A Tour of the Long Beach Civic Center

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

The architectural degradation of our government buildings during the 60s and 70s is both fascinating and depressing. What mass hysteria gripped the Establishment of the time? Did no one object? What can and should we do with the legacy we’ve been handed? Back here, I wrote about the Santa Ana Civic Center, and now I’d like to take a look at a similar travesty in Long Beach, California. Here’s a bird’s-eye view of what we’ll be exploring.


The first thing to notice is all that white concrete with those four bleacher-looking things. That’s actually a rooftop garden which sits on top of the city’s library. The picture below, taken in 1978, just two years after the civic center opened, shows what it’s supposed to look like.


Instead, the planters lie empty and gates, which we’re about to see, prevent anyone from going up there.

Alright, enough overhead shots. Let’s see what this place is like at ground level. We approach from the east. If you look at the Google Map above, I’m standing near the words “Pacific Ave.” The severe, military-bunker quality of the area is already apparent.


Now you can see the stairs leading up to the abandoned garden, a sign helpfully informing us that the AREA is CLOSED. A homeless person’s belongings in front of some neglected landscaping. The only people that linger in this area are transients. Everyone else walks through it very quickly.


Hard to make this crap any uglier than it is, but that sign sticking out and those tacked-on lights are making a decent go of it.


This is a service entrance to the library, I think. Creates some wonderful deadspace for collecting leaves and trash. Would it be in poor taste to say this has all the charm of a Nazi gas chamber? It would? OK, then I’ll hold my tongue.


The entrance to the library, that democratic temple of education. Here’s another library entrance for comparison.


A closeup of the pockmarked wall, just to the right of the library entrance. I assume that protruding block used to hold a water fountain. But, in a continuing theme of this complex, it’s obviously been long neglected.


The pipes you see in these photos were not part of the original plan. They were added later to channel the run-off from the leaky garden above. The architects designed the garden without proper drainage.


Another view of the above-ground-yet-underground-feeling library.


Standing under one of the sewer holes, looking up to the gardens above. The blotchy concrete, utilitarian pipes, chain link fence, and cheap wooden slats do a great job of making the user feel like a Morlock or one of the Mole people.


I turn right to the empty plaza. The only thing it needs is a tumbleweed blowing through.


A better shot of the amphitheater-like setting, dedicated to the city’s centennial. I took this picture on a Saturday, hence the lack of flags on the poles. I’m sure when they’re up, though, they completely transform the area into a monument of civic pride and confidence.


Public art? But of course! The complex was built in 1976, so is that a not-so-veiled reference to the Soviet sickle that somehow slipped by the city fathers?


The city hall tower. Constipated, overly rational, condescending in its dismissal of pleasure. It holds you in contempt. Let’s compare it with another nearby city hall.


The city is rightly proud of how it has integrated bikes into its downtown, which I wrote about back here. I wonder how long ago the arrow fell off the library sign? I wonder how often they’ve had to clean graffiti off that wall?


The city hall entrance. Let’s push in a little closer.


I’m sure there’s some regulation that requires those green-circle decals to be on all automatic doors, but it reads like “supermarket entrance” to me. Again, just for fun, a close-up of the entrance to another city hall.


Just to the left of the entrance is this makeshift community garden. Yes, it’s maybe more than a bit pathetic, but on the other hand, it adds some much-needed vitality. No doubt it gives the workers something to care about.


A closer view.


Here’s how the city of Long Beach ca. the 1970s decided to post announcements. Here’s how Paris does it.


Did some high school student make that sign in woodshop?


Cracked concrete, rust, water stains, peeling paint, general who gives-a-shitism.


I’m now facing the street with the city hall tower behind me. Hey, if I ever decide to remake A Clockwork Orange I have a ready-made set, right?


The reverse angle of the shot above, so now the street is behind me. Have these people not heard of a street wall? Why is the building set back so far?


More of a threat than an invitation.


The sidewalk. That’s Ocean Blvd., the main drag, to my right.


