USC Architecture & USC Libraries to Digitally Debut Student-Designed Wayne Thom Exhibition

Regional History

Library, UC San Diego, 1970, by Wayne ThomOn Wednesday, April 25, the USC School of Architecture and USC Libraries will unveil a new student-curated digital exhibition of work by renowned architectural photographer Wayne Thom at a special event featuring a conversation between Thom and a student curator. Thom is one of the most significant architectural photographers of the 20th century, perhaps best known for his stunning images of high-rises in Los Angeles and other Pacific Rim cities. In 2015, USC Libraries acquired his archive, making more than 250,000 photographs available for public scholarship. The new exhibit, curated by students in the school’s “Modern Architecture in Southern California” course, strives to garner broad awareness of his photography and the spirit of late modernist architecture he captured.

Developed under the guidance of architectural historian Emily Bills, who taught the course, the exhibition showcases Thom’s Southern California work from the start of his career in 1968 to 1979, roughly corresponding to the class’ timeframe and geographic focus. The class, which includes students from USC’s Architecture, Heritage Conservation, and Real Estate Development programs, seeks engagement with the photographs to promote the importance of preserving Southern California’s contributions to this overlooked period in skyscraper, civic, and campus design. Thom’s photographs provide compelling evidence of this contribution, from the region’s experiments in mirror-glass surfaces seen in John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel, to the possibilities of poured concrete construction found in William Pereira & Associates’ Geisel Library. 

“Studying architectural photography helps students understand how a building is marketed to the world,” said Bills, a faculty member in the School of Architecture’s Heritage Conservation program. “Although we travel more and more, the majority of architecture continues to be experienced by the public through imagery. How many of us see Late Modern architecture, for example, is shaped by the way Wayne Thom interpreted particular buildings at a particular moment in time. His work had a global reach and is thus seminal to understanding this period in design.” 

The students worked cooperatively to develop all aspects of the online exhibition. They selected photographs, conducted archival research, wrote didactic text, conceptualized the visitor experience, and helped install the exhibition on Scalar, an open source publishing platform developed at USC. One group of students interviewed Thom, creating unique video footage of the photographer speaking about his work; it will become part of Thom’s archive in the USC Libraries’ Special Collections. 

“In Thom’s work, you can see his efforts to situate the building or the interior in a way that helps the viewer understand it better, and even sympathize with it,” said Krista Nicholds, a USC School of Architecture heritage conservation student. “I appreciate the opportunity the project has given us to design an online exhibit. Exposure to the tools, the process, the artist, the work and the history is a unique experience for students.”

The exhibit launch and conversation takes place Wednesday, April 25, at 10:00 a.m. in Doheny Memorial Library’s Friends of the USC Libraries Lecture Hall (Room 240).