Reflections on The Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.”




Reflections on The Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.” by Joe Day

September 12th, 2013 reset - +

Triptych images:
Left: Julian Wasser, "Tower Records, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, CA, 1973"
Center: "Eastland Shopping Center," Photo by David M. Mills, 1957
Right: Paolo Soleri, "ArcVillage I," 1969

 

 

I. HAD TO BE THERE
 

Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, Wim de Wit and Christopher Alexander, curators/editors. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013)

Outside In: The Architecture of Smith & Williams, UC Santa Barbara

A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living, Hammer Museum

 

THIS YEAR, IN A follow-up to 2011–12’s Pacific Standard Time and its comprehensive sponsorship of exhibitions devoted to post–World War II art in Los Angeles, the Getty Center employed the same model in miniature to survey contemporary architecture of the same period. Under the banner of Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in LA (PSTP), these shows dominated the spring and summer of 2013 and recast the discussion of design in Los Angeles in some surprising and incontrovertible ways.

I hope a more seasoned and committed journalist than I made it to every exhibition and event (perhaps Nicholas Olsberg, who wrote a very well-considered preview to the shows for the June issue of Architectural Review) but I was able to reach eight of the nine, missing only Outside In: The Architecture of Smith & Williams at UC Santa Barbara.

The PSTP exhibitions are perhaps easiest to grasp in pairs: The largest two exhibitions were surveys: Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 at the Getty, which set a broad stage for the rest, and A New Sculpturalism at MoCA, an overview of the current architectural scene in Los Angeles. The reconsideration of Smith and Williams at UC Santa Barbara was one of two monographic shows devoted to single firms, with the other, A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living, at the Hammer. Two architecture schools presented exhibitions that homed in on specific, and in fact antagonistic, high-design milieus, Technology and Environment: The Postwar House in California at Cal Poly Pomona and A Confederacy of Heretics at SCI-Arc. And two less easily classified shows could be described as speculative explorations of architecture vis-à-vis art and the city, respectively: Everything Loose Will Land at the MAK Center and Windshield Perspective at the A+D Museum. The ninth show, Reconsidering LACMA: Peter Zumthor and the Presence of the Past at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, traces the development and resurgent ambitions of Los Angeles’s largest public, encyclopedic museum (rather magnanimous of the Getty to underwrite that self-assessment by a rival).

Here, I focus on four exhibition catalogues, three from the PSTP shows Overdrive, A New Sculpturalism and Everything Loose Will Land, and the fourth for NeverBuilt Los Angeles, which missed funding from PSTP due its shared venue with Windshield Perspectives, but which nevertheless forms a crucial rejoinder to the official shows.

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The Getty’s own contribution to PSTP was Overdrive, which sought to explain the post–World War II hyper-expansion of Los Angeles in terms of transportation — auto and air, especially — and infrastructure. This is not a novel approach to the city, but curators Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander executed it with definitive, thoroughgoing expertise, building a tour de force of what Anthony Vidler, after Reyner Banham, would term “Freeway History” — a series of recursive passages through Los Angeles’s competing ecologies that yield a new grasp of the whole.

Overdrive, the show, was best in its presentation of mid-century Los Angeles as a Futurist’s daydream of planes, (some) trains and automobiles — and the terminals, headquarters and operations that serve them. Overdrive, the catalog, however, is more broadly masterful in presenting a cross-plait of major themes in the city’s post–World War II evolution. Under four wide headings, De Wit and Alexander invite a stellar roster of historians to exhume the city’s past. They trace back the geology, green space, freeways, and nightscape of the city in a section entitled “Transformative Landscapes”; in “Engaging Modernism,” De Wit’s essay leads a discussion of Los Angeles’s role in Modernism, and its Latin and Asian influences; the third section, “Developing Communities,” builds most directly on the exhibition, offering a suburban corollary to the commercial and industrial expansion of the city; and finally, “Engineered Audacity” presents three snapshots of technology becoming the New. There isn’t a weak link among them, but back-to-back pieces by William Deverell on the abandoned Olmsted Brothers’ plan for a vast network of parks that could have been the armature of the city and Eric Avila’s on the freeway masterplan that replaced it, as well as a beautifully terse introduction by Thomas Gaehtgens, invoking Ed Ruscha and Reyner Banham, stand out. Los Angeles’s relative metropolitan youth has the virtue of making many of these essays definitive chronicles of 20th-century urban development seen through the lens of a single city.

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Highways 5, 10, 60, and 101 Looking West, L.A. River and Downtown Beyond, 2004, Courtesy of Michael Light and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica.

