Culture + Style

A Day Well Spent: Hunt Down L.A.’s Architectural Treasures, from the Iconic to the Quirky

In the first half of the 20th century, many legendary architects and artists, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and John Lautner, utilized the City of Angels’ sun-drenched, wide-open spaces as a playground to push the boundaries of their own creativity. And today, many contemporary, international architects find the same inspiration in Los Angeles.

As a result, you can find fascinating buildings in any genre — from Mayan-inspired to modernist — scattered around the city. If you’re willing to drive beyond the city limits, Pasadena is known as L.A. County’s architectural haven, home to craftsman houses and art deco buildings galore.

However, because L.A. is so spread out, it’s best to narrow your hunt to a few neighborhoods. For this road trip architectural tour, get ready for a head-turning spin throughout Watts, Downtown Los Angeles, Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Hollywood.

These locations are organized in order, based on proximity to each other, and end at the Hollywood Bowl. If you time it just right, you can take in a show at the Bowl to truly appreciate its acoustic ingenuity. Plug in this handy map on your phone and you’re on your way.

Watts Tower

Watts Towers Arts Center Campus

Watts Tower was built over 30 years as Simon Rodia, a construction worker by trade, erected 17 spiral towers from found materials. What’s really amazing is he did it without special machinery, scaffolding or even bolts — just simple tools.

los angeles architecture
Visit this curious example of outsider art. (Photo: Alamy)

It’s considered one of the nation’s most iconic works of outsider art (art created outside of the established industry, usually by self-taught artists). Now a National Historic Landmark, Watts Tower is open Wednesday through Sunday, with tours available. However, because it’s outdoors, you can view it for free without entering the park.

Natural History Museum

USC / Exposition Park

The original Natural History Museum building, better known as the 1913 Building, was designed by William A.D. Munsell and Frank Hudson and is a classic example of Beaux Arts architecture.

Combine the stunning exterior, with its columns and domed rotunda, with the lush rose garden out front, and it’s definitely Insta-worthy. The Natural History Museum has great exhibits to see inside (especially for kids), as well. But if you’re short on time or cash, a picnic on the front lawn is pretty stellar.

United Artists Theatre Building

Downtown Historic L.A.

Commissioned by film industry heavyweights Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and more, the United Artists Theatre opened in 1927 to much fanfare for its dramatic Spanish-Gothic style, designed by famed architect C. Howard Crane.

The theater’s glory is best appreciated by seeing a show or movie. There’s some decidedly cool performance going on most nights of the week. When you visit, make sure to spend quality time gazing up at the ceiling. Can you spot the founders’ portraits hidden within the ornate details?

The Broad

Downtown Los Angeles

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The Broad is the newest architectural hot spot in the city. (Photo: Getty Images)

Opened in 2015, The Broad is L.A.’s newest museum and architectural landmark. Shooting up into the sky like an angular white cheese grater, The Broad’s exterior is as arresting as its interior, which houses more than 2,000 modern art pieces.

Designed by New York–based firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, The Broad is free to visit. But if you go on a weekend, it’s best to reserve a time ahead on the museum’s website or go when the doors first open.

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Downtown Los Angeles

Across the street from The Broad, the monumental stainless steel building that looks more like a giant ship at sail than a concert hall is one of local “starchitect” Frank Gehry’s finest works: Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Even if you don’t go see an L.A. Philharmonic concert (although the Gehry-designed pipe organ is worth it!), you can take a look around inside the foyer and explore the hidden nooks on the outside.

A beautiful, somewhat secret public park is located on the rooftop. Tours, self and guided, are available daily.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels

Downtown Los Angeles

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Sit for a spell and admire the Cathedral of Our Lady. (Photo: Getty Images)

Designed by Pritzker Prize winner José Rafael Moneo, the Cathedral of Our Lady is probably what churches look like in The Capitol in the movie “The Hunger Games.” There is a giant cross, but otherwise, it looks like it could house a tech company or museum, with its looming geometric shapes.

And because it’s one of the largest churches in the world, you can catch a glimpse as you drive by on the 101 Freeway. However, taking a moment to stop in and revel in the light-drenched minimalistic interior is breathtaking.

Hollyhock House

Los Feliz

Although there are quite a few Frank Lloyd Wright homes in L.A., the Hollyhock House is the only one open to the public. An example of Wright’s experimental phase dabbling in California Romanza architecture, the Mayan-inspired house and grounds were intended to be a theater that never became a reality.

Thankfully, the original owner, oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, donated the home and land to the city. In the summer, you can catch incredible sunset city views and movie screenings or wine tastings on the grounds. Self-guided tours are also available Thursday through Sunday for a small entrance fee, and docent-led tours are on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Griffith Observatory

Griffith Park

Known as one of LA’s most recognizable and beloved landmarks, the Griffith Observatory should be on your must-see list, whether you’re an architectural buff or not. Built with funds and land donated by Griffith J. Griffith, a wealthy philanthropist (with one heck of a backstory), the dome-shaped art deco building on a hilltop overlooking the city is like L.A.’s very own fairy-tale enchanted castle.

Opened in 1935, the Observatory has been a local favorite ever since, only closing for a few years recently for a $93 million dollar renovation. There’s no charge to roam the grounds, look through the telescopes and the explore the building. To see the planetarium shows, there’s a small fee. If you go on a weekend, best to park down below and walk up the road.

The Stahl House

Hollywood Hills

With its floor-to-ceiling glass windows, Mad Men–esque interiors and sexy pool, the Stahl House, known as Case Study No. 22, has been featured in many movies, commercials and fashion photoshoots.

In fact, Pierre Koenig’s 1959 design is probably the world’s most iconic California modernist home, thanks to the late architectural photographer Julius Shulman. His photo of two women sitting in the living room enjoying the epic cityscape from indoors made it go viral, pre-internet. Public tours are typically held on Wednesday and Saturday.

Hollywood Bowl

Hollywood

Concerts have been played at this romantic outdoor amphitheater since 1922. Early iterations of today’s Hollywood Bowl space were designed by Lloyd Wright, Frank’s son. Although remnants of Wright’s design inspired the shells that followed, they were soon replaced by Allied Architects’ design in 1929. Their Bowl lasted until 2003 when a larger shell with better acoustics was installed.

End your architectural tour on a “high note” as you enjoy great live music and perhaps a glass of wine under the stars. Shows are nightly, from classical to pop music, during the summertime.