Arts Desk

Reviewed: “Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990″ at the National Building Museum

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Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990” at the National Building Museum offers a scope as sprawling as the city it documents, encompassing architecture, transportation, urban development, entertainment, the environment, and consumerism.

The exhibit is largely respectful in tone—it’s no City of Quartz, Mike Davis’ classic, dyspeptic assessment of the city published in 1990, not long before the Rodney King riots. To the extent there’s irreverence in “Overdrive,” it’s oblique, notably its explanation at the outset that the exhibit’s title “alludes to the fact that an engine churning at top speed may overheat.”

The exhibit, organized by L.A.’s Getty Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, is heavier on wall-mounted architectural blueprints than wall-text narration, which demands that the visitor possess a fair amount of knowledge of the city going in—a reasonable assumption on the Getty’s home turf, perhaps, but not a sure bet during the exhibit’s stay Washington.

A couple of brief videos cleverly combine archival footage and computer animation, particularly one of downtown L.A.’s Bunker Hill neighborhood, which begins with lovely black-and-white footage of the area’s original Victorian-era homes and ends with a swooping ride through a digital facsimile of the area, which was subsequently transformed by the construction of 50 new buildings between 1968 and 2003, including Frank Gehry’s signature Disney Concert Hall.

A section on corporate architecture is as boring as it sounds; more engaging is the exhibit’s sampling of the city’s kitschy architecture. A few mid-century Disneyland posters—promoting an “Autopia” attraction and a TWA-sponsored “Rocket to the Moon” ride—nicely encapsulate the deep interconnections between the city’s space-age vibe and its entertainment-industrial complex.

However, three items in the exhibit stand out for elevating urban history to the level of art. One is a work by the painter Roger Kuntz, whose little-known 1960s series on the L.A. freeways perfectly captures their abstract forms in shades of gray. The second is a series of stereographs of restaurant interiors; this method of making faux three-dimensional photographs reached its peak popularity in the late 1800s, so seeing classic 1950s coffee shops rendered that way is a rare treat.

Last is Ed Ruscha’s side-by-side pairing of five-minute-long tracking shots that show every structure on Hollywood Boulevard, one version shot in 1973 and the other in 2002. The L.A. chronicler’s landmark “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” is justly celebrated, but the Hollywood Boulevard pairing somehow manages to top it by adding both spatial movement and the passage of time. An exhibit on infrastructure and change in Los Angeles really can’t hit any more appropriate note.

The exhibit is on view daily to March 10 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St NW. (202) 272-2448.

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