In a closing essay, “Architecture Industry: the L.A. Ten,” Stephen Phillips revels in the diverse industrial repurposing that typifies Los Angeles’s domestic architecture since the Gehry House, and suggests that what makes his “L.A. Ten” contemporary is a common self-awareness of that local bias for using new technologies outside their intended context. His claim for the Morphosis’ Sixth Street House could stand in for his broader case for an L.A. Ten: “Forming, in effect, a technology museum, the Sixth Street House serves as a training ground to simultaneously acclimatize the viewer to the tectonics of a superseded machinic past and the unimpeded onslaught of an aggressive technological future.” Many of the other PSTP shows devoted to individual architects, and to schools or scenes of architecture, flesh out Phillips’ case, most without contradicting his summary thesis.

Eastland Shopping Center by A.C. Martin and Associates, about 1957. Photo by David M. Mills. Chris Nichols Collection.

Eastland Shopping Center by A.C. Martin and Associates, about 1957. Photo by David M. Mills. Chris Nichols Collection.

A few major mid-century practices were highlighted in Overdrive, among them the studios-turned-corporate firms of A. C. Martin, William Pereira, and Charles Luckman who would partner in 1951 and the founders of DMJM. It’s a curatorial triumph of Overdrive that both show and catalog make the work of prolific yet, at least in retrospect, middlebrow firms look fresh and important. With a few exceptions, however, it falls to other PSTP shows to reveal what more challenging, and often foreign, architects might have produced in the place of these local sons. Overdrive did however make room for a model of Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Open House (1988), now in the Getty’s collection, which I had to return to twice to sort out, seeing it for the first time in more than a photograph. It is a marvel of cascading surfaces and exfoliating volumes, decades before those challenges would pervade the field, and left me wondering if in fact the most prescient of the Santa Monica School architects was actually an adjunct member — Himmelb(l)au’s Viennese principal, Wolf Prix.

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PSTP’s two monographic shows, one on A. Quincy Jones and the other on the partnership Smith and Williams, did little to dim the corporate triumphalism of Overdrive; in fact they illustrated the process by which many talented postwar architects in Los Angeles, who in a less turbo-charged climate would have led respected atelier studios, instead chose to ramp up production and become corporate brands — or at least formidable regionalists. A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living was a stellar exploration of a career and a sensibility shaped by ever-improving economic circumstances, and marked in architectural terms by broader spans and more generalized plans as Jones graduated to ever-larger projects, residential and otherwise. The mid-century decades were kind to Jones, and he responded with a generous and optimistic vision for the good life in Southern California.  

Though I was only able to visit the A. Quincy Jones exhibit, I’d wager that Outside In: The Architecture of Smith & Williams, as well as the recent rediscovery of architect Edward Killingsworth in a 2008 exhibition and this year’s monograph by author/curators Cara Mullio and Jennifer M. Volland, are all first-rate treatments of late mid-century practitioners that deserve the reappraisal, but perhaps not all the limelight as the only soloists in PSTP. Fresh scholarship has to start somewhere, and at least on the evidence of Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher and Brooke Hodge’s A. Quincy Jones, this cohort of California architects is a worthy one in terms of proselytizing Modernist design amongst the postwar needy and then the Cold War prosperous. Jones’s attunement to “lifestyle” seems to strike a chord with younger designers, but leaves me wishing the wherewithal of PSTP — and the scholarly investment of some respected colleagues — had gone to architects more intent on reshaping the discipline.

As Thomas Hines allows in the concluding chapter of his definitive Architecture of the Sun, the 1970s were good to architectural businessmen, but a nadir for “artist” practitioners in Los Angeles. Only John Lautner rides out the decade on commissions for bespoke single-family homes (and even Lautner’s late work is suspect — heavyset cliffside aeries that, as Hernan Diaz Alonso points out, are always home to villains when cast in films). “Scalable,” prolific, and collaborative practices were more common, and apparently more the goal of many post–World War II architects, even those like the Eameses, Pierre Koenig, and Craig Ellwood, who have enjoyed retroactive canonization. Rather than celebrating unsung professionalism, PSTP could either have delved more deeply into one of these case study heroes, or have encapsulated the era more accurately by assessing the trajectories and influence of Victor Gruen — a Viennese Perret to Gehry’s Corbusier — or William Pereira. Had the latter been properly revisited, LACMA’s renewed ambitions to level Pereira’s original buildings would be more controversial. As it stands, PSTP has instead underwritten their replacement by a mega-scheme coined by Peter Zumthor.

