The decades after World War II were a time of ambitious growth and development in Santa Monica. Constructed in 1958, this building was part of a major effort on the part of the city to develop a coherent civic center that also included City Hall (1938) and the L.A. County Courthouse building (1951). Architectural historians David Gebhard and Robert Winter have called this structure “a perfect period piece of the late 1950s,” and it is for several reasons.
In style it is Modernist, a strain of International style widely used in American public buildings at the time. Modernism stressed functionalism and avoided regional elements. Typically constructed of reinforced concrete and steel, Modernist structures featured clean lines, unadorned surfaces, and geometric shapes and celebrated innovation and freedom from old-fashioned architectural constraints.
The Civic Auditorium’s five sky-piercing concrete masts are the building’s most striking feature and convey this spirit of innovation and freedom. Gebhard and Winter note that the masts “match in spirit the tail fins of automobiles of these years.” Also notable on the entrance side is a curtain wall of windows and a cast-concrete grill, featuring a repetitive, rectangular design that covers much of the façade. The cantilevered canopy over the entrance area is typical of Modernist buildings of the time, as are the unadorned and strictly functional sides and back of the building.
The Civic Auditorium was the work of Santa Monica resident and internationally-known architect Welton Becket. Becket’s large firm completed important commissions in many cities around the globe. In Los Angeles his numerous high-profile projects included the Federal Building, the Music Center, and the Capitol Records building in Hollywood.
Aside from its importance as an excellent example of Modernist style by a well-known architect, the Civic Auditorium boasts other notable elements, particularly in the interior. The auditorium’s superior acoustics were designed by renowned acoustics expert and UCLA physics professor and Chancellor, Vern Knudsen. In the 1950s, Knudsen was the world’s leading authority on architectural acoustics. The auditorium also features a hydraulic floor that can be tilted to accommodate everything from sporting events to concerts. At the time of its construction it was state-of-the-art and the largest such floor in the country.
Over the decades the Civic Auditorium has hosted countless events and performances ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Bob Dylan to the Beach Boys. It was also home, for several years in the 1960s, to the Academy Awards. It retains its integrity today both as a unique focal point for the civic center and as a community gathering place for Santa Monicans.