September 11, 2013 - From the September, 2013 issue

Sam Hall Kaplan Reviews Getty's Pacific Standard Time

Last month we reprinted a review by Sam Hall Kaplan of  “Overdrive,” a major exhibition at the Getty Museum surveying Los Angeles’ architectural history, 1940 - 1990.  We felt his critical comments that had originally appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper put the exhibit into a welcomed perspective. So apparently did others, prompting us to ask Sam as the former uncompromising architecture and design critic of the LA Times to also offer his views on the Getty’s broader initiative, Pacific Standard Time, of which “Overdrive” was one of eleven exhibitions and scores of events. He reluctantly agreed, fearful though of adding to his reputation as a city scold. TPR presents his report.


Sam Hall Kaplan

In many respects the Getty’s overly ambitious attempt to explore and explain the shaping of the local built environment perversely reflects the arbitrary practices and personalities of the history and hype of the Los Angeles architectural scene. The result is a muddle of successes and embarrassments.

Nevertheless, given Southern California’s gnawing nescience, frankly anything that tries to raise the public’s design and planning consciousness should be applauded. Albeit for the august Getty,I do so with one hand. Considering the institution’s resources, I just had hoped for something more discerning than a capriciously fractured shallow scholarly view. 

 To be fair, the centerpiece “Overdrive” exhibition, featured at the Getty Center and supplemented by a collection of essays, was engaging, well illustrated and organized. Unfortunately polished as it was, the effort was not particularly balanced or appropriately critical, presenting what I felt was a strained attempt to promote the city as a “vibrant laboratory for cutting edge design” and a bevy of professionals as design divas in the years 1940 to 1990.

 If anything, the late 70s and 80s that I am particularly familiar was a time forself-aggrandizementfor a gaggle of professionals that no doubt dazzled the Getty potentates.This was evidenced bythe center’s largess to a collection of fawning institutions and applauding historians and design sycophants to the tune of $3.6 million, in grants and other goodies for collaborating under the banner of Pacific Standard Times (PST.)

An egregious example of this self-promotion was the makeshift gallery of 1979 in Venice showcasing a gaggle of self-anointed avant -garde architects, reproduced for the Getty initiative at SCIARC. Pretentiously labeled “A Confederacy of Heretics,”the quality of drawings, models and their presentation was embarrassing. Personally, I would have given thema failing grade when I taught, however briefly, at SCIARC. One would have to question what the Getty’s $260,000 was spent on, certainly not the refreshments at the crowded opening.

To be sure, this event, as most of the others under the PST banner, was cordial and collegial, orchestrated by Wim De Wit, of the Getty’sResearch Institute.There is a cult of amiability in LA that tends to discourage criticism and lends the local art and architecture scene a certain puerile mindset befitting a high school sorority. Being on a benefactor’s payroll helps.

The less said the better about the exhibition at MOCA labeled the “New Sculpturalism” that ostensibly was to focus on the “most expressive, experimental and avant-garde architects based in Los Angeles,” with the emphasis on emerging talent, or at least those with a modicum of juice or connections. But after theheraldedstar architect Frank Gehry backed out, MOCA faltered, and the curator’s role of Christopher Mount was subsumed by an overbearing and omnipresent Thom Mayne. He did entice Gehry to return to the show, albeit to be allocated a room off to the side where he displayed his failed submission for the National Art Museum of Peking. The polished submission was interesting. However,a local project would have been a better choice, given the thrust of the exhibit.

Meanwhile, the main gallery was erratically hung, featuring, surprise, the works of Mayne’s firm of Morphosis, and long standing friends and associates of disputable talent, such as Eric Owens Moss, not coincidentally the self-inflating SCIARC director. Both Mayne and Moss typically also dominated and drowned out the accompanying panel. To be sure, there were some engaging designs of a few emerging local architects scattered through the gallery, though these too were poorly explained. The results were, sadly, a mess, even drawing the wrath of the usually forgiving mild mannered Christopher Hawthorne of the Times. For this the Getty expended close to $500,000.