 

II.  PSTP, OR, POST-SCULPTURALISM TRAUMA, POOLSIDE?  
 

Technology & Environment: The Postwar House in California at Cal Poly Pomona

A Confederacy of Heretics at SCI-Arc

A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California, Christopher Mount, curator/editor. (Los Angeles: MoCA, Skira, Rizzoli, 2013)

 

For a closer and more tactical reading of these dynamics as they relate to contemporary Los Angeles architecture — and for a local but high-stakes version of the Modern versus Postmodern debate — one needed to visit CalPoly Pomona and then SCI-Arc (the former architecture school having spawned the latter, as SCI-Arc’s A Confederacy of Heretics reminded us). Technology & Environment: The Postwar House in California at Cal Poly Pomona was an eloquent defense of late modern domestic architecture in Los Angeles, told through a careful reassessment of eight houses built between 1945 and 1975. Large-scale framing models, original construction documents, and films of the completed homes fleshed out the discoveries in each, and supported the modest thesis of the show: that advanced construction techniques enabled by World War II met the temperate climate of Los Angeles in a series of smartly resolved, if at times surprisingly imposing, homes. Two projects landed to either side of an important turn in local sensibilities: Ray Kappe’s home of 1966–68, a giant’s play of timber trays cantilevered from masonry piers that expands on the deep sectional ideas of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Rudolph, and Frank Gehry’s prismatic studio/loft/home for Ron Davis, completed just five years later, but remarkable in this company for how perspective is no longer harnessed before and after design, for framing views from the house or looking into it, but for the development and distortion of its actual form.

A more contentious line-up filled out A Confederacy of Heretics at SCI-Arc. Heretics brought a reunion of 10 practices that in 1979 had lectured at SCI-Arc and exhibited for a week apiece in Thom Mayne’s Venice loft as a part of the “Architecture Gallery.” As I contributed to this catalog, edited by Ewan Branda and Todd Gannon, I will recuse myself from a review of the book, but the installation and symposium for Heretics both had the feel of a night at the Whisky, mid-1970s — a rock-and-roll lineup running from the Southern blues of Coy Howard’s relief “drawls” out to the smoky Doors-inflected Venetian studios of Studio Works and Morphosis (the two acts with good band names). Gehry was the headliner, with his own home of competing, overlapping volumes in prosaic finishes hauntingly photographed by Grant Mudford, but the geometric insistence and high-contrast graphic schemes of Eric Owen Moss appear the most retroactively ahead of that time. In their Day-Glo recombination of architectural elements and quick sleights-of-hand between graphic and sculptural articulation, Moss’s Playa Triplex of 1976 and Fun House of 1980 reminded me of Devo and the other New Wave bands that mechanized Pop a few years later. Roland Coate Jr., who left architecture for painting and burnt the evidence of his design work, is hardly the Jim Morrison of the Confederacy, but a compelling riddle. His all-concrete Alexander house of 1974 is a precocious act of Postminimalist obsession, a monument of solids and voids anchored in a Montecito hillside, while his paintings strike me as slight, and jarringly derivative of Billy Al Bengston’s insignias of the decade before. Coate was a much better architect.

As an awkward panel discussion including most of the architects who originally exhibited in 1979 made clear, at the time they were united, if anything, by their hostility to the late modernist orthodoxies that most of them had escaped in a move from teaching at Pomona or USC to SCI-Arc or UCLA. In this light, the Pomona show, curated by Judith Sheine, read as a justified rebuke to the excesses of Heretics, but one that indulged some of its own contradictions. Well considered, sensible, and elegant though the Pomona houses are, they tackle a familiar challenge: how can the banded planes of Modernism meet the uneven slopes of Southern California? Like the pre–World War II masterworks of Wright, Schindler, and Neutra, these homes perch and frame views from hillsides, usually with greater material innovation, if less spatial economy, than their High Modern precursors. By contrast, and with just a few exceptions, the early projects of the Heretics generation land in the flats. Frank Gehry’s recomposed home, the exponentially derived 2-4-6-8 House of Morphosis, and Moss’s metaphor-packed Petal House are all solutions to a new problem: how can LA architecture be interesting without compelling topography to set it in motion? Fleeing the familiar “Foothills,” the most rarified of Reyner Banham’s Four Ecologies, the Confederacy of Heretics showed how the other three Ecologies came into play as overlapping influences: Moss, Morphosis, and Robert Mangurian haling first from “Surfurbia;” Craig Hodgetts and Peter de Bretteville, the Autopians; Gehry and Coy Howard tilling the Planes of Id.

Keying the show’s artifacts to a series of six geometric maneuvers of escalating intensity, Andrew Zago’s installation design for Heretics reveal how LA architecture freed itself from modernist limitations by abandoning the local horizontals-meet-hillside equation and developing a series of projective and rotational strategies for problematizing flat, bounded lots. This resort to inventing challenges for more generic sites — a poor man’s autonomy — put the Heretics more in league with their East Coast contemporaries than their Californian precursors.

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The most costly and ill-starred of the PSTP exhibitions, A New Sculpturalism is also, importantly, the only one to stretch its timeframe to the 21st century. Curated by Christopher Mount, recently arrived from MoMA, the show and catalog bring together work by roughly 40 current LA architects, including Frank Gehry (though his threatened withdrawal from the exhibition after seeing the catalog made headlines) and at least three subsequent generations ranging in age from their 30s to 70s — that is, principally those born within the 1940–1990 scope of PSTP.

