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This November and December, as part of #GivingTuesday, we will ask our community to consider celebrating the LAForum in their year-end charitable giving — and becoming a Member, or Sponsor, is an excellent way to contribute. We spoke with two LAForum Members, Lilian Pfaff of the LAForum Board of Directors, and Zaira Hernandez Administrative Assistant for the LAForum — who have headed up our 2020 initiative.
Hi Lilian and Zaira, thank you for making time to chat with Delirious LA. Please tell us, what is #GivingTuesday?
ZH: #GivingTuesday is a world-wide day for people to do good and donate to non-profit organizations. This event takes place the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, which this year falls on December 1st — and that is right around the corner! In 2020, when so many things were put on hold, the LAForum continued with their scheduled programming and worked hard to create socially distanced events for Los Angeles. Our small organization makes a big impact with events like this past summer’s exhibition Every. Thing. Changes., with events like ForumFest, and Newsletters and Pamphlets we publish every year for the design community. Please consider donating to the LAForum by becoming a Member or Sponsor — it will help the LAForum create future events.
LP: Our highly successful 2020 Summer Exhibition “Every. Thing. Changes.” was an outdoor event with 20 new works documenting the collective views of life in Los Angeles. Created by a select group of local designers and thinkers, “Every. Thing. Changes.” put forth a “call and response” process between the 20 L.A.-based writers, artists and designers. In parking lots and on virtual platforms around the city, the public could experience these new works together while safely distanced. It is events like this we need the publics’ help to continue. And it is easy to contribute: Go to http://laforum.org/join-us/ and you can become a Member or click on “Base (Flexible)” where you can contribute whatever amount you wish.
Why should giving to LAForum matter to the larger design community in Los Angeles?
ZH: The LAForum instigates dialogue, has an established voice, and works hard to maintain and continue to build communities in many formats. This year, Delirious LA had more interviews than in recent past years to provide members with perspectives on relevant topics of the times. The LAForum’s President’s letter of standing against racism was a much-needed statement for the organization itself, and also for the design community, which needs more diversity! An established organization like this is an example in the design and construction industry and LAForum leads by example. We must all work harder to include more Black and Brown voices in our workplace, teams and design conversations. This non-profit organization runs via an all-volunteer Board of Directors — we have talented and ambitious people on the board with great ideas! It is only possible to curate these interviews, newsletters, and events with donations from the community or by becoming a Member, Partner, Supporter, or Sponsor.
What will LAForum do with membership funds in 2021 specifically?
ZH: The membership funds in 2021 will go towards our operating budget, events and publications. Next year LAForum will be hosting their bi-yearly event, ForumFest, open to Members and Sponsors at a discounted price. Members can also expect more Newsletters and Pamphlets in response to relevant events. The more Members and Sponsors the LAForum has, the more programming we can do, it is as simple as that.
LP: The new publication “The Wild: Temporalities of Risk,” by architect Greg Kochanowski examines the urban periphery of Los Angeles which is a landscape vulnerable to fire, flash flood and debris flow. Documenting policies that have incentivized growth across this territory, it reveals the risks produced by the urbanization of the fire-adapted landscape. This important contribution, which we published this year, will be followed by further publications discussing the future of our built environment. The LAForum also has a “Think-In” underway to nurture dialogue with architecture and design organizations in other cities (LIGA Espacio para Architectura Mexico City, and Storefront for Art & Architecture New York, to name a few). The “Think-In” is focused on understanding the changes required in a post COVID-19 world and to promote social justice in our cities. The current prompt for the “Think-In” is: “How can we better support our members and community in these challenging times as they in turn support our cities to achieve a just, green recovery?”
But we need your to help us get all this great programming out there. Contribute today!
This week, Delirious LA caught up with the organizers of the 2020 AIA|LA 2X8 STUDENT EXHIBITION. As it enters its 14th year, the 2020 exhibition which opens on November 5th, 2020 at 6:00 PM, via http://2×8.org will be free to the public and entirely virtual. Issues of social equity, as they relate to housing conditions in Los Angeles and other cities across the country are the theme of this year’s work. To engage these issues more effectively, SoCal NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) consulted with the participants on issues of race, economic empowerment, and urban diversity. Delirious LA was delighted to speak to 2×8 program co-chairs Tatiana Sarkisian and Kirill Volchinskiy along with exhibition designer, Garet Ammerman, to learn more about this year’s 2020 AIA|LA 2X8 STUDENT EXHIBITION.
Tatiana, Kirill and Garet, greetings to all three of you, and thank you for taking the time to meet with Delirious LA. How does the 2×8 Exhibition and Competition fit into the larger mission of educational outreach for AIA|LA?
TS, & KV: Thank you to Delirious LA for taking the time to discuss the 2×8 program with us. The Competition bridges between academia and professional practice by providing a platform for student design work to be recognized outside of their respective schools. This serves as a path toward future professional opportunities and financial support as they pursue their academic goals. Furthermore, AIA|LA assists students by providing resources to help them out in licensure, mentorship, and building a network of professional contacts. The 2×8 Exhibition and Competition is an opportunity for students to develop a connection to our organization, and we hope that they will consider joining AIA|LA as young professionals.
GA: This is the first year I have worked with the 2×8 committee. Previously, I had only known the 2×8 student exhibition from a design perspective, and I have learned a lot about its’ underlying mission as well as all the work that goes into organizing it. It is such a great opportunity for students to be able to gain exposure through working with a nationally recognized organization like AIA/LA. The 2×8 Exhibition and Competitionprovides an inclusive and elevated platform for the students to share their work with the world. It is the longest running program of its kind and it engages students from most of the schools of architecture across California.
2020 has been such a challenging and difficult year to plan a public event of any kind. What were some the challenges you faced in putting together this year’s 2020 AIA|LA 2X8 STUDENT EXHIBITION?
TS: 2×8 usually focuses on the traditional gallery exhibition format, which is conducive to a large opening reception, with educators and practitioners in the same space engaging the students’ design work firsthand. This year, we had to think about how to recreate that experience, while making sure to do justice to the work of the students. This had to be our priority. We had to prioritize everyone’s safety during these times of C19, and we have been able to achieve this goal through the generosity of our sponsors, and the commitment from our amazing committee. We have had an overwhelming amount of support and were able to raise $30,000 in scholarship awards for the students this year.
KV: One of the greatest challenges this year was developing the technology in-house, pro-bono, solely using the talents and time of committee members to build this year’s virtual exhibition. In 2020, our challenges also became our opportunities, and not having a physical exhibition allowed us to manage funds and award a significantly larger scholarships to the students. Additionally, the virtual format of the exhibition allowed us to access jurors from east-coast institutions and practices including Jennifer Bonner from the GSD, Marc McQuade from Adjaye Associates, and Paul Petrunia from Archinect.
GA: The greatest challenge I faced this year was the abrupt reconceptualization of the exhibition from physical to the new virtual platform. While we were working through design details and materials acquisition for the original physical exhibition, I received the phone call that we were switching over to a virtual format. This necessitated a total reboot regarding the design of the exhibit. It was an opportunity and a challenge. The new format required a design response which could take advantage of the ways that visitors would interact with the work within the virtual space of the exhibition.
In what ways did the inclusion of SoCal NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) affect the process (and outcomes) of this year’s program?
KV: The coming of the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of public consciousness this spring prompted a re-thinking of the topics of equity, inclusion, and opportunity for many members of our discipline. SoCal NOMA has authored point by point plans for the profession regarding improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in architectural firms. They have also issued a similar challenge for colleges and universities. The 2×8 program is partnering with SoCal NOMA to hold a panel discussion where students of color engage representatives of architectural institutions directly. This discussion will be moderated by Josh Foster from NOMA. The title of the panel is “Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy.” The intended outcome of this panel is to reinvigorate the discussion surrounding these topics and share various strategies across institutions.
TS: The inclusion of SoCal NOMA has really opened the conversation within our committee. We needed to ensure that we were being responsive to these ongoing issues, which is why the supplemental panel discussion is organized the way that it is. Because all entries are anonymous, we do not factor in issues of identity in determining the winners of the competition. But we strongly advocate raising public awareness through our public events and programming and hope to continue this effort in the future.
How was the design of the 2020 AIA|LA 2X8 STUDENT EXHIBITION adapted from its original physical format to the new virtual one?
GA: Related to the aesthetics of the design itself, I would say that very little was adapted from the original physical format. However, some of the organizational and experiential strategies were bridged into the new virtual approach. A point of emphasis in the design of the original exhibition was an avoidance of a linear progression of project after project as displayed on a wall. This led to the creation of 9 free-floating ‘pods’, each with 3-4 sides available for the display of work. The notion of the ‘pods’ gave individuality to each display wall, with slightly different shapes and orientations within each physical room. This approach persisted in the new virtual exhibit. You can see it in how we navigate through the students’ work within the scaffolding of the virtual exhibition space. The limits of horizontality are further dissolved as the viewing angles can move vertically as well, and we maintain the uniqueness of each pod, each of which houses 1 student project.
KV: Originally, we had a building with an exhibition space and without that, the exhibition ceased to be tied to a specific physical site. Instead of being dictated by budget, square footage, and materials, the drivers for the new exhibit became the technology and the constraints of what the committee could assemble. The design ceased to be tethered to a space and is now only constrained by bandwidth. The 2×8 program is structured to provide visibility for students and opportunities for emerging faculty to design a public exhibition. The competition brief, to which Garet responded with the winning proposal, mandated designing for a second life of the exhibit. The theme of housing created a need to focus on zero waste and using materials that would be able to be repurposed after the exhibition was demounted. All these considerations were cast aside however, and the budget reserved for construction of the exhibition was made available to the students as scholarship awards.
Looking forward to next year, do you feel that some of the changes made in 2020 will affect the format of the 2021 AIA|LA 2X8 STUDENT EXHIBITION?
TS: With each iteration of this exhibition, we are given the opportunity to build on the previous years’ experience, and to expand the possibilities of what the 2×8 program can offer. While it cannot compare to an in-person connection, an online experience can supplement our efforts in supporting the students on their path towards professional careers. This year, we were able to reach outside of our network in Los Angeles and enjoy the perspectives of a diverse group of practitioners who agreed to serve as jurors and panelists. This is something we would like to carry forward in subsequent iterations of the program. The new virtual exhibition format allows for greater exposure of the work, and provides access to a national, and international audience.
GA: I like the idea of a virtual exhibition that is mirrored by physical exhibition. I do not foresee the virtual realm eliminating the need for an in-person experience with an opening night and the tactile experience of concrete space just yet. Assuming that the physical exhibition would forever be documented online through any number of social media sources, it seems appropriate to have a more curated version of that documentation by the organizers of the event. All of this is dependent on logistics and resources however, and there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes to create this year’s virtual exhibition. We have hopefully achieved a successful virtual platform for the AIA/LA. The 2×8 Exhibition and Competition that can be built upon for years to come.
To celebrate the launch of his new publication, The Wild, LAForum interviewed Greg Kochanowski, AIA / ASLA, Studio Director at RIOS. Greg is a licensed architect, aspiring landscape architect, and educator in the State of California. He has been practicing and teaching for over 25 years with projects spanning a wide array of scales, typologies, complexities, and disciplinary orientations. His work and research seek to holistically combine the techniques and strategies of architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism to create unique, sustainable, forward thinking, equitable environments that build upon and enhance the specific qualities of a place.
Congratulations on the publication of “The Wild” Greg. Can you tell us what led you to undertake the research which produced this pamphlet?
I started this work around 2014. Having lived in Los Angeles since 1997, I noticed the cycle fire, flood, debris flows the city experiences on a yearly basis. At that time, no one in the design community (that I knew of) was discussing the effects of climate change on arid regions (except for Hadley Arnold & Peter Arnold’s Arid Lands Institute). The conversation was very “coast / euro-centric”, focusing on sea level rise. So, I wanted to start examining what this meant for Los Angeles and other arid regions, as well as areas of Central and South America. My wife and I have lived in the Santa Monica Mountains since 2000. Up until 2018 we had personally experienced wildfires and debris flows but managed to always be just tangentially affected. Consequently, in November 2018, our luck ran out and we lost our home in the Woolsey Fire. We are part of a 215-home co-op community on 26 acres in Cornell, CA. Coincidentally, in October of the same year, I had just participated in an education session at the ASLA National Conference on the subject – which made losing our home one month later even that much more surreal. I found myself “living the research” so to speak. I guess as a way of dealing with the grief and loss, I dove headfirst into the research – essentially being consumed with listening to and reading whatever I could. This then led to further education sessions at the ASLA and AIA national conferences, and this pamphlet.
