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Los Angeles: A crucible of contention

Beset by curatorial and funding issues, a new survey of Los Angeles architects at MOCA is a missed opportunity, with genuine talent lost in an undiscriminating blare of projects

Los Angeles has been a crucible of architectural experimentation for the past century, but outsiders (especially New York critics) paid little attention before Frank Gehry won the 1989 Pritzker Prize. Now, he and fellow laureate Thom Mayne enjoy more respect from afar than on home ground. ‘We export our ideas around the world,’ says Mayne. ‘For me, LA is a base of operations, but it has had little to do with my practice over the past 20 years.’

There’s a yawning gulf between the suits of America’s second city and its abundance of creative talent, except for the design of private houses that few see and which rarely support a practice. Yet, adventurous architects − worldwide − continue to emulate the example of Schindler and Neutra, setting up offices that are partly staffed by graduates of seven localarchitectural schools and restless spirits from the Ivy League.

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Alan-Voo House by Neil Denari typifies the LA penchant for the architectural trophy house

So the time seemed ripe for a major survey of progressive LA architects, and independent curator Christopher Mount sold the idea to the Museum of Contemporary Art. He gave the show a snappy title − A New Sculpturalism − and the Getty Trust awarded the project $445,000, the largest of its 11 Pacific Standard Time grants, confidently expecting it to be matched. It was a reasonable hope. Though MOCA has struggled for funds since its inception 30 years ago, director Richard Koshalek presented a stream of exciting architectural exhibitions attracting more visitors than the art shows.

The momentum he created carried the institution forward for a decade, and then it began to flounder, with the cancellation of an exhibition on Morphosis and the dismissal of its architecture curator. It teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, but was rescued by philanthropist-collector Eli Broad, who persuaded the board to name New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch the new director. His mandate was to engage the public, and he launched that effort with shows of street art (aka graffiti) and work by actor Dennis Hopper. The chief curator was ousted and the five artists on the board quit.

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The Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Caltech is one of 10 projects by Morphosis on show

After two years of preparation, the architecture show ran into problems. MOCA failed to raise much money and Mount says he was told to cut back or charge the participants. He refused, but installation architect Annie Chu was promised only $90,000 to install a show of work by 35 architects in a 1,600 sqm gallery. The opening was delayed, and after reading the catalogue Frank Gehry decided he wasn’t being taken seriously and pulled out. You can’t produce Hamlet without the prince. MOCA then halted construction and the show seemed doomed. Mayne intervened, assembled a group of 40 volunteers who worked with MOCA staff to install the show in four weeks, and persuaded Gehry to return. To eliminate any suspicion of hierarchy or value judgement, models and drawings were lined up in rows and demarcated by category.

Private houses occupy much of the space; multiple housing, commercial, cultural, educational and civic buildings (vestigial) take the rest. Three walk-in pavilions by younger firms are up-front; research models, mostly by Greg Lynn, are displayed on tables at the far end. Four overhead ribbons of white scrim serve as projection screens for moving bands of still images introduced by the disembodied voices of the participating architects. The material is fascinating; the presentation sadly deficient.

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If a celebrated chef were to throw handfuls of the finest ingredients into a pot, add stock, and vanish from the kitchen it would be hard to imagine a greater disappointment. It’s a miracle that the show was rescued at five minutes to midnight, and everyone should be deeply grateful to Mayne and his team for averting its cancellation. But it has lost its narrative, however misconceived that might have been, and is now no more than a three-dimensional portfolio.

The grid of white models on white plinths is monotonous and entirely lacking in scale and context. The overhead projections compete with each other to produce a visual and aural cacophony. Chu is a skilled designer who brought Schindler to life, 12 years ago, and has done the same for Quincy Jones in the current Hammer Museum exhibition. But those shows focused on residential architects, and it was easy to represent the ambience. The selection of 38 architects (several were added) working on houses, commercial towers and everything in between over a period of 25 years presents a much harder challenge.