Pretty awful, right? Naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder what existed here previously. The utility boxes around town usually feature various artwork and one of them helpfully commemorates LB’s city halls past. I’m not sure why the city felt the need to have three different buildings in as many decades. Perhaps it was growing quickly and they needed the space. The artwork shows a familiar story: from Beaux-Arts, to Art Deco, to Modernist. Same as it ever was.


A little googling and I was able to turn up this old postcard of the 1899 city hall.


And here’s Lincoln Park, from a very similar angle to the 1978 photo above. Which looks more inviting, humane, comfortable, and pleasant to you?


Next logical question: who’s responsible for this mess? One of the key architects on the project was Donald Gibbs and, whaddya know, he still has his offices in Long Beach. Here’s a screencap I pulled off Google Street View. I was shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover the dude works in a glass box.

gibbsstudioHe even has his own website. Here, I shit you not, is the image from the home page.

dongibbswebsiteJFC, you can’t make this stuff up. Hey genius, Don Draper would never have picked that crappy military stencil font. Curiously, if you poke around his website, you’ll see the architecture section of his photo gallery offers no shots of the LBCC. Why not? Is he not proud?

So, next question: What To Do? It seems the city has finally had enough of this garbage. Back in September, it held a public forum to discuss future plans. It’s a good thing I didn’t know about this thing, because I would’ve showed up and pounded on the podium like Mussolini. Gibbs shows up to defend his work and some were reluctant to bad mouth the building to his face:

Architecturally, our Civic Center can look monolithic, and at times, downright soul-crushing. But architect Alan Pullman of Long Beach-based Studio One Elevenpointed out that the Civic Center drew its appearance from a long line of influences, ranging from Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier’s attempts to romanticize concrete to the structures designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates in the 1966 Oakland Museum and in the 1969 Knights of Columbus Building in New Haven, Connecticut.

Pullman acknowledged he was uncomfortable delivering a critique of Long Beach Civic Center with Gibbs listening, and he relieved the tension by making light of his assessment of City Hall. “Really, it’s a Modern building. It’s a Late Modern building,” Pullman said correctly.

It’s like ordering a steak and when the chef asks you what you think, you respond, “Really, it’s beef. And it’s grilled.” This past February, the city issued a Request for Qualifications for completely new designs of the entire area or seismic upgrades to the existing structures. The RFQ bluntly states: “The entire Civic Center design lacks human scale and is oblivious to its surroundings. The Civic Center is difficult to access, has poor street front visibility, and lacks activity and vitality after business hours. In summary, it does not meet the functional and aesthetic needs of the City.” The deadline for submissions is this Friday. I’m curious to see what people come up with, but I can’t say I’m eager given that the Gehry-Koolhaus-Mayne-Hadid gestalt reigns. Here’s hoping the Powers That Be realize that chasing trends and awards is what brought them here. Watch this space.


About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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43 Responses to A Tour of the Long Beach Civic Center

  1. Great Post. Standing ovation.


    • Thanks man, appreciate the kind words and the link from your site. Any examples of this kind of craziness where you live? What do you make of it?


      • Seattle….. downtown and the federal buildings especially are chock a block with this sort of thing. I call it “Fascist Overbuilding.” It’s also notable that these buildings are set up to be easily defended by armed apparatchiks…. gun slits, overlapping fields of fire, etc. You see this sort of thing everywhere government grows like a tumor. Even down to the federal building in such out of the way burgs as Fargo North Dakota. It’s a government state of mind and it hates and wants to control and kill citizens. That’s the message of these “architects.”


      • Worst small example in seattle is “Counterbalance Park: An Urban Oasis” It used to be a vacant lot and not a bad one. Now it is a quarter acre of gravel and concrete pretending to be a park.

        check it out at



  2. Walter Sobchak says:

    Is that the new brutalism or the old brutalism? Or, is it just brutal?


  3. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    This surprised me:

    The RFQ bluntly states: “The entire Civic Center design lacks human scale and is oblivious to its surroundings. The Civic Center is difficult to access, has poor street front visibility, and lacks activity and vitality after business hours. In summary, it does not meet the functional and aesthetic needs of the City.”