Eric Owen Moss Architects, Samitaur, Los Angeles, 1996, © Tom Bonner.

Eric Owen Moss Architects, Samitaur, Los Angeles, 1996, © Tom Bonner.

“Sculpturalism” is a stupid word, but not an uninteresting one. There’s a hint of revival in it, as “Sculpture” has been a more or less defunct category in fine art since the 1960s, killed off by Minimalism and the Specific Objects of Gehry’s contemporaries in the LA art scene. Richard Serra persists in calling himself a sculptor, but most artists since have tried to sidestep the label by working across media. And the “-ism” begs some questions: Did the curator mean to imply a novel belief system, an ideology of sculpture, a doctrinaire faith in modeled form? Or simply that things and buildings could be sculpture-like, molded to look like other things, sculpturesque? Or, was it just that recent LA architecture looked to Mount more sculpted, more shaped than composed or conceptualized? I wish the first question had driven the exhibition, but the catalog suggests the last held sway.

There hasn’t been a thorough survey of contemporary architecture in Los Angeles since Rizzoli and the LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design published Experimental Architecture in LA in 1992, so, if nothing else, A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California provides an overdue reassessment. Essays by Mount, Margaret Crawford, Johanna Vandemoortele, Sam Lubell, and Nicholas Olsberg flesh out the context of the work in terms of the cultural, urban, and economic forces that inform — and arguably, “shape” — Los Angeles design since 1990, for example, the rediscovery of Los Angeles’s inner suburbs and the industrial shift from aerospace to entertainment. Unlike an earlier, more exclusive, but similarly controversial show at MoCA, What’s Shakin’, an eight-project review mounted (or she might point out, inherited) by Brooke Hodge in 2001, the rhetoric of A New Sculpturalism is less prey to recent local events — at least this time around, no one is asking if complex, distorted forms have anything to do with earthquakes, riots, or OJ. They are asking, principally, what all theses forms, from 38 studios, have to do with one another.

Brooks + Scarpa Architects, Bergamot Artist Lofts, Santa Monica, California, 1999, photo by Marvin Rand.

Brooks + Scarpa Architects, Bergamot Artist Lofts, Santa Monica, California, 1999, photo by Marvin Rand.

After Gehry’s complaints and the show’s confused thematics and finances came to light, Christopher Mount was forced out as curator (but remains principal author and editor of the catalog). For a week or two in May it appeared A New Sculpturalism was doomed to be a tome without an exhibition, but the show limped along, a circus without a ringmaster, until Thom Mayne of Morphosis stepped in with staff, funds and a demand, broadly shared, that the title of the show be changed, abbreviated, or simply discarded.

When it did open, into intense critical headwinds, the large show felt shoehorned into the side gallery of the Geffen, as it had been, to make more room for amateur clay figurines commissioned by Swiss artist Urs Fischer to fill the remaining three-fourths of the museum. Subdivided by building typology, A New Sculpturalism reminded me of another exercise in serial ceramics: the terra-cotta warriors of Xian. The multitude of included artifacts — models, drawings, fashionable exercises in between — were impressive but archeological, over-packed and hard to fathom, a vast parade organized as though for procession, but frozen in a cave. Rather than herding projects into corrals of similarly scaled designs, New Sculpturalism should have developed the trajectories of discovery — and, in fact, chains of command — in Los Angeles’s close-knit design community that have unleashed a global “show of force” rivaled only by Tokyo and Rotterdam. The show could have been more coherently organized according to the competing software weaponry that enabled very different orders of formal exploration: from Gehry’s repurposing of the aerospace program CATIA, through the animation-based projects generated with Maya pioneered by Greg Lynn, back to the early FormZ breakthroughs of Morphosis and Neil Denari, and forward to the Rhino-based scripting and “painting” of new practices.

A few site-specific pavilions illustrate the specialized hardware enabled by advanced computation. I liked best Tom Wiscombe’s plane-into-volume exercise, which resembled a Teepee for Gumby, but Elena Manferdini’s polychrome cube is more daring in this boys-with-toys context. Both bravely abandoned their usual formulas for installation: no cantilever from Wiscombe, no drape for Manferdini. The pavilion by PATTERNS is a nice prelude to a more ambitious version under construction at SCI-Arc, and the sad elision of Ball-Nogues, whose proposed augmentation of the trellis outside the Geffen proved infeasible within timeframe, at least yielded a fantastic one word blessing by telegram from Frank Gehry, “Approved.” The best curatorial move in the show was Mayne’s decision to rent and repurpose some enormous white tulle scrims designed by Alexis Rochas for SCI-Arc’s 40th anniversary party. Hovering over the show like enormous, attenuated jigsaw pieces with eight-foot high, gently conical edges, the scrims hold the show together and offer a continuous, superstructural projection surface for the work below.