Can “The Wild” be considered a “user’s guide” for life in the urban periphery of southern California?
That’s how it’s intended, of sorts. Peri-urban environments, such as the wildland urban interface (WUI), are so complex and multivalent that it seemed impossible to tackle all the issues in depth within the space of a pamphlet. Additionally, the book is attempting to describe a web of relations between economics, politics, infrastructure, planning, natural (and unnatural) ecosystems, architecture, landscape, geology, and communities. These classifications overlap and combine in various ways, so I thought it would be good to reframe the issues into categories that allow for an understanding of that complexity. The pamphlet, then, is not necessarily intended to be read from front to back, but rather I hoped someone could thumb through it and gain some understanding of this complexity. Hence the organization of the Clouds, Transects, Fields, and Blankets chapters came about. Each begins with a description of existing conditions, followed by some speculative vignettes. This is not intended to be exhaustive of any one issue but intended to reframe certain conditions within WUI environments to emphasize overlaps with the goal of thinking through potential future scenarios. These chapters are bracketed by a deeper dive written piece at the beginning of the book, and more in-depth project studies/speculations at the back. These environments, and this research, has its own language so the glossary is meant as an introduction those terms and definitions. Hopefully, the combination of all these various mediums and facets increases awareness and spurs interest in the reader to examine these issues more closely. Currently through my firm RIOS I, along with Elisa Read and Chihiro Isono, am working on an education project with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica mountains entitled “Sustainable Defensible Space” (www.defensiblespace.org), which is more directly a “user’s guide” to instruct the general public how to build, plant, maintain, and organize within these environments. It’s a very exciting project, and one of the first of its kind in Southern California.
When considering the near and middle-term future, where does “The Wild” come down on the “retreat” vs “remediation” dilemma faced by the residents of the urban periphery?
It’s an interesting and very complex question that usually gets reduced into a set of binaries. ‘Retreat’ from these environments, within popular culture, has been defined as the responsible thing to do, both for the person individually, as well as the general society (i.e., public dollars no longer needed to ‘bail out’ individuals). But this is tied to one’s own personal circumstance – can someone afford to leave the place (that might be the only place) providing affordable living? If they were to leave, what is the value of the property left behind, and can that value be recouped if the consensus is these environments should not be lived in? Conversely, the issue of ‘remediation’ is not really the right term to use in this situation, especially if we define it as “the act of reversing or stopping environmental change”. These are not systems that can be reversed as much as we can reverse the trajectory of climate change. Although exacerbated by human activity, these are fire adapted landscapes that have existed for centuries. Fires have rolled through the Santa Monica Mountains long before people settled there. So, the idea of reversing this is a misnomer, as there is no idealized state to go back to. Instead, and maybe this is what you meant by your question, we need to stop living in conflict with our environment. Los Angeles was born out of a harnessing of resources – the making of a place – instead of co-existing and adapting to the found conditions. Native Americans understood the symbiosis between wildlands and humans and, as such, were able to harness fire to their benefit in complex forms of land management. So too must we rethink the planning and development of our built environment. The publication is intended to foster that discussion.
Mike Davis wrote, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn”, (Ecology of Fear, 1998). Is “The Wild” a rebuttal or a reassessment of that position?
Yes. Although not explicitly cited in the writing, the intent was to provide a reassessment and somewhat of a rebuttal of ‘TCFLMB’. Davis’ piece has populist overtones that have become generalized and associated with other communities living in disaster prone environments. The demographics of most people living adjacent, or intermixed, with wildlands are lower to middle income and mostly driven out of urban centers due to inflated housing costs. This is certainly true for Los Angeles and the areas we are seeing affected by the simultaneous wildfires along the west coast in California, Oregon, Montana, and Washington State. So, holding the wealthy community of Malibu up as the rule rather than the exception may make for good reading, but is rather disingenuous. In fact, there is an enormous equity issue at play here, as most communities adjacent to wildlands lack the infrastructure, resources, or investment opportunities to properly mitigate, or fight, these wildfires. Indeed, some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world are the most affected by climate change – be that by wildfires, extreme heat, or flooding. Seeing the effects of climate change as not only an environmental issue but also a human rights issue is critical to creating more holistic, sustainable, and lasting solutions.
You are part of an ongoing series of town hall meetings (starting in November of 2018) addressing the effort to rebuild after the Woolsey Fire. How does publication of “The Wild” fit into that ongoing process?
Well the book does, and does not, fit into that process. Being part of a community that is in the process of rebuilding has certainly made my understanding of the issues more visceral and real. There is a tendency in the analysis of these environments (or I guess any level of analysis to some extent) to work in the abstract – 30,000 ft above evaluating broad systems and patterns, be they environmental, infrastructural, cultural, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there is a necessity for thinking big and visioning possible futures, and this publication tries to do exactly that in places. But what has been revealed to me over the past couple of years (and was immediately apparent in November 2018) is the impact of wildfires on people’s lives. That may sound obvious, but the deeper message that came out of Woolsey is how important strong communities are in creating nimble, adaptive (dare I say resilient) solutions. Wildfires are caused through a combination of global and local factors, so as much as humans have helped to exacerbate (and accelerate) the current climate crisis, so too are wildfires primarily caused by human activity adjacent to wildlands. As such, working on the ground at local levels is a necessity. The hope is that publications such as this, as well as nonprofits and locally organized groups (Fire Safe Councils and Fire Adapted Communities for example), can help to educate the general public, initiate dialogue, and spark the imagination – all with the purpose of promoting the ongoing stewardship of these landscapes in a sustainable manner.
Anthony Acock is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Cal Poly Pomona and a freelance art director focusing on the nonprofit sector. He formerly served on the Board of Directors for AIGA Los Angeles as an Education Co-Director, and is on the Ambassador Board of the Innovation Center of Design Excellence. Acock writes regularly on the subjects of; empathy, interdisciplinary collaborations, and punk culture. Skateboarding deep into middle age, being comfortable with a can of spray paint, sloppily playing drums in punk bands, and chasing his two delightful but not particularly useful children around are his other areas of interest.
Hi Anthony, this is the second LAForum Newsletter you have designed in as many years, how did your job as a designer change between the years of 2019 and 2020?
2020 is wild and awful in most measurable ways. So much has changed in how I view the world as a designer, the meaningfulness of design in general, and my own participation in the design process.
In 2019, On Listening was a really inspired project. I was given an audio recording of ambient city noises and google map directions, which I was able to replicate with a camera, walking around, shooting pictures of things that looked interesting or useful, and getting a feel for the subject matter before I started designing. It was honestly a great time.
2020 is not hospitable to a similar process. Leaving the house becomes an exercise in cost / benefit analysis. Can I go shoot photos of XYZ for this project safely? Is it worth it? How does leaving the house put my children at risk?
Additionally, with the subject matter of both publications there is a lot of outside-looking-in happening, so I do go to these places and document what I see in a way that is non voyeuristic and doesn’t fetishize poverty. The 2020 Newsletter has made me reevaluate my participation in documenting Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. I put a lot of effort put into creating a hospitable and holistic newsletter for 2020.
2020 has required all of us to “bear witness” to so many unforeseeable events and calamities, did designing the Newsletter in any way transform your perspective on our current predicament?
2020 has made me look at my own complicity in economic injustice and racism. I am also aware that it is a privilege to be able to spend time thinking about these things, versus living them firsthand. Having the luxury to philosophically consider one’s role, without fear of the rent not being paid, or whether food is being put on the table is a real privilege.
For the 2020 publication, it was important to design the newsletter so that it could reach beyond its’ core communities of design, planning and architecture. We decided to translate as many parts of the newsletter into spanish as we possibly could. We also determined to make the 2020 Newsletter free for download. Emphasis was put on extending the accessibility of the document both financially and culturally.
The 2019 LAForum Newsletter “On Listening” included a vinyl LP as well as images and text, what was it like to synthesize all those different modes of media into one package?
The 2019 publication was very much in my wheelhouse. I have long collected vinyl records and enjoy the design of their packaging immensely. The whole concept of recording the ambient noises of Los Angeles (which is one of my favorite cities), documenting class disparity, and packaging collectible vinyl, are all areas of interest to me.
The day I captured the images for the project, I rode my motorcycle down to Skid Row, and went for a long walk shooting photos, careful not to capture people, or fall into the “ruin porn” trap. The walk eventually led me through gradients of gentrification adjacent to the Los Angeles Central Library, Central Market, and back again to skid row.
Aggregating those photos and the text into a coherent package was quite easy. My job is really fun sometimes, and I learned a lot about Los Angeles from that walk, from studying the written content, and through the process of designing the 2019 publication.
This year the 2020 LAForum Newsletter is dual formatted for “no cost” download, and for “low cost” on-demand printing, what opportunities does that afford to the reader?
This drastically expands the accessibility of the document, which was very important for all of us, especially in 2020. The information is free. If you enjoy the ephemera of a physical piece, you can purchase one. Formatting the 2020 Newsletter to be printed ‘on demand’ means that it will never go ‘out of print’. The 2020 publication was as much an exercise in accessibility as it was a designed artifact. Both are important to me, but in 2020, accessibility takes precedent.
Do you have any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?
For better or worse, as I get further entrenched into teaching and academic work, I see myself making a transition from being a ‘graphic designer’ to being a ‘design educator’. I think I am mostly okay with this. Last year I became Chair of the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Communication Design at Cal Poly Pomona. It is a role I take very seriously, for a program I very much believe in, and in a College that I believe has immense capacity for doing good. Being Chair of a Department during a pandemic falls somewhere between playing ‘wack-a-mole’ and adjusting chairs on the deck of the Titanic. It is a complicated balance, riddled with catholic guilt and fear.
As I spend more time being concerned with design pedagogy, curriculum development, faculty / student engagement, and student wellbeing, I do spend less time creating logos and websites than I did previously. I am fortunate to be able to pick and choose my extracurricular projects. These days I favor those that are in the realm of advocacy, nonprofit work, and projects which allow me to involve my students. For instance, many of the photographs in the 2020 publication were taken by my students. I recently completed a book for Nader Tehrani which involved students documenting his teaching practice. I also do a lot of work for the Inland Valley Down Syndrome Association, where my students have done everything from designing their logo and website, to painting their office and building furniture.
Any upcoming projects that I take on in the near future will continue to foreground issues of social justice, student engagement, and accessible pedagogical design in academe.
As part of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we interview exhibition designer Tim Durfee about the support and presentation of 20 newly commissioned texts and visual works that make up the show.
If you missed the opening viewing of works on August 8th, you can still visit the exhibition online through September 27th at everythingchanges2020.org.
Visit everythingchanges2020.org to find out about our upcoming curator’s tour.
The LAForum’s Summer Exhibition was originally planned for Woodbury University’s Hollywood Outpost (WUHO) — that’s where the LAF Summer Exhibit has always been in the past. But the COVID crisis forced the closure of WUHO, and therefore the 2020 Summer Exhibition into a different realm; partially in physical sites around the city and partially on virtual platforms. As the exhibition designer, how did you approach the atypical nature of the project constraints?
In meetings with the curators and the whole team, we started to view the COVID situation less as a “constraint” and more as a catalyst — prompting us to consider an exhibition according to a different set of values that, as it turns out, may be more in sync with the social, ecological, and cultural nature of this time, even if one removes the health crisis from the picture. In this case, what emerged was an exhibition that inhabits our in-car, pedestrian, and online lives equally. It is less “look at this high-concept COVID exhibition,” than “this is life now, what is an exhibition in that new life?”
The primary manifestation of that approach was placing 13’-0” tall “posts” at each of the E.T.C. sites. These posts are physical signs, tall to be visible from the street, and substantial enough to mark the site as part of a network. As locations that were equally physical places as well as pins on the GPS apps of each visitor, these posts aspired to a kind of dumb (in a good way) instance of this co-reality — that is, not metaphors but just as the ubiquity of icons in software has, over time, elevated them from mere metaphors of action in the physical world.
