Magazine article California History

The Mark of Zorro: Silent Film's Impact on 1920s Architecture in Los Angeles

Magazine article California History

The Mark of Zorro: Silent Film's Impact on 1920s Architecture in Los Angeles

Article excerpt

In these fictional presentations [films] the educative influence has been ... insidious. The audience opened its mind to the plot and the background made its certain impression--unsought, but effective. The motion picture should be taken seriously.

ROBERT HAAS, Architect for Famous Players-Lasky, 1920 (1)

Miniature Spanish haciendas, American Colonial cottages, and Olde English manses from the 1920s stand shoulder-to-shoulder on southern California avenues, with fantasy hideaways and an occasional turreted castle nearby. This is as normal in Los Angeles as the sets on our movie lots and the movie shoots on location in our neighborhoods. Such houses reflect visual lessons learned from Hollywood--not just the replication of historical and fairytale styles but something deeper: Silentera moviegoers embraced a new aesthetic paradigm that originated in evolving film technology.

Historians have attributed the popularity of period-revival styles during the 1920s to various causes: post-World War I reaction, (2) the influence of world fairs, (3) the interest in historicism stimulated by high-profile restoration projects, (4) or racial sentiment. (5) The trend was furthered by architects' promotional publications, (6) an outpouring of house-plan books, (7) the alluring association with mansions of the famous and well-publicized, style-restricted communities, (8) and the inspiration of motion picture settings. (9) While scholars have devoted significant attention to the role of motion pictures in popularizing a range of modernist aesthetics in the late 1920s and early 1930s, they have underestimated important aspects of the impact of silent-era films on public taste and perceptions. (10)

As this essay suggests, of the many influences contributing to period-revival architecture in the 1920s, silent films not only inspired style replication but also gave rise to a new language of form based on visual awareness and guided by cinematographic conventions. Three elements of form characteristic of the period-revival houses of the decade originated in the technical requirements of silent film: a new attention to texture and value contrast; crowded style references and miniaturized scale; and fragmentation of forms, a dynamic relation of receding and advancing planes. As these cinematographic techniques helped to convey the dramatic meaning of film drama, they also formed a visual code--understood by movie audiences--that produced a new standard of beauty, affecting both the decade's aesthetic taste and architectural market. (11)

Texture and value contrast, crowded style references and miniaturized scale, and fragmentation of the volume into multiple forms--these elements distinguish 1920s historical revival architecture at every income level from residential design of the preceding period. They characterize the wave of fantasy and period-revival houses that sprang up nationwide in urban areas and automobile suburbs between 1919 and the onset of the Great Depression, though nowhere in such profusion as in Los Angeles, the heart of the motion picture industry and the site of a tremendous real estate boom between 1920 and 1925.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

SETTING THE SCENE

The most important residential style in southern California between 1900 and America's entry into World War I in 1917 was the California bungalow so frequently favored in the pages of The Craftsman magazine. The bungalow's deep, sheltering roof drew the structure into a unified whole, as opposed to the articulated forms popular in the 1920s. Although its shingled surface and river-rock foundations created textures that interacted with natural light to striking effect, the shelter magazines of the first two decades of the twentieth century emphasized its integration with nature, hospitality, and honest functionality over textural aesthetics. Ostensibly at least, the bungalow was not about the pretense of borrowed styles or manipulated scale. …

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