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This is now all gossip in the past tense, but I think it’s worth offering a few points on Mount’s behalf: many of his problems arose from the early release of the A New Sculpturalism’s catalog, an almost unprecedented achievement in architectural curation. Had his book simply appeared with or after the show, as most do, its project contributors would not have had the opportunity to reassess their involvement and the show’s structure. And, though many were at pains to deny his reading of the city’s design culture, Mount’s fascination with the intensity of formal or sculptural modeling as a hallmark of Los Angeles practices is hardly new, nor unsupported by his recent encounters in New York with Gehry’s IAC Building and tower at 8 Spruce Street, the new wing of Cooper Union by Morphosis and Neil Denari’s Highline 23, turning contrapposto over the elevated park. In fact, Los Angeles firms produced the lion’s share of civic-scale advanced geometry and compound curvature realized in New York in the last decade. What Mount did underestimate was how sharply honed the hostility has become amongst Los Angeles architects toward being branded merely form-makers — few more so than Mayne.

Paging through the catalog and then walking through the show, I found myself wondering how different their reception would have been if both had been retitled, simply, LA Architecture After Morphosis. Not a single architect in the show would deny Gehry’s enduring centrality, but it is the Santa Monica School architects who have taught the rest of us how to operate after FOG, how to begin a practice in a climate already steeped in high-design expectations, how to negotiate a busy field of similarly ambitious colleagues. By dint of his intensity and drive, Pritzker-winner Mayne has managed the herculean task of outrunning Gehry’s shadow, and A New Sculpturalism celebrates principally the work of firms trying to follow suit. Greg Lynn and Neil Denari have intense followings of their own, but Christopher Mount’s most provocative oversimplification was to suggest that viewed from a distance, all of them are sculpting away, and none more quickly than Morphosis. When Gehry reportedly complained that A New Sculpturalism was too “SCI-Arc-y,” what else could he have meant?

Morphosis Architects, Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Caltech, Pasadena, California, 2008, photo by Roland Halbe.

Morphosis Architects, Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Caltech, Pasadena, California, 2008, photo by Roland Halbe.

It’s also worth noting that this was but one of five PSTP exhibitions that were shaped in defining ways by Mr. Mayne. Whatever their flaws, A New Sculpturalism and Heretics both show him doing considerably more for his fellow architects than the rest did for themselves, in either 1979 or 2013. He factors importantly in the next two shows I will discuss as well, and even in the last regarding LACMA.

 

III. TO “FREEWAY HISTORIES,” A THEORY, A BOULEVARD, AND AN OIL SPILL
 

Everything Loose Will Land, Sylvia Lavin, curator/author (Nuremberg: Moderne Kunst Nurnberg, 2013)

Windshield Perspective, Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, curators, A+D Museum

NeverBuilt Los Angeles, Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, curators/authors. (New York: Metropolis/D.A.P., 2013)

Reconsidering LACMA: Peter Zumthor and the Presence of the Past, LA County Museum of Art

 

I spent most of 2012 finishing a book, only dimly aware of the build-up to PSTP. As the various exhibitions and catalogs began to take shape, however, my hovering question coming into 2013 wasn’t whether Sylvia Lavin’s Everything Loose Will Land would be the best of the PSTP shows, but whether the rest really needed to happen at all.

Happily, most of the other productions proved worthwhile, but Everything Loose remained in its own league in terms of daring, incisive scholarship, and critical ambition. The Freeway Histories on offer in Windshield, Overdrive and to a lesser degree throughout PSTP give way in Everything Loose Will Land to a new and more sophisticated theorization of Los Angeles as a catalyst for cultural and disciplinary cross-pollination. If the Venetian post-Marxist Manfredo Tafuri famously believed in one History and many theories, the PSTP shows suggest the opposite can also hold true: here we have many histories, and a single Theory, provided by Lavin.

Where most of the shows begin with archival exploration and end with well-formulated and nicely mounted chronologies of their findings, Lavin’s Everything Loose Will Land proves a hitherto vague hypothesis: in contrast to the model of medium specificity and disciplinary fortification that still held in New York into the 1970s, the radical advances in architecture and the visual arts in Los Angeles through that decade not only rewarded but required the suspension of disciplinary strictures to take shape. Lavin and her curatorial team assemble almost 100 instances of transdisciplinary borrowing, cross-pollination, and co-evolution to cement their case, spanning from Judy Chicago’s well-known Womanhouse and her more esoteric Aesthetic Research Collaborative (ARC), which placed performance art in malls, to a board game marketed by the designer of those same malls, Victor Gruen. A three-way collaboration between Billy Al Bengston, Frank Gehry, and Ed Ruscha on Bengston’s retrospective installation and catalog at LACMA in 1968, shows an artist playing architect, architect channeling artist, and all developing graphic and notational strategies for future work.