Clamped to the top of each post is a smartphone holder for live-streaming. I always liked the way NASA footage will so often capture random hardware in the extreme foreground while streaming extraordinary views of Earth in the background. These ostensibly accidental guests in the frame make the video so much more “live.” In our case, we included small numbers at the tops of the posts intended to appear in each stream, stamping it with its respective location. The tall poles can also be detached from the base, so visitors or docents can roam the sites as dynamic hosts to its online existence.
With your current office Tim Durfee Studio, as well as your prior collaborations with Iris Anna Regn, Louise Sandhaus, and others, you have a lot of experience in exhibition design, from projects for the Hammer Museum to The Huntington Library to LACMA. How did those past jobs lend to the knowledge base and to your design development for the Every. Thing. Changes. exhibition?
While I have definitely worked on a lot of exhibitions, I have always found it productive to resist thinking of exhibition design as a specialization, but rather as a type of project where a bunch of other modes of making intersect. I really do believe that factoring ideas and information as the shapers of form are — or should be – how we view architecture at all scales.
That said, my experience with exhibitions has definitely heightened my sensitivity about something that seems extremely pragmatic and mundane, but which I have come to view as valuable enough to “elevate” as a conceptual consideration. That is the relationship of any given project to its use of material and labor. Exhibitions involve temporary construction, and — over time — the undue waste of material for non-permanent applications has just started to feel wrong to me. This is an ecological issue, of course, but in terms of design and culture, I’ve become interested in it in a way that is perhaps more philosophically aesthetic — that is, why wouldn’t our comfort/attraction/engagement with our built environment not begin to correlate with a perception of things as embracing the right balance of expenditure-to-benefit?
Every.Thing.Changes. continues as an online show until September 27th, but the physical/streaming hybrid exhibition was super-brief. While a typical “short-run” exhibition might be 5 weeks, the E.T.C. installations ran for 5 hours. Because of this, thinking of the show as a kind of designed coincidence — a “momentary” rather than “temporary” event — became really intriguing. (This idea of designing a coincidence grew out of collaborations I’ve done with Ben Hooker and Jenny Rodenhouse.) Could there be a way to treat every material as “just passing through” on its way to some other use? With this in mind, we then tried to put together a palette of elements that would either be reused, returned, or maybe turned into compost. For example, I’ve always admired the piles of chopped-up trees one often sees on the side of the road in L.A., left by the Department of Street Services. We needed heavy, above-grade footings, and using these beautiful old-growth stumps — future mulch — seemed easier, and obviously more sustainable than, say, cast concrete.
Similarly, considering the obscenity of cutting-up material to build walls for a 5-hour show, we thought of how one could (ethically) return supplies if they are completely unblemished. We made reusable braces to temporarily transform 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood into walls with ledges to support framed drawings and monitors. The idea was to acquire the boards in the morning, employ them as walls for the afternoon, then send them back the following morning back through the channels of capital and logistics — unaltered — to their original pile among the PVC and paint samples in a certain large hardware store on Figueroa.
Join us this Saturday August 8th, 3pm to 7pm to view the LAForum Summer Exhibition’s 20 new works in person.
Then, join us online for the opening reception, Saturday August 8th, 7pm to 9pm.
As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Anthony Carfello (editor and educator), Loren Adams (architect), Orhan Ayyuce (architect), Tory J. Lowitz (artist), and Jakob Sellaoui (architect). Find out more about each of them and their work at www.everythingchanges2020.org
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the spring of 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Anthony, you’re co-editor at Georgia and many of our readers know your past exhibition work at the MAK Center. The topic LAForum gave you to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s”. What does a vision of next-decade L.A. look like to you?
AC: I recall a panel discussion at Occidental College in 2015 about the 25th anniversary of the publication of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz. There was a congratulatory atmosphere throughout the entire event, as each participant highlighted the ways in which L.A. had “improved” or “corrected” the sociopolitical rot at the city’s core that Davis has described so poignantly. No one bothered with all that had gone unchanged since 1990, or that which had become worse. I thought again about this in 2017 when my class considered the results of Loyola Marymount’s quinquennial survey showing that people believed L.A. was headed for another uprising. Discussing this LAForum initiative with Wendy and Nina — in the midst of all the precarity and inequality amplified by the global pandemic and the protests and actions for Black lives following so many recent tragedies — again asserted how little has been remedied and how much remains to be questioned in this decade.
Loren, Orhan, and Tory, what are you producing for the exhibition in response to Anthony’s text?
LA: Anthony and I share a common interest in uncovering the rules that govern our access to urban space – and in finding ways to break, subvert, or resist those rules if/when they no longer serve us. I was especially drawn to his mention of “the crucial word choice, ‘riot’ or ‘uprising’” in Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles 1992. Language really is an instrument of power.
Lately I’ve been especially interested in the language of regulation in the built environment. I think that the specific things we choose to regulate – and the method by which we choose to measure compliance – tell a story about what we, as a society, collectively value. I’d like to see a reorientation of those values away from capital and towards public good. So, in response to Anthony’s text I’ve decided to use a bespoke deep learning text generator ‘bot — trained on Los Angeles-specific literary sources – to re-write planning regulations. This is one iteration in an ongoing project called “Regulatory Nonsense,” which asks: What could our cities be if regulations were written by poets, choreographers, philosophers, an A.I.? If we embrace linguistic ambiguity, would the language of our built environment begin to reflect the novel, poetic language of its regulations? Would it facilitate architecture that better serves our communities?
OA: I am organizing a public forum with a few invited guests on a bus stop on the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, from 10am to 12pm on Saturday the 8th.
TJL: I am crafting ten copies of a fictitious restaurant menu. The restaurant is called Délice Intangible. The menu implies an intangible, exotic cuisine that is specifically curated to the tenants of the property in Anthony’s text.
JS: Architecture for the greater part is in the “yes business.” Obliging and serving the demands of political and economic environments. The “success” of our behaviors and corresponding spaces are often determined by their economic efficiency. The project, “A Space For Doing Nothing” alludes to the notion of “refusal,” by proposing a temporal architectural space for a neglected hill-site staircase in El Sereno. A tent structure gives shelter, frames a view and “refuses” to be more — or less — than a place of momentary pause.
On Saturday August 8th the public can visit your work in various sites around town, so for a sneak peek, how are you translating Anthony’s text to a site?
LA: The “site” of my project is really the suite of standards, codes, policies, and regulatory documents that have become the rules of engagement for our profession. I’d argue that this regulatory landscape is the “site” of all projects in architectural practice nowadays – design intention is always subservient to regulatory compliance, and regulatory compliance is typically driven by fiscal risk. I am especially interested in the form that “instruction” takes. Regulations are a kind of instruction, and instructions aren’t “facts” – they are cultural artefacts. They are designed and constructed. They are products of judgement. Think: Michael Sorkin and Sol LeWitt, paired with the clumsy joy of an “I Forced A Bot” meme.
OA: In this text, Anthony talks about various people with different interactions with the city. So, I am taking on these issues and asking selected guests to reflect on them such as: income inequality, housing, domestic workers and public transportation.
TJL: The translation is the menu itself. By its very existence, it implies inequality while deliberately offering food to particular demography.
JS: Instead of translating an idea to a site, I like to think of it as a response. In this sense, a text or a site are equal suggestions for a possible direction. What I do is spatially relate these – sometimes opposing – conditions, that then eventually becomes the project.
Some exhibition participants have worked very closely together, exchanging ideas and adapting their designs to the others’ development of the works. Others not so much. How did you all work? And did that change once the pandemic hit?
TJL: Yes, regarding printing, availability, and tone mostly.
LA: I’m currently based in Melbourne, Australia, so remote collaboration isn’t new for me – in many ways the global shift to predominantly online modes of work have allowed me to more easily reconnect with my people across the Pacific. I grew up in a small town in Western Australia, which isn’t close to anything — it’s 100kms from one of the most isolated capital cities in the world. So it’s nice to still have access to opportunities without needing to be physically present or geographically co-located. The optimist in me hopes that this will lead to far greater equity of access in the longer term, especially for those of us with mobility issues or carer’s responsibilities.
That being said, I’ve been housebound for more than 4 months now – trying to grapple with the collapse of the two industries that I rely on to pay my bills (architecture and higher education) – and I’m exhausted. In Victoria, we have just returned to Stage 3 restrictions for another 6 weeks following a spike in COVID cases from community transmission and a further lockdown to Stage 4 is looming. Critical creative practice feels more urgent and needed now, but I’m finding that it takes a back seat to the pragmatics of day-to-day survival.
OA: Sure, what that conditions have not been influenced? Both the pandemic and social unrest weren’t yet happening when I agreed to take on this project. And, these events forced some changes and formulations on realizing the work. However, the location did not change. I am happy about that.
JS:In some ways the day-to-day work is for the greater part still the same. Being involved in projects that — even before the pandemic — are remote, where collaborations across borders are inevitable, has already set the directions for a method that is based in trust but also long Skype calls. What has changes is the awareness and direction of focus. Within all the difficulty and uncertainty there has been a positive side effect in the sense that certain assumptions have been challenged. A reality-check on what mattered before and still matters and also what doesn’t.
Unlike the way exhibitions are usually organized, the current situation demanded from us all to somehow “allow” uncertainty — not only as a conceptual frame — but a daily reality to be part of the show. The optimism and generosity for each other was not just a very humbling but also inspiring experience.
AC: As this group is not so much in direct collaboration as it is in dialogue, I’d just say that it’s been nice to have a reason to check in. More exhibitions should make room for mutation in response to surrounding conditions.
Join us Saturday August 8th, 3pm to 7pm to view the LAForum Summer Exhibition’s 20 new works in person.
Then, join us online for the opening reception, Saturday August 8th, 7pm to 9pm.
As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Viva Padilla (poet, editor), Lorena Garcia (landscape architect), Polaris Castillo (artist) and Cameron Stallones (musician and artist). Find out more about each of them and their work at www.everythingchanges2020.org
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the spring of 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Viva, you’re a poet, editor and founder of Dryland literary journal. The topic LAForum gave you to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s”. What does that vision of next-decade L.A. look like to you?
VP: When I was first thinking about L.A. in the 20s, we were in pre-pandemic times. I wanted to physically explore spaces that were important to me growing up that have themselves changed in the past 20 years. My idea was to go by train and bus, and write as a I traveled between these spaces. These places and the people moving through them (mainly Black and Brown) are not usually depicted in L.A. literature; I wanted to bring that to my piece. Sadly, once the pandemic hit I had to come up with a new plan so I did a pandemic-friendly variation on this where I drove the city. I started in one of the poorest areas of L.A., South Central L.A. where I grew up, and took myself all the way to its polar opposite to Beverly Hills and Brentwood.
L.A. is a metropolis addicted to making itself unknown. It does this even with its people. I imagine that in the next decade we’ll continue to lose more and more people to displacement, gentrification, the housing crisis — the only thing that might stop this is the Big One hits and the transplants go home. This might just make things affordable for those of us native to L.A. and literary — who’ve been dreaming of living somewhere like Bunker Hill.
Lorena, Polaris, and Cameron, what are you producing for the exhibition in response to Viva’s text?
LG: I am creating a series of vessels as elements in the street landscape for people to present tributes to their memories, to people, or to historic events. The installation is accompanied by a visual piece where, starting from Viva´s experiences, I navigate through my own map of memories, along with visions of the vases splashed throughout the urban grid, following the hypnotizing tunes by Sun Araw, which is Cameron’s band.
PC: I’m producing a hand drawn illustration that I’m taking into Photoshop and Illustrator to create a digital piece that feels like a postcard. Viva’s text captures a wide range of ideas and scenes from a well lived life. My goal is to embody the text emotionally through image, which is the challenge. I want to literally take bits and pieces from the text and translate them visually, as poetry can be filled with abstract metaphors. To give these metaphors a visual can make that abstraction stronger, while surrounding it with a living, breathing world.
CS: I’m mostly a musician and audio producer, and I’m working with a new coalition here in L.A. building an educational arts and culture FM radio station called LOOKOUT FM. When I read Viva’s piece I was really taken with her ability to evoke such specific feelings of place with really potent fragments of imagery. One of our projects at LOOKOUT FM is to produce poetry and other literature for radio, so I decided to produce a short radio piece from her poem, composing some original music and sound design around a recording she provided me. It’s such an evocative piece of writing! I didn’t want the audio environment to be a 1-to-1 illustration, so I worked to find an emotional language that was compatible but not literal.
