Thursday, March 3, 2016

6° of Sunlight, or How I Got Back to Los Angeles from Dublin.

For better or worse, I am now counting the weeks until I return to LA from my year in Dublin. So I dusted off my “must visit” list and refreshed it with the heritage sights close by the city centre. You know how you never go to Disneyland or Venice Beach except when out-of-towners visit? Same here.

En route to the Phoenix Park I passed the Sunlight Chambers, a building on the south side of the River Liffey whose brightly colored tile details have caught my eye for 12 months. I stopped and took a few snapshots of the pediment, friezes and cameos, and went on to have an incredible tour of Farmleigh House in the Park (more on that later).

I spent the rest of the weekend on a deep wiki dive into architecture, and remembered that evening to look up the Sunlight Chambers.

Photo: Valerie Thomas

The building is remarkable by Dublin standards, for its Italianate flare and its liberal use of color on the exterior, shocking to the overcast aesthetics of the city. It was built by a Liverpudlian* architect by the name of Edward Augustus Ould as the Dublin headquarters of the Lever Brothers. The Lever name rang a bell for me, and I suspect it may for many readers. They were the barons of the soap trade back in the 1880s, investing in a new technology that utilized vegetable oil instead of tallow (or animal fat) to make household soaps. (I had a stint working with fine soaps in my early twenties, and while I can attest that tallow makes an awfully rich lather, it’s a boon for the four-leggeds and vegan shoppers that technology moved on.)

Photo: Valerie Thomas

Reading about the Lever Brothers soon landed me on American soil. The US headquarters of the company is in New York City, and was also a notable architectural achievement. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, when it was built by Skidmore Owings Merrill in 1952 it was only the second glass curtain wall skyscraper. What is now a hallmark of every modern metropolis was then a new architectural phenomenon, the International style, and the building revolutionized the look of Park Ave. The SOM building at 390 Park Avenue in New York is known as Lever House and as luck would have it, the president of the Lever Bros at that time was architect-to-be Charles Luckman.

Photo: Chimay Bleu on Flickr

Somewhat tangential to architecture, but interesting to me and my soapy background: round about this time, the Lever Bros merged with a Dutch company called Margarine Unie, and became the Unilever megabrand. Pretty much every washing up liquid I’ve used in Europe is a unilever brand, made or acquired by. I thought it strange that margarine and soap companies merged, until realizing the vegetable oil connection and the original innovation the Lever Bros tapped into.

Anyhow, back to the architecture. Though I’m sure it had its detractors, the glass curtain wall skyscraper on Park Avenue was better received in its day than the Italianate Sunlight Chambers in Dublin. The latter was touted the ugliest building in Dublin, and its uniqueness amidst the somber Georgian neo-classicism sticks out even to the casual observer. Following Charles Luckman from New York, however, took me straight back to Los Angeles. Not just back to Los Angeles, but specifically, to 9200 Sunset. This landmark 1964 building is a stone’s throw from where I lived and worked before I came to Dublin. That building before it was chicly renovated and rebranded, was known as Luckman Plaza, and was part of Luckman’s illustrious architectural career after his tenure as president of Lever Bros.

Photo: Rodeo Realty

Considered the “gateway to Beverly Hills” Luckman Plaza is a later iteration of the glass curtain wall skyscraper comprising two buildings joined by a lobby. It stands out at the west end of the Sunset Strip, just before you burst into the bucolic stretch of Santa Monica Blvd that borders residential Beverly Hills. This building now houses the iconic private club Soho House, on the penthouse floor topping the 17 storey building. Luckman himself added the top floor.

The twin of the 9200 Sunset building at 9220 also happens to house a suite of offices where a few years back the Southern California Institute of Classical Architecture gave a series of lectures. I sat in that building listening to a brilliant talk about vernacular and historical buildings in Santa Barbara, Riverside and Los Angeles. My imagination was fired and my personal journey into classical architecture took solid shape.

Incidentally, the Lever Brothers also created something of a photo-Google campus, in the township in Merseyside, UK, which they rechristened Port Sunlight. The housing was adjacent the soap-making plant and each block was designed by a different architect. The whole development, circa 1900, as well as the way in which the buildings were crafted, was influenced by the ideas of the Arts & Crafts movements and could be considered one of the earliest ‘garden suburbs’. That, of course, brings us to the LA suburb of Pasadena, aka Bungalow Heaven, the ultimate expression of the Arts & Crafts movement in Southern California.

Photo: Lazenby43 on Flickr
And that is the whole story of exactly what made me stop to look more closely at the Sunlight Chambers. The irony of calling something in Dublin ‘sunlight’ aside, it’s amazing how close that corner of Parliament Street and Essex Quay really is to the relentlessly sunny stretches of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. I can’t help but feel that the River Liffey has delivered me safely back home in Los Angeles.

*I can now tick "use Liverpudlian in a piece of writing" off my bucket list.

No comments:

Post a Comment