Paolo Soleri, ArcVillage I, 1969, Plexiglass model, 30 x 30 x 15 inches, Courtesy of Cosanti Foundation. Photo by Joshua White.

Paolo Soleri, ArcVillage I, 1969, Plexiglass model, 30 x 30 x 15 inches, Courtesy of Cosanti Foundation. Photo by Joshua White.

 

Bruce Nauman, Untitled [Equilateral Triangle], 1980, Installation view, Everything Loose Will Land, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, at the Schindler House, 2013. Photo by Joshua White.

Bruce Nauman, Untitled [Equilateral Triangle], 1980, Installation view, Everything Loose Will Land, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, at the Schindler House, 2013. Photo by Joshua White.

If A New Sculpturalism‘s ousted curator Christopher Mount seemed a lost and surprisingly naive New Yorker in Los Angeles, no one will mistake Lavin for either. Her catalog essay for ELWL, “Studs, Snapshots, and Gizmos: Los Angeles Dearchitectured,” begins with a lesson in tourism, focusing on Robert Smithson whose pilgrimages to the West Coast in the 1960s and 1970s were as much for access to advanced technology as for cultural enlightenment. The western landscape, infrastructure, and film and aerospace industries often lived up to their allure, but the local artists and architects didn’t make the strongest impression. After submitting a proposal for modifying a Kaiser Steelworks refinery to a LACMA show on Art and Technology in 1969, Smithson returned to New York with Nancy Holt and made a film in which she impersonates an archetypal East Coast artist and he her West Coast counterpart. They sit across from one another at a loft kitchen, the West Coast artist visiting on a trip east. She leans in with taxing, insistent rigor; he’s all laid-back, phenomenal mumbo jumbo. Her solicitousness masks her condescension; his languor belies his insecurity. To say they speak past each other is too collegial — they speak to themselves, wishing the other away.

In another deft restaging of East Coast versus West Coast sensibilities, Lavin invited Bernard Tschumi and Thom Mayne to discuss their work a week into the run of Everything Loose Will Land. On paper, this looked like an almost sadistic match-up. The dean of the Columbia School of Architecture for its most influential decade in the 1990s, Tschumi is the author of almost as many books as buildings, but all of both are well regarded, highly articulate, steeped in both theoretical rigor and his firsthand involvement in the 1960s French counterculture. Brilliant designer though he may be, Thom Mayne is considered, well … loose. Those of us contemplating a move from East to West Coast schools in the late 1980s heard alarming rumors about an infamous “Night they made Thom cry at Columbia” after he gave a lecture there in those years.

But on this night Mayne held his own: he showed equally ambitious projects, with more passion behind them. Most of all, Mayne arrived — as Smithson’s West Coast artist, in his confrontation with Nancy Holt’s East Coast artist, so evidently did not — with a gameplan. With cunning humility, Mayne explained the last 30 years of his work exclusively in terms of Tschumi’s vast Parisian landscape, Parc de la Villette (1982–83). Mayne showed how Tschumi’s traces, overlaps, and extractions at la Villette established the baseline conditions for large-scale urban projects at Morphosis, and how he moved past them. While Tschumi defended his moves from diagram to diagram in subsequent projects after La Villette, Mayne illustrated what a focused, prolonged exploration of patterning and striation could yield, and he made a compelling case that not all building concepts are as fruitful as others.

Tschumi has a star turn in ELWL nonetheless. One of the many unlikely forays to Los Angeles that Lavin revisited in ELWL was a 1973 student trip from the Architecture Association in London including Tschumi. Notes from that travel itinerary show the students’ fascination with Los Angeles’s social stratification and segregation, and read a bit like location scouting for Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), which presumably many of them had seen before arrival. Thus film, art, architecture, interior design, marketing, and all forms of zaftig experimentation comingle easily, and essentially, in Everything Loose Will Land. As Lavin writes: 

All these anecdotes describe moments of cultural aporia when the densifying and heterogeneous cultural infrastructure in Los Angeles led to more contact and misalliances between art and architecture […] To rephrase Barnet Newman’s infamous remark that sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting, from the late 1960s on, art and architecture constantly seemed to bump into each other when they backed up to look at Los Angeles.

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If ELWL built a on a complex skein of associations, discoveries, and intuitions Lavin brought to bear on a formative decade in LA art and architecture, NeverBuilt Los Angeles unearths a century’s worth of missed opportunities and astounding ambitions unrealized. The most profound irony of PSTP is that both the most revelatory and on-mission show of 2013, NeverBuilt Los Angeles, had to be funded independently (disclosure: I backed NeverBuilt on Kickstarter, as did enough others to get the show done and the catalog complete). Guardian angel to yet another show, Thom Mayne wrote a call-to-arms introduction for the catalog.

