By Lois Lee
Pioneering Black architect Paul Revere Williams, FAIA (1894-1980), is finally receiving well-deserved, national recognition 40 years after his death.
Williams’ extensive portfolio transcends the racial boundaries of the architecture profession during his time, and his story continues to be told today. The recent acquisition of Williams’ archives—previously thought lost in a fire—by the Getty Institute and the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture has heightened interest in the architect’s diverse body of work.
Best known for designing Hollywood stars’ homes and larger-scaled projects such as Los Angeles International Airport in collaboration with other architects, Williams’ work extends beyond residential architecture to public, community-driven projects, as well as to commercial and institutional buildings.
Designed in 1957, the Botany Building at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) was Williams’ first project commissioned solely to his firm by a prominent institution. In 2017, Los Angeles firm CO Architects was awarded the renovation of UCLA’s La Kretz Botany Building lobby. While studying William’s original hand-drafted drawings in hopes of better understanding the architecture, CO discovered an unrealized detail for a plant-motif glass-mosaic mural on the last sheet of the architectural drawings, titled "Miscellaneous Details."
Home to the university’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, the La Kretz Botany Building is located at the edge of the campus’ expansive Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Gardens. Additionally, a vast collection of plant specimens is stored in the building’s Herbarium. Understanding UCLA’s desire to better showcase the research and further establish an identity for the historic building, CO’s proposed renovation designs included the glass mosaic.
The mosaic’s original black-and-white line drawing didn’t specify colors, size, or type of glass tile. The hand-sketched tile grid was faint with bolder, squiggly plant forms in the foreground.
Informed speculation on Williams’ intended colors and design came from additional research. Mosaics were popular in Midcentury Modern Los Angeles. One of the most notable mosaic muralists was artist and architect Millard Sheets. Sheets is best known for his large-scale mosaics for the Home Savings and Loan Association branches across Southern California. Additionally, Williams’ A-frame design for the Guardian Angel Cathedral in Las Vegas showcases a large mural mosaic by Edith and Isabel Piczek. The cathedral was completed a few years after the UCLA Botany Building.
Studying the mosaic murals in Los Angeles offered insights into the genre’s period palettes, but the best color cues for the mosaic’s plant motif were found a few blocks from UCLA. Williams did extensive design work at The Beverly Hills Hotel in the 1940s, including penning its signature logo. The banana-leaf wallpaper created by Williams and interior designers Paul László, John Luccareni, and Harriet Shellenbergerin for the hotel’s Lanai Room and Fountain Coffee Room served as CO’s primary reference for colors.
The colors extracted from the iconic wallpaper were eye-dropped into a digital grid, using Williams’ line drawing as a template for what eventually covered an area encompassing 72,796 tiles. Following three to four color iterations, a preliminary mosaic design was complete.
After scouring CO’s material library for glass tile options, the firm reached out to custom-mosaic specialist Artaic to source a modern tile that would work best for the project—something subtle, not too polished; a tile that would complement the new and existing materials for the lobby renovation.
Artaic translated CO’s design with their closest standard colors. Fourteen different tile colors are used in the project. The coordination effort included a lot of back and forth, selecting the right cool hues and tile size. CO eventually landed on 3/4-inch vitreous glass tiles with a glass-filled urethane grout, which gave the mosaic a fine grain and texture that integrates well with the existing layers of the building.
The 285-square-foot mosaic was originally intended for the lobby’s west brick wall, which was built with a window. Wanting to keep the existing brick walls exposed, CO concluded that the lobby’s east-facing concrete wall would better showcase the mosaic.
Understanding the significance of the Botany Building and its architect, CO approached the lobby renovation with thorough research to remain true to Williams’ original design intent while introducing thoughtful updates. The team sought to design a point of arrival that retained the building’s historic character. Williams’ design outlook was similar–he aimed to work with the existing environment rather than impose upon it.
CO envisioned the La Kretz Botany Building’s lobby as a seamless threshold from the campus to the gardens, quiet in its design and materials, but bold and clear in its intentions. Williams aimed to make the gardens an integral part of the building’s design by placing ribbon windows along the south facade and implementing a “sight-seers’ deck” that physically overlooks the tree canopies. In order to reinforce this idea and bring more natural light into the space, the new design extends views to the garden from the lobby by removing a solid fire partition that divides the lobby and the west stair well. It was replaced with an overhead, coiling fire shutter in order to provide views to the garden while maintaining the necessary emergency compliance.
To further highlight the extended views and the connection from the entry to the garden beyond, a wood linear-grille ceiling extends from the exterior entry canopy toward the stair windows. In addition to the mosaic and ceiling treatment, a new glass and aluminum entry that maintains the original hardware is complemented by polished concrete floors and modern lighting.
Realizing Williams’ mosaic was a painstaking but rewarding and surreal process—working with unanswered questions and finding the careful balance for modern interpretation. With the acquisition of the archives by Getty and USC, one can only wonder if more will be revealed about the mosaic: its true intentions, Williams’ inspiration, reasons why it wasn’t realized, the artist Williams might have commissioned the mosaic to, or perhaps additional sketches and iterations.
The La Kretz Botany Building’s mosaic and renovated lobby breathe new life into a space that was previously used as a thoroughfare to one that celebrates the architect and architecture. The project’s finishing touch is a bronze plaque honoring the architect. The renovation seeks to not only enhance connections between the building and the campus, but foster a connection between the students and the building’s history.
The new lobby’s enthusiastic reception prompted UCLA to commission CO Architects to renovate the rest of the four-story La Kretz Botany Building, adhering to guidelines for buildings eligible for listing on the National and California Registers of Historic Places in collaboration with historical consultants Page & Turnbull. Completion is targeted for late 2021. Additionally, CO was also entrusted with the renovation and seismic upgrade to Williams’ iconic UCLA Pritzker Hall, completed this winter.
Lois Lee is an Associate at CO Architects. She holds a Master of Arts in Specialized Journalism and a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Southern California.