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An exhibit of eight much-anticipated public projects in Los Angeles, “What’s Shakin’: New Architecture in LA,” has just finished its run at the Geffen Contemporary and the Pacific Design Center. Though well advertised and attended, with a media campaign including a striking series of billboards throughout the city, the show stirred surprisingly little debate among local practitioners. Many were happily impressed by the attention paid their discipline and, one suspects, less than inclined to take issue with either MoCA’s new design curator or any of the architects included. An exception was Nicolai Ouroussoff, who called the show “ill-conceived and unimaginative,” and ended his LA Times review with a list of issues unaddressed in the show’s curation: “Quality? Building Type? Scale? Generational shifts? None of the above seem to apply.”

If the show lacked thematic focus, it at least offered up a riddle: Why, in a city so proud of its flexibility, lightness, and daring, have so many architects and clients recently chosen to over-build and institutionalize their visions?

David Geffen, philanthropist and namesake of the MoCA space downtown, provided the beginnings of an answer, when he commented, at the opening of the Getty Center, that Richard Meier had given the city “better architecture than it deserves.” Though scattered throughout the city, these eight projects, especially Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral and Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall – rise squarely in the shadow of the Getty, the heavyhanded westside acropolis that Mike Davis dubbed “Nordstroms in the Sky.” The selection of architects, as well as the buildings themselves, betrays an anxious effort on the part of Meier’s contemporaries to vault their way into a billion-dollar boy’s club of global design. Gehry and Moneo not only see their work separated from the pack, exhibited independently at the PDC, but are also flattered by the inclusion of younger designers clearly indebted to their legacies. Though the deck is less stacked in their favor, Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman (in absentia, but widely alluded to) complete the pantheon hovering behind this show.

The Cathedral is, simply, what the Getty should have been: a well-executed, publicly accessible and freeway-friendly addition to the civic life of downtown. It is most ambitious in ways that will hardly register beyond her intended Catholic flock: in a complex revision of church typology, the processional direction and all ancillary chapels are reversed here from their norm. The Cathedral should have been opened, unfinished, as it appears in most models and views: a thick, flat roof plane threatens to undo much of the subtle drama building below.

Perhaps the most ill-starred of major American building commissions, the Disney Concert Hall finally rises twelve years after its conception, a glimmer of both the Bilbao, that it predates in design, and the original scheme, which was to have been clad in stone. The lessons Gehry learned at great cost on the Disney,  to retain strict control of all building documentation, design development and construction – made his many intervening buildings possible. With the Cathedral and Isozaki’s MoCA, the Disney will complete the theming of LA’s Grand Avenue Arts Corridor, playing Matterhorn to Moneo’s It’s-a-Small-World. At least Los Angeles won’t be like Chicago, without a major Wright.

In 1998, Guggenheim Bilbao profited by comparison with the Getty, when the two opened almost simultaneously. Gehry’s was the more ambitious, urbane and cost-effective of the two. Gehry may be on the other side of fashion, however, should his Concert Hall and Rem Koolhaas’ Prada outlet in Beverly Hills complete the same year.

The Prada store enjoys pride of place in the show, the first as you enter the Geffen, and benefits from a startling conceptual model, some truly curious material research, and sheer gambler’s luck lacking in the other projects. Evacuating thousands of square feet of prime Beverly Hills ground-floor storefront, Koolhaas’ scheme pushes all but footwear transactions up to second and third floor studios, each perversely coded by class of product and clientele. Commodifying its customers as much as its clothing, Prada may indeed represent a new paradigm for retail cum exhibition, but many wonder if Koolhaas can possibly deliver on the hype these long overdue Prada stores have generated. He’s rolled a grenade down Rodeo Drive – will it blow?

Surprisingly, Michael Maltzan is a hinge figure in this survey, in terms of both generation and project scope. A graduate of Gehry’s corporate phase (Maltzan was also project architect under Gehry for the Disney Concert Hall), he is included here with a renovation of the UCLA Hammer Museum. The Hammer intervention relies heavily, as does his earlier scheme for a temporary MoMA in New York, on added diagonals of circulation – there a ramp, here a stair and swooping canopy. In renderings, these new paths appear as installations in their own right, reactivating tired museum passages and galleries, but also eliminating quite a bit of exhibition space.

Though his work has a clarity and simplicity not common among those coming out of FOG, Maltzan is an anodyne choice to represent the next generation of LA architects. One wonders if design acumen or well-curried favor helped Maltzan secure so many plum museum commissions and exhibition inclusions, while many earlier, more challenging Gehry acolytes still struggle for work. As if to invite reflections like these on the role and prospects of the protegÈ, Maltzan is followed here by Greg Lynn.