Pereira and Luckman, LAX original plan, 1952, Courtesy of LAWA Flight Path Learning Center.

Pereira and Luckman, LAX original plan, 1952, Courtesy of LAWA Flight Path Learning Center.

NeverBuilt curators/authors Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin opened the vaults of Getty and other archives and found a staggering array of architectural and urban proposals that went unheeded. LAX would be so much better now had the scale of Pereira and Luckman’s original vision been realized rather than miniaturized in the Theme Building; our park system so much more generous if the Olmsteds’ or Bill Fain’s later plans to salvage the Los Angeles River played out; Wilshire, which was about as utopian a projection across a city as has ever been built, could have hosted literally hundreds of experimental designs for museums, movie theaters, and all manner of shopping and housing since the 1920s that would have rivaled present day Shanghai. The “War of the Worlds” extravagance of a series of 1940s movie theaters by S. Charles Lee, which merge the prewar Streamline Moderne with the emergent flamboyance of the Googie ’50s, show what a new Sculpturalism really could have meant to the city. Goldin and Lubell smartly point out that the rise of television in those postwar years made even Lee’s visions for more dramatic but smaller movie palaces untenable.

Goodell Monorail, 1963, Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan.

Goodell Monorail, 1963, Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan.

 

Lloyd Wright Civic Center Plan 1925, Courtesy of Eric Lloyd.

Lloyd Wright Civic Center Plan 1925, Courtesy of Eric Lloyd.

Los Angeles has a lot of adventurous architecture, ranging in scale from the Chemosphere to Disneyland, but we have punted on so much more. The temptation to view that culling by circumstance as a good thing was strong going into the A+D Museum, but it was defeated almost immediately by a series of long-forgotten museum proposals: Peter Eisenman’s for Long Beach, Steven Holl’s for the Museum of Natural History, schemes by Pereira and Luckman and 50 years later by Christian de Portzamparc for Museums of Motion Pictures. All made me marvel at how impoverished our actual architecture for art has turned out to be. The Getty could have been by Gehry or Fumihiko Maki and been exponentially more daring.

Perhaps because of its staging at the A+D Museum, at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, NeverBuilt is especially good about unearthing earlier proposals for what would become LACMA across the street. Goldin and Lubell include a Deco “Rancho La Brea Pit Museum” by Samuel Lunden from the 1920s and ’30s, as well as an arched “Cyclorama,” prefiguring LAX’s Theme Building, for a proposed La Brea Science Museum on the same site. They also mourn all the proposals that might have been LACMA, or more of it, including an original 1963 design by Mies van der Rohe (the rejection of which I think stunted the city’s cultural development by decades), and then later ones by OMA and Morphosis. Instead, William Pereira got the initial job at the insistence of Armand Hammer, and then, during the 1980s museum craze, the offices of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer were given the massive expansion — one of few museum commissions in a major global city ever awarded to a corporate firm.

Now LACMA hopes (and will pay dearly) for redemption from bespoke but predictable masters Renzo Piano and Peter Zumthor. Reconsidering LACMA: Peter Zumthor and the Presence of the Past at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art lays out the museum’s latest case for out-guessing the avant-garde with a costly but less threatening alternative. The various iterations and expansions of the museum are well captured in the middle bay of the Resnick Pavilion, leaving just enough room for enormous models of Zumthor’s Noguchi Table–like freeform scheme to replace most of the current museum. (The new Piano buildings for the Broad and Resnick collections would stay, as would Bruce Goff’s wing for Japanese art and the May Co. Building, slated — cross your fingers — for a museum partnership with the Academy of Motion Pictures.)

The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA, Installation View, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA.

The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA, Installation View, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA.

I won’t make a case for keeping the original Pereira buildings at LACMA — they will live forever, at least forever enough for me, in Ed Ruscha’s 1968 painting, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire — and I would (of course) applaud the demolition of the 1980s salmon, teal, and glass block expansion. However, the museum has a better scheme already for their replacement in OMA’s 2001 competition winning proposal, the model of which blinded me to everything else in Reconsidering LACMA. The investigations by Peter Zumthor appear limited to a series of intuitive sketches — “the site led my hand” — and arrow diagrams, followed by extensive modeling of elevated, partial gallery spaces. In an accompanying video loop, LACMA Director Michael Govan, who has been otherwise so sharp in his choices of large-scale installations and so beloved by the Board of Trustees, seems beguiled by Peter Zumthor’s reticence, his willingness to produce a mega-scale gesture, entitled Black Flower, and to humor a mass-marketing campaign based on its logo-form. If it gets built, and seen from above as Govan imagines it will by tourists flocking to Los Angeles by air, its black puddled shape will at least harken back to the site’s original disposition, an oil slick atop the tar pits. And thus the Getty funding makes more sense: most of the best museums in the western United States were built on oil fortunes — the Getty and the Hammer, among them — and this would pay homage to them all.