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Frank Gehry’s evocative tableau for the National Art Museum of China expounds on an unfamiliar project

Gehry’s display suggests a strategy the whole exhibition might have followed. As a struggling radical in the early 1980s, he converted a police garage into MOCA’s widely-admired temporary home, now guaranteed permanence as the Geffen Contemporary. The exhibition was always going to be staged in a Gehry; now Gehry has taken possession of the reading room, lined with knotty Douglas fir, which he added in the 1990s. He has chosen to show his competition entry for the National Art Museum of China in Beijing − a job he lost to Jean Nouvel. It’s an inspired move, for the room has the warmth and human scale the main gallery lacks, and it showcases a brilliant, unfamiliar project in depth.

Concept sketches, study models, a video and sample materials (including a newly invented ‘translucent stone’ of layered and heat-moulded low-iron glass) explain the what, why, and how of the building. It’s a simple rectangular block with a rooftop garden and four tapered lanterns that double as sculpture galleries. Each side is composed of shimmering ribbed blocks set at angles to animate the mass. Inspiration comes from Chinese buildings and artists’ representations of the landscape. Nothing could be simpler or subtler. For Gehry, it’s a new material and a new language; the five-level block is designed to display large-scale contemporary work and precious scrolls, while accommodating 12 million visitors a year − twice the number visiting the Louvre.

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Samitaur Building by Eric Owen Moss exuberantly rebrands a dull business park in Culver City

You could imagine an exhibition in which 15 carefully selected architects were each invited to present a single project in depth, explaining its location, context, programme, materials and performance. Images and models of other projects by the same firms would provide back-up for the chosen work, with videos and backdrops to establish a sense of place. Instead, the exhibition is a caucus race in which everyone (including marginal talents and fellow travellers) receives a prize. Some architects are featured repeatedly, and a few models stand out by their size and originality, notably Morphosis’s Phare Tower and an LED-lit canopy by B+U. Therein lies the problem: an icon to rival the Eiffel Tower sits alongside a folded polycarbonate canopy for a house in Pasadena.

Morphosis has 10 projects in the exhibition, but none is elucidated and there is no connective tissue. There’s little indication that Eric Owen Moss has cleverly transformed a drab block of Culver City warehouses into an exuberantly expressive high-tech park, branding anonymous buildings to lure ambitious tenants. Architects of the calibre of Michael Maltzan, Kevin Daly, Neil Denari and Craig Hodgetts, who have spent their careers crafting buildings to please exacting clients, are given no more attention than wannabes.

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The imaginative condo blocks of Lorcan O’Herlihy and the inventive geometries of Patrick Tighe and XTEN are lost in the crowd. Art works by these architects add another layer but do nothing to interpret their work. Architects may be entranced by this parade of their peers, but civilians are likely to be overwhelmed by the overload of uncoordinated objects. Though Mayne never had time to re-curate the show, the end result emphasises aesthetics as much as the original scheme.

The exhibition was never intended to be scholarly. Arresting photos dominate the catalogue, which has no plans and few drawings. In his curatorial essay, Mountdeclares, ‘This is architecture that wows by boldly challenging the status quo … a form of building that delights in the abstract and flaunts a visual richness.’ He writes, as many critics have, of LA architects’ reaction to the loose, generic quality of the metropolis; the ‘made in the garage’ tradition of bricolage and ad-hocism.

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Hodgetts + Fung, Wild Beast Music Pavilion, Valencia, California, 2009. Photo courtesy of Tom Bonner

These are helpful generalisations, but architects hate being grouped and labelled, especially in LA where they cherish their autonomy. And, indeed, they are very different, within and between the three generations represented here. If the show had been titled Free Spirits it might have avoided censure. Instead, a new logo has been devised in which A New Sculpturalism is scratched out, leaving Contemporary Architecture from Southern California. You feel sorry for the younger architects who are most in need of a boost.

Deitch’s apparent loss of interest is embodied in the lack of signage. Gehry’s exhibit is barely acknowledged. Visitors are confronted with a banner announcing that Urs Fischer (a Swiss artist of dubious talent) has collaborated with 1,500 Angelenos (selected online) to create a kind of playground full of grey plaster gnomes and other cute creatures, which fill most of the museum and entirely conceal the gallery containing the architecture. As a small child growing up in England I was keen on making sand sculptures during seaside holidays, but I hardly expected they would be exhibited at the Tate.

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