Southern California’s Aerospace Modernism


Stuart W. Leslie


Professor, History of Science and Technology, Johns Hopkins University


Newsletter, corporate modernism
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Southern California’s aerospace engineers preferred to live and work in some of its toniest communities, in laboratories and ‘think factories’ designed to recruit, retain, and inspire them with bold architecture, scenic views, challenging problems, brilliant colleagues and a lifestyle best described as “cold war avant-garde.” No architects better captured the exhilarating spirit of Southern California’s aerospace era than William Pereira, Charles Luckman, and Albert C. Martin, Jr. Their corporate campuses and laboratories in steel and glass, with their strong horizontal lines, lavish landscaping, pools and fountains, and the deliberate blurring of interior and exterior space, perfectly expressed what journalist and author, David Beers called  California’s “blue sky dream”, a postwar suburban paradise driven by defense spending, a sense of manifest destiny, and the scientific fervor of a place that had set its sights on the stars. As Beer explains, “aerospace and California were made not just for but by each other.”[1]


Elsewhere—Grumman on Long Island, Boeing in Seattle, McDonnell in St. Louis—aerospace never entirely transcended the factory aesthetic inherited from the Second World War.  General Electric’s Space Technology Center in Vally Forge, Pennsylvania had the same high caliber PhDs and tech equipment as its California competitors, but with its off-white brick exterior and cinder block interior had none of the Hollywood swagger of Martin’s Space Park (1962) in Redondo Beach, with its glistening darkened glass curtain wall, reflecting ponds, and contemporary sculptures.  No wonder Space Park played a stand in for a futuristic space colony in an early episode of “Star Trek”.  Architectural Record published back-to-back reviews of the Space Technology Center and Space Park in 1962, and left no doubt who had the ‘glamour factory’. Only in Southern California did aerospace modernism really come into its own as a regional expression of Cold War culture.

The Atlas missile put Convair into the space business, San Diego into the space race, and William Pereira into the business of designing missile factories. For Pereira, Convair Astronautics (1958) would be a defining commission, as sleek as the missiles it manufactured, and built on a scale to match the mission.  Pereira’s master plan for Convair included twin rectangular office blocks for administration and engineering, joined by a common reception and lobby area. Pereira appreciated the importance of the dramatic statement and lavished attention on the office blocks. The real star was the lobby with an aluminum ramp spiraling to the executive suite and conference room on the second floor. With its Astro cafeteria and its Missile Park, an employee recreation area that included a Little League baseball field and an actual Atlas as the centerpiece, Convair Astronautics epitomized space age California. 


For Ford’s Aeronutronic Systems (1958) Pereira envisioned a corporate campus worthy of Mies von der Rohe.  He gave the visual vocabulary Mies had perfected for his landmark IIT campus in Chicago in the late 1940s a distinctly Southern California accent. Aeronutronic asked Pereira to design a facilty that said “California living at its finest” befitting its Newport Beach home. Pereira crafted a strikingly theatrical entrance as he had done for Convair Astronautics.  He set the lobby onto a rectangular concrete slab surrounded by a shallow moat. On one side, a concrete causeway connected the lobby to the parking lot, while on the other a handsome breezeway, partially enclosed with translucent glass panels, joined the lobby to the main computer and electronics building, sheathed in metal and glass, directly behind it.


Pereira made an even bolder architectural statement with his master plan for General Atomic (1957) in La Jolla.  Pereira’s “hub and wheel laboratory ring” looked more like a tethered space station than a corporate laboratory.  At its center, rising on its spider leg supports from a circular plinth, was the hub, 135 feet in diameter, enclosing a marble-paved courtyard with a fountain.  No one’s laboratory or office was ever more than a short walk away across the lawn from the library, an indispensable resource in those days.  The main laboratory building nearly encircled the hub.  On the inner perimeter, the offices opened onto the forecourt.  The laboratories, strung along the interior corridor of the ring, then dropped off into a second, lower story on the outer perimeter, giving the scientists and engineers easy access to work spaces and to social spaces.  With their spider leg motif the library and laboratories looked liked they had just touched down from the future.[2]

For Nortronics’s research center in Palos Verdes (1961) Charles Luckman (Pereira’s partner on on Convair Astronautics and General Atomic) designed a complex intended as an architectural expression of the Nortronics slogan, “Geared to the Space Age.” Luckman hired a prominent Beverly Hills landscaping firm, Baldwin, Eriksson & Peters, to sculpt rock gardens, pools, and tree-covered knolls connected by footpaths.  He put the parking lots out of sight by terracing them into the hillsides.   As a later general manager freely acknowledged: “Sure this place is extremely impractical.  Just look at the layout.  It certainly isn’t very good for P and L [profit and loss], but it brings in the talent.  We have no trouble trying to hire here.”  More often than not the people Nortronics hired moved to upscale Palos Verdes; more than half of its total workforce ended up living there.


Albert C. Martin, Jr. designed several laboratory and manufacturing complexes for TRW, the Aerospace Corporation, and North American Aviation.  In 1958 Martin laid out a 90-acre headquarters for TRW in Canoga Park, on the western edge of the San Fernando Valley.  With room to spread out on the south bank of the Chatsworth Reservoir, Martin envisioned a sprawling corporate campus centered on two landscaped quadrangles, each defined by shallow central pools with elaborate fountains.[3]  The spray pools, with their 336 multi-colored discharge pipes, put on a water ballet worthy of Versailles.  Befitting a working laboratory, the spray pools had a practical purpose, as the cooling ponds for the air-conditioning system.