On Saturday August 8th from 3pm to 7pm the public can visit your work in various sites around town, so for a sneak peek, how are you translating Viva’s text to the site (at Bestor Architects)?
LG: Viva´s poem is so beautiful and powerful. Immediately, after a first read, you feel the vigor to direct through your own psycho-geography of the city. For me, at the same time, it conveys nostalgia, loneliness and solitude. We are all struggling with very sad circumstances, so I started to work in concepts as memories and tributes, within the urban grid.
I think that a tribute object, accessible to the people, is a very necessary element nowadays in our cities and of course I am not talking about monuments, I’m talking about objects that belong to the communities, where they can express and share their joys and sorrows. I decided to make the vases with simple non-uniform shapes and neutral colors. Like a version of a non-perfect everyday object. I didn’t spend a long time in the design of the piece or create a beautiful glaze, I ran away from the impression of a pottery exhibition or any other distraction from the idea of just having — scattered around the city — a communal and personal honoring of sites. For the afternoon on Saturday the 8th, the exhibition site will be that place.
PC: With the ongoing challenges of the world and the pandemic, I’m still working out the best possible way to present the piece. I’d like it to be as simple and straightforward as possible so viewers can really take in the detail of the work. The drawing will be displayed at the site and also postcards of the drawing will be available for visitors to take with them or to mail to a friend with a personal note.
CS: Sound design has always been a real interest of mine, I made a record a few years ago that really explored “space design” as a compositional tool for music, some of the songs being “rooms” and others being “corridors,” based on how they moved or didn’t move. Viva’s piece really felt like a corridor, a series of images that are passing by and giving a certain quality to a few moments, so I tried to build the piece with a feeling of being carried along, peering into different descriptive moments. Visitors to the exhibition site can tune into the FM station and hear the piece.
Some exhibition participants have worked very closely together, exchanging ideas and adapting their designs to the others’ development of the works. Others not so much. How did you all work? And did that change once the pandemic hit?
LG: Definitely, the pandemic quarantine has influenced the production. Probably I wouldn’t be doing this piece if we were not in these tough times. In terms of work, I chose a coil technique to shape the vases since it is a technique that I can do in my house. I hadn’t used this technique before so it has been a totally new and very joyful experiment.
Like all of us, I’ve found myself waking one day feeling no urgency in anything related to my work, just waiting to stop and listen the world, and then the next day, finding relief in being able to focus on projects. Thus, the production has taken double time than in normal conditions.
PC: The quarantine has influenced the work a bit, but not too much. I think the intent behind it before starting it was a fun challenge. Viva and I had initially agreed on sending each other random fragments of inspiration (letters, texts, images, trinkets, etc.) as a way to spark ideas. She also sent me a recording of herself reciting the poem. Ultimately, though, the influence from that simple intention I think washed over to my mind and what I wound up creating.
CS: Yes definitely, I’ve been unable to work with the band since lockdown, there’s not a great digital solution for playing together unfortunately due to lag. So I’ve been working on different sorts of projects that don’t require playing live together, but it’s been discouraging to not be able to.
Question for all of you: What’s been the most surprising thing about the exhibition for you so far?
VP: For me it was how natural it all felt. We worked on this as the pandemic and the uprisings were starting, and it seemed uncertain that we’d have an exhibition. However, Wendy and Nina never put too much pressure on the project which I think really helped us in finding our footing first before going forward with our ideas. With Lorena, Polaris, Cameron — it was more like we were all on the same episode of the Twilight Zone, so we were all on the same page from the start which made the whole thing come together and make sense.
PC: The most surprising thing about the development of the exhibition has been the emphasis on a collective effort. Because of the pandemic, we’ve done a number of zoom calls and kept each other in the loop regarding what we’re up to, how we’re executing, and keeping each other informed on what the show will be, despite its many evolutions. I’ve been part of group art shows before, but this is a really nice and different way of letting everybody in on the presentation.
LG: Viva´s text is so universal and easy to identify with, we haven’t needed long conversations. I felt from the beginning very close to it. I think that for the four of us, and with the generosity and kindness of Nina and Wendy, the process has been very mellow and pleasing. And there is a lot to say in these days.
CS: I’m super enthusiastic about the exquisite corpse concept at the foundation of the exhibition, it’s been so interesting to see all the different angles people have brought to each prompt. It’s not often people ask for such direct engagement with other people in a show, I’ve really enjoyed it!
As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we will interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Sam Bloch (journalist), Julie Smith-Clementi and Frank Clementi (architects), Hyunch Sung (landscape designer and artist) and John Atkinson (sound artist). Find out more about each of them and their work at www.everythingchanges2020.org
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the spring of 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Sam, you’re a journalist and writer. Many of our readers are likely familiar with your work in Places Journal on shade equity. The topic LAForum gave you to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s”. What does that vision of the future, of next-decade L.A. look like to you?
SB: I started thinking about the fashion of climate change last fall, when I was reporting on L.A.’s plan to cover 250 miles of road lanes in creamy, light-reflective material by 2028. The idea behind these “cool pavements,” as city officials call them, is to lower ever-rising urban temperatures by bouncing solar radiation back into space, rather than allowing all of that asphalt to store and release it through the night as more heat.
The radiation doesn’t disappear. It hits people and warms them up—unless they’re wearing the right kind of clothes. An urban climatologist explained to me that clothes are like any other surface—they absorb and disperse heat based on things like their shape, material and color. So this is when I started to wonder: What could Angelenos wear to protect themselves from this coming abundance of killer heat rays, whether from the sun or the ground below?
There’s a bit of levity and glibness in framing the problem of extreme heat as a matter of fashion. (“What should I wear?”) But I think it’s instructive, because it acknowledges an ultimate truth about public health threats, which is that we’re probably most worried about how they affect us individually, as opposed to how they pound the most vulnerable people. We now know there’s a grave cost to that way of thinking—that a failure to protect each other devastates all of us.
When I think most optimistically about L.A. in the next decade, I imagine a Garden of Eden. I’d like to see sun-baked neighborhoods shaded by a lush tree canopy. I’d like to see streets made pleasant and tolerable, if only to invite more people out of their cars and take buses and walk more often. But I also foresee permanent social distancing—a fear of the public, and disengagement with shared space, that’s both an outgrowth of the pandemic and abetted by city coffers once again drained by economic depression. If we’re going to keep our distance, I can imagine the need for some kind of protective suit or armor—not just from the weather, but also from each other.
Julie, Frank, Hyunch and John, what are you producing for the exhibition in response to Sam’s text?
JSC & FC: We are producing shadow boxes and digital animations depicting environmental responsive fashion. Sam opened up a question about how people have always created skins to mitigate their environment. Initially these are practical skins in response to environmental conditions; it’s too cold, it’s too sunny, or it’s too wet. This results in rain gear, a hat or sunglasses. Eventually these become mixed with social responses as well; clothing like the proper hat, the proper shoes, the latest sunglasses. This was our starting point.
JA: I appreciated Sam’s evocative text on how climate change might affect our daily lives and relationship with the weather in LA — and, as someone who has worked in renewable energy and clean tech for most of my career outside of music, I was excited for the opportunity to mirror this with a sonic imagining of what a future of “climate whiplash” might feel like.
HS: I actually read all the texts for the exhibition, and was drawn to what Terry Wolverton wrote about the past and future evolution of feminism, art, and community in Los Angeles. I am creating a community mixtape/jukebox by collecting song-stories from mothers of color in Los Angeles. It feels urgent to think about how we listen to one another right now in the throes of a pandemic that is revealing and exacerbating a trauma of inequity. I chose mothers from communities of color because this intersectional identity is not given much air time in the world that we live in. Let us not forget that we all come from a woman’s body. One empathizes by listening to stories, and song is a lyric-story set to music. Music engenders primal feeling and memory. These songs are about the human voice. Listening to someone is the same as needing someone. We all need each other so much right now.
And how are you translating Sam’s text to a site and/or to a formal idea? And Hyunch, how are you translating Terry’s text?
JSC & FC: We are architects, which are inherently site-based, but for one reason or another we’ve had the luck to deal with design at a spectrum of scales. So rather than deal with the site as a physical place, our site is the human body.
JA: Like most of my recent sound design and composition, I started with field recordings: One, from a walk through Silverlake in the heat of June while helicopters circled in the early days of the George Floyd protests, and the other of a summer thunderstorm on the east coast on the same day. In the same way that anthropogenic climate change is transforming and interconnecting our environment in new ways, I used a variety of sound processing techniques to reshape these sounds from our present day world into a narrative about our future.
HS: I am creating a community mixtape or jukebox by collecting song-stories from mothers of color in Los Angeles, as inspired by Terry Wolverton’s text.
The individuals in this particular group are spread across the country (N.Y., L.A. and Oakland, which was totally unintended by the curatorial team, by the way), so when the pandemic quarantine required other participants’ to work remotely starting in March, you all had worked remotely from day one. Did that distance influence production? And did the pandemic change your work at all?
JSC & FC: Absolutely, and when we started before the pandemic, the responses were mostly to the environmental conditions Sam described, (i.e. climate). But the pandemic has shown how creative people are by making social distance prosthetics, from school kids in China with their Song Dynasty influenced hats to the Sparkletts bottle masks people were wearing in India and Vancouver. We took that as a starting point to imagine protective fashion that is both useful and symbolic.
In terms of collaboration, the discussion was easier and arguably more productive than it would’ve been if we had smaller one on one meetings with our collaborators in New York and San Francisco. Which actually calls into question the constraints of site in the coming paradigm or the coming normalized context. The pandemic forced us to stay in one place, each on one side the conversation, but all together. It normalized a relationship of a multi video conversation. Now, post Covid, cross connection is much easier permitting richer arbitrary adjacencies. You can assert your identity through your site. All the sites are cross connected.
JA: Absolutely for me too. Since giving up my full-time apartment in L.A. in 2016, I’ve been living as a bit of a nomad, splitting time between Melbourne Australia, Los Angeles, and New York. My last stay in Los Angeles ended in February; since the pandemic has put future plans to return on hold, I had to rely on my friend Jesse Novak (composer of TV soundtracks including Bojack Horseman and The Mindy Project) to record in Silverlake while I remained quarantined in New York.
HS: My piece is created by having conversations and recording sessions with mothers from communities of color in Los Angeles over the phone. I chose the phone as the mode of communication to emphasize voice and sound. I also thought it would make people feel less self-conscious. It is lulling and special to just listen to someone’s voice. Video conferencing feels disconnecting to me because of the lack of real eye contact, and the unrelenting grid. I also dislike how I’m basically watching other people watch me and others, and watching myself being watched and watching. It is like a cray cray mirror from a Tarkovsky movie. It’s very comforting to just focus on what another person is saying or singing on the phone.
Question for all of you: What’s been the most surprising thing about the exhibition in general?
SB: It’s been a treat to collaborate with Frank and Julie. It seems obvious in retrospect, but the notion that clothing, or bodily appendages, could be architectural was fairly mind-blowing to me. Their ideas and concepts about instigating risky movements pushed me forward—and I’m grateful to have learned from them.
JSC & FC: We have really enjoyed the overall collaboration and the expansion of the original group with arrival of the “plus ones.” By them joining mid-way through the process the themes developed from the texts in unexpected ways.
HS: I am surprised by how much some women have shared with me in my conversations with them. I feel that they have given me gifts. I’ve learned that song is a part of a cultural diaspora, and that each and every song is political and personal. Identifying as a woman, who is a mother, from a community of color is a particular intersection of identities. I spoke with African-American women, Black women, immigrants from Afghanistan, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Each story was a facet of a world I have not lived. I am super grateful to the contributors.
JA: Given the constraints of the pandemic, I feel like you folks at LAForum have had to be as creative as the artists in mounting this exhibition! We’re all learning to do things in new ways during this time, and it’s been cool to see this become something so different yet still so quintessentially L.A.
As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we will interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Terry Wolverton (novelist and poet), Yvonne Estrada (poet and photographer), and Yara Feghali and Viviane El Kmati (multidisciplinary designers).
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the course of spring 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial L.A.-based writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Terry, the topic given to the writers to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s” how did you decide to approach the topic? And what does the vision of the future, next-decade L.A. look like to you?
