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S.M.a.r.t Column: Architect’s Son Reflects On Civic Auditorium

Welton (David) Becket (1902-1969), pictured above, backed by a picture of our Civic Auditorium, was the designer of that famed building. While his name might not be currently well known, most people would recognize his iconic buildings that dot the Los Angeles area landscape. He was the architect who designed such buildings as the Mark Taper Forum, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome (the first concrete geodesic dome), The Theme Restaurant at LAX, the Pan Pacific Auditorium and the Capitol Records Building (the world’s first circular office building) among many others. In addition to designing structures throughout Los Angeles and the U.S., he designed many abroad as well. As befits a large full-service international design firm, Welton Becket had many talented architects working with him, including Lou Naidorf (who was actively involved in the Civic’s execution), Paul Williams, and William Pereira. He was also instrumental in the start of many younger architects’ careers.

His company, Becket & Associates, went on to become one of the largest architectural firms in the world. It received dozens of local, national, and international awards for the design and execution of its projects.

Welton McDonald Becket, son of the famous architect, lives in Orange County. In a recent interview, he gave insight into his father’s life. At one time, his father lived in Santa Monica and relished the opportunity to design one of his mid-century modern buildings here.  He was tasked with creating a world-class building that could be flexible enough to accommodate multiple kinds of events, including concerts, lectures, exhibitions, and athletics for decades. 

“The concrete floor of the Civic was innovative for its time, mounted on hydraulic lifts so that the tilt could be adjusted, creating tiered seating for traditional theatre and flat for exhibitions and athletic events,” notes Becket. “My dad brought on the famous acoustics expert Vern Knudsen to design superior acoustics to attract top-tier talent. Knudsen was also a UCLA physics professor and Chancellor.” 

Construction began in 1957, and the Civic opened July 15, 1958. In 1960, the American Institute of Architects recognized it with an Honor Award. It is the only surviving institutional design and example of mid-century International-style architecture in Santa Monica.

“I was about 12 years old when the Civic opened,” said Becket. “I knew little about my father being an internationally successful and famous architect. He was once asked to speak at my school’s morning assembly in front of the 350 students. I was surprised to see him there, speaking very professionally because I only knew him as “Pa.” My classmates were impressed, too.”

“After my father’s passing, I began working full-time at my father’s firm, Welton Becket and Associates in Business Corporate Development.  At that time, the firm was run by my uncle. I conducted all the sales presentations to potential clients until 1981 when I left to start my firm in architecture development management.”

Many of Becket’s treasured buildings still stand, but sadly, the Civic seems to be at risk even though the city designated it as a landmark in 2002. If the city were to sell it to an entity that did not have to abide by its landmark status, the Civic could ultimately be demolished. The Santa Monica School District, which is currently negotiating to take over the building from the City, is not bound by our local preservation regulations. 

In recognition of Welton David Becket, the Los Angeles Conservancy offered a tour of Becket buildings in 2003. The accompanying brochure noted: “Becket and his firm were responsible for a stunning array of iconic modern structures that literally defined post-war Los Angeles as the City of Tomorrow.”

“If Los Angeles and other cities can take such meticulous care of my father’s iconic, world-renowned creations, my hope is that Santa Monica will also and not sell the Civic to any party that cannot guarantee its future. It is an architectural and cultural asset that can again draw crowds, be a source of pride and revenue for the city, its businesses, and residents,” concludes Becket’s son.

By Sherrill Kushner, Guest columnist for S.M.a.r.t.
Photo credit 1960. Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

S.M.a.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Thane Roberts, Architect; Robert H. Taylor AIA, Architect; Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission; Samuel Tolkin Architect & Planning Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA & Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.

For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

in Opinion
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