    Who wrote that? Is there some faction within the sytem that’s really ready to take on this idiocy?


  4. mysterian says:

    The pockmarks and their pattern look to me like the remains of the ties that hold the concrete forms together when pouring thick walls.


    • Paleo Retiree says:

      That’s exactly what they are. At the height of Brutalism, architects and critics were making the case that there was nothing more Real than concrete — “Real” was very important in those days — and that the marks that the forms left on the concrete were fabulously Aesthetic, like the paintstrokes of a great painter. Strange but true!


      • I figured they had to have a functional aspect, but also an aesthetic component as well given that many other concrete buildings smooth them out. “Like the paintstrokes of a great painter” — bullshit you need to be “educated” into believing.


  5. Kauf Buch says:

    Bru. Tal. Is. M.

    *NOW*: Imagine that junk in semi-permanently cloudy Europe.
    THAT’S “brutal.”

    Yes, this sucks.
    WELCOME to “modern” (i.e. socialist ideal) architecture.
    But: what do *I* know?
    I just came from the ’70’s Corb-Whorehouse: CORNELL.

    Architecture from the land where the architects proclaim, “here, the people will be happy.”


  6. Paleo Retiree says:

    I read somewhere that one of the biggest diffs between the aesthetic prefs of architects and the aesthetics tastes of real people is concrete. Architects have talked themselves into loving it, while real people find it depressing.


  7. bilejones says:

    My local school district has just built a new Middle School at a cost somewhere north of $300 per sq ft- exact number not available of course, they’re not too good at math.

    Architecturally it’s indistinguishable from the county jail – it’s known to the kids as the Prison. It’s situated next to the predecessor, known as the Tuna Can for reasons obvious upon first sight.

    The district serves a little over 5,000 kids at a cost of $100 million or $19,200 per inmate.

    My boy goes elsewhere.


  8. Sgt. Joe Friday says:

    And strangely enough the little seaside burgh next door, Seal Beach, has a very appealing city hall.

    City Hall, Seal Beach, CA, 4-20-08


  9. Paleo Retiree says:

    Take a look at the gym that was built during my stay in boarding school back in the ’70s. Concrete … Geometry (of course) … The impression of the plywood forms visible in the concrete … And rust, lots of rust. Rust (especially rust that stains) was another popular trope in the Brutalist years. Had to learn how to appreciate it, of course. Your fault if you didn’t.

    Exterior trusses Exeter gym

    Meanwhile, here’s what the traditional campus looked like:

    Academy Hall


  10. slumlord says:

    The architectural profession still keeps pushing it’s crap. Still, it’s not all their fault. Who were the civic leaders who approved of this shitbox?

    Be careful of what comes to replace it.


  11. epiminondas says:

    Inspired. This is quite possibly the finest exposé of modernist schlock I’ve ever seen. I think it’s very apparent what this architect thinks about his fellow man.


  12. This comment just in at my blog’s item pointing to this item: “What.A.Dump (Bette Davis inflection).”


  13. LS says:

    “The Architect as Totalitarian: Le Corbusier’s baleful influence”



  14. Jeff S. says:

    Great post. I love how Pullman concedes that yes, the Civic Center is ugly and dysfunctional, but by gum, it does have a pedigree.

    Regarding schools as prisons: At the University of Delaware, there are at least two 1970s dorm complexes with twisting, claustrophobic hallways and unusually small interior public spaces. The rumor/legend among campus law enforcement circa 1990 was that the dorms were directly based on prisons and had been designed to make it difficult to organize riots. Whether true or not, the rumor and our willingness to believe it shows that we all knew instinctively that the buildings were bad for our souls.

    To their credit, the U. of D. is phasing out most of its modernist-brutalist-drab architecture–probably not because of an institutional commitment to good taste, but because traditional architecture pleases status-anxious parents who want to see what they’re paying for. It’s hardly the worst motive for beautification.


  15. mark tomeo says:

    You should see Boston City Hall/Government Center, same kind of thing perched above Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market. It didn’t even look good when it was new.


  16. fenster says:

    “Ugly people can be great. So can ugly buildings.