TW: I moved to Los Angeles to take part at the Woman’s Building and spent 13 years there making art and activism in collaboration with an immensely talented and subversive group of artists. It is always and forever my “home” in L.A. But Los Angeles in the 20s, fraught with gentrification, income inequality and now a global pandemic, is no longer a city that can foster such a dynamic home. I fear what that will mean to women of my generation as well as the new generation of feminist activists.
Yvonne, Yara and Viviane, what are you producing for the exhibition and what do you want folks to know most about your response to Terry’s text?
YE: I am producing a visual piece that will hopefully create a feeling of solidarity among all women—many of whom know nothing about the Woman’s Building, yet are just as freed by the work that was done there. I hope to give all the artists that came from that time and place credit for this perceived freedom.
YF: Viviane and I were inspired by Terry’s story and wanted to dig inside our personal arrival to Los Angeles and how we were also looking for a community. We started asking ourselves what were the visual cues that gave us this sense of belonging in a city that we had just met?
VEK: We are producing an immersive video-wall about a woman’s journey driving through LA’s neighborhoods in search of her queer community. We want visitors to be able to identify with Amal, the woman narrating the road diary, and to invoke belonging and alienation through her visual story.
And how are you translating Terry’s text to a site and/or to a formal idea?
YE: I am using photographs of doorways of the actual physical building that was the Woman’s Building, and collaging some of my existing photos of women/girls. These will hopefully be photoshopped to appear as though pouring forth from said doorways at a fast pace.
VF: Our first encounter with Los Angeles was through its residential neighborhoods. Because of traffic our Uber drove away from the highway, so we were looking at an endless variety of single-story houses.
VEK: This is where the project really takes form, we are looking at around 20 different residential neighborhoods in L.A. to tease out the particularities of their domestic front porches. We are focusing on stereotypical symbols of queer culture and their manifestation on the houses’ front porch.
Has the pandemic quarantine or creating and collaborating remotely influenced your production?
YE: Fortunately I am using my own collection of photographs and am doing digital work, so I’ll say no.
YF: It has definitely influenced the installation format. We initially wanted the projection to be experienced in an enclosed immersive space were people would gather and form their community while watching the short diary together. Well, this is not possible anymore due to the pandemic!
VEK: So, we thought the second-best thing that would keep everyone safe and still enjoy a similar experience would be one’s own car. The idea is that you can drive into the space, park and stay in your car. The visitor experiences the film diary through their own car windows as if they were themselves driving through the reconstructed queer neighborhoods.
Question for all of you: What’s been the most surprising thing about the collaboration or the development of the exhibition in general?
TW: The de-centralizing of the exhibition location has been a wonderful innovation in response to the restrictions of the pandemic. Los Angeles is such a de-centralized city anyway and locating various parts of the exhibit in neighborhoods is a great reflection of that.
YE: I would say it is the way the exhibition will be viewed by people in specific settings that become part of the pieces.
YF: It is amazing to work with such wonderful women! Talking with Wendy [Gilmartin], Nina [Briggs] and the LAForum team has been wonderful. I am happy to see a whole project being directed by women. Also being chosen to respond to Terry’s text has been a pleasure. We are lucky to get to work with ideas we believe in and align with.
VEK: We are also excited about the turn the exhibition format has taken. The way it is adapting to the current pandemic and responding in a provocative and creative proposal.
As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” LAForum will interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Lisa Teasley (author and artist), Imogen Teasley-Vlautin (artist and composer), Silvia Herrasti and Paulina Herrasti (artists) and MUTUO (Fernanda Oppermann and Jose Herrasti, architects).
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the course of spring 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial L.A.-based writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Lisa, the topic given to the writers to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s” how did you decide to approach the topic? And what does the vision of the future, next-decade L.A. look like to you?
LT: As an L.A. native, I have lived in various neighborhoods such as Baldwin Hills, Koreatown, Venice, the Adams District, Mar Vista and Laurel Canyon, among others, and so have walked and driven through the ever-changing psychogeography of the city over the decades. But what has been consistent is the presence of a rich and culturally diverse population. As a passionate world traveler, I love that I come home to as many stories as wherever I have just left. The idea of the Castle as a setting of awe and beauty for diverse collaborations is a longtime vision of mine, and upon this opportunity for the LA Forum show, I seized the chance to explore it as a collaborative vision for the infinite ways I could have never thought of—just as next-decade L.A. will continue to mirror the ever-changing globe.
Imogen, Silvia, Paulina, Fernanda and Jose, what are you producing for the exhibition and what do you want folks to know most about your response to Lisa’s text?
ITV: I am producing a sound piece with the intentions of resonating the imagined space that is the Castle. I want the music to illustrate the magic of the ever-present creative energy in the Castle, and reflect the lively, collaborative spirit that Lisa describes in her written piece.
MUTUO: Lisa’s ‘The Castle in the Trees’ describes a space of collaboration in Los Angeles. As we were thinking about our response to Lisa’s text it only made sense to expand the collaborative spirit. Mutuo decided to invite a group of talented recent graduate architects and architecture students to build an assemblage of pieces. This assemblage of pieces will be the physical manifestation of a group interpretation of what a castle may mean. After a few back-and-forth discussions with this young group of collaborators, Mutuo is writing non-prescriptive, perhaps even poetic instructions for them, giving leeway for interpretation and creative individuality. Our guest collaborators are: Irving Estrada Alvarez, Mónica Lamela Blázquez, Luis Montoya, Alejandra Novelo, Kamila Weiss & Kanata Yamayoshi.
SH & PH: We will be presenting a mixed media diptych that includes a hand-embroidered piece with appliqués, and a color photograph of an assemblage of found objects. We decided to create a composition that relates to any culture and society around the world.
And how are you translating Lisa’s text to a site and/or to a formal idea?
ITV: I want to acknowledge the multi-layered relationship between sound and space within the walls of the Castle by creating a piece that symbolically fills the space Lisa envisions, and portrays the energy and activity she describes by using specific sounds to represent bits of the imagery she gave us.
MUTUO: We are interpreting the text both literally and figuratively. The making of the object itself is a direct response to the text.
SH & PH: The embroidery in our piece depicts the landscape leading to the Castle of Trees, and the actual fort. The assemblage resembles the façade of a castle, with symbolic meanings conveyed through each component.
Has the pandemic quarantine or creating and collaborating remotely influenced your production?
LT: As a writer and a visual artist I am used to creating at home alone, even my work as an editor at Los Angeles Review of Books is done remotely, so initially upon the pandemic, my work life had not changed significantly. But with the addition of this tremendous opportunity to collaborate on the Castle project with visionaries like the architects Fernanda and Jose, the artists Silvia and Paulina, and the musician/composer, Imogen, the entire process has buoyed me tremendously during this most uncertain time in history, that is being felt and experienced the world over.
ITV: Quarantine hasn’t had a huge effect on the way I produce creative work because I tended to work alone even before the pandemic. However, I had been craving more creative collaboration and this time has catalyzed, out of necessity, a lot of innovation in how we create, share, and experience work, which has been inspiring to me as I’ve found myself collaborating much more with brilliant artists in projects such as this, and experiencing creative work more often even if virtually.
MUTUO: The quarantine has offered a re-thinking of what an exhibition might be. We have structured the fabrication of our object so that there are no overlaps and our collaborators can be safe.
SH & PH: We had thought about having random participants in public space help build the assemblage for our piece, which was not possible because of the pandemic.
Question for all of you: What’s been the most surprising thing about the collaboration or the development of the exhibition in general?
LT: I have to say that the most surprising thing about this collaboration is the bursts of emotion I’m experiencing, the sheer elation it has brought to my life during such a trying moment in history. The fact that this LAForum exhibition is happening, at all — the fact that the show will go on — I consider to be a tremendous gift.
MUTUO: The surprising part is that even though it is a complex exhibit with many participants, it has run relatively smoothly. I wonder if it would have been more difficult doing it with personal meetings. The flexibility because of the pandemic has been great. I also wonder if adopting more flexible systems is a part of the new normal.
ITV: I can’t say that I’ve been surprised but I am immensely grateful and excited to be a part of this project, and in particular I really appreciate, to touch on what Fernanda and Jose said, being able to witness and participate in a complex exhibition that has been adapted so creatively to work within the limitations of the pandemic.
SH & PH: Agree with the Imogen and the MUTUO team (big thumbs up emoji !!)
On August 8th, 2020, the summer exhibition by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design will present 20 new works documenting collective views of life in Los Angeles by a group of 20 emerging designers and thinkers. Delirious LA is happy to be able to interview exhibition curator, Wendy Gilmartin, and assistant curator, Nina Briggs, as they complete preparations for the new exhibit entitled “Every. Thing. Changes.”
Hi Wendy and Nina, can you give us an overview of “Every. Thing. Changes.”?
WG: For the LAForum’s 2020 Summer Exhibition, we have commissioned 20 new text and visual works by 20 participants who have developed the work over the spring this year. We wanted to go big for the new decade and look forward.
When the LAF Board of Directors met at our yearly retreat in early February, a lot of topics were on the table to tackle and to talk about this year. Some of the quotes I kept from my notes were “What does it mean to support diverse voices?” “Anti-Nostalgia” “Rogue Spirit” “Change the definition of ownership” “Put groups of people in a space who normally wouldn’t be in that space” and “We can still change.”
Nina and I decided that — instead of issuing a call for proposals for this year’s summer exhibition, which is what the LAForum has typically done in the past — we would curate the exhibition and explore the topics set forth at our Board of Directors retreat as a way to commit to those ideas; especially those in relation to “What does it mean to support diverse voices?” and “people in a space who normally wouldn’t be there.“
But capturing and distilling the collective imagination of a diverse group is hard!
NB: Yes, it is hard to integrate the strengths, talents, wisdom, and perspectives from multidisciplinary and distinct creatives into a collaborative effort. But it gets easier and richer with practice. And isn’t this what we all need to do from now on? Are we not in – not a moment – but at the necessary intersection of centering the immeasurable value of diverse voices in all institutions, systems, cultures, and practices?
WG: So, we left some room for mistakes, mis readings, and messiness. We used words like “messy” and “uncertainty” in a lot of the writings we did leading up to the formulation of the call for participants. And we embraced those words as generative and opportunistic for the project. Thankfully all the participants we asked were down with that kind of thinking too, and they were game for a big, weird project no one really understood yet at that point.
How do the values of this exhibit relate to the overall mission of the LAForum?
WG: I think it is the LAForum’s job to frame architecture in L.A. within a set of larger questions or set of consequences — and hopefully that framing and those questions are really good and can be unpacked, challenged, re-framed and discussed. That allows us to get to a deeper level of thinking about cities or what we do as architects, so that we might pivot our thinking or get enlightened or connect the dots in some new way about what we do. Its also LAForum’s job to provide a platform for emerging thinkers and practitioners — those who lead the way with their new questions and re-framings.
NB: In the context of our mission, we ask what L.A. is seeking to understand through the multiple definitions of the city in 2020 — its attitudes, moods, disposition, burgeoning ideas, personal accounts, anxieties, speculations and hopes.
WG: I had a conversation recently with someone who described the LAForum as the “architecture illuminati” or “architecture Anonymous” because they see us as having this independent freedom (for example, we’re not a professional organization like AIA or an academic institution connected to a school), and we lie low for a while and then come up with some big, fantastic piece of programming and then go low gain for a while. I liked that image. And, yes, we have freedom to ask more critical questions than other organizations. I think we have a responsibility to do that.
On one hand, the formulation of the Every. Thing. Changes. exhibition itself is a question about how we support diverse voices. But on the other hand, it is also about asking those voices to expand upon a set of topical issues for architecture and life in L.A. this year. It’s up to the Every. Thing. Changes. participants to frame these and certain other relevant topics (climate change, civic obstinacy, the nature of collaboration, aging in an unconnected city) through an architectural or spatial approach. The hope is that all this challenges what architecture could mean in an evolving city, which is what our LAForum mission statement asks us to do.
By what process were the different project teams assembled ?
WG: We did not want to write a typical call for ideas or curatorial call. We wanted to re-write how we formulate an architecture exhibition and upend conventions around how to start the process. There was also an intentional motivation to stop ourselves from falling into any architectural feedback loop around current concerns that we as a discipline might tend to focus on. We were more concerned about what we might be missing if we took the conventional track.
