Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Paul Williams

The former Global Crossing headquarters is on the market for rather obvious reasons. It was designed by Paul Williams.

Every so often I am astounded in conversation by another Los Angeleno who is unaware of the legacy of Paul Williams. Paul Revere Williams is not exactly an obscure architect. But somehow there is a curious difficulty in presenting him as the real polymorphous genius he was. Maybe it’s the fact that, unlike many other architects, he commanded a stylistic vocabulary so broad that he cannot be classified. Part of his burden is that he was a "Southern California regional architect" before that category was big time - but he was much bigger than that category.

Williams designed the signature "theme restaurant" at the Los Angeles Airport in his later years, when he also advanced the "mid-century modern" domestic style in Palm Springs and the like, a style now again fashionable.

But many of the most successful "Spanish Colonial" or "Mission Revival" buildings in Southern California also sprang from his pen as early as the 1920's and thereafter. Williams designed for the upper crust and for corporations. And, of course, he designed many buildings which he could not easily visit after their construction was complete because he was African-American.

There is a fascinating feel to Paul Williams' buildings. The genius of their geometry somehow expresses a spirit of integrity and accommodation and a total lack of the bitterness that one easily finds in modern architecture. I have never felt Williams' geometry and space - and their relationship to larger social issues - has been sufficiently analyzed. The same cannot be said, for example, with respect to Frank Lloyd Wright. I don't really think that the architecture schools - and the architecture establishment - understand how big Williams really was.

Nearly every day I walk near my house past homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Revere Williams, and I think about that. Maybe someday I'll try to do something about it.

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