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Letting Loose Los angeles in the seventies

Fantastic mirrored pachyderms coexist with an all too real landscape of strip malls and freeways in a new exhibition on Los Angeles that examines the city’s capacity to stimulate radical responses to space, structure and patterns of use

There is a rather terrible film by Stanley Kramer, made in 1963, called It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, described as a ‘comedy epic’, and ending with converging car chases across a Los Angeles that seems to be nothing but swathes of uncompleted freeways, concrete water channels, half-built dams and fields of dust and equipment lying in wait for the enormous buildings and plazas that were about to emerge upon them.

Six years later, an unrivalled wave of civic and corporate mega-structures was in place: the completion of the Santa Monica and San Diego freeways; a vast downtown music centre; the huge three-building campus of the County Museum of Art; 176 acres of roadway, parking, plazas, tunnels and mixed-use high-rises called Century City; an entirely new town of 50,000 on the edge of the Irvine Ranch; the first megalithic skyscraper plaza on Bunker Hill; and a first very lonely downtown office tower by SOM, so lovingly portrayed as a seat of power by Antonioni in Zabriskie Point.

At the same time as these extravagantly sane and solid new worlds appeared, to punctuate the rather lovely mess of an antic city, local artists like Ed Ruscha, Dennis Hopper and Vija Celmins were becoming engaged by the everyday built landscapes of Los Angeles that surrounded them, looking at everything artists in other cities passed by − gas stations, signage, parking lots, dingbat apartments, commercial strips and freeways.

By the early 1970s, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and other pioneers of the ‘new topographics’ were directing the same kind of anti-monumental gaze on the routine architectural incidents of a corporate metropolis struggling so desperately to look ordered and normal, finding such corners of silent disorder as the sheet metal warehouses in the spanking new city of Irvine.

As with Ed Ruscha, who was picturing the little-loved County Museum of Art in flames within three years of its opening, we never quite know whether these oddly exhilarating social documents are a celebration or a cry of alarm; an elegy for what is going, an announcement of what is to be, or (what I am sure is most likely) examples of that shrug of engaged neutrality that the native vernacular of the time called ‘going with the flow’. Indeed, just as the metroscape of Los Angeles had always infected the narratives of its films and literature so there arose − if a little later − a persistent conversation between the architecture of the city and the imagination of its artists, even in such romantic work as the casting of light between walls and on water in Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series or Hockney’s A Bigger Splash.

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A detail of a recreated model of Charles Moore’s BEST products showroom, occupied by a herd of mirrored elephants (original 1979)

This crucial exchange between art and architecture is the principal starting point for Sylvia Lavin’s Everything Loose Will Land, a brilliantly conceived exhibition on radical inquiries into space, structure and the patterns of the city as they emerged in the Los Angeles of the 1970s, and part of the slowly unfolding Getty-sponsored investigation into the city’s postwar architectural culture known as Pacific Standard Time Presents (AR June 2013).

In the many works that bring art and architecture, artist and architect into dialogue, with Frank Gehry building sculptures and Ed Moses designing studios, Lavin reminds us how fertile is the terrain which obfuscates the boundaries between the two. She also reminds us how much the ‘postmodern’ liberation of architecture from the rational and functional academy of Modernism owed both to a discussion with the other arts, and to the careful observation − spurred first by artists and then famously carried into the conversation on rethinking architecture by Reyner Banham and Venturi Scott Brown − of the vernacular language of the mobile city.

The exhibition takes its cue from Frank Lloyd Wright’s characterisation of Los Angeles as the place where all shallow, eccentric and insubstantial ideas find a sympathetic home. Wright did not like the city, but those who do might agree with him anyway, for there is some truth to the idea that the city and itsarchitecture cultures are rightly averse to the well-grounded, conventional and substantial, scornful of ideology and theory, and more fond of the cheerfully temporary than the solemnly lasting.

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Wide-eyed Europeans arrived in droves to examine the futuristic city: here a group of students from Florence, Gruppo 9999, present a plea for an aerospace-inflected aesthetic rather than the city’s attempts at urban normalisation

In a fluid cityscape one is right to love the incident and be wary of the monument. Lavin locates this ideal of looseness in many things, and then places them loosely about in what is surely the perfect space to show them: the wood and concrete garden shed, its spaces carefully worked out to suggest they happened carelessly, that Rudolph Schindler built as his home and studio. At every point this modern monument to structural, material and spatial experiment, at once rough, ready and scrupulously refined, comes into conversation with the generations that followed.

Lavin organises the works around certain key ideas that she sees bringing architecture and the arts in the ’70s into broad alignment: a shared concern for the environment and the catastrophic interventions of civilisation in it, which marks so many of the projects; new strategies for making work, including shared and cooperative techniques, in which we see performance, printmaking, collage, installation, happenings and events used as readily by architects as artists; a newly complicit relationship between the viewer and the work, which many of these techniques provoked; and a common fascination, peculiar to Los Angeles, with exploiting light, one example of which is gorgeously illustrated in the recreated model of Charles Moore’s Urban Innovations Group for their BEST products scheme, in which a procession of mirrored pachyderms would have reflected the passing skies and scene.

