As LA’s architecture season comes to close, Nicholas Olsberg reflects on experimental housing, lacklustre public buildings and an exciting ‘reconsideration’ of civic failures
This month marks the end of a gruelling six months of events devoted to LA architecture since 1940 and sponsored or triggered by the Getty programme Pacific Standard Time. With few exceptions, the shows tended to wander along more byways than highways. Some took to their side roads brilliantly, like SCI-Arc’s revisiting of a pivotal if minor event among architects emerging in the 1970s. But you had to go to Cal Poly Pomona for any deep analysis of works or for any insight into the social context in which they were made. Meanwhile, you went from show to show wondering where all the great work had gone.
We have never had a critical retrospective of Neutra, Ain, Eckbo, Ellwood, Soriano, or a recent survey of Gehry, and this programme largely passed those giants by. The long, complicated discourse on LA as a metropolitan pattern and as a recurring model for the future was ignored in favour of more pragmatic, dialectic and scientific positions. Perhaps most astonishing, the place of the movies in forming and servicing the culture of art and architecture went unacknowledged.
Three important lessons did come through. One was that, as all the world knows, LA has been very good at experimenting with houses. Another was that, as the world may not have noticed, the city has been very bad at making anything interesting of big civic buildings and large public spaces. The third lesson, a little harder to discern, less noted by the world at large, but perhaps most vital, was the recognition of how persistent, intelligent and creative has been the region’s fondness for cluster, assemblage and collage and its architects’ passion for using those strategies to reinvent small-scale commercial, service and group housing typologies that fit the changing urban landscape.
It is with their innovations in living systems and structures that LA’s great lost names - Schindler, Neutra, Soriano, Ain, Eames, Lautner, Ellwood, Koenig and Frank Israel − are remembered. Early work of Ray Kappe and Frank Gehry demonstrated the astonishing subtlety and bravado with which they seemed to reinvent the dwelling; and it seemed clear from exhibitions ranging through the earliest work of Coy Howard, Fred Fisher and Eric Owen Moss in the late ’70s to the emerging generation today that the persistent presence of clients ready to run aesthetic risks on a house remains a gigantic stimulus to the city’s small practices. From Michael Maltzan’s supportive housing for Skid Row to Barbara Bestor’s Floating Bungalow, many younger LA studios continue to propose pragmatically inventive lessons for living with a better sense of the economies of means and space.
One of the reasons for this brilliant tradition failing to carry over to large-scale works was simply structural. All the big postwar jobs went to a handful of massive firms, and those firms had a singularly businesslike agenda. During one among a number of scandalously unsophisticated panels at the Getty, the retired partner from one of these ’60s firms proudly repeated the claim that his had been for a decade the largest architectural practice on earth (though 90 per cent of its work was within 100 miles of its office), while another described his firm’s philosophy as simply to design something they could deliver on budget and on time.
Disappointment about the tameness of LA’s public buildings and about the failure of so many adventurous civic projects to materialise becomes especially sharp when we set these failures of nerve against the triumphs of grace, novelty and ingenuity that had marked the region’s large public works in the 1920s and ’30s: buildings like Myron Hunt’s Pasadena Library and Ambassador Hotel, Jock Peters’ Bullocks Wilshire store, Bertram Goodhue’s LA Public Library and Caltech campus, and the unrivalled parade of re-inventive grandeur − from banks and office buildings to department stores and cinemas (many still standing) − with which Stiles Clements furnished miles of newly paved boulevard.
They are also in their insistence on a sort of benign monumentality horribly out of tune with the provocative tradition of luscious particularity that marks so many small-scale commercial and public works in LA. These are logical, distinctive and inventively adapted to climate and casual use. For decades new variations on the casual and the clustered seemed never to stop appearing. Though the fabric in which they sit may be dire, the city houses a feast not only of brilliantly designed dry-cleaners, drive-ins, local markets, branch libraries, restaurants and studios, or elementary schools, but also a host of mid-scale variations upon the theme of intelligent density in housing, achieved with equal intelligence and even more ingenuity.
There are clustered garden courts that allow dwellings to become at once independent and cooperative. There are small grouped studios like Whitney Smith’s and Quincy Jones’ from the ’50s and ’60s, or larger sets of offices in graduated stacks, like SOM’s great Music Corporation of America campus from 1976, all working to the same effect of balancing social and private space, open and closed zones, and with the notion of creative space at their core. There are small pedestrian shopping centres, either on ramped streets, like FLW’s Anderton Court from the ’50s, irregularly scattered like Gehry’s Edgemar of 1984-88, or tumbling along the street-front under a parking roof, like Stephen Kanner’s Montana Collection from the same date. In all there is a cinematic negotiation between circulating and settling, seeing and being seen, looking at a built still life and serving as the staffage that sets it off for others.
Though the exhibitions showed much vitally important work from the ’70s and ’80s that moved along this line, this tradition of playing with new ideas for casual and lighter buildings, unlike experiments in the single dwelling, seems to be dying in favour of simply dressing up big or little boxes within arbitrary sculptural gestures, a pattern for which Disney Hall, whose interior spatial experience bears absolutely no relation to the shape or palette of its outward form, set the example. It is telling to recall the Getty’s own timidity as Richard Meier’s first plan for loosely laid out pavilions within a green landscape − an authentic LA campus − turned into a new version of the Lincoln Center, a tight and forbiddingly bright hardscape between a set of unwelcoming containers. And it is even more telling that the few recent civic buildings to capture affections have been − like Gehry’s marvellously casual ‘Temporary Contemporary’ and Hodgetts and Fung’s fluid short-term rehousing for a UCLA library − the most improvisational.
The season has ended, however, on a genuinely optimistic note, as Peter Zumthor unveiled a beautifully worded ‘reconsideration’ of one of the city’s most pompous civic building failures − the opaque boxed enclosures of the main campus of the LA County Museum of Art. By rethinking it in completely inverted terms, as a single, transparent sheltered art park curving like a huge fallen leaf above the landscape, Zumthor has suggested the same spirit of anti-monumental invention, the type of casual California humanism that makes such poetry of the city’s clustered and provisional sites. Sporting no grand entrance like the Getty, setting plazas under and around to walk and cycle through, and sitting shallow, smooth and curved against the choppy towers of its rectilinear boulevard, this model of a delicious possibility describes the outlines of the most exciting civic space the city has ever seen.