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Iconic LA: Lifeguard Towers and Piers

Artistic Inspiration

Nothing says SoCal like surf culture and two of the most iconic structures associated with this low-key lifestyle are also two of the most overlooked – the many lifeguard towers and piers that pepper L.A.'s beaches. But while the city's landscape has transformed, these structures have had surprising staying power.

The Towers

Not much is written about the initial development of Los Angeles' 158 lifeguard towers. The structures we know today were built during the late 1960s when beach attendance was at an all-time high, forcing the Department of Beaches to open up areas that had previously been off-limits and increase lifeguard resources and service.

What is often noted though, is how little the towers have changed over the past few decades. Anyone who's visited an area beach (or caught one on TV) is familiar with the squat, blue structures that pepper the city's coastline. Their abundance, coupled with a lean toward function rather than flash -- simple, angular buildings edged with a deck and accessible by ramp – make them easy to overlook. It's also a key reason why the towers feel like a marker from an era when streamlined, geometric buildings were all the rage.

But that doesn't mean people haven't come up with imaginative ways to update the towers. In 1988, the Kirsten Keiser Gallery on La Brea hosted an exhibit that showcased renderings of reimagined lifeguard towers by 14 world-renown architects and 10 local designers. The designs ranged from the practical (a cottage-like pavilion designed to accommodate a disabled lifeguard) to the fantastic (a dragon-shaped tower).

In 2010, Portraits of Hope, a non-profit dedicated to developing large-scale art projects, transformed the exterior of more than 100 lifeguard towers along the L.A. coast. Over the course of a year, the project utilized thousands of underserved adults and kids and to create brightly colored artwork on flex-thin board panels meant for the exterior of each tower. Volunteers painted the tower's rails (according to founder, Ed Massey it clocked in at around 100,000 square feet) and then the panels were installed. The transformed towers delighted beach-goers for five months before they were returned to their original state, where they remain today.

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The Piers

Like the lifeguard towers, the L.A. pier's design is so simple it's almost banal -- wooden slats atop several posts lined with railings on either side. Today, beach visitors are accustomed to most of the city's piers serving as lookout points, the perfect fishing spot or a place for entertainment. But according to The New York Times, most of Southern California's now weathered, wooden piers began as wharves where steamer ships could tie up. With the advent of railroads and highways, coastal shipping lines became less prevalent and many of the piers were put out of their original use.

The Santa Monica Pier actually began as the Municipal Pier, a 1,600-foot stretch that obscured a pipeline used to run treated sewage out to the ocean. The pier was constructed from concrete (the first of its kind in the US) with the thought that this kind of material would make it better suited to stand up to salty, rough ocean waters. In 1915, Charles Loof, an amusement entrepreneur built a wider pier with an amusement park along the south side of the existing structure. A few years later, the pier collapsed as a result of rust, and then was rebuilt out of wood. It went through several incarnations (a home for an amusement park, ballroom, yacht harbor, fishing port) before it became the entertainment venue it is known as today.

Food for Thought

Surprisingly, it's the sheer simplicity of these iconic structures that should serve as inspiration. Clean lines and unfussy design can have staying power, especially when caught in between the majesty of the Pacific Ocean and the eclectic Los Angeles skyline.

Images by Megan Mostyn-Brown