enclave boasts a striking assemblage of mid-century modern SoCal architecture, with origins going all the way to the Far East. After spending 20 years on a spiritual journey in China, Tibet, and India, Englishman Edwin J. Dingle returned to the West with the idea of building a spiritual retreat. He commissioned Lloyd Wright to design a space that “would be off the grid, where they would grow their own food, and where professionals—musicians and artists and craftsmen and builders” could live.
Lloyd Wright designed 22 cottages, a dining hall, a sanctuary, and something known as a caravansary—an inn with a central courtyard for travelers in the desert regions of Asia or North Africa. Altogether, the different pieces of this Palm Springs architectural icon make up the largest collection of Lloyd Wright mid-century buildings in the world.
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