Experimental Architecture in Los Angeles, by Nina Lesser – September 1992

What makes architecture “experimental?” According to this publication, it appears to be popularity, fashion, and linkage to Frank Gehry and the Morphosis crowd. This definition is useful in that it provides important insight into the values of the current architecture “scene,” but it is not a definition that should be accepted without critical comment or theoretical elaboration. While the book’s essays imply that architecture is more than beautiful details and formal manipulation and attempt to address the influences of technology, context and vernaculars on architecture, the connection to the work in the publication is strained. The lay-out, which surgically isolates text from image, further strains the relationship and keeps the book from acknowledging openly its role as a furtherer of young careers and a catalog of architectural fashions. In the end, Experimental Architecture not only perpetuates the “scene’s” values but also precludes the possibility of developing a more considered definition of what might constitute experimental architecture.

Frank Gehry is presented by the essayists and himself as the “godfather” of “experimental” architecture. Gehry is an undeniably important figure in contemporary architecture, yet the nature of his importance and influence bears examination: His fame rests on individualistic work which he claims derives exclusively from emotional response and aesthetic instinct. An organizing premise for Experimental Architecture is that the designers in this book are “Gehry-ites,” followers of Gehry. Were they “true disciples” they would be following him by following their own emotional responses and aesthetic instincts. Instead, they attempt to reproduce the inimitable: the instincts and intuitions of another psyche, in this case Gehry’s. They have responded to what Gehry does and not what he says, which is not surprising given that he doesn’t say much. His essay uses both false modesty to disclaim responsibility for the Gehry School and false immodesty to relish the success of his influence. While he may hope that his archly colloquial style deflects attention away from these issues, it actually serves to underscore unconsidered contradictions in his position.

John Chase’s essay reveals that Gehry’s work actually belongs to a local tradition of visionary architecture – one-of-a-kind gestures – that co-exists with the tradition of historical contextualism. These two traditions – one rooted in the past and engaging the public realm, the other anticipating the future and tending to occupy the private realm – form an ironic alliance in Experimental Architecture in Los Angeles. While the designers almost always select the future as their period of choice, the idea that one can simply choose a historical period in which to build is a fundamentally historicist notion. If young architects are to avoid finding themselves caught between making work they feel is contextual but that is read by others as acontextual – as Gehry has – they will need to develop a theoretically coherent way of conditioning this irony and connecting the two traditions.

The Gehry School, having already sired Morphosis, Fred Fisher and others, is now in its second generation. Aaron Betsky, whose essay stands out in this publication, claims that the followers of Gehry have long since been of two types – the “Gehry-schule,” those directly associated with the master, and the “man/machine satyr,” dominated by Morphosis. Betsky avoids assigning the new “experimental” architects to either the theoretical void of the former category or the defensive formal and ideological sophistication of the latter. Instead, he attempts to connect their work to important critical thought. He argues, following Benjamin, that technology has replaced nature in Los Angeles: that, in fact, technology has become nature and that the formal expression of these designers is inspired by the artificiality of natural phenomena. By the very act of formulating this conceptual framework, Betsky reveals his desire to transform the formalism of Southern California by giving it a significant theoretical component. But when Betsky refers to the work of the new generation as “tentative assemblages,” he also reveals that there remains a large space between theory and practice.

Schools of architecture are traditionally expected to bridge this gap, but while most of the architects included in Experimental Architecture are currently instructors at SCI-Arc and UCLA, with the exception of Neil Denari, they are primarily concerned with the aesthetics of form and arrangement of program. Because they get public exposure, notably in places like Experimental Architecture in Los Angeles, they are eagerly sought after by students and administrations. But the impression they make on students is much like the impression made by their work in this glossy book –  the initial excitement and expectation are soon replaced by disillusionment and lingering disappointment that there really wasn’t any there, there. The book as a whole succeeds in the furthering the careers of star designers and critics by celebrating their experiments, but fails to explain way “experimental architecture” deserves celebration.

Nina Lesser

Schweitzer BIM, The Monument

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