Architect John Parkinson designed some of L.A.'s most iconic buildings: City Hall, Union Station and the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, to name a few. Still, the British expat has been largely forgotten in the shadow of more popular architects like Frank Gehry, Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.
Author Stephen Gee's latest book, "Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles" takes a look at Parkinson's life and how he maintained a low profile despite being the creator of so many iconic L.A. structures.
On how John Parkinson became an architect:
"Parkinson was the son of a mill worker from the industrial north of England, and became an architect almost by accident. He leaves school at 13, he has a bunch of different menial jobs, he becomes an apprentice to a local builder. He comes to North America, gets a job in Napa as a foreman in a sawmill. Its here, working on plans for his own house, that his landlord sees those plans and says, 'You can design an addition to the Bank of Napa.' Right there and then an architect is born.
On Parkinson's move to Los Angeles:
"He moves to the Los Angeles in 1894, and the population is just over 50,000 people. You've got a small downtown, you've got a number of two- or four-story structures in the business district. What's significant about Los Angeles is what it lacks in structure and what it lacks in population, it makes up for in ambition. LA has the ambition to become the greatest city on Earth, so Parkinson is really the right man in the right place at the right time."
On designing LA's first skyscraper in 1902:
"Just imagine, John Parkinson arrives here in 1894, in 1902 he begins work on the city's first skyscraper, over a million bricks go into this building, it's 12 stories tall, it literally stops traffic on 4th and Spring Street. Until the Los Angeles City Hall that we now know opens, it becomes really the defining structure in Los Angeles."
On designing the LA Memorial Coliseum:
"There's no bolder statement this period about where Los Angeles is headed than the Coliseum, because it's directly linked to as bid to bring the Olympic games to Los Angeles. If you imagine that 20 years earlier, LA has a population of just over 100,000 people. Here they are bidding for the biggest sporting event in the world. The Coliseum is so much more than just a sporting venue, its really a venue that says 'we're thinking big and we're prepared to back it up…"
On what characteristics are seen in all Parkinson projects:
"One of the things that really defines a Parkinson building is that it's neat. There's a real absence of gaudy decorations, it's classy, it's simple, but elegant. Later on in his career, especially when his son Donald joins the firm, you see structures like Bullocks Wilshire, which are incredible artistic expressions, but initially when Parkinson arrives in Los Angeles, they're almost about trying to build an East Coats city on the West Coast."
On why Parkinson's legacy is not more widely known:
"There was nobody really, at least from the family's side, to champion his legacy. Also I think a lot of academics are more interested in Neutra, Schindler, a lot of the other architects that have gotten all the attention. None of those other architects did more for Los Angeles than Parkinson did. I think it's partly also because Los Angeles has a peculiar relationship with its history. In any other city, he would be a household name. I would be writing the fourth or fifth book about Parkinson, but for some reason in Los Angeles, here I an writing the first book about the guy who is arguably the greatest architect in the history of the city, which to me is crazy."
On where in the city is the best spot to see examples of Parkinson's work:
"I stood on the corner of 4th and Spring street, and I turned around 360 degrees and I tried to count how many Parkinson buildings I could see. So if you want an immediate introduction to Parkinson you can see 12, maybe 14 just from that corner. The heart of the city really belongs to John Parkinson."