In the Los Angeles of the 1990s, limited views of the architect’s role, and a limited view of the region’s architectural and urban context, have dangerously narrowed both the public and critical understanding of architecture’s nature as a social art. Southern California is seen as lacking both in recognizable building types and clearly defined urban form. As a result, much importance is placed on the individual artifact, while far less attention is devoted to the relationship between the artifact and urban forms surrounding it. As Stefanos Polyzoides has pointed out, “increasingly buildings here are a kind of selfish scream for attention. Everything has to be a thing in itself. The attitude about oneness has spawned such an interest in fashion.” While it is true that Los Angeles is rightly perceived to be a place that is open to new ideas, personal expression, and experimentation, the current architectural avant-garde seems less interested in relating their work to this tradition of innovation in a meaningful way than in using this tradition as a license to make the kind of photogenic objects that get good press. This essay is a call for critical attention to the broad range of building types that, in Los Angeles, sprawl from the mall to the car wash and that are as valuable candidates for evaluation and understanding as are high art artifacts of limited production. A work of architecture may begin as a private statement of taste, but all works of architecture inevitably become to some degree public artifacts that are part of everyone’s daily life.
A perusal of the pages of Experimental Architecture in Los Angeles does not reveal that this city has a distinct context, history, and typology of vernacular architecture that is both all its own as well as part and parcel of American urbanism as a whole. Local avant-garde architects tend to behave as though these phenomena that unify urbanism in Southern California simply do not exist. As a result, reinforcing degrees of agreement between buildings or districts has generally been a low priority with much recent architecture, just as the idea of taking cues from a neighborhood or regional repertoire of building types is seen here as a limitation on creativity. David Gebhard has pointed out that even the major architectural innovations of pioneer modernists, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill and Rudolf Schindler, had little urbanistic impact, and Leon Whiteson notes that Los Angeles continues to be a place where small firms, however innovative they may be in the context of their small commissions, still have no real effect on the city as a whole. Given the mutual incompatibility of the agendas of high art architecture as they inform many individual buildings and the agendas of popular taste as they inform the common landscape, it is difficult to understand how this could be otherwise.
Experimental Architecture does little to help overcome this incompatibility but does a lot to help one segment of architectural producers-“boutique” formalist offices-dominate the professional and public perception of architecture. This kind of domination is more acute in Los Angeles than perhaps anywhere else in the U.S. While Southern California may still be relatively isolated from East Coast publications, it has increasingly become mandatory for the established media to track activity here and to focus their ever more myopic eye on the most glamorous and the least socially relevant categories of building production. Each new wave of commodified architects is offered up as more daring, iconoclastic, and original than the last. “Los Angeles, where trends come from” proclaimed a 1989 issue of Metro Home magazine devoted to architecture and design in the city.
As the speed of commodification increases, so does the speed of the star-making process. The Metro Home issue, which typifies recent coverage of architecture in Los Angeles, featured a group of avant-garde architects with primarily sculptural or visual concerns. But the way these architects were presented seemed modeled after the media packaging of interior decorators, fashion designers, and most of all, movie stars. It would seem perfectly logical to view Experimental Architecture as part of this phenomenon that seeks to invent celebrities rather than provoke critical discussion.
Motivating the beach-combing to uncover the next media star lies the assumption that formal invention is the most important aspect of architecture. In other words, the more a building differs from the public’s understanding of what building is, the more “information,” and therefore the biggest possible media event, it generates. The more an avant-garde firm, such as Coop Himmelblau, treats their work as pure formal abstraction, the more prestige they have – not with the public but with their peers. The more the media treats “avant-garde” architects as they do artists, the more avant-garde architects are encouraged to treat their buildings as though they are walk-in sculpture. In the artificial land of the press, “movie star” architects often ignore the experiential character of their work, let alone the social and real world forces that are part of architecture. Without the burden of having to communicate with the public, these architects can exploit their fictitious freedom to gratify individual whim and pursue a course of self aggrandizement.
Younger architects today seem to be disconnected from even the most recent architectural history of Los Angeles. In decades not very long past there was a local tradition of modernist architecture that often carried with it a moral imperative based on ambitious definitions of how much social change could actually be implemented by architects. Irving Gill was concerned with providing decent worker housing and in simplifying the amount of work that housewives had to do. Charles Eames explored the idea of using ready-made elements like a kit of parts, and even Wallace Neff experimented with simple concrete houses. This modernist imperative was exemplified by the Case Study Houses program which was operated by the now legendary Arts and Architecture magazine between 1946 and 1966. John Entenza, the publisher of the magazine, commissioned architects such as Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood to design houses which were built as real life demonstrations of how modernist design could integrate technology, such as the steel frame, into buildings that accommodated contemporary life styles.
While in many cases this modernist morality was often an excuse to make design decisions that were actually based on formal preferences, it did provide a framework for tying buildings back to their means of production and to the ways people use them. This seems to be the only aspect of the modernist tradition that has survived, for the operative avant-garde imperative in much current Southern California avant-garde architecture is largely formal. Even when the avant-garde is concerned with issues of urban order, this urban order is often treated as large scale sculpture or the formal resolution of latent site geometry, divorced from the complexity of actual site issues. This kind of divorce has been aided and abetted by the degree to which the art world has reinforced the solipsistic role played by many contemporary architects. It is not the devotion to or interest in formal or theoretical issues borrowed from the art world that is the problem. The problem is that the architect’s freedom is often paid for by the loss of a larger consciousness of architecture’s social role, some of the consequences of which are already clear. Avant-garde architecture has not been able to comment on or respond to the radical demographic transformation of Los Angeles into a substantially immigrant multicultural community, nor has it addressed many of the pressing social problems that the city faces.
As the archness and brittleness of postmodern irony and the anti-social abstraction for abstraction’s sake of decon wear thin, we need to explore approaches that reinforce likeness and communalities within the environment rather than fragment it further. If we are ever to have a segment of building production whose design intent can be clearly understood and appreciated by both the public and those inculcated in architectural culture, architectural cognoscenti will have to stop dismissing popular cultural values and find some common ground with the public. Stepping beyond the cult of the architect-as-artist/personality, acknowledging and chronicling the context and the vernacular that does exist in Southern California is a first step in that direction. If vernacular architecture can be judged and found lacking by the standards of formal purity associated with high-art architecture, then, perhaps by virtue of that lack and by constituting a call for architecture to communicate with a larger constituency, vernacular architecture also functions as a critique of high art architecture. In this sense, it might be said that vernacular architecture performs the critical function absent from the contemporary architectural press.
Books such as Experimental Architecture are not bad because there is anything wrong with the individual designs they present. Rather, what is wrong is the way such books tend to present one category of building production as though it were the sum total or the apogee of all architectural production. This narrowness of focus and omission of other possibilities denies us all the possibility of asking primary and critical questions. How do those individuals already inculcated in architectural culture coexist with the world around them that largely ignores the values and rules of high art architecture? What is the relationship of most people to the actual built environment? How do the buildings that we see from the freeway, the developer housing, and the blank-faced speculative office buildings and shopping malls get built and designed? How do they effect the quality of our lives? Architects and the media alike must become more preoccupied with these issues, even though they are precisely the issues that never get invited to architecture’s beach party.
Editor’s Note: A version of this essay was to have been included in Experimental Architecture in Los Angeles. Rizzoli declined to publish it.