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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles is often seen as a sprawling, smoggy concrete metropolis or a kitschy Hollywood movie set but that image is getting a shiny new makeover in an exhibition that highlights the city's often overlooked contributions to modern architecture.
"Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990," takes stock of the city's booming post-World War Two growth, shining a light on buildings that often go unnoticed by the 18 million people living in a metropolitan area about the size of Belgium.
"People don't think about Los Angeles in architectural and design terms," exhibition curator Wim de Wit told Reuters. "People think about Los Angeles as an accident that sort of happened."
"Overdrive," part of the Pacific Standard Time Presents regional initiative of 11 exhibitions, presents Los Angeles as an architectural dream factory on a par with Hollywood's influence on post-war moviemaking.
It is housed at the Getty Center museum - itself regarded as a modern architectural jewel atop a Los Angeles mountain - through July 21.
"There are so many myths and clichés that are just misunderstandings," de Wit said. "We're trying to straighten out and create different views of Los Angeles as a city ... One point we're trying to make is that it's a planned city with thought behind it."
The exhibition, which features photographs, architectural drawings, models and films, shows how those plans crafted in the 1940s and 1950s were unparalleled in their time, setting up what de Wit calls a "laboratory" for modern living.
Indeed, the area's vast freeway system was able to connect far-flung suburbs to the city's center while Los Angeles International Airport was the first of its kind to create modern terminals amenable to automobile traffic.
"The big difference between the prewar and postwar Los Angeles architecture was chiefly a matter of scale, and one of the major manifestations of this was the freeway system," said Thomas Hines, an architectural historian at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The city's growth, aided by new materials developed in the local aerospace industry, and modernist styles influenced the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after World War Two, Hines said.
"The consensus would be that Los Angeles and Southern California have been one of the half dozen or so most important places in the world in the development of modern architecture," he said, noting the roots of its heritage in the prewar designs of architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.
Highlights include Los Angeles airport's 1961 theme building with its futuristic floating structure, as well as the prefabricated steel and glass Case Study houses (1945-1966), which were promoted to the world through Arts & Architecture magazine.
Star architect Frank Gehry's free-form Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in 2003, figures prominently as a legacy to the experimentation, along with mid-century coffee shops with floor-to-ceiling glass inspired by jet-age automobile showrooms.
Pritzker Prize-winning Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne says the city holds a unique position because it was the center of innovation and experimentation, as opposed to the more architecturally orthodox cities like Boston and New York.
"Los Angeles is an open book," said Mayne, who along with Gehry was a major figure in new architecture coming out of the city in the 1970s and 1980s.
"People here are always looking for the future that never arrives," Mayne said. "Every generation is looking for this openness and laissez-faire attitude. It made it an extremely unusual place ... Everybody was stopping in L.A."
Reporting by Eric Kelsey; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bill Trott