So, we started with writers. Like us in the design profession, writers are good communicators and translators of the city and its socio-personal interactions. And they do it really well! The writers, in a sense, then wrote the prompt for the visual works. We are absolutely floored by the writerly talent who agreed to participate with us. Writers include: a poet and publisher (Viva Padilla), a novelist (Lisa Teasley), a poet and activist (Terry Wolverton), a critic and editor (Anthony Carfello) and a journalist (Sam Bloch). Their texts consist of: a speculative fiction piece in which the classes of L.A. are even more desperate and disparate than they are currently, a journalistic look at climate change fashion, a personal essay on aging in place during the COVID crisis, a long-form poem using the triangulation of google maps to describe the author’s own desmadre (chaos), and a fairytale about a group of collaborators who live in a seminar house in the trees.
Once we had the writers in place, we paired them with five designers/design teams, (well actually six): Jacob Sellaoui, Lorena Garcia, Yara Feghali, Orhan Ayyuce, MUTUO (Jose Herrasti and Fernanda Oppermann) and Julie Smith-Clementi and Frank Clementi. We asked the designers to each produce a visual response to one of the writers’ texts.
For the final 10 participants, we asked each writer and each designer to choose a “plus one” collaborator to bring into the project. That makes a total of 20 participants. 20 new works in 2020.
NB: And in re-writing the call, beginning with writers, thinking about the power of language to spin narratives – to weave foundational ideas – and craft those inquiries into experiential concepts, I’m haunted by Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (eternally and especially apt for this time), in which she begins a story with one question – and as it goes unanswered – the perspective of who has asked, shifts to the asked being questioned and held responsible for the object of question. Morrison’s speech guides us through the process of reading language, its uses and ultimate demise – for which all makers are accountable. My favorite part is when she asserts: “The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.” And then the unanswered question is bombarded with more questions, until finally she concludes with: “Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done — together.” In this Every. Thing. Changes. multidisciplinary team assembly, we’ve already had the privilege of witnessing the questioning, shifting, transferring and making derived from the writers’ language – it’s an imperfect, open-ended process and discourse, but oh so beautiful.
Dialogue seems built into the core of this exhibit; how did the different teams respond to the challenge of producing work through that process?
WG: Everyone seemed a little confused when we first started explaining the idea of the exhibition to them — especially the addition of the 10 plus ones. But, like I mentioned, everyone was willing to go with it and jump in together.
As for dialogue among participants, two participants started writing letters to each other (actual mailed letters!) as part of their process. A couple participants knew each other but had not seen each other in years. And another participant went rogue and joined another team without telling us, but that was great because it was one of the initial texts outside of her group that really resonated with her, and she wanted to respond to that.
It has been exciting to see how invested in one another’s works each participant has become, and they are in deep dialogue with one another — both through the work and in correspondence. It is beautiful and heartwarming, not to get all sappy. At some point we started referring to each of the five participant groupings as “families” based on the initial writer (e.g. Lisa’s family or Sam’s family). The participants all are very much aware of the content and development of other participants’ works; some have even adapted their own projects as a result along the way. But each piece still very much embodies the integrity of each artist or designer, obviously. That has been a great success of this collaborative experiment.
Since you framed the process as curators, have you been surprised by any of the project outcomes?
WG: We baked surprise into the cake at the beginning. We did not even know who these other 10 participants would be at the outset, until they were chosen by the initial writers and designers and brought into the mix in mid-April. We had a giant Zoom meeting at one point when all 20 participants were locked in, and I was looking around at all the Zoom boxes just astonished at the level of talent we had managed to gather. But we started with very good core participants, so the fact that we have ended up with 20 great works and 20 excitingly diverse and talented participants isn’t a surprise.
NB: No surprise that these chosen participants would produce such meaningful works, but I must admit a kind of awe for the revelatory concepts impossible to foresee.
What was it like to plan a “public” exhibition in a time of social crisis and quarantine?
WG: As of February, we had a goofy working title for the project — something like “2020 Visions LA” — and when the COVID-19 crises hit, our graphic designer, Jessica Fleischmann (Still Room), suggested “Every. Thing. Changes.” Those words really resonated. And then in early June, those words started to feel and sound like a chant in the street.
By Mid-March we knew the exhibition would have to be unconventional in its siting as well. For instance, the space that normally hosts our LAForum Summer Exhibitions, Woodbury University’s Hollywood Outpost location, is closed indefinitely until the University re-opens. So we knew very quickly this exhibition was going to have to take on a craftiness in planning we hadn’t anticipated and that we would have to design a deployable exhibit that embodied a high degree of flexibility in the face of a shelter-in-place to re-opening, back to shelter-in-place whiplash. The works will be exhibited in parking lots and other outdoor spots and on virtual platforms around the city, culminating in an opening reception outdoors and online. This will allow us to celebrate the new works together while safely distanced.
It was helpful to see some of the other drive-by exhibits folks have organized across town. However, unlike those projects, the LAForum Summer Exhibition offers a tighter framing and more concise set of ideas and questions because we have just had a longer time to plan and think about it.
Also, the exhibition website has taken on a much larger role than we had originally anticipated. The website is fantastic, and we will be holding roundtable discussions and a curatorial tour and other events virtually there. (The launch is coming soon!) The website gives visitors an ever-changing visual shuffle or re-mix of the works, potentially into new collaborative relationships — and curatorial re-telling — not initially offered in the physical, in-site experience.
NB: Although both our outside and inside worlds are in uncomfortably flux, there’s a curious comfort in these moving parts of the exhibition – a trust that, almost like Newton’s third law – the planning of this exhibition, even in its changes, provides a restfulness.
WG: This embracing of uncertainty really became just another constraint of the project and a significant part of the works as well. DLA readers will hear about in the coming weeks as we interview the participant teams.
EVERY THING CHANGES PARTICIPANTS
John F. Atkinson
Yara Feghali & Viviane El Kmati
Silvia Herrasti & Paulina Herrasti
Tory J. Lowitz
Julie Smith-Clementi & Frank Clementi
More information coming soon on event times, future programming and registration.
Geoff Manaugh, Los Angeles-based writer and creator of BLDGBLOG, and Nicola Twilley, contributing writer for the New Yorker, are writing a book on the history and future of quarantine, to be published by MCD Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in 2021. Manaugh spoke with DLA in late April.
You and Nicola Twilley started this project on quarantine ten years ago with your initial research and the exhibition, titled “Landscapes of Quarantine,” at Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2010, where you asked designers to come up with visions for the future of quarantine. You’ve spoken about your experience of beginning this project after finding an old quarantine station in Sydney, Australia, that had been abandoned and then turned into a hotel. Why was something that seemed such a relic of the past interesting for you and Nicky?
For me, as someone who writes about architecture, it was the idea that there was a way of dealing with disease—which, from a modern point of view, I would associate with vaccines, pills, or surgery—instead you can design a building in such a way that you can prevent the spread of a disease from one person to the next. It seemed like a way to instrumentalize architecture beyond just aesthetics, or beyond just everyday use value such as, you know, this is a restaurant or this is a home. It gives architecture – and the very fundamentals of architecture, including questions of circulation and sequence, and where walls and doors might be placed – a medical effect. And it helps to avoid the need for a vaccine or avoid the need for medical treatment later.
There was something fascinating about that for me. Quarantine seems, on one level, like a very simple practice – let’s just put one person in this room and another person in that room. But, actually, it’s a really sophisticated and strange way of giving architecture a medical purpose that is larger than just a building or a building design. And then it was also just the idea that something that interesting is now just a ruin, and it’s just been turned into a hotel, and in many cases has just been erased entirely. Most quarantine stations are missing now. They’re gone. What does it say about the state of quarantine today that something that fascinating and that interesting architecturally is just totally overlooked?
Thinking back to the exhibition on quarantine at Storefront ten years ago, I was wondering if there were aspects of that, some of those investigations then that have become even more relevant now? What kinds of visions can we look to architecturally or urban design-wise for new visions of quarantine?
For the exhibition, and the design studio that led to it, we wanted to invite people outside of the design world, not just architects or designers. There was a graphic novelist, an author, a photographer. There were also artists in a more traditional sense. There was a sound designer, a musician. We wanted to bring all those disciplines together and focus on the concept of quarantine. How can they all learn from one another? What would an architect and a sound designer come up with if they discussed quarantine? What would an architect and a graphic novelist come up with if they were trying to tell a narrative about quarantine? …Maybe where the story is set, or the kinds of buildings that are featured in it, or how an architect might influence the story.
The idea was a multidisciplinary approach to one idea. That’s one of the things we liked so much about the studio and the exhibition. That approach in architecture is quite important. If you take an abstract idea like quarantine, or disease, or transportation, and you bring people from outside of architecture into an architecture studio, you can have a really exciting conversation about what that term means in their fields, or what it means for the things they might be exploring.
The sound artist, for example, was looking at temperature tracking stations when you first get off of airplanes and are being held in a kind of liminal state before you’re given entry to the country that you’ve arrived in. The kinds of technical experience and the… almost sonic environment of paranoia waiting to have your temperature taken.
One participant, architect Brian Slocum, looked at the famously perforated facade of Storefront for Art and Architecture which swivels on hinges and opens to the outside air. He found a way to take a couple of those doors and attach prosthetic devices onto them so that, depending on what state the door was in, it was simultaneously open and closed. It would be open and closed for different people for different states of the door. It was a really interesting engagement with the very idea of the threshold of a building, of being inside and outside, and potentially being inside at the expense of other people and vice versa. It was the idea that quarantine might come down to devices that we add to buildings that simultaneously are inside and outside.
Another group called Front Studio looked at what they called Q-City. The idea was that it was possible to implement a kind of parallel quarantine infrastructure so that you can still inhabit the city and its full range of experiences, from shops to operas to movie theaters, but never leave the quarantine infrastructure. And they explored the ways in which there would be a parallel infrastructure – almost like a New York City A and a New York City B – and you would be in one or the other depending on what state of quarantine you were in. I think that that kind of thing would be really interesting especially as coronavirus might become a multiple year experience – some people are talking about 18 months of social distancing – what might be implemented that’s a bit like their vision for Q-City.
That seems to be something that reclaims the role of physical design in a topic that in some ways has become much more about the “touchless.” Following up about the role of architects and designers in this pandemic: we’ve had a lot of debates recently about how architects and designers can become more relevant in terms of our relationship to power, as people who are oftentimes involved in reinforcing structures of power. You’ve pointed out the issues of power that quarantine inevitably brings up. Do you think that this moment is an invitation to designers and architects about how we may have more social responsibility and possibly social relevance in this moment, and are there ways that we can do that?
Yes, this could be a way for architects and urban designers to insert themselves in a more engaged manner in very important conversations. And for us to bring more importance to the design field. On one level, you see this in terms of how we design the city to make it easier for social distancing. How do we reuse a street as a temporary park or maybe a permanent park? How do we widen the sidewalks for medical reasons, not just because walking is already good for you in terms of preventing diabetes or keeping the populace healthy. But now wider sidewalks can actually allow us to avoid one another in terms of disease. Those are questions of urban design as much as they are questions of medical necessity. I think that engaging in that conversation is very important.
Another thing that comes up a lot is the importance of dual-use facilities. We’ve been looking at everything from the Javits Center in New York City being suddenly remade into a medical facility for overspill patients from hospitals, and at one point they were even looking at Saint John the Divine, the gothic cathedral in New York City, as a possible medical bay, which has all kinds of metaphoric resonance. But, in any case, we’re looking at facilities that aren’t designed with a medical purpose in mind suddenly taking on medical purpose. The example that comes to mind a lot for me is that, in Japan, there is already an importance placed on dual-use architecture in the expectation of there being a large earthquake. So there are extra electrical outlets, there are water hookups for fresh water for taps, there are even these kind of pop-in devices that allow you to turn manhole openings for the sewer into makeshift toilets for people to use in public.
There could be an earthquake while you and I are having this conversation! So we’re always just on the cusp of a radical transformation, and architects can help imagine that transformation, how we might build our buildings differently. One thing that Nicky talks about is the possibility of a kind of quarantine code that architects could help develop, so that when you’re designing a new building, whether it’s a stadium or it’s a shopping mall, when you go through the building code you would add a quarantine code, and you would figure out ways that you could make sure that it’s ready. So a supermarket, for example, is ready to switch into quarantine mode where now we have to maintain distance between each other.
