August 1, 2002 - From the August, 2002 issue

Architects Seek Permanence While Capturing Fluidity Of Los Angeles' Civic Culture

TPR is pleased to excerpt this piece written by architecture critic Leon Whiteson, curator of the traveling exhibition "Architecture for the New Millennium." Sponsored by the California/International Arts Foundation, the exhibition features the work of five prominent avant-garde architects, and is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei, Taiwan, through October 15. Subsequently, the exhibition is scheduled for venues in Taichung, Taiwan, Guangxhou, China, and Macau through spring 2003.


Leon Whiteson

Architecture, it is said, is society made visible, and to understand the particular character of the innovative, highly imaginative, widely influential architecture that has come out of Los Angeles and Southern California in recent times you have to have some idea of the social and cultural context from which it springs.

Noted Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas must surely have had Los Angeles in mind when he wrote, in his essay S.M.L.XL: "If there is to be a new urbanism it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be a staging of uncertainty... obsessed with the reinvention of psychological space." In Los Angeles the effect of all this is to evoke a kind of metropolitan theater - a vast staging of uncertainty no longer explicable as a series of related happenings, but only comprehensible as the simultaneous occurrence of multitudinous events.

This is the reason why Los Angeles is the source of so much avant-garde architecture – epitomized by the phenomenon of Frank Gehry and the four other architectural offices whose work is on display here: Frederick Fisher, Koning Eizenberg, Eric Owen Moss, and Morphosis's Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi. Taken together, these architects present the range and diversity of the ideas first developed by Gehry in the late 1960s – an original design vocabulary admired and imitated around the globe.

The comprehension that life in Los Angeles is always dynamic, and that its architecture cannot easily attain the sense of permanence or completeness of more settled times or societies, was one of Frank Gehry most perceptive and provocative original insights. "As a Los Angeles architect," Gehry explains, "my work is an expression of a city made up of a barrage of multiple, disconnected images. Yet, I find a virtue, something of value, in those images."

In practice, Gehry's creative method is very simple, almost childlike. When he begins to grapple with a project, he almost always uses small blocks of wood or Styrofoam to generate playful shapes and examine how the various elements of a structure might be sculpturally manipulated. Subsequently, these basic forms are transferred to the computer for elaboration and refinement. "All my designs are really little villages of geometric clusters," he says. "I break everything down into its basic elements, then reassemble them intuitively to strike up new relationships between old friends. Common shapes become uncommon by this process."

One of the more engaging characteristics of Gehry's architecture is its playful wit. In truth, the playfulness of Los Angeles's avant-garde architecture is perhaps the most persuasive reason of all why it has proven so universally attractive; its vivacity and verve offer an alternative to the bland clichés that pass for good taste in other places. "The unraveling of the mundane through the magic of fun is intrinsic to our style," says Michael Rotondi. "Maybe it's the movies, which taught us we can imagine anything and build it."

Like Gehry, many young Los Angeles architects find their most pervasive influence in the city's many layers of disconnected images and ideas, rooted in the vibrant, often trashy local populism. But it was Gehry who, with sure instinct and high art, first began to elevate this local tradition into a formal architecture. In so doing, he originated a kind of aesthetic populism that has come to be L.A.'s trademark for the world.

The major themes of this Angeleno aesthetic populism are: the introduction into formal architecture of industrial and commonplace materials previously considered too crude or vulgar, such as chain-link fencing and corrugated metal; reinventing new uses for a variety of residential, commercial and industrial structures that have outlived either their original purposes or their stylistic relevance – a way of respecting the past while radically reimagining the present; deconstructing familiar forms to release fresh energies and reveal new meanings in their formal social and aesthetic relationships.

Each of the five architects shown here has explored and developed various, highly individual strands and fusions of these three themes, depending on the nature of his particular talents and interests. Frederick Fisher is noted for deconstructing spaces for art in simple but subtle and often elegant ways, employing a vocabulary of humble materials and finishes, such as plain concrete floors, Sheetrock, and natural woods; the simplicity of his architectural volumes, organized as spatial collages, is truly poetic. In contrast, Koning Eizenberg has achieved vigorous and gritty results in the design of multiple housing, and various communal and educational facilities. Eric Owen Moss has devised a very personal vocabulary for the adaptive reuse of a series of outmoded workshops and warehouses in Culver City. With startling imagination, Morphosis has elaborated the deconstruction and reinvention of formal relationships in a wide range of projects, from private houses to public buildings.