Though nominally Angeleno, Lynn is heir apparent to New York’s reigning patriarch and Gehry’s chief American rival, Peter Eisenman. Lynn’s conference room for UniServe, remarkable for its translucent crinkle-cut skin, is a ribbed kiosk exactly the size and roughly the shape of a Gehry Fish, but with pretensions to “authorlessness.” All the curves and shimmy of the freestanding capsule were generated by animation software and direct laser-milling, in diametric opposition to Gehry’s method of exhaustive in-house model production. Surely Eisenman could explain why it’s a better blob-in-a-box because the form arrived by auto-pilot.

If Lynn’s installation bears a resemblance to early Gehry, Eric Owen Moss returns the coast-to-coast favor with an unlikely homage to Eisenman’s iterative paper projects of the early 90s. Moss reveals the next installment of his Culver City complex, “Pterodactyl,” a kinked suite of offices perched atop a parking structure. This addition punctuates the most promising space in the Hayden tract, perhaps one of the best outdoor spaces in the city. Before “Pterodactyl” the understatement and restraint of the assembled buildings, occasionally sliced and exposed to reveal their industrial pedigree, provided a calm counterpoint to Moss’ earlier “Umbrella” and “Stealth” structures, both of which warranted space for reflection. It turns out that many of the compellingly ambiguous smaller scale moves are but earlier-built projections of “Pterodactyl”.

Most of the high-design inclusions disappoint in their conventional, obedient will to monumentality. Not so the last two projects, SCI-Arc and the Accelerated School, dismissed by critic Ourruosoff as banal afterthoughts. Designed primarily by Gary Paige, SCI-Arc’s new campus wedges an incredible programmatic load into an existing 80′ by 2400′ freight depot. Abandoned for decades, the quarter-mile long structure is resuscitated by gallery, studio and office spaces no less well tailored than those of the Geffen Contemporary, renovated by Gehry in the early 1980s.

The Accelerated School, by Marmol and Radziner, asks whether buildings that aspire to utility rather than art should be included in a museum show with more self-conscious statement designs. It answers with the most thoughtfully scaled proposal of the lot, neatly hidden in a graffiti-proof shell. Neither SCI-Arc nor the Accelerated School reaches for architectural limelight; both work, as much of LA’s best civic architecture always has, with difficult sites, inexpensive materials and a close attention to the actual occupants of their designs.

“What’s Shakin’” is Brooke Hodge’s first show as MoCA’s Architecture and Design Curator, and she deserves credit for quickly pulling together a broad cross-section of recent work. The title, one can only hope, predated her arrival. Like these last two projects, the show reads best at the modest level of surfaces, as a dialogue of materials, cladding in particular. Moneo’s dusk-dyed concrete and Disney’s stainless steel will expand on the institutional vocabulary, not to say branding, that MoCA’s red stone and the Getty’s travertine have visited on Los Angeles. At the other extreme, Koolhaas’ and Lynn’s forays into plastic, rubber and other composite casts and laminates broaden the palette of all designers. It’s interesting, finally, that Gehry steers clear of all the more malleable discoveries that could make his job easier.

The Getty forces one answer to the show’s riddle; to be relevant, new public buildings in LA must ante up to its stolid, uninspired heft. Another, related answer could be this: these projects are designed to distract from, rather than harness the primary public arenas of Los Angeles. The attenuated isolation of freeway driving and the constant mediation of the city’s imagery by the entertainment industry both operate in stark contrast to eastern and European notions of density and urbanism; both are hostile to the myth of coherent urban fabric that projects like these usually adorn.

The smaller projects of Koolhaas, Maltzan, Lynn, and Moss may share cinematic aspirations – mostly a Pixar-made flesh envy of animation – but all operate in the rarefied, not to say privatized, public domains of museums, corporate headquarters, tech parks and high-end retail. Theirs is, at best, a televisual public realm. By contrast, the civic intention driving the larger projects is precisely pedestrian: create something – anything – that forces people out of their cars and onto the sidewalk to gawk. The buildings in “What’s Shakin’” look pompous to us because we know that we will pass them first at 40 mph, preoccupied by questions of parking. Their role in cementing Los Angeles’ newly posed “maturity” is dwarfed by their inconvenient rejection of this city’s logic and potential.

What is shaking, actually, is the aged transportation and educational infrastructure of the city. It’s trite but necessary to point out that either the Concert Hall or the Cathedral could have paid for 20 Accelerated Schools, perhaps hundreds of SCI-Arc-style adaptive reuse projects, and that both of the educational buildings serve and employ more local residents than will either monument. Instead, the cathedral and the concert hall focus an incredible weight of design hubris on a two-block length of downtown with neither retail nor residential adjacencies. Is this money well spent, or an expression of a will to centralize cultural wealth that LA evolved past long ago?

    Joe Day designs and writes in Los Angeles, where he is a member of HEDGE design collective. He edited [i]Franklin D. Israel: Buildings and Projects[/i] (Rizzoli, 1995), and a forthcoming anthology, [i]The LA Forum Reader[/i], and currently teaches at SCI-Arc.