Thinking of the character and pattern of the city in which these events were staged and upon which they reflected, some other, underlying ideas come across just as powerfully. Above all we begin to notice how many of the projects were essentially a critique of monumentality, assailing the idea of the city as a landscape of building block, noting its failure to recast itself in terms of new technologies of construction and communication, and calling for the looser rhythms and less substantial forms that would evade the cataclysmic environmental future of the new civic landscape and its concrete infrastructure.

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An image from LA Fine Arts Squad’s punningly-titled Isle of California series shows a post-apocalyptic collapsed freeway

The most obvious examples involve dystopic commentaries like the LA Fine Arts Squad’s Isle of California, done in the wake of the Sylmar earthquake, in which (as has now happened in the last two grave events), the freeways fall apart, or the ironic installation by Judy Chicago and the ARC group at Century City, whose monument of ice dissolved amid the nearly indestructible hardscape of this corporate ‘city within a city’.

Students visiting from Italy proposed on a stamped sheet what one radically different and more technologically adventurous idea of the urban monument might look like. Less overt examples, seen in the light of these, carried a similar anti-monumental message. In this context, Ron Herron’s famous vision for what to do with the underbelly of the freeway system became not just a radical proposal to populate one underpass with walkable space, communication systems and bubble shelters, but a proposition to rethink the entire built world along broken linear paths, an idea which acknowledged the vast concrete skyways, just as the Isle of California would, as the most genuine and by far the largest monumental element in the LA landscape.

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A model of Paolo Soleri’s Arcvillage, which was intended to house thousands in mile-high tubes and eventually inspired the Bonaventure Hotel

A similar sort of logic is followed in Venturi Scott Brown’s proposed strip mall in the new desert community of California City, which realistically accepted the fact that signage was the only visible screen from roadside and the architecture behind largely irrelevant. Paolo Soleri’s model for an urban village of thousands living in mile-high tubular constructions may seem fanciful and grandiose, but it was hugely influential on the ecologically minded; and one of the few successful monuments to the future in LA’s chequered history of big building schemes − the Bonaventure Hotel − actually scaled down that proposal and built it. At the Bonaventure, an entire little city appears in which the patterns of freeway, habitation, vista and public space are simply upended into a vertical system, and Soleri’s principal concern − to reduce the footprint to save theenvironment − is not entirely lost in the Oil Crisis-sealed air space of a void seen from many levels that makes up its grand concourse.

In the same way one is struck by the preference for mat and pattern over structured plan, and the loose rhythm over the deterministic. This is clear from the early studies of Robert Mangurian and Studio Works of just such ‘air space’; on a domestic level in the scale-shifting system of the 2468 House by Morphosis; and for an entire ‘UniverCity’ in a scheme developed by Craig Hodgetts. Thus both the works themselves, many lost or half-forgotten, and the extraordinarily intelligent way the exhibition weaves the path between them, trigger unexpected ways to see the cultural topography from which a radical discourse emerged.

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Morphosis’s 1978 design for a computer programmer’s house used the language and packaging of toy models to focus on the system of assembly rather than traditional notions of ‘construction’

There is no doubt of the importance of that discourse in making Los Angeles what Lavin calls the ‘cipher’ for a new way of thinking about the patterns and shapes of buildings and cities; in opening the door to the experimental generation of LA designers that emerged from it; and hopefully in providing keys to keeping alive such essential ideas, new to those times, as a union between need, technology and environment. At the same time, there seems equally little doubt of the extraordinary ineffectiveness of these propositions as agents of change.

The battles of the 1970s were between community activists and the civic and developer initiatives they opposed. Gentrification and environmental concerns were the primary issues, and ghastly compromises − or inaction − the commonest results. What was intended to provoke reform now seems sadly only visionary. But it is ultimately not questions about effective advocacy, about time and place, or about the nature and path of a discourse that make this feast of original, eccentric, exuberant, foolish and critical visual thinking so exciting.

The real excitement of Everything Loose has nothing to do with where and when its subjects happened or even with what came out of them, but simply with how powerfully they remind us of the tremendous dialectical potential of architecture − from subtle polemics on the status of women to brash commentaries on the tenuous environmental hold of civilisation − and of the untamable range of the modes of representation that carry its ideas.

Not incidentally, the show also makes it very plain as we look at the authorship and auspices of projects that no avant-garde comes from the head of a lonely prophet, but that every great shift in mentality happens because there are progressive institutions and loose associations and collaboratives to formulate and advance them and to build the platforms on which the first propositions are staged. As we see it in the loose constructions of the ’70s here, architecture is an art inextricably tied to the way we live, live together, and live with the planet.

As a language ultimately grounded in the most recognisable fundament of human culture, which is the need to shape shelter, it is peculiarly well equipped to talk about these things in a ready and readily eloquent visual vocabulary of commentary, critique, conscience and consciousness: to awaken us to a social injustice or an environmental danger; to satirise, challenge or confront the dreams of the grand and mighty; or sometimes − whether in the sheer inventiveness of its ideas or the scintillation of its representations − simply as a source for the last of those great Vitruvian requirements, delight.

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Craig Hodgetts of the California Institute of the Arts and graphic artist Keith Godard predicted a mobile, media-based university for the 21st century, not unlike Cedric Price’s earlier Potteries Thinkbelt


☛ In this month’s Overview (p21) Nicholas Olsberg reviews the Getty Conservation Institute’s recent symposium in LA

 

 

 

 

 

 

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