Fragments, Out There, by Aaron Betsky – October 1989
           
           
   
 
 
 
 
       
         
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Out there, on the Plains of Id and in the Ranges of Romance, hidden in alleys and behind bougainvilleas, there are young men and women doing it. This was proven by the Forum series “Out There Doing It” this past Spring and Winter. What are they doing? They are densifying and complicating the metropolis. They are creating additions, alterations and amendments that are symptomatic of a city struggling to evolve before it falls into the ocean, chokes on smog and social and economic disparities, or transforms itself into Alphaville-sur-Mer.

The simple economics of starting a practice means that the work presented took the form of fragmentary additions to the city: kitchen additions and remodels, a new bedroom here, a new entry there. But even freestanding buildings designed by the lucky few took on the character of the unfinished, with walls gesturing towards focal points which were never found, compositions finished in the void, and doorknobs or window frames that appeared to be parts of much larger, but invisible, orders. Such images signify several phenomena. First of all, they are simultaneously signs of the times in which it may be impossible, undesirable, or politically incorrect to make completed buildings. Second, they are the result of the desire of young practitioners to start building the grand plan even if they can only work on a few details. Finally, this fragmentary construction may be a necessary way of building in a city that delights in being continually in process.

Such collages of fragments make for a great deal of density and complication in all of the work, even in those designs which appeared at first to be spare and abstract. Again, such complexity can be attributed both to the energy of the new and untried and to the city’s entropy. As a giant technological behemoth, Los Angeles is perfecting the systems that allow it to operate – real estate financing and codes, electrical, telephone, water and sewage lines, road grids – to such an extent that these orders are breeding ever more replicas of themselves at smaller scales, filling in all of the interstitial spaces of this once spread out city until it will become one completely solid urban mechanism perpetuating itself. For young architects, this means both that they are working for clients who are filling in their backyards, commissioning additions, and reclaiming the open warehouses that stretch along the previously endless boulevards, and that they feel an obligation to represent those technological systems whose formerly vast and open scale had made them invisible and taken for granted.

At the same time, the work presented was also enigmatic. It was strange stuff, often made up of blank walls, convoluted corners and closed pavilions. Such is the nature of Los Angeles: a series of artificial oases hiding behind a gritty and indecipherable exterior. This is a city that hides from the sun, from the systems of transportation and communication that keep it going, and from the baggage it brought along across the ocean or over the mountains. Such is also the local architectural tradition, the strange hybrid mesas of Wright and the centrifugal, dense corners of Schindler, the blobs of the shopping centers, the snakes and fish of Frank Gehry. Only sometimes during this series did one suspect tactics of avoidance, of abstraction engendered by the inability to make up one’s mind yet, of empty gestures for empty clients in the unfamiliar land of building in Los Angeles.

No doubt this work will coalesce into some form or order, but perhaps the stuff will continue to refuse closed forms and choose the orders of chaos – not only because such are the current lessons of the academies, but also because the unfinished is inherently more beautiful, more hopeful, more romantic, and more socially enabling than the closed monuments to a dead architecture in which the fathers, teachers, and employers of these young architects are buried.

Aaron Betsky

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