Charles Phoenix’s Slide of the Week: Van Nuys Savings, Panorama City, CA, 1957

It’s a quarter past high noon in the very midst of the San Fernando Valley. A futuristic high tech digital clock tells us so. But the clock isn’t as futuristic as the curvaceous creation it marks. This is the Tomorrowland of Van Nuys Boulevard.

A man and a woman pose together beside the flying nun-shaped awning shading the entrance to this outer space-age, science fiction style house of money. By any architectural standards before or since this is extreme. The design is simple. Part igloo and part flying squirrel. Really this giant steel, concrete and glass construction is as much a sculpture as it is a building. The two relaxed arched beams crisscrossing over the top remind me of the icing on a delicious hot cross bun or a cross stitch on a handmade patchwork quilt.

Spirit and pride beam from this sure-footed sculptural structure. It’s unfathomable for us today to appreciate just how much of a contrast it was when it was new to the far more traditional mid-century suburbia that was blossoming around it in every direction. But what defines its true greatness is the fact that it still looks futuristic more than fifty years after it was created.

All that is a tribute to the man who designed it, Mr. Wenceslaus Sarmiento, one of the world’s great champions of architecture as art and art as architecture. (And don’t we love the name Wenceslaus!) He was born in Peru in 1922 and studied with the granddaddy of South American modernism, Oscar Neimeyer.

From 1951 through 1961 Sarmineto was the head designer for the Bank Building Corporation of America. Over the course of his three-decade plus career he designed hundreds of one-of-a-kind, out-of-this-world bank buildings. He retired form his St. Louis based architectural firm in 1980. In the realm of architects working when he did, in an era when banks were both able and inclined to showcase their egos in the form of creative architecture, he had one of the greatest gigs an architect could ever have.

Today he lives in Santa Monica, California not far from the site where this building still stands. I wonder if he’s driven by it lately. Mr. Sarmineto, wanna go for a ride?

Here’s to Van Nuys Savings, space age style, Mr. Sarmineto and YOU!

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