There were Asian-American architects before them. Thomas S. Rockrise (né Iwahiko Tsumanuma) joined the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1921, toward the end of his career. Yasuo Matsui followed in 1927. There were Asian-American architects contemporaneously active in other parts of the country, too — Edith Leong Yang, Pu Hu Shao, and Theresa Hsu Yuen (1964) were all simultaneously demolishing racial and gender barriers as they designed beautiful constructions. There were also great Asian architects active at the same in the Los Angeles. Chinese architect I.M. Pei designed the Century Towers (1965, Century City) and the Creative Artists Agency building (1989, Beverly Hills). There were, too, Asian-Americans from outside Los Angeles active here, like Detroiter Minoru Yamasaki, who designed Century Plaza Hotel (Century City, 1966) and Century Plaza Towers (Century City, 1975).
The focus of this piece is on five Asian-Angeleno architects: David Hyun, Eugene Choy, Gilbert Leong, Gin Wong, and Helen Fong — five architects who lived and worked in Los Angeles and in doing so contributed to the city’s built environment in the most literal sense. They also paved the way for subsequent organizations like the Asian American Architects and Engineers Association and contemporary Asian-Angeleno architects like Alice Fung (of Fung + Blatt), Barton Choy (of Choy Associates), Hayahiko Takase, Joseph Kitashima, Robert and Blossom Uyeda (of Tetra – IBI Group Architects), Roger M. Yanagita (of Roger M. Yanagita Associates), Rupert Mok (of Rupert Mok & Associates), Shoji Shimizu, Ted Tokio Tanaka (Ted Tokio Tanaka – Architects), Toshikazu Terasawa, and many others.
Before there were working Asian-American architects, Asian-inspired architecture was solely the product of the non-Asian imagination. Adolph and Euguene Bernheimer, two Jewish cotton importers from New York, called their massive home in the Hollywood Heights, “Yamashiro,” and claimed inspiration came from a mountain fortress they’d seen in Kyoto. Sid Grauman‘s Chinese Theatre was designed by Raymond M. Kennedy of the architectural firm of Meyer & Holler.
Much of Chinatown was built from discarded set pieces previously used in the yellowface Hollywood epic, The Good Earth. When incorporated into Chinatown, they joined a landscape populated by restaurants, grocery stores, shopping centers, movie theaters, and homes meant to evoke Ancient Egypt, Bavaria, the Maya homeland, Morocco, New England, New Orleans, Normandy, Olde England, Spain, Switzerland, and other “exotic” locales.
There were more sophisticated attempts to incorporate Asian architectural influences into an indigenous style of local architecture. The California Craftsman homes of the late 19th and early 20th century drew inspiration from English, Japanese, Mexican, Scandinavian, Swiss, and Chinese architecture and design. There’s a Craftsman home at 2384 Silver Lake which plays up the Chinese influence more than most but built in 1913, it was almost certainly the creation of a non-Chinese architect.
The Modernists also drew from Asian influences. Frank Lloyd Wright spent several years employed as an architect in Japan. His Robie House, in Chicago, built in 1909, shows a strong Japanese influence, and inspired locally-active Modernists like A. Quincy Jones, Craig Ellwood, Gregory Ain, Lloyd Wright, Paul R. Williams, Pierre Koenig, R. M. Schindler, Richard Neutra as well as several of the Asian-American architects who are the subject of this piece.
David Hyun was the first Korean-American architect. He was honored by the Japanese-American Citizens League, co-founded the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), and chaired the board of directors of the Korean-American Coalition (KAC). He was the subject of pieces in the Los Angeles Times, Architectural Digest, and House Beautiful. He was also a fan of chess, golf, and photography.
David Hyun was born in Japanese-occupied Korea in 1917. His father, the Reverend Soon Hyun, was actively involved in the Korean resistance and the Hyun family, like many Koreans, fled to China after the Japanese crackdown which followed the public display of resistance known as the March 1st Movement or Sam-il. The Hyuns lived in Shanghai for five years, where Reverend Hyun helped organize the Korean Provisional Government before relocating to American-occupied Hawaiʻi. Hyun graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1940, with degrees in math and physics.
