Architect Kurt Meyer: From Switzerland to Los Angeles to the Himalayas

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Kurt Meyer, the Swiss-born architect who made a mark on Los Angeles with his work in preservation, design and master planning, and his chairmanship of the downtown Community Redevelopment Agency, died last month at the age of 92. One of his late-in-life acquaintances was KCRW’s arts reporter Lisa Napoli, who shared with Meyer a passion for the remote country of Bhutan (where Napoli helped found a youth radio station), not to mention an interest in his work at the CRA (now defunct) since she is a resident of Bunker Hill. She wrote this personal appreciation.

It took a kingdom halfway around the world to introduce me to the man who played an important role in my beloved, storied neighborhood I’ve inhabited for a decade now, Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles.

And it was again because of that faraway place that I this week stumbled upon the news, with sadness, of his passing in August at the age of 92.

Architect Kurt Meyer’s wife Pamela contacted me seven years ago after reading a story I’d written about a visit here by a trade delegation from Bhutan, a tiny Asian nation in which I’d become immersed after living there.

The Meyers had just published a book of historic photographs about the region, she said, and invited me for tea to discuss our mutual love of the Himalayas.

When I arrived at their home in Beachwood Canyon, I didn’t know that Mr. Meyer had been, before his retirement, an architect; nor that he had once run (1976 — 1978) the CRA, now-defunct–which had overseen the controversial redevelopment of Bunker Hill.

NY-AK045_ARTS2_G_20100806174318My introduction to this man, then 85, was as an adventurer and explorer, who had spent a decade–in his seventies, after retirement–living among indigenous people in Nepal.  His lifelong intrigue with that mountainous region had begun in childhood in his native Switzerland, thanks to spectacular early photographs he’d discovered by the British explorer stationed in India named John Claude White.

In fact, they told me that afternoon, they were heading to the University of Texas, El Paso,to give a talk there; did I know the entire school was built entirely in the architectural style of Bhutan? No, I did not. They shared a precious artifact, the 1914 National Geographic article that was the impetus for that improbable connection.

It was only during the pleasantries about where I lived on Bunker Hill that Mr. Meyer’s connections to downtown were revealed.  Modestly.

On a return visit, we focused on our more local, mutual passion: Bunker Hill, and a slide show of it from that time of sweeping transition I was just beginning to learn about.  Meyer was particularly proud of Angelus Plaza, the largest low-income senior housing complex in the nation, and having successfully battled the corporations eager to build more lucrative housing on that prime land.

Bunker Hill Towers in the background; the flowers in the foreground were replaced by LA’s World Trade Center. Photo courtesy Pamela Meyer

When this photograph of the building I inhabit popped up on the screen, I gasped.  What’s now downtown’s World Trade Center was a field of wildflowers.  That this man was possessed, as I was, with the twin passions of southeast Asia and my odd adopted enclave of Los Angeles seemed improbable.

A few years later, visiting the Rubin Museum to see some of Kurt’s and Pamela’s beloved photographs of southeast Asia hanging on the walls in a special exhibition, it struck me again.

The 100th anniversary of that National Geographic story on Bhutan is being celebrated this week; it was in searching for a link to the Meyer’s book in conjunction with that that I discovered the sad news.

It’s only in his obituary that I learned of his other achievements, the buildings that stand as the other part of his legacy: Liberty Savings and Loan, the San Bernardino County Government Center, the University of Redlands Campus Center, the Huntington Beach Civic Center, the South Coast Air Quality Control District Headquarters in Diamond Bar, and the Plaza de la Raza in Los Angeles.

It seems Mr. Meyer’s problem, say the historians, is that he didn’t have a “signature style,” which is why he was not better known–and yet that diversity is exactly why he was so interesting.

This quote in the LA Times summed up this man I never knew well, but had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions:

“I don’t believe that it comes down to a choice of serving the community or running a successful practice,” he said. “We have all demonstrated that it is possible to do both.”