I’m sure, for you and Nicky, this present moment has changed your work for the near-term. Your book will certainly include this moment in it! How does the sudden timeliness and pertinence make you think about the relationship between quarantine and disease and other aspects of our world that architects and designers have increasingly looked at, such as issues of sustainability and climate change?
One of the things that’s very interesting is that, for decades now, people have been talking about international airplane travel and the greenhouse gas emissions of the transportation industry in general as if there’s nothing we can do about it. I have a friend here who’s an architect who allegedly lives in Los Angeles. But every time this person is on social media, you know, it’s a new airport, they’re flying over a new landscape… They go out of their way to take international trips that seem unnecessary. Now with COVID-19, at the flip of a switch, suddenly all of those international trips – flying all the way to Austria to give one lecture, or flying all the way to Istanbul to appear at a gallery opening – seem kind of flippant and frivolous. And if we can turn it off that quickly for this then why can’t we turn it off that quickly for climate change? In terms of its effects beyond just the human sphere, of entire ecosystems, of sea-level rise, climate change is a very substantial threat that dwarfs the coronavirus pandemic. So why can’t we implement those changes for that?
I think that, if anything, the quarantine experience that we’re having is the realization that large-scale, drastic changes are actually possible. People will in fact go along with them. And that we’re resilient. We’ll find a new way to make things happen. We just gave a lecture to 160 people. We’re using the internet, and it didn’t require driving through rush-hour traffic, or someone flying in from out of state. There are ways that we can adapt and communicate with each other and respond to looming crises.
I’ll just add briefly that the original title for our book was The Coming Quarantine. The idea was that at some point there will be a massive quarantine because of international travel and emerging diseases and so on and so forth. But needless to say we’re looking at a new title. This is the coming quarantine! You know, it’s here – the near future crisis that our book was describing has arrived. And it’s very interesting to experience that from the inside.
One more question because we’re in Los Angeles. It seems like every city has its own idea of itself. It makes its own myths through either its triumphs or its crises. Like, New York City now certainly reflects its idea of how it responded to 9/11. In LA we think of events like the Rodney King uprising. And I was wondering if there’s anything particular about LA’s social or spatial history that you think is particularly pertinent now for how we are responding to this crisis.
Not to downplay the disease, I do think that it’s interesting how easily it’s been to lock off certain neighborhoods from each other and not have the kind of epidemic spread that we see in New York City. It’s almost like Los Angeles was prototyped on the idea of social distancing. We already live in a social distanced landscape. I do think that the spread out nature of Los Angeles means that we’re kind of skating through the quarantine – or through the lockdown I should say – with a slight more sense of ease than other municipalities like New York City or Boston. We’re already usually in a car traveling through a landscape alone going from one building to the next and not usually interacting with other people. The stereotype of nobody walking in Los Angeles… You’re already describing a world under lockdown.
The dark humor of it all is that some of Los Angeles hasn’t necessarily noticed that things have changed. Of course, having said that, and more seriously, it’s fascinating that we have the cleanest air we’ve had since the 1980s because fewer people are driving and industrial plants are shutting down. People are seeing Los Angeles as beautiful for the first time in a generation. So many people associate it with smog and ugliness and concrete. Now you’re seeing people on social media sharing photographs of Los Angeles and being like, my god, it’s actually a beautiful city because the sunsets are coming down over clear skies. I think that there’s a strange kind of resonance between social distancing and lockdown and what we already had in Los Angeles, and that’s actually quite interesting to me.
In March, the week before Los Angeles’ Mayor Garcetti announced the Stay at Home order for the city, DLA interviewed artist Lauren Halsey at David Kordansky Gallery, where her installation was on view through March 14. “A vivid, mythopoetic hauntscape of South Central Los Angeles, [t]hese latest works continue Halsey’s exploration of monuments, memorials, and public space, particularly her reckonings with gentrification and the threatening economic displacement of Black and Latino/a stores and shops.” (Douglas Kearney, exhibition text.)
The world has changed abruptly and significantly since the interview took place, but Halsey’s thoughts on art and social justice in the city remain relevant; perhaps especially her view of the need for urban space to allow for a smaller scale of living and for “space for folks to dream”
This installation, like much of your prior work, has an architectural, urban sensibility in the way it creates spatial sequences, deals with materiality and signs. How do you feel about your work being characterized as architectural, and architectonic?
That’s my dream. I see things through the lens of art, of course. But I wanted to become an architect. In everything that led me to this path, I truly believe I have been appropriating and myth-making the processes of architecture; how you engage and get to form. Even leading up to this project, for seven years I made blueprints where I was re-organizing the city, my neighborhood of South Central. Just as exercises. Formally, a lot of the stacking happened very early on in blueprints where I was sort of making ideal city blocks. And poetics. Knowing that the first phase in an architect’s process is the flat work. Those blueprints are not a one to one thing, but they definitely explored the affect. Then, thinking about the second phase as the model-making. So far I feel like I’ve just made models that are very large. The next phase will be the actual architecture. Where a foundation is poured. You know, it’s just a different set of conditions. So, I mean, I’m excited someone would even use those words. I feel like I’m getting closer and closer. I am interested in getting to that level of building where it becomes animated not by the conversation or dialogue but it’s an actual architecture that people inhabit. For a long time.
You’ve said that you originally considered architecture “an emancipatory solution to oppressive spatial paradigms in the hood.” Do you believe that architecture and urban design can provide solutions to issues of race, class and gentrification? And if not, if architecture isn’t now an instigator of change, what can we do differently?
I’m not currently in the field to know. When I was in design studio, we were given these speculative proposals – conditions for a film school or a library or a parking lot. These were always devoid of the real demographics that make a city a city, a neighborhood a neighborhood, a street a street. Poetically and in the real sense of things. It was never about class or race. It felt like we were dreaming up form that just didn’t trickle down to an authentic reading of a place. I was looking for a more holistic approach. So I went back to community college; I did some more architecture classes, and then I did a bunch of art classes and I started thinking about how I could appropriate what I was learning to propose space, and to do it more urgently. I went to a community college, El Camino, and in the architecture department, once you did a certain amount of pre-requisites you were able to take a design build course, which was the cherry on top, because you get to build these free-form designs. So you took your blueprints, and went to this huge construction build, and you built your designs, with people, you know, your friends. That’s how I started this path, which is my ethos. We would build very fast. It just made sense that it would happen that way. Rather than [my art] being divorced from the making process, you know?And what’s beautiful about it is that I am making [my art] with people who have lived it and who know it. So even when they’re helping me build this box or paint this letter, whatever that is, they are part of an aesthetic family that’s in a certain community, and it’s recognizable. It’s just more soulful. The cues are already there because they were ours first. But I’m not saying it’s Disneyland either. It’s really hard. There are really hard days.
You have deep roots in LA; your family has been here for generations and has been very invested in the community. As we enter a new decade, what is the most urgent issue facing our city?
Space. Space that’s not about and for capital gain. Spaces for folks to dream. Whether that means at a smaller scale of business or at a smaller scale of living. I think people are getting pushed out and having to make these new migrations. Cities do this, I know that. Cities do this. But I would love to see the Community Land Trust model. Where council members hand over some of the city-owned plots of land to people who have successfully engaged in these models. I just don’t know why not. It just seems like the right thing to do. Especially because everything is happening at a very aggressive pace and I just wonder what the city could look like if the powers to be leveraged space for folks that don’t have all the power and all the money. Instead of for luxury condos or a five-dollar apples. So equity, fairness. I look forward to one day being able to buy land and engage some of these models. And invite people to participate, you know. Even if it takes ten years. Meanwhile I’m opening a community center in South Central this summer. It will be for children and young adults and supporting all sorts of intelligence, creative to intellectual; from sports, dance, to SATs, ACT prep, learning to read, to gardening to yoga to field trips and art making. So I’m excited about that contribution.
What are your thoughts about “holding Black space”?
That is in everything that I do. I mean, I propose explicitly Black spaces. We need them. The history of the world is our fight for space in every sense. I think what compelled me to the idea of architecture like fantasy space-making was creating and holding space through form and through these experiential objects, installations, because of our historically very oppressive relationship to space. I wanted to create spaces without all that baggage. And weight. And stereotype. And the ugliness and the mess. To be in spaces absent of all that and see what happens. I think every single thing in my work is already that. Creating with a freedom from baggage. Five hundred years of baggage.
On behalf of the LAForum, we are questioning what our role could be in the city, how we could start to bring more diverse voices to the table. What does the word Forum mean to you, and do you have any advice to offer us?
Well it depends. I would think, “what is it supposed to do? Who gets a voice in the Forum?” And if those other voices aren’t there, how to extend the opportunity for that, so that the conversation is a total view. I would intentionally invite people who don’t have that expertise, or the degrees, but have an interest in space-making. I have four or five friends who wanted to become architects but it’s just that five years is so expensive, and then interning after that. It’s just about expanding the dialogue to all sorts of class levels. Especially in a city like this which is so diverse, maybe it should just be reflective of that.
What inspires you most about LA right now?
Well, what I said before [about the potential to build actual urban spaces for folks to dream and learn, free from baggage and oppression]. But also, what inspires me is the palette of LA. It’s just beautiful. No matter how ugly it can get, as far as the newness of things. There is always the palette, colors, the sunset. The beach, the tacos, the smells, my family.
And another thing that inspires me, I think there is something very empowering about building with your hands. There is something that I enjoy and that also happens in the making, when I’m a participant. Of course I couldn’t have built all of this alone [gestures to the show], I would have taken 50 years. There is something about doing it in a collaborative spirit and energy. It makes it a lot more monumental. Then it becomes also, even though I author it, it becomes a part of others, that they own. So then it just expands, the ego of the work changes. For the MoCA project, applying the concrete and all that, it started with my best friend and I, then it was my best friend, me, and my girlfriend, and then three weeks before it was going to get picked up it was twenty of us in my grandma’s backyard. Including my little cousin. So when [my little cousin] is giving the tour with her friends in school she is able to talk about his moment that she sculpted, to other 9 year olds, in this way that I could never do. It’s not my hand. She definitely shaped the concrete, you know. She gets to re-present the form and re-address it. Without my lens. Which is powerful.
This week, DLA connected with Ilaria Mazzoleni and Deborah Weintraub – architects living and working in Los Angeles – about their committed work for Nature, Art and Habitat, a non-profit organization based in northern Italy, with a substantial presence here in Los Angeles.
Ilaria, could you tell us about the Nature, Art and Habitat Residency (NAHR)?
IM: Nature Art and Habitat Residency (NAHR) is an Eco-laboratory of Multidisciplinary Practice located in the Italian Alps. It is dedicated to the environment and creativity, to the intersection of science and the arts. NAHR aims to reveal and display a culture sensitive to nature as a source of inspiration, and as a gauge of health and wellbeing. NAHR invites people to move out of their comfort zone, out of the urban setting and into nature, into places in which the human can still feel like a part of nature rather than as the OTHER.
NAHR was born to bring people together to be in nature and to explore the culture-nature relationship firsthand through a summer residency program. Founded in 2015 by the will and support of a small group of invested volunteers, under the guidance of the Italian architect Alessandro Mendini, NAHR has grown over time to have multiple programs hosted in Italy and in Los Angeles, where some of the key players reside.
Deborah, how and why did you get involved with this Organization based in a far and distant Italian village?
DW: I met Ilaria a long time ago, here in Los Angeles. Our professional friendship finds common ground in our commitment to sustainability. Since that first meeting, we have kept in touch, and 3 years ago, while visiting Italy for the Venice Biennale, Ilaria invited me to join the NAHR Workshop on the theme of Water. The workshop took place in the rural setting of the Italian Alps, and included local scientists describing how the world-renowned San Pellegrino water emerges from a spring after percolating through rocks for 30 years. I presented the work I have been doing the last 18 years on the Los Angeles River for the City of Los Angeles. For me, there were intriguing conceptual commonalities to the scale of the discussion of water in the Alps with the LA River and its transformation. I was excited by NAHR’s focus on combining nature, science, art, and design. I was hooked, and when Ilaria asked me to join the scientific committee, I was honored and excited.