Martin turned the Aerospace Corporation campus in El Segundo (1964) inward, arranging it around a long narrow quadrangle. The library gave it an elegant jewel box at the center. Its exterior decorative columns, tapering toward a small cube at the center, with large globe lights suspended between them, suggested a modern version of an ancient classic, comparable to some of  Edward Durell Stone’s best work from the period, such as his sumptuous Pakistan Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology in Islamabad (1965), a veritable nuclear Taj Mahal. Martin’s relatively small library, with its interior marble cladding in a suitably dignified shade of grey, floor to ceiling windows, and a dramatic stairway set into a central cube and topped with a skylight, had a remarkably spacious and elegant feel.  At the far end of the quad Martin put a pitch and put golf green, golf being the game of Air Force generals.

Martin’s last, and perhaps most original, laboratory, the North American Aviation Science Center (1966) seamlessly inserted an ‘aero’ space into an upscale suburban landscape. The Science Center aspired to be nothing less than a smaller version of Eero Saarinen’s Bell Laboratories, with a west coast vibe.  Its location in Thousand Oaks, in the Conejo Valley twenty miles west of Canoga Park, promised its prospective staff a “’campus-near-home’ adjacent to desirable residential sites”.  Martin perched his building on the lip of the 350-foot cliff above the arroyo.  To blend into the landscape, Martin kept it one story, with tapered concrete stilts in soft white with exposed brown aggregate from a nearby quarry.  In place of his signature ledge and eye-lids he set back the tinted glass curtain wall under a simple overhang, then enclosed the exterior corridor with a low, bush-hammered concrete wall trimmed with aluminum. He placed the offices on the exterior and around the perimeter of the two matching rectangular courtyards, with the laboratories set back-to-back along the spine of the building, arranged so the scientists would have their laboratories adjacent to their offices.  To give the courtyard offices an instant view, the landscape architect brought in mature trees and lowered them into place with a helicopter. Off to one side of the entrance and its terraced stairway, Martin designed a modest auditorium that mimicked in form and texture the natural boulders surrounding it.  Nestled into the hillside behind it, the Science Center could only be seen and appreciated close up.  Architecturally, Martin’s boldest idea was setting the building atop an open ‘basement’.  Conceptually identical to the interstitial spaces in Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, which broke ground the same year, the Science Center’s 9-foot high ‘servant’ space ran below rather than above the laboratories, and cost far less.  Scientists could run service lines right through the floor to virtually anywhere they chose. Equipment too cumbersome, noisy, or otherwise intrusive, could be placed beneath the labs, while specialized instruments demanding extreme insulation from vibration could be anchored by pillars drilled directly from the labs into bedrock.[4]


Fittingly, Pereira’s last, largest, and most visually arresting ‘aero’ space, Autonetics in Laguna Niguel (1971), with a million square feet within a single building, marked the beginning of the end for space age California. Here Pereira abandoned his transparent campuses of high modernism for the pre-cast, textured concrete of neo-Babylonian brutalism. Where General Atomic and Aeronutronic looked to open a window on a bright future, Autonetics hunkered down behind a façade that provided a visual metaphor for the Vietnam War era bunker mentality of the military-industrial complex.


Do Pereira and Martin’s space-age classics have a future?  The end of the Cold War put many of these iconic buildings at risk.  Household names like Convair, Douglas, TRW, North American Aviation and Northrop disappeared in a wave of mergers, and with them entire aerospace complexes. Many are already gone, including Pereira’s Convair Astronautics and his Aeronutronic complex, Martin’s Space Technology Laboratories, and Luckman’s Nortronics campus.  Others have been altered beyond recognition (Martin’s TRW campus in Canoga Park) or lost in an endless suburban sprawl they helped spawn.  Preserving corporate and industrial buildings is always challenging, especially in a place where real estate can be a better investment than R&D.  Companies like Nortronics often decided that “skyrocketing home values have made it difficult to recruit engineers,” sold off their properties to developers of gated communities and moved to more prosaic buildings.  The survivors are now old enough to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Martin’s Space Park and Pereira’s General Atomic being obvious candidates.  Though often honored for their technical contributions, some of these aerospace headquarters also deserve recognition as modernist masterpieces that remind us of an era when even the sky was not the limit.


 About the Author

Bill Leslie teaches the history of science and technology at The Johns Hopkins University. His architectural writing include studies of Eero Saarinen’s corporate laboratories, the healthcare designs of Bertrand Goldberg and Eberhard Zeidler, laboratories by I.M. Pei and Louis Kahn, Edward Durell Stone’s “Nuclear Taj Mahal” for Pakistan, and the aerospace modernism of William Periera and A.C. Martin Jr. in Southern California. He recently served as the Charles Lindbergh Chair at the National Air and Space Museum.



[1] David Beers, “The Crash of Blue Sky California” Harper’s Magazine (July 1993): 68.

[2] Stuart W. Leslie, “William Peirera’s Aerospace Modernism” in Peter Westwick (ed.) Blue Sky Metropolis (University of California Press, 2012).

[3] Louise Mozingo, Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes (MIT Press, 2011.)

[4] Stuart W. Leslie, “Aerospaces: Southern California Architecture in a Cold War World” History and Technology (2014):