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Early on in his career, Frederick Fisher was influenced by Gehry's innovative manipulation of space and his radical attitude toward conventional materials. In the houses, studios, art galleries, and other projects Fisher has designed from the late 1970s to the present, he has made these influences personal. In his 1978 Caplin House, for instance, Fisher explores "decay, incompleteness and discontinuity." In the studio he designed for artist Roger Herman in Elysian Park he mixes scavenged industrial steel windows with exterior plywood sheeting to create the feeling of an unpretentious "art shed" that offers its own rugged elegance. In a more playful mood, Fisher designed the wall over the entry to his Second Street Center low-rent apartment building in Santa Monica in a shape reminiscent of a high-heeled shoe. "This is a high-stepping town, and I wanted to give a hint of that, even in this down-market building," he says with a smile.

In contrast to Fisher's search for spatial subtlety, the Australian-born husband and wife team of Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg uses an affinity for cheap materials and building components to express what Julie Eizenberg describes as "an economy of means, opportunities to manipulate the experiential qualities of light, air, and nature, interest in creating the perception of effortlessness and the unexpected." In particular, the challenge of designing decent multi-unit affordable housing has given Koning Eizenberg the opportunity to test their grammars in the hard reality of low budgets and official bureaucracy. Interested in "making housing that afforded opportunities for people to casually establish friendships and a sense of belonging," the architects developed ways of creating communal connections through shared indoor and outdoor spaces. The result, as in their 1987 Berkeley Street Housing in Santa Monica, is a complex enlivened by bold colors, simple, strong forms and active communal connections.

The influences that color the astonishingly original work of Eric Owen Moss derive from another of Gehry's original concepts - the conjuring of new uses for structures that have outlived their original purpose and stylistic relevance, plus the Master's notion of deconstructing familiar forms to release fresh energies and reveal new meanings. Beginning in the mid-198Os, Moss and his patron, developer Frederick Smith, have given new life to an old factory district in Culver City. In this cluster of industrial sheds, dating from the 1930s and ‘40s, Moss has reshaped and rejuvenated close to a million square feet of once near-derelict space, defying the typical Los Angeles tendency to constantly tear down everything old in an attempt to wipe the slate clean.

Moss's Culver City projects have attracted international attention, lauded for their skill in reversing the district's economic decline while providing tangible lessons about the way Los Angeles can build a second layer of living architecture upon the debris of the past. Where factory workers and warehousemen once toiled, 8522 National Boulevard, the Stealth and Samitaur office buildings, the Green Umbrella performance space and the Beehive feature now accommodate an array of studios, offices and work spaces for professionals from a variety of commercial and artistic fields, including designers, advertising firms, and film and video facilities, plus public art and performance spaces. The vivid and extraordinary strategies Moss uses in this Culver City complex embody the sense of dynamic instability that is the quintessential Los Angeles way of being.

Like Moss, Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi, the founder partners of Morphosis, have a strong connection to the noted avant-garde Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), as teachers and exemplars for several generations of students. Both Mayne and Rotondi helped start the school in 1972, Rotondi has served as the Director of SCI-Arc, and the

work of Morphosis and Moss has inspired hundreds of eager students.

From its formation in 1972, Morphosis has pursued the notion, formulated by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in the 1960s, of complexity and contradiction in its architecture. Always bursting with ideas, Morphosis is constantly exploring the disclosure of an aesthetic process; an open-ended, never quite resolved condition of eternal becoming. From the 1980 2-4-6-8 House in Venice, California-a one-room addition which commented upon and celebrated a 1920s beach bungalow by exaggerating its robust simplicities-to the visual complexities of the Hypo Alpe-Adria-Center in Klagenfurt, Austria, Morphosis has consistently expanded, illustrated and elaborated its aesthetic exploration of the qualities of glass, sheet metal, perforated aluminum panels, concrete board panels, exposed concrete, and a host of other materials, both rugged and smooth.

Taken together, the work of the Los Angeles designers presented here offers an array of original responses to the challenges architects confront in the new millennium. At the inception of the twenty-first century, these Angelenos demonstrate various inspired strategies in engaging the fluid, overcharged, always dynamic if often unsettling ambiance we've created with our technological wizardries and economic urgencies.

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