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Los Angeles for Architecture and Urban Design • i Chaos and its (Dis)Contents: The Boys 0' Freud When c alled upon to discus s their work Ihey hedg e. They'll tatk about baseball and fis h, DerTid. and Oldenburg, lit theory and pop art, new girlfriends and children. Peler Eise nman and Frank Gehry are Ihe Corl eone brothers of avant-garde archi - lecture, refus ing to talk businesa at Ihe Eisenman is aaid to quote with reckle sa abandon when talking to clients. No stranger to the couch, Gehry attributes the major turn-ebout of his career - his rejection of the institutionalized 60s mod block for the free~aasociatiye sampte paks of the tast two decades - to the reyelations he alTiYed at through therapy. But we weren't there - and are now left with yery few ayenuea 01 insight into the minds of the Masters. As membera of the medical profession, the thsnkless aouls that counselled th is high·powered pair remain inacce ss ible and the patients themselyes are tess than forthcom ing on the topic of their designs. table and blowing smoke in our aars. What i, the profession to make of Bueh evasion from Ihese ·pied pipers" of new design ? No, Ihey didn't ask to be father figures, and tile Oedipal (or Electral) complexes of youngsters aren't theirs to work out. They, after all, hawe clocked their time in analyais and therapy. Though Eisenman prides himself more on his.Hiliations with French But there are clues to their thoughts . We can learn much from the way Eisenmsn and Gehry talk around their work, the way the fOl'mer masks design with inaccessible and admittedly absurdist teds , or the tat· ter substitutes personal anecdote . and tangential discussion for explanation of his buildin'gl, We can infer 'a lot about both from Iheir,criticisms of others, warda jar- intellectuals, the most influenUa' retation - Violated Perfection: Architectyre and the Fragmentation of the Modern, Aaron Betsky, Rizzoli, 1990, 208 pp., illus., $50 hard cover, $35 paper back In Violated perfllCtion, Aaron Betsky attempta to place the work of a diyerse group of contemporary architects into a coherent framework, one wh ich Betsky defines as "the fragmentation of the modern ," ~ The modern" for BelSky is singularly Iransparent, unitary and easy to pin down - hence the definite article " the" whic h more cautious mi nds might he sitate at us· ing , In the first chapter, Betsky briskly defines " the project of the modern" as "the exploration of the possibilities created by technology that g ive a guiding structure to its tran slormational potentisl.· Thi s sentence resists eyen the most persistent probing: how might · possibilities· giye a "guid in g structure" to "transformational potential'? Such niceties of meaning do not troub le Bet sky . A few lines later he swee pingly declares that " modern ity i s the consciousness that man and natura haye ind eed become separata.' I am not at all sure what this mesn s, but I doubt wheth er the many scholars who haye sweated and s truggled mightily to cast light on the possibl e linea ments of contemporary human can- The best and most often used foil againsl incisiye queationing, disownllrship, has servlld both EiSllnman and Gehry well. They simply didn' t do it. There werlliraces and visions in the night, palimpsests and distracted thumbnail skelche s, (Granted, Coop Himmelblau upped the anle with blind-folded thumbnail sklltchlls.) In any case, they weren't reaponsible. The subconscious, either their own, collectiye, or both, is to blamll. Not that anyonll finds fault· as long as it's seKY, thereby caahing in on our own aubconscioua confusion. and haYing them compliment your outfit and walk away. This Terror of the Tssteful approaches neurotic proportiona in tha cases of Eisenman and Gehry. (Or, it did untit fortune smiled hard on them.) Both Eisenman' s inversions of architectural conyentions - windows for doors or floors for wslls· and Gehry's embrace of nether materisls, auch as chainlink and raw framework, are held up as heroic inyestigationa of architectura's inner depths and asaumpliona. Howeyer, these snd other'-"--hesvy-handad depsrtures from the norm are more easily explained sa just that: eacape from the normative, or fear of the average. Though moat people (especially those w ith the most) dresd resembling ' others, thi s doea not a movement make. teleological. Clearly thia lioe of reasoning (maybe mode of reasoning would be less oxymoronic) haa left its mark on cur objecta of inquiry. Eisenman and Gehry embrac e the partial, tha ' unfiniahed , snd commodify the moment for ua all. As Gehry savora the work under construction, hidden in scallolding and promising far more while concealed than moat buildings deliyer on complelion, Eiaenman discusse s his bri o collage as collected traces, jumbled shards of ord e ring systems unearthed or reinvenled on site. Fl'om a legal sland· point , no salling point could be more sayvy: their buildings don't leak or forbid circuls· tion of air or pedestrians. thay aimply ex' pose the essential incompletion of human existence, Psychoanalyais doesn't end. Most of psychoanalysis has to do with learning to accept that you don" gat ·cured", you don'l pul a cap on thinga. Don't be ao It's best not to hide one'a feelinga, and neither Eisenman Oof Geht)" do, though the former could be