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Hugo Ballin's Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Central Rotunda - Civil Engineering

  • John Mosley's Caption
  • Allegory and History
  • Monumental Men
  • Source/Citations

From Mosley's pamphlet, "The Hugo Ballin Murals at the Griffith Observatory" (Los Angeles: Published by the Griffith Observatory, Department of Parks and Recreation, City of Los Angeles, 1998):

“The two powerful figures fighting at the center of the panel symbolize the struggling forces within the earth. Their conflict splits the earth’s surface in a terrible fissure in the upper background. The true cause of earthquakes – movements of the crust generated by the escape of heat from within the earth that cause the continents to slowly shift their positions – was unknown in Ballin’s day. 

An ancient Egyptian holds an ankh, the symbol of life, over life-giving water in his hand. Some of the greatest engineering achievements of the ancients in both the Old and New World were irrigation and aqueduct systems to control access to water, and many still inspire awe today. In his left hand, the Egyptian holds a scepter in the form of a measuring rod and a flail, symbolic of driving men to work. Behind him is a pyramid, an outstanding engineering achievement of the ancient world. At far left, two oxen furnish power to pump water through the irrigation ditch to the tree below them. At top left is Sirius, the brightest of all stars and the one whose predawn rising before the sun altered the ancient Egyptians to the imminent annual flood of the Nile River.

Modern engineering is represented on the right by a surveyor with his measuring rod and theodolite, or transit, a small calibrated telescope used to measure angles and distances. Hoover Dam, a modern engineering marvel, is at far right.”

It may seem odd that Ballin included two allegorical figures to represent "the struggling forces within the earth" in his history of civil engineering in this panel.  But in March 1933, just a few months before he was hired to paint the murals at the Griffith Observatory, a massive earthquake had created significant engineering problems for the City of Los Angeles. The magnitude 6.4 quake caused 120 deaths, upset a city-owned water tank holding six million gallons of drinking water, destroyed thousands of buildings and homes in the southern portion of the county, and disrupted gas lines throughout the region, resulting in some $50 million worth of damage and posing serious challenges for municipal and county authorities. The quake exposed the weaknesses of some of the region's most popular architectural designs and building materials and heated debates ensued over how to best prepare for similar disasters in the future. Of particular concern was the number of area schools destroyed in the quake, which might have resulted in hundreds more injuries and deaths had the schools been occupied at the time of the quake. To address this issue, the California State Assembly passed a bill mandating new building codes for public school construction and state-approval of new school construction plans just a month later. That Ballin included the two figures to represent the earthquake in this panel suggests that he believed the 1933 earthquake demanded more robust civil engineering solutions from municipal authorities. 

To learn more about the earthquake in 1933, see the Southern California Earthquake Center's website at

Ballin flanked his representation of an earthquake with two additional allegorical figures, one representing civil engineering's ancient past, the other its modern future. Each is depicted holding props and in costume signifying his identity. The ancient Egyptian wears regal robes, an elaborate headdress and ornamental jewelry and holds an ankh and scepter, his face painted in the style of hieroglyphics. The "modern" surveyor, by contrast, appears in more common, everyday attire and is painted in a more realistic fashion. To create symmetry, each is painted standing in a similar posture and is flanked by the civil engineering innovations of his respective era: the Egyptian stands near two oxen, in reference to their irrigation systems, the surveyor is next to a sketch of the Hoover Dam, designed by Gordon Kaufmann who Ballin worked with on the Getz House and the Los Angeles Times Building. 

With these two "monumental men," Ballin drew a direct line between the innovations of ancient Egypt and those of his contemporary times. Interestingly, he chose to highlight the Egyptians and their innovations in irrigation and engineering, rather than the Roman aqueducts or other European contributions to civil engineering. Ballin showed in this panel and others in the observatory that he believed properly educating the public about the history of science demanded that they be informed about the multicultural, interethnic influences on "the Advancement of Science," not simply the contributions of famous Anglo Europeans. Rather than offer a triumphalist version of the history of science that underscored the inherent intellectual superiority of western civilization, Ballin's murals remind visitors that "modern" science would not exist without the advancements made by scholars and scientists of other, non-western societies.

Caption excerpted from John Mosley's pamphlet, "The Hugo Ballin Murals at the Griffith Observatory" (Los Angeles: Published by the Griffith Observatory, Department of Parks and Recreation, City of Los Angeles, 1998).


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