Los Angeles has always been a place where small firms do adventurous work on small commissions. It was true for Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill and R.M. Schindler, and it is just as true for their contemporary counterparts. One kind of architecture firm, the small “boutique” architecture office whose concerns are mainly formalist, has come to dominate the profession and the public’s perception of architecture in Southern California – and the Forum is in danger of promoting this perception with its “Out There Doing It” lecture series. Unfortunately, these firms work mainly on small commissions which are either places where the public never goes – i.e. single family houses in the higher-priced zip codes – or places where only the affluent would find themselves, such as trendy restaurants.
The problem is essentially one of perception, both by the media of the role of architecture and by young architects of their own role and responsibilities. Media attention to architecture in Southern California, as elsewhere in the nation, has become myopically focused on the most glamorous, least socially relevant categories of building production. The role models for the presentation of architecture have been fashion designers and interior decorators – and ultimately movie stars. Nothing whets the media appetite more than a personality. Witness the Michael Graves shoe ads or the Brian Murphy ads for The Gap. Magazine copy sells better if it has a human interest angle.
Consumer periodicals such as H G are service magazines. They allow their readers to fantasize about either living in the homes they depict or appropriating features of these buildings for their own homes. No matter how adroitly conceived, building types such as shelters for the homeless or computer chip factories will never appear in the pages of Architectural Digest. The media sets groups of architects apart in ranked categories of the more and less fashionable. The consumer thus has a secure “opinion base” reassuring him or her that it is permissible to like the work for what it is. This is product differentiation according to the market segment. The problem is not necessarily that this coverage of single family homes and the possessions in them is so heinous, but rather that it overwhelms the need for attention to other sectors of architectural production. The desperate need of consumer magazines for products to feature creates a special fast track for residential architects. What gets lost in all the hype is the fact that boutique shops are not representative of the larger system of building production in Los Angeles. The high rises, the shopping centers and the apartment complexes which make up this city are not designed by the “Domus 8” or the “Out There Doing It 15”.
This kind of attention is not necessarily harmful in itself. After all, there is nothing wrong with the practice of residential architecture per se. However, both we and the architects need to understand its place. We need to recognize that the task of high-end residential architecture is to provide a luxury service for the wealthy like that provided by a personal fitness trainer or an interior decorator. The work is fashionable and, because of its scale and the economics involved, formalist in its concerns. A love of fashion is not necessarily horrible – to deny fashion is to deny a human need for variety and expression. Similarly, it would be difficult to condemn a love for formal manipulation and a fascination for treating buildings as though they were sculptural objects. Thankfully, architects will continue to love the stuff that buildings are made of, no matter how sternly they are told by social critics that they really ought to be urban planners instead.
The reduction of architecture to only its formal context, however, really impoverishes it as a discipline. Architects have a broader, more quixotic and difficult role: they must try to bridge the gap between art, utility, and place making. The problem is that there is more to architecture than picking out the right exotic wood for that new vegetarian sushi bar. I am concerned at the gap between the formidable formal talent and the equally formidable thoughtlessness about larger issues displayed by many of the architects in the “Out There Doing It” series. A case in point is the eagerness to dismiss Southern California as having no context and no history. The architect is thereby allowed to play artist as though he was operating in a vacuum. Filling this vacuum is one of the roles of the Forum. We need to keep reminding ourselves what else is Out There.