Not so much a muddle but more questionable was the exhibit entitled “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA.” Here the history of the museum on Wilshire Boulevard was respectfully reviewed by the prestigious Pritzker award winning Swiss architect Zumthor as a prelude to a blatantly pricey presumptuous proposal to raze most of the present sprawling galleries.Incidentally, theywereoriginallydesigned in part by William Pereira, an architect extolled inthe“Overdrive”exhibit.This call for wanton demolition of a fractured but functional cherished landmark was clearly a deviation from the PST’s heralded celebration of Southern California’s architectural heritage.

Perhaps not intentionally, it also exposed to public glare director Michael Govan’s grand vision for LACMA. It isn’t enough that Govan’s design ambitions already have cluttered up a prime entry to the museum with a forest of dated street lamps and scarred the limited open space with a trench topped by a giant rock, both of which have outlived their novelty. Talk about an edifice complex. As for the Getty, one wonders while stumbling to embrace this exhibit where was some needed perspective, political acumen and fiscal oversight grant givers are expected to exercise?

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Meanwhile, perhaps a more appropriate stage for the Getty- Govan-Zumthor folly would be across Wilshire Boulevard from LACMA at the A+D Museum, as part of the captivating “Never Built: Los Angeles” exhibition.

Though not part of the PST roster of recipients nor hyped as an Architecture Month must see, the exhibit offers a unique view of the Los Angeles dream and raises some provocative questions about its future. Not surprisingly, it has drawn respectful crowds and critical reviews, outshining the Getty gala.

In keeping with PST’s purported and well-packaged intent to also explore the region’s history as a “vibrant laboratory for architectural innovation” was the survey of the career of modernist architect A. Quincy Jones.  Presented with a welcomed scholarly respect at the always perspicacious Hammer Museum, the architect who practiced in Los Angeles from 1937 to his death in 1979 is credited with 5,000 built projects, and more than the much publicized other professionals pumped by the Getty in lending style to the region’s landscape. To be sure, Jones also designed some singular projects for singular show biz clients, and collaborated with a host of other notable architects. These includedPaul Williams and landscape architects Garrett Eckbo. The effort appropriately entitled “Building for Better Living ” closes September 8.

In the same spirit though more studied was the exhibit staged at Cal Poly Pomona, entitled “Technology and Environment: The Postwar House in Southern California.” Examined was how new design forms were spurred by innovations in lightweight materials and construction technology.  Very professional and, given the rising interest in sustainability, pertinent, and a plus for the Getty.

Much of Getty sponsored events were concentrated during a heralded “Architecture Month” in the late spring. While the scheduling lent a focus to the miscellany of venues, for those of us not on an academic or some other teat, or had family obligations, it was a challenge to attend all. I therefore regretfully did not get to see among other “Windshield Perspective,” at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum, and “Outside In: The Architecture of Smith and Williams”, at the UC Santa Barbara, both of which I was told by usually reliable sources were engaging. Not so was “Everything Loose Will Land,” at the MAK Center, “predictable and prejudicial,” said a witness, “the same old, same old, from the same old people.”

One event I did make a special effort to attend was “Runway,” the concluding program of the “Extreme IDEAS: Architecture at the Intersection” series organized under the guise of UCLA. It also was publicized as the concluding event of the PST initiative, a look beyond architecture’s traditional boundaries “to delve into topics arising from unexpected quarters in film, automotive, aerospace and tech industries” exploring their possibilities in concert with architects in an evolving Los Angeles, in short a promise of a glimpse of the future. 

In addition, it was to be held at the newly christened historic Hercules Campus in Playa Vista, featuring a robotics demonstration, and a panel of “fast-paced, back-to-back” presentations by a group of multi disciplinarians, and not the usual suspects who to date had dominated the Getty sponsored events. At last, I thought, the ever-amiable moderator Frances Anderton may even get to serve up something other than softballs.

But no, if it happened most of the audience, including me, didn’t hear it. The sound system was off, the visuals were weak, and soon people were wandering away, to socialize while scrounging the sushi leftover from a pre event party for the privileged. Thus concluded the PST’s celebration of modern architecture in LA, with a whimper that was almost audible.It also was an ignominiousfarewell for De Wit, who is leaving the Getty to become a curator at Stanford. 

 Among the more popular truism heard in LA’s dominant entertainment industry is that, “drama is easy, comedy is hard.” This I feel also can be applied to Getty’s curatorial efforts: “antiquities are easy, architecture is hard.” If anything, the Getty initiative could have used less hyped “overdrive” and more erudite oversight.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.