considered more in touch with himself than ;the Istter in this reapeel. Hsnda down ~ Peter Eiservnan is the foremost performance architect of hia generation. His aller-81I0, Leon Krier, can barely keep pace aadlis whipping boy, No architllctenjoys hearing thlly arll on thll cutting edge of good taste, unlesa they're being paid ~ell enough to abaorb the blow, It's akin to showing your wort.; to someona ahipa of hia career haye been with anonymoua psychoanaly ata, men whom ViQlated Perfectjpn: A Critical Review ringly straightforward when contrasted with their aell-analysis. We might trace (to rllclaim this term as a Yerb) the deyelopment of tha public persona in the lives of esch. And, at Ihe end of another day, we could foUow their own adYice (the directiye given by most artista) and look to their work for answers. sciousneas will find Betsky's neat formula yery helpful. Haye women here 100 been subsumed under "man' ? I found Violated Perfectign a difficult book to review,for a close reading of the lext is exasperaling, well-nigh impossible. Poorly written , ediled, and prool-read, the lexl was rife w ith errora in datas, spelling, and gram mer; capricious tense shifts; annoy· ing neotogisms such as "artifacting"; and contradictions in thought. But I was interested in trying to figure out what Betsky wa s trying to say about the often interesting work he illustrated. What began to emerge, from a variety of clues, is tha familiar vision of the heroic architect as supreme artificer, uniquely cspable of translating vague leitgeists into triumphant form . The srchitect here lalls squarely into the category of artist, whose work i s to be assessed on lormal grounds. So second ary are considerations other than formal ones that Betsky complsined that "archi· tecture as a barrier is remoyed ... the whole legal system is now bent on the negation of traditional architectural alements: smooth ramp s, which elide the differences in ground planes so important to delining the tradit ional architectural object, replace the striation of stairs." Handicapped indi viduals fought for many years to gsin access to inhospitable buildings, and th~y struggled against people with attitudes precisely like those of Betsky. Juat as the racist and sexist character of the book (language and choice of designers) im plicitly ignores more than half of the population, so architecture in Betsky's view must give clear priority to formsl consider· ations, eyen if the handicapped must pay the price. The profoundly reactionary character of Betsky's thought eme rge s eyen more clesrly a lew lines lurther on: "Finslly, any imsge of authority, or dignity, ia eroded by our inability to agree on anyone center of power.. . • At the same time, he also as' serta that architecture has a critical cspecil)' "that will allow us to remake a community in which' we can mirror our humanity - a true unity." Out of this confused mix, one begins to underatand that he echoes the commonplace yie w that architects are involved with something a good deal more significant than shelter, as if shelter were some crippling handicap from which architecture must be liberated (and we already know where the handicapped belong), and that only the spiritual e ssence wh ich architects address by means of "meaningful forms" somehow allows them to escape the constraints of ordinary building - those imposed by clients, markets, budgets, building codes, snd so forth. I say somehow, becsuse the text is silent on this point. As Betsky further remarks, "Each maker (architect] believes that he or she is engaged in an authentic act thst is free from , and thus violates, all systems of control." Autonomy guarantees in ste ad high cultural status, and nothing less thsn the list 01 those who commissioned works included in this book - from D'i sney to Lloyd's of London - reYeats more about the pretensions of autonomy than Betsky is able to confront. Betsky offers a short· hand version of much recent architectural discourse, wherein it is held thst architacts can build for anyone and msintain au· tonomy, and Betsky is no\ the on ly one to fail to offer conYincing demonstration 01 how this is po ssible, whi le elamples of the reye'ae abound. Betsky does illustrate a large number 01 projects by designers with diyerse design philosophie s, and he offers capsule commentaries on them, But eyen the purely lormsl descriptions are often wid e of th e mark: inexplicably, in discussing Jean Nouvel's Arab World Institute, he makea Only Eisenman could do all of the following in the course of s single discussion panel: write the preface for the forthcoming book on his children and giyen a littla thought to sales, (1) accuse Robert Venturi of cowardice (dating back to 1963) (2) berala Denise Scott Brown for au rrogating in pl ace of her wayward partner (3) defend Ihe Big Six of corporate design (4) disparage a 'classic knee·jerk libersl" response to the work of Gordon Matta Clark (5) diasvow almost all current experimenlal arch itaclure , and (6) conclude thai the pre aen tations had wasted hia and all tha participsnts ' time. O l ~ Though hardly in the running on this score, G ehry did his part recently to conaign Ihe young Californian srchitects to oblivion, when in a lecture at Cooper Union on the 'C!llifornis Scene" , he mentioned that he hated most of the work coming out of hia home