Them vs Us, by Ben Caffey – October/November 1990
           
           
   
 
 
 
 
       
         
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On August 4, a symposium called “Welcome to the Millenium: Architecture Strikes Back” was held in conjunction with the Coop Himmelblau Exhibition at Richard Kuhlenschmidt Gallery.  Behind a table on a raised dais set up in the gallery’s parking lot, four architects (Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, Eric Moss and Wolf Prix), two critics (Aaron Betsky and Leon Whiteson) and moderator Christian Hubert addressed a crowd of over a hundred people.

Hubert initially attempted to organize the discussion with a series of questions relating to architecture as art, the new international style (aka deconstructivism), the architectural climate in Southern California and the relationship of the architecture of Coop Himmelblau to the Los Angeles context.  The assembled architects, who have been working the circuit together for many seasons, summarily ignored this program.

Eric Moss began by recounting his appreciation for the way Coop Himmelblau initiated their designs: an ideo-motorsketch, which is made with the eyes closed, sets the conceptual strategy for the development of the project.  (He speciously asserted that the source of the project is therefore non-visual.)  Thom Mayne contrasted this approach with that of his firm, Morphosis, which he said looks to connect with a direct primitive and pragmatic response to achieve a solution for a particular project.

In both cases, the idea of getting beyond prescriptive rules to a deeper, more vital solution was revealed.  Unfortunately, after this obvious point was made, an “us versus them” theme was established that pre-empted a more interesting discussion of how each architect goes about his individual search for form.

It would appear that the work of Morphosis and Coop Himmelblau are diametrically opposed.  Coop Himmelblau seems to take the intuitively defined sketch as the point of departure for the creation of a set of rules that guide the development of the design.  These lines of force establish both a parti and an image which is subsequently crafted into the final work.  Chaos is frozen and given order.  In fact, it is this subsequent rational development of exquisitely crafted detailing which finally gives the work its power.

The work of Morphosis, on the contrary, seems grounded in a kind of conscious encounter with the site and context.  If it even comes to resemble the work of Coop Himmelblau it is because it is developed well beyond the prescriptions of historically derived form or typology of the traditional city and its reincorporation into work that is “primitive and pragmatic.”  In this sense, there is another level of tension in the Morphosis work – typological antecedents are latent but not dominant.

Ultimately, these architects have all created engaging and crafted works that communicate their ideas aggressively.  One would have hoped that the critics attempt specific analysis or questioning of the work.  Leon Whiteson took the architects to task for their sometimes awkward attempts at explaining their work, but attempted none himself.  Aaron Betsky raised important issues regarding the work in the context of Los Angeles, but again did not specifically address the architects’ production.

The symposium digressed from broad assertions about the artist in society – who creates selfishly yet whose work has the power to instruct masses to the idea that perhaps the work will make sense to a future, more enlightened public.

The question of relating their architecture to Los Angeles received only passing mention from the panel members.  The consensus among the architects seemed to be that there is a great freedom to working in Los Angeles, but by the virtue of its lack of imposition rather than by any direct inspiration.  This seems a little disingenuous.  In the end, the architects seemed to collectively dismiss L.A. as a banal ugly place with no intrinsic value.

Wolf Prix’s comments were both the most troubling and the most thought provoking.  Disclosing his lack of love for the traditional European city, and Vienna in particular, he stated that Vienna and Los Angeles were more alike than different to him.  In both cities the well-heeled few prescribe who will build what and, in the end, both cities suffer from a dead, conservative point of view that stifles individual expression.  He stated that the oft asked question of whether their work could remain the same in Los Angeles where it would not stand in dialectic tension with the classical buildings of the traditional city was irrelevant.

The implication was that Coop Himmelblau’s work transcends the tyranny of context and stands alone, whatever the setting.  It constitutes a new order that makes no bridge to other times or points of view.  Coop Himmelblau’s best known projects have either been embedded in the traditional city or have taken the form of freestanding structures.  In the first case, the traditional city asserts its own hermetic rationalism and is resilient to the intrusion of their intuitively-based architecture.  Their free-standing projects take advantage of a similar freedom where the expression of forces is unfettered by any bounding obstruction.

Their project for Melrose Avenue is, therefore, of particular interest in that neither the clarity of the traditional city nor the freedom of the clear site is provided.  The classical city provides and automatic grounding for their work, no matter what its intention, simply because of its consistency, clarity, and ability to hold its own.  Melrose and the plains of Los Angeles are a protean half-formed world.  The site demands that a new work be judged in relation to the stand it takes with regard to the partially-formed and conflicting tendencies that spin around it.

By appearing to take no particular interest in the unique urbanism of Los Angeles, this project risks that it might also contribute nothing, however well-crafted and engaging it may be on its own.  Similarly, the failure of the symposium to address this same issue produced an empty discussion that had little to contribute to the city it was held in.

Ben Caffey

 

Parti sketch, JPGA Golf Club, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, Morphosis

Plan, Melrose 1 Project, Coop-Himmelblau

Section, Melrose 1 Project, Coop-Himmelblau

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