Hyun, his wife Mary, and their two sons (David and Than) moved to Los Angeles in 1947. Hyun studied architecture at the University of Southern California (USC) whilst working as a janitor. He also continued working as a union organizer, something he’d done begun in Hawaii. This — and the fact that his father had strongly criticized American-backed dictator, Syngman Rhee — led to Hyun’s being labeled a “dangerous alien” and in 1949 the Hyuns were detained on Terminal Island on charges of violating the Alien Registration Act. The Los Angeles Civil Rights Congress, the Los Angeles Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born, fellow architects and members of the then-small Korean-American community successfully organized to prevent his and his family’s deportation. In 1958 the US government again designated him an undesirable, this time charging him with violating the McCarran Internal Security Act. Again, organized resistance prevented the Hyuns’ deportation.
Hyun founded his own firm, David Hyun Associates, Inc. in Glendale in 1953. The firm’s logo was designed by James and Tomoko Miho. Hyun designed several beautiful modernist homes including the Lawrence Segal House (3626 Cadman Drive, Los Feliz, 1955), the Tapelband Residence (1910 Lucile Avenue, Silver Lake, 1957), the Haddad Residence (1958), his own Hyun Residence (west San Fernando Valley, 1960), the McTernan House (2226 Wayne Avenue, Los Feliz, 1960 — Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 1065), the home at 300 South Rossmore (Hancock Park, 1961), and the Nisser Residence (Downey).
His most famous project was the CRA-backed “revitalization” of Little Tokyo. The Japanese Village Plaza and Yagura Fire Tower were designed by Hyun in 1978. The blue, sanshu ceramic roof tiles that cap the buildings were later incorporated into the new residence he built for his family in Silver Lake in 1993 (1954 Redesdale Avenue).
David Hyun died in 2012, a year after his wife of seventy years,. He was 95 years old.
Eugene Choy was the second Chinese-American architect to join the AIA and the first in Southern California. He was also featured in the exhibition, Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980).
Eugene Kinn Choy was born in Guangdong in 1912, to Kinn Choy and Shee Wong. He moved to the US, with his family, in 1898. His family settled in Bakersfield where they sold blue jeans to Central Valley farmhands.
Choy studied architecture at the USC where he also served in the Architecture School Student Senate. He graduated in 1939 and in 1941 married Lucille Fong in 1941. The couple had two children, Barton and Reece. From 1943-1945 Choy worked for Hughes Aircraft Company, in Culver City.
In 1947, Choy founded the architectural firm, Choy Associates and the year after, the US Supreme Court ruled the enforcement of racial housing covenants unconstitutional, those opening up many suburbs to non-whites. Choo built several residences in the Primrose Hill area of Silver Lake, including his own at at 3027 Castle Street (1949). Nearby he also built the homes at 3200 Windsor Avenue (1954), 3022 Windsor Avenue (1956), and 3028 Windsor Avenue (1956). In 1953, he also built the Chew Residence (3893 Franklin Avenue, Franklin Hills), one of several Chinese-American clients for whom Choy designed homes. Sometimes he collaborated on projects with his brother Allan, such as the FBI Office Building in Las Vegas (1961). His son Barton followed in his footsteps, becoming an architect and working at his father’s firm.
Choy also worked on commercial and institutional projects, such as the Cathay Bank in Chinatown (777 North Broadway, Chinatown, 1962), which incorporated Chinese elements into a New Formalist design. In 1975, Choy designed the nearby Castelar School (840 Yale Street, 1975).
Choy died in 1991, aged 78.
Gilbert Leong was an architect, co-owner of Chinatown’s Soochow Restaurant, longtime member of East West Bank’s board of directors, and member of several other organizations. He was featured in Lisa See’s book, On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese American Family, a CBS documentary about Chinese-Americans, and the exhibition, Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980).
Gilbert Lester Leong was born in Los Angeles in 1911 to a recently immigrated father who was president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and a mother who taught Chinese at the Methodist Mission. Leong studied painting and architecture under Millard Sheets at the Chouinard Art Institute in Westlake (which later evolved into the California Institute of the Arts). He afterward attended USC where in 1936 he was the first Chinese-American to obtain a degree in architecture.
During World War II he served in the US Army. After the war’s conclusion he worked for architect, Paul R. Williams, who inspired him to serve his Chinese-American community in much the same way as Williams had done the black community, by building stylish (although often understated) houses in newly desegregated suburbs. One example of a Leong residence is the home at at 2410 Silver Lake Drive (1957).