    City Hall is powerful and memorable, with the rugged majesty of a fortress or, closer to home, with the muscular grandeur of the famous generation of “Boston Granite Style” commercial buildings of the late 19th century. Not all great Boston architecture, remember, is delicate or made of red brick. This amazing building deserves to be saved, not demolished or humiliated by conversion to a commercial use.

    Looking at City Hall’s craggy features, you’re reminded that at the opening in 1968, the Boston Pops played Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.””

    Robert Campbell Boston Globe 2008


  17. agnostic says:

    Interesting to see that on the Pasadena building, ‘CITY HALL’ is in a serif typeface, the strokes vary in thickness, and there’s a little variety in the placing of the horizontal bars (on the H vs. on the A).

    All of the lettering on the Long Beach CC is in a harsh, bold sans serif, strokes of uniform thickness… it looks like the letters clacked off of a label-maker.

    Supposedly serif fonts distract the eye too much when they’re on large, big signs. I doubt that (have never seen experimental evidence, and it sounds like a rationalization). But even granting that, iin the context of proclaiming the name ‘CITY HALL’ on a, er, city hall building — do we really need to maximize the efficiency of data transmission? It’s not a billboard for a bank loan. We probably already know what the building is, and it’s only 8 characters long anyway. There’s no utilitarian basis for the Long Beach typeface. It’s meant to be aesthetically ugly.

    Granted, there isn’t that much lettering on public buildings, but even little things like that can take you out of the moment. You’re supposed to feel like this is a beyond-the-ordinary kind of place, and yet the typeface makes it look like an insurance brochure.


  18. agnostic says:

    I can’t stand community gardens — they’re so not communal. They’re always pushed by some special interest group that’s antagonistic toward the community for having the wrong tastes. “This is the kind of thing you’d support if you weren’t such backward morons.” When in reality, as you can see in the pictures, the garden looks pathetic. We saw way better gardens at the central court area in a mall back in the ’80s, and they had ponds and fountains to boot.

    But hey, who cares if the community doesn’t care for the community garden? It’s like not it matters if the civic hates the Civic Center.

    The community garden thing is just more of the same, because everyone knows it did not grow organically from the community, but was foisted on them by some do-gooder bunch of experts from outside and above. And it doesn’t even look nice! All that aesthetic paternalism, and the end result is a dumpy assortment of plants like you’d see outside a grocery store.


  19. agnostic says:

    “Is there some faction within the sytem that’s really ready to take on this idiocy?”

    In this climate, it doesn’t matter if they raze it to the ground; they’ll just put something equally off-putting and community-destroying in its place. Given current trends, a huge bunch of apartments — because what’s really missing in southern California is MORE PEOPLE — with some fake “mixed-use” stuff below and nearby. I.e., food places and female indulgence specialists — restaurants, cafes, grocery store, spa, salon, etc.

    Basically, an upscale strip center (“lifestyle center”) below a people cage.

    Hardly “mixed use” — again, check any shopping center in the ’80s, and there was way more variety. A mix of electronics stores (TV, computers, cameras), furniture, hardware, shoes, apparel, bookstore, music store, video rental… in addition to a small number of food places and spa/salon/nails places.

    The strip center / people cage for the upscale audience is so hot right now, developers would love to throw them up wherever possible. If it requires some civic-sounding bashing of an admittedly ghastly complex, they’ll do that. It’s their Trojan horse. And the “New Urbanist” intelligentsia have been unwitting dupes in the takeover of communal places by hideous strip centers for rich folks. “Hey, they’re promoting MIXED USE!” — don’t actually bother checking what kind of mix the stores are, though. All that matters is scoring points on abstract principles, not enjoyment and belonging in real people’s lives.


  20. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Bah. Those Beaux Arts-y buildings you link to are elitist — a symbol of bourgeoise oppression! By contrast, this is a city hall for the People — the people who stay away from it in droves.

    I love how Le Corbusier is trotted out as an excuse. Shit, his influence is just one more reason to raze that thing to the ground.

    Looked better with the garden on top. Still, that was one ugly “garden.”


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