The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA, Installation View, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA.

The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA, Installation View, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA.

 

IV. NOW: OVER-BUILT, SO NEVER DRIVE?
 

For all of its Los Angeles introspection, Pacific Standard Time Presents made me think frequently of two far smaller cities.

Both Peter Zumthor and Urs Fischer hail from Basel, Switzerland, population 171,000, and between them they monopolized over 100,000 square feet of Los Angeles’s prime gallery space at LACMA and MoCA for most of the run of PSTP (if Zumthor’s Black Flower is built, that will total another permanent 70,000 square feet). Fischer and Zumthor are generations apart in age and even further apart in disposition, but their shared ascendency in Los Angeles this year says quite a bit about our city’s open embrace of new art from anywhere, and our taste for architects from anywhere but the untested vanguard.

The other “city” was California City, a hamlet of 9,000 deep in the Central Valley. To my surprise, California City cropped up in three exhibitions this spring, each time in the form of an unusually ambitious architecture proposal. In the 1960s, Konrad Wachsmann imagined a mega-structural civic center for the tiny community, a vast plinth covered by a 200-foot wide open span roof plane, included in NeverBuilt; Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown responded in Everything Loose with a coy but still grand masterplan for a Mart and Parkway in 1970; and, finally, in another off-PSTP show called the “Geographies of Detention” at UC Riverside, a vision that was realized: the biggest private prison operating in California, built on spec by Corrections Corporation of America and now filled by Federal ICE detainees. Too bad that one, of the three, didn’t qualify for NeverBuilt.

These reminders of smaller cities left me wondering if an unexpected but recurring motif in Los Angeles’s post–World War II expansion wasn’t a nostalgia for simpler times and more manageable urban scales — not exactly a historicist City Beautiful or Garden City, but A Small World, after all. The role and evolution of the Theme Building at LAX is a case in point. In NeverBuilt, we learn that the Theme Building was in fact a grander idea, illustrated on the cover of that catalog, for a vast, crystalline all-encompassing mega-terminal for all of LAX, a precursor for recent global hubs in Hong Kong or Dubai (and actually a masterpiece for its committee of designers, including Pereira and Richard Neutra). In Overdrive, where it also graces the catalog cover, Wit and Alexander show us how the Theme Building was built in suspended stages, but also how it was reduced to just a “feature” at the center of LAX, a reminder of the original design’s theme, and of ambitions too grand for its times, and perhaps for its city.

Capitol Records by Louis Naidorf of Welton Becket & Associates, 1954, The Getty Research Institute.

Capitol Records by Louis Naidorf of Welton Becket & Associates, 1954, The Getty Research Institute.

However, the Theme Building is also a masterful realization of a recurring architectural figure, the hemispheric, cylindrical, or centripetal building, for which Los Angeles has became justifiably renown. The agoraphobia engendered by Los Angeles’s sprawl also drives the city’s artists and architects to develop new and unlikely structures for taking in and digesting a city beyond convenient framing. The La Brea Cyclorama, the Planetarium, the Theme Building, the Capitol Records Building, the Cinerama Dome, Portman’s many tubed Bonaventure Hotel, even those two cylindrical Sheratons on the 405 downslope from the Getty — all of them started as perfect circles, and stayed closer to that than they might have anywhere else. A city that spreads in all directions fosters a certain kind of universal architecture. Lavin found perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this impulse in The Great Big Mirror Dome Project, a huge reflective mylar inflatable sponsored by Pepsi for experiential research. The director of a film on that dome, Eric Saarinen (aptly, if almost unbelievably, the son and grandson of architects Eero and Eliel Saarinen) provides a more general rationale for why “creatives” flock to Los Angeles: “The first thing the pavilion was about was not telling anyone what to do…”

¤

The best PSTP shows, and its most inspired catalogs, emerged from modest exhibitions that were nevertheless forthright and enthusiastic about Los Angeles’s emergence as a world city. Everything Loose Will Land and A Confederacy of Heretics showed Angelenos (and their visitors) taking full, unauthorized advantage of the city’s diverse cultural and accelerating industrial might. Overlooked and more intimate in its ambitions, Windshield Perspective, which was staged at the A+D Museum before NeverBuilt, offers perhaps the most democratic version of this argument. Curator Goldin scoured a few long, unheralded blocks of Beverly Boulevard looking for signs of actual life within the buildings there, along the street and recorded in the specific histories of each property. Windshield Perspectives mapped the fast-shifting demographics of central Los Angeles, as well as the slow adjustments and bright hues employed by each new diaspora to find their own kind and do business with the rest. The show offers a less categorical notion of the “contemporary” than those marking progress in advanced architecture and fine art, but also a more fluid measure of Los Angeles’s changing promise and constant potential.

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Joe Day is a designer and architectural theorist in Los Angeles.

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