Leong’s commercial designs were generally more fanciful than his residential ones. In Chinatown his designs include the Chinese United Methodist Church (825 N Hill Street, 1947), the First Chinese Baptist Church Los Angeles (942 Yale Street, 1951), the Bank of America (850 North Broadway, 1971), and the Kong Chow Benevolent Association and Temple (931 North Broadway, 1960), where he also served as director. He also designed the charming courtyard of the Pacific Asia Museum (46 North Los Robles Avenue) in Pasadena.
He died in 1996, aged 85.
More than the other architects of this piece, Gin Wong is known primarily for large corporate, institutional, and retail projects. He was recognized by Getty Center’s Pacific Standard Time initiative and has been honored by the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Modern Committee. He was also chief of the Architectural Guild for the School of Architecture and Fine Arts at USC.
Gin Dan Wong was born in 1922 in Guangzhou, China and immigrated with his family to Los Angeles in the 1930s. In 1942 he began studying engineering at Los Angeles City College before serving in World War II as a B-29 navigator in the Army Air Corps. After the war he studied architecture from USC, graduating in 1950.
After graduation, Wong worked at the firm of Pereira and Luckman, eventually becoming vice president of design. While there he designed CBS Television City (7800 Beverly Boulevard, Fairfax District, 1952). In 1958, he co-founded William L. Pereira & Associates where he eventually assumed the role of the firm’s president. At that firm he worked on the design of Westlake’s Union Oil Center (1201 West 5th Street, 1958), LAX’s Theme Building (201 World Way, Westchester, 1961), and the Beverly Hills Union 76 Station (427 North Crescent Drive, 1965, ). In San Francisco the firm was responsible for the Crocker Bank Tower (1966), Mutual Benefit Life building (1969), the St. Francis Hotel annex (1972), and the iconic Transamerica Pyramid (1972). In Honolulu the firm designed the Pan Pacific Tower (1971).
Wong formed his own firm, Gin Wong Associates, in 1974. That firm’s designs include Arco Tower (1055 West Seventh, Westlake, 1989), the Crean Tower and Mary Hood Chapel (Garden Grove, 1990), and the Hyatt Regency Incheon (2003), among other projects. Wong and his GWA firm remain active today. (UPDATE: Gin Wong died in 2017, aged 94)
Helen Fong was a noted Modernist and Googie architect. She was honored in the exhibition, Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980). She also was reportedly an opera lover.
Helen Liu Fong was born in Old Chinatown in 1927. She graduated from University of California, Berkeley with a degree in city planning in 1949. Afterward she worked as a secretary for Choy Associates. In 1951 she moved to Armet & Davis, local Googie practitioners who showed Americans what diners and coffee shops were supposed to look like.
Norm’s instantly recognizable restaurants are found through Los Angeles’s suburban landscape. The first Norm’s was opened by Norm Roybark in 1949. The second location (470 North La Cienega Boulevard, Beverly Grove, 1957) was designed by Helen Fong.
A year later Fong designed an even more celebrated diner, Pann’s Coffee Shop (6710 La Tijera Boulevard, Westchester, 1958). Its mix of neon signage, jarring angles, terrazzo floors, flagstone walls, glass sheets, lush landscaping (by landscape architect Sid Galper) manages to evoke both the stone age and the future or, as Alan Hess put it in Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture, “where George Jetson and Fred Flintstone could meet over a cup of coffee.”
The Holiday Bowl (3730 South Crenshaw Boulevard, Leimert Park, 1959 – demolished) was a bowling alley, pool hall, bar (“Saki-ba”), and diner designed for five Japanese-American clients who constructed it at the corner of Crenshaw and Coliseum, center of a Japanese-American community in South Los Angeles’s Westside (See also: Not Bowling Alone: How the Holiday Bowl in Crenshaw Became an Integrated Leisure Space). The diner’s menu tellingly sold biscuits and gravy, chow mein, donburi, egg foo young, grits, hamburgers, hot links, pork noodles, saifun, salmon patties, short ribs, udon, and yakisoba. It closed in 2000 and was demolished in 2003, despite its inclusion on the Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument list. In it’s places is a shopping center which boasts a Big 5 Sporting Goods, a Verizon store, a Quizno’s, and other shopping center staples. The coffee shop portion was preserved, at least, and is now a Starbuck’s.
Helen Fong died of cancer in 2005 in Glendora, aged 78.
Thanks to Michael Locke, who has written about and photographed several homes for the Silver Lake News and Steve Wong, who curated Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945–1980) at the Chinese American Museum in Chinatown.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 Gallery. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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