You both are architects, but you said NAHR is a multidisciplinary think tank. Are other disciplines a part of NAHR?
IM: Correct. NAHR is consciously structured to host multidisciplinary dialogues that include the sciences, the humanities, the applied and performing arts, and architecture. Our leadership and core interlocutors reflect this multidisciplinary commitment. Let me mention them: our President Gabi Scardi is a prominent independent art curator based in Milano; Enrico Bassi is a biologist based in the Italian Alps; Asli Suner is an architect based in Istanbul; and Dan Disney is an Australian poet living in Seoul. There are several other people with a variety of expertise. They include geologists, anthropologists, writers, dancers, and artists, and their individual voices contribute to shaping each year’s topic. It is this richness of building an ever-growing diverse community that nurtures the practices of the NAHR residents. I firmly believe that architectural thinking must expand its frontiers in the face of the environmental crisis, including the recent pandemic. I feel the dialogue with the various disciplines is critical in forming the way I practice architecture. It is also an inclusive structure that mimics our philosophical commitment to coexistence at the core, and to exploring climate change and social change in the age of the Anthropocene.
How does NAHR contribute to the architectural discourse?
IM: NAHR was consciously formulated to encourage exploration of the rural/urban codependency. Architecture has focused most recently on urban life, and we wanted to expand that lens. The setting for the residency is a historically rich region where one can physically see how the rural/urban codependency has evolved and reflect on how it might in the future improve in terms of nurturance of the planet. It is rich in physical, social, economic and artistic manifestations of the rural/urban connection, and in that sense, is a provocative context for this dialogue.
DW: Each year a topic that relates to the natural elements (water, rocks, grasses, woods, animals) provides the basis for the field investigations that the fellows produce, each in their particular medium. During their month-long residency, fellows use their field research as a source of inspiration for the production of site-specific work. The work emerges very much from being in this extraordinary physical location. It is a physically based analysis and response. The importance of this cannot be overstated, and as an architect, this is perhaps a key premise that Ilaria and I bring from our professional training, a training very much focused on place. The residency is an opportunity to step back from the economic pressures that drive our work. Even for those of us deeply committed to sustainability, it is often hard to keep that primary motivation front and center. At NAHR the departure point is nature, and the end point is nature.
In our current condition, confined by the global pandemic, what is most striking is how quickly nature can recover from man’s abuses, and how quickly nature takes back human spaces. Learning from this grand experiment in limiting man’s impact on our planet will hopefully be a key outcome of this virus.
I read that 2020 NAHR’s topic is Animals: Interdependence between Species, correct?
IM: Yes, how timely, right!? The call included the following questions: In what ways can we envision a post human-centered world in which all living organisms could coexist? We are inspired by this quote from Giorgio Agamben that says, “…the relations between animals and men will take on a new form, and man himself will be reconciled with his animal nature.’’ We feel this prompts several important questions:
How do we define boundaries between species that depend on each other?
How can we develop our ability to interact with the non-human in non-visual ways?
Can we learn to build in a manner more attuned to the environment?
Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit the Italian village where NAHR is based very hard, and with all the uncertainties we have postponed the 2020 program until 2021. We felt that NAHR could offer something NOW to the discussion of how our cities and our lives will be transformed by this pandemic.
So with Asli, Gabi, and others, we developed a digital call to submit on this year’s topic that is entitled NAH_Remote: Reflections – Coexistence in Times of COVID 19, still with the interdependence between species as the core. Central to this call was input from Jose Herrasti an architect in Los Angeles (an LAForum Board Member), and Noah Mercer a software designer in Los Angeles. Anyone is welcome to contribute a reflection in any medium at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We meet every weekend via Zoom to discuss how urban lives have been reshaped by the pandemic.
These are urgent and important questions. NAHR works by participation and through the sharing of available resources, both intellectual and material. This is the essence of our commitment towards building a fair and sustainable future for all living organisms.
This week, the LA Forum takes a break from our typical DLA interview format to share information and links about the way the AEC community has come together to address the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we may each contribute. We hope this newsletter finds you navigating the ever-shifting situation in good health and positivity. Your comments and additional resources are welcome in response.
Operation PPE is an effort by architects, designers, and makers around the country to use their skills and tools to help produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for the medical community. In Los Angeles, an initiative led by Alvin Huang, Director of Graduate Studies at the USC School of Architecture is joined by a growing team of architectural firms, students and volunteers to use 3d printers to produce PPE face shields and masks for use by healthcare workers. The office of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has issued a call to action to all those having access to 3d printers to join the effort.
Operation PPE has been covered by, among others, KCRW’s Design and Architecture, Architects’ Newspaper, the LA Times and Architecture Magazine, which also looks at How Architects, Designers, and Makers Can Help and Volunteer in the Coronavirus Era.
Do you have 3d printing capacity? Sign up on this Google Sheet to participate in Operation PPE Los Angeles, led by USC Architecture.
Masks for Humanity
Masks for Humanity connects people who need handmade face masks with people making handmade face masks.
LA City guidelines and LA area funds
LA times guidelines on how to make a non-medical grade face mask of the type now recommended for wear in public places. Includes a no-sew mask option.
COVID-19 emergency response fund (Mayor’s office)
This week, DLA connected with Mark Olalde, formerly with the Center for Public Integrity about his two recent pieces in the Los Angeles Times CALIFORNIA’S MULTIBILLION-DOLLAR PROBLEM: THE TOXIC LEGACY OF OLD OIL WELLS and DESERTED OIL WELLS HAUNT LOS ANGELES WITH TOXIC FUMES AND ENORMOUS CLEANUP COSTS (both co-reported with Times reporter Ryan Menezes).
First of all, Mark, thanks to you and Ryan for your recent articles. For our DLA readers who might have missed reading your LA Times pieces, could you summarize the public health challenge that deserted oil wells present to the citizens of Los Angeles?
At its simplest level, the investigation says that someone needs to pay to clean up the oil and gas industry’s mess around Los Angeles and California. Neither the industry nor the state have made enough money available to do so, and until these old oil and gas wells are plugged and remediated, the public is going to face a threat of leaking gases that can negatively affect community health and help fuel climate change. As the state’s fossil fuel industry continues to shrink, the government might be too late in actually using its regulatory authority to make sure the liability burden falls on the companies responsible. If they don’t do this in time, they’ll be faced with a dilemma: saddle Californians with either the health or financial burden (or perhaps a dollop of both).
What more can you share about how urban communities might address this problem more directly? And do you know if there are elements of LA’s Green New Deal that address this issue?
There are a few main problems in addressing old oil well cleanup in urban areas. The first, specific to Los Angeles, is age. The first well to be drilled around the Echo Park area, for example, was in 1892, and now almost none of the more than 1,000 that were drilled in that single oil field are still operational. So, who pays, and how do they pay if there’s no money coming in from current production? The second big issue is cost. If you’ve got a landscape in Kern County that’s been stripped of vegetation and covered in oil wells, it’s not too expensive to clean up due to economies of scale. But in Los Angeles, you’ve got to do this work around built-up infrastructure, private property and people going about their lives. If plugging and abandoning — the term for cleaning up an old well — costs in the ballpark of $40,000 in Kern, that figure is $100,000 in Los Angeles. On Firmin Street near Echo Park, plugging just two wells cost $1.2 million several years ago.
I’m not an expert on LA’s Green New Deal plan, but there are a few instances where related issues appear. The first is a commitment to filling the role of petroleum administrator, which is the city’s top oil regulator. Ironically, there is only an acting administrator right now. Another big point — at least to someone like me who has spent months digging through incomplete and scattered government data — is the pledge to create a real tracking system for the city’s wells by 2021. This would be a big step in the right direction. Also by 2021, the city is saying it will create an “auditing and tracking program for oil and gas wells.” Inspections are currently piecemeal, so this is another huge, positive step.
One of the criticisms of the LA Green New Deal is that it does not include a 2,500 ft buffer zone between active oil drilling sites and adjacent homes or schools. With so many Angelinos at risk, do you think such a buffer zone should be added to the LA Green New Deal?
It’s not my place as a journalist to opine too much, but a report from the city petroleum administrator’s office found that there are various impacts to community health and safety within certain distances. These issues range from degraded air quality to safety in cases of leaks or explosions. And, there are always the unknowns when living around oil wells. Take, for instance, the explosion in Firestone, Colorado, in 2017 that was related to oil and gas infrastructure near a residential area and killed two people. In addition to a strong fossil fuel lobby fighting tooth and nail against proposed buffer zones, city and state officials are also scared of instituting too large of a buffer for the fear that they might have to pay oil and gas companies for their potential loss in revenue. This could be a huge financial blow to localities.
It’s probably also helpful to make mention of how a few of our case studies play into this. It appears that the architecture world and the building industry more broadly has already to some degree been tasked with cleaning up Los Angeles’ orphaned oil well problem. In the second piece from this project, we found that some developers take on the liability for plugging old wells on land that they buy before they build.
What can the design community do to better support public health and environmental justice in the southland?
As we transition globally, however slowly, to a newer and cleaner economy, heavy extractive industries like oil and gas will likely become increasingly irrelevant. It may take decades, but as that happens, associated infrastructure will be in need of cleanup. What we do with it, who pays, and what secondary economic lives they have that might finance that cleanup and a just transition are all questions that creatively planning the built environment can begin answering. I’d also suggest engagement with city officials, state oil regulators, environmental groups working on those buffer zones, unions and oil industry groups, if they are willing to create a constructive dialogue. I say this because the city has historically been playing catch-up in dealing with its historical oil wells, and in many instances, they severely lack the expertise you would assume of the city. But, in recent years, they and the state have shown what seems to be a genuine willingness to take on this issue, making now a great time to take a seat at the table.
CALIFORNIA’S MULTIBILLION-DOLLAR PROBLEM: THE TOXIC LEGACY OF OLD OIL WELLS [Los Angeles Times, Mark Olalde, formerly with the Center for Public Integrity, and Ryan Menezes, with the Los Angeles Times, reported this story, Published — February 6, 2020] https://publicintegrity.org/environment/wells-run-dry/californias-multibillion-dollar-problem-the-toxic-legacy-of-old-oil-wells/
DESERTED OIL WELLS HAUNT LOS ANGELES WITH TOXIC FUMES AND ENORMOUS CLEANUP COSTS [Los Angeles Times, Mark Olalde, formerly with the Center for Public Integrity, and Ryan Menezes, with the Los Angeles Times, reported this story, Published — March 5, 2020] https://publicintegrity.org/environment/wells-run-dry/deserted-oil-wells-haunt-los-angeles-with-toxic-fumes-and-enormous-cleanup-costs/
We at the Forum are interested in instigating a dialogue about how this legacy oil and gas infrastructure in Los Angeles intersects with the Mayor’s goals of an equitable and sustainable city as per LA’s Green New Deal.
Sarah Lorenzen AIA, has been Resident Director of the Neutra VDL House since 2008. She is now stepping down from her duties as Director this year. Without her leadership, it is unlikely that the Neutra VDL House would exist in anything like its current form. Indeed, it is probable that it would no longer exist at all. Her role in the physical restoration of the building and its development as a venue for arts programming has been remarkable. Delirious LA is happy to be able to interview Sarah as she prepares to move on from her position as Resident Director of the Neutra VDL House.
You have been Director of the Neutra VDL House for over a decade and are stepping down this year, how have the priorities of the Directors position evolved during your tenure?
People are always surprised when I tell them that there was no real programming at VDL when I took over as director. We started the tours, the artist-in-residence series, and all the other events that are now features at the house. Note that I will use the term “we” throughout this conversation, because my husband David Hartwell has contributed to all the activities and restoration projects for which I often receive sole credit. The reality is that we have shared the responsibilities of directing the Neutra VDL House. Our efforts as a team, have been a key part in the development of the house as a cultural venue in city of Los Angeles.
In terms of the evolution of our priorities during our tenure at VDL, we began by sounding the alarm about the poor state of the house. When we arrived in 2007 the house was in disarray. All the roofs were tarped, interiors were in very bad shape, and the gardens and planters (an integral part of the architecture) were lifeless. There were no sources of revenue to repair things. One of the first people I contacted to disseminate our need for help was Orhan Ayyuce, who was then an editor at Archinect. He wrote a piece explaining our situation and became an advocate for the house (and a dear friend