Seminal California architect Gin Wong spent so long designing our idea of the future that it eventually became the past, but his buildings are all the better for it.
Wong, who died September 1 at the age of 94, brought to post-war California a miraculous revelation of how clear-eyed and uncomplicated design could be. At the time, his best buildings — including the iconic Transamerica Pyramid and the spidery Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport — evoked ideas of a far-off world of tomorrow.
Now Wong’s buildings preserve the essence of the 20th century. Far from being dated, many seem almost primed to pass into the mists of legend, like modern great pyramids.
Born in Guangzhou, China, in 1922, Wong emigrated to the United States when he was nine. His daughter, Janna Wong Healy, says a fellow airman first suggested he try his hand at architecture during Wong’s World War II service.
Wong’s postwar work, like the miraculous 1961 Theme Building at LAX, showed boldness and panache. But his own favorite byword when it came to his designs was merely “simple.”
“It’s just simple, clear design,” he said of the towering spike on the 1972 Transamerica Pyramid, his most significant Northern California structure. He’d make similar comments about most of his great buildings.
Nonetheless, Wong’s designs gravitated towards ambition, like 1952’s CBS Television City Building, where the mighty network spoke to the world. Or the 1954 Marineland of the Pacific amusement park, which sought to capture the Pacific Ocean in a pool.
More than anything, Wong’s designs put people in mind of the stars. Countless observers over the decades pointed out that “The Jetsons” cartoon series, with its floating buildings of Wong-like bubbles and spires, premiered just a year after his futuristic LAX building opened.
The powerful lines and distinctive silhouettes of Wong’s buildings promised to take us to the moon and back. But for all of this great ambition and space-age wonder, his most admired building is, of all things, a gas station.
The Los Angeles Conservancy says that Wong originally designed the 1965 Beverly Hills Union 76 station as a companion piece to the LAX Theme Building. Its swooping, rocket-red roof appears to tell Californians that here, all things remain possible. Reach up for the stars and they can be yours, even if you’re just here to fill up the tank.
Wong retired in 2015, closing his Gin Wong Associates firm. Credit for much of his earlier work still goes to his former bosses like William Pereira, but it’s hard to miss the Wong touch.
His once-futuristic buildings might be in danger of one day attracting the “retro” label. But maybe it’s the muscular simplicity he so prized that keeps them from appearing outmoded today.
Once visions of tomorrow, Wong’s works are now hallmarks of California’s heritage. In the go-go postwar years, Gin Wong raised signposts, great markers pointing the way toward a hoped-for better future. Looking at his designs now, we can imagine the path that the previous generation followed to get here.