state these days. Though his dis· taste for the 'ultimate, form of flallery' at the hands 01 the ·Son ~ (and Daughtera?) of Frank' ia underatandsble, he might have ramembered that he had juat consented to seldom comment on each other's work or that of aimilarly intentioned architects, reaervi ng their wrath for the neo-conservative wi"g of the profession. Co Ve ritable industries (nollo me ntion office baseball tesms) hsve been spawned on either coaat in the wake of Eisenman's Rubic rancheros and Gahry's friendly for· tresses. With each new commiasion, both architect s ride clol er 10 Ihe center of a profess ion they once claimed the margin a of and, giYen whst precedes them as benchmark design, it's hsrd not to ap· plaud the chsnging of the guard . Will an architecture of parado~, an underhanded humanism Ihat proYes beautifully li:-able despite the wishes of its authors, lead design out of thia, tha most violent and corrupt of human centuri ea? Ten yeara snd many more hundred dollar-an-hour aeaaions will tell. But perhapa by then , there will be an architecture of the Twe lve Stepa. To be underatood is to be undermined, and given the reactionary nature of most architecture of the last fiYe years, it may seem both cruel and atupid to attack the leading purveyora of progressiye deaign, Oddly enough, both Eiaenman and Gehry Rather than nodding at work that obviously shares our disc ontent with the pr8!le nl, young architects must begin to reorient the critical facility that has expoaed the philosophical (and now fiscal) bankruptcy of rece,n t "traditionalism " and "historici sm". Instead, we must reassess th a alternative work of the last decades and evaluat e the effectiyeness of these deaigns in light of what did get built - or eyen wid ely published. Why was so little built, and why were Ihe designs built so often drained of the ideological premises from which they were formed? Though most of the barriars to viable altarnstive design are obviou s - cost , complexity, the cpunter-programmatic tactics of some of the work, the point that the beat of theae deaigna are best because thay so effectiyely critique exactly the structurea of pow'er that control their being buill - " some barrie rs are less self·perpetuating. As Eiaenman proyed with Oppositions. critical debate 01 American design can take place and s ecure an sudience, if pri· marily at an abstruse and apolitical leyeL Without the dialogue 01 publications auch as Oppo sition s and its offspring, countercultural design remaina just fine lines on paper. To be Frank (if not Peter) there is little or no thao retical discourse to support the conceptual deaign going on in Los Angeles. If it's happening in the schoola, it's not making it to print, though avenues do exist to publish. Since the demise of Arts and Architecture , Western design h~s taken place in a theoretical Yacuum, an empty realm between the high·end monographs 01 specific designers usually pub· liahed yeara after their impact haa been gauged in the field , and the acsdamic journala of our architectural schoola - sup· portiYe for students, but read only for sen· timental Yalue by practitionera. Joe Da, 00 technology , He i bui lding " emblemizes the modern - devoted to c irculation, yet leaving apaces as undefined and floating plane s, " which illu minates little indeed. More importantly, descriptions such as these do not help us understand what "critical artifscting" is, among oth e r things, nor what an architecutre of empowerment might b a. Most of my comments in any event are beside Ihe point. Books such as thia are not meant to be read - they are there for Ihe pictures, with texts jusl an embarra ssingly necessary gloas to provide a sem· blance of intellection. With tha exception of th e descriptions of the Arquitectonica proj ects and a strikingly poetic account of the Morp hosis Cancer Center project, even the limited descriptions are not help fu l. It would be wrong to eutuste Viglated per· flu<1ign by standards other than those of glossy monthlies on homes. But it d oes have an arresting and original design (cou rlesy Lorraine Wild snd staff), whic h just reallirms the o ld adage that you csn't judge a book by its coyer. Dlalle Gltlrardo With Spring (coming soon, we belieye) comea new hope that Ihe Forum still lives, de spite the many vicissitudes that hsye befallen this fragile organization. Forced to move twice in the last year, we are now (pe rmsne ntly, we hopa) ensconced at the scene of so many a cold evening out thare, The Schindler House, 835 North Kings Road, Wesl Hollywood, CA 9006$. Call us anytime st 213 652 7145 - our machine w i ll be there. We haYe also been turned down by every level of government (city, county, state and federal) for gran:s. We might try UNESCO next, Other than Fred Fishar, Barton Myers, and Thom Mayne (to whom our grstitutlel. corpora:e and beyond-the·csll·of·duty donations hsve dried up. And yet we ara alive and well. Th e ' Out There Doing It" book, retitled "New Experimental Architecture in Los Angeles" (so you com a up with a better one that uses the words "new' " srchitec· ture' and 'Los Angeles "), should be out thi s summer. By tha tima you read this, you should have received Ferum Pamphlet 116, • Architecture Information.' Because of his prompt produclion of thia publicatien (and hi s complele commitment to the Forum publication s progrsm in genersl), Douglas MacL eod haa been asked to join the Board of Ihe Forum , along with Kri s Miller. The Spring discus aio n series, ' Teaching Architecture,' will for once and sll answar the question "Where did all that stuff Out There come from?' by bringing Eugene Kupper , Ralph Knowle's, Ray Ksppe . Craig Ellwood, Adele Santol and (maybe) Charlea Moore to the Forum. Watch for details of the hottest party of the Spring, a mas que party performed in one of tha moat clevarly masked pieces of Los Angelea architecture· March 22, 901 Abbot Kinney Bouleyard. Best of all, we have a new set of official officers: Micflele Saae as President, John Chase as Vice Pre si dent snd , for continuity and excellence' in service, Ann Zolling ar as Secretary - Traasurer. It is hard to find good things 10 say about the architecture of th a Armand Hsmmer Mu seu m and Cultural Center in Weatwood . Unfortunstely, the combination of incom· petence in planning and desperste, empty ge atu ring in appearance is nothing new in Los Angelas cultu ral srchitecture. Our mostyisible museums - MOCA and LACMA • both suffer from these traits ("I'v e seen the hallways, now where 's the museum? " Philip John son remsrked after yiawing MOCA. ) Those are ou r arch itectural showpieces, tha kind of monumental publi c institutions that are the traditional bulwark of architecture . It is no surprise that lesser, private in st itutions with much le ss interesting collections, snd even le ss of a public messsga beyond self-aggrsnd;~ement, are even wor se. i i i quite astonishing. A building anterad through the psrking garage, with no clear entrance, no clear progression and no claar focal point, thia adj unct to Occidental Petro leum (both the building and the funds) has at it s heart a series of sc sl eless public spaces thst zigzag , fi rst in section as s series of staircases, and then in plsn, as s "courtyard: sround the whole site, desperately trying to fill space with more spsce. The actual galleries are left over as bland affairs that are strangely disconnected from each olher, as if expressing their own alienation. The one pub lic feature is a sagging yersion of a triumphal arch, gesturi ng vsinly from its pompous costume of striped msrble , marooned on a back street, caught without anything to lead you to (the security gale it sheller s is exit on ly) or anyone to address. It il eas y 10 blame this complete waste of natural resources on I he client. Hammer built the museum as a mausoleum to en· shrine himsa lf through his collection . His sbility to pick sll the worst paintings by all the best srtists, combined w ith a modu s operandi that left the museum in charge of fam ily me mbers and former as sistant s with no experlise in art, insures thai hi s legacy will be fitting . The speed with which the musaum had to be erected and the can· tinual infighting with in the co rporation left the architect with littl a c hanea to ply his trade with any degree of due dilig enc e , Yet even granting those circumstances, the building is luch an unmitigated disaater that it promises 10 only increase the bad name of architecture in Loa Angelea . Thia city aeems to haye a great talent for taking ; these buildinga are intended soley to enable the client , they are meaningless as carriera of cultural significance. We should be enshrining a legacy w e will use to build a better future in these buildings, ralher than erecting monument s 01 personal yanity. Our museums are either mausole· ums or ahopping malia, drifti ng in a context sean as ampty by the architecta and built around fragmanted collectiona. The answer is not to build better muaeums, Rather , we should recognize the fact thst the status of such men as Armand Hammer, Fred We isman, and Eli Broad as the moat powerful patrons in the city and the alien natura of the whole idea of West· ern Humsnist cultura sanctified in imported, stat ic fo rms , precludes the possibility of creating the kind of institutional focal points of public memory that cities like London, Par is, or Chicago have. I would propose instead that local architects, art professio nals and politic ians should think of culture as a living, breathing, multi·ethnic resource to be housed in interdisciplinary places for study and contemplation distributed throughout the city. Expro priate priyate and quasi ·priyate collections, create a municipal design team, and build focal points for c ommu nal se lf -examina tion all around Los Angeles. Combining adu lt educatio n, s ci ence fairs, art collec- ; public counterpart to shopping malla as the local points for our c ommunities. We could leaye alt the most revered Old Ma slers in downlown, where they can be an inlernalional counlerpoint to the worldwide network of Major Cultural Institutions . We can create a kunsthalle ou'-'n Palmdale for the big blockbuster ahows. Th en w e can build culture at the scale where it makas sense in the patchwork of communitiea that make up the Southland by building more acceasible, decentralized i nstitutions. Ban the cultural bomb, build beller culture. Then the Armand Hammer Mus eum could fulfill its true destiny and become a combination shopping mall and memorial to the wa s teful bombas t of unfettered colleclionism. Aaron Belsky ,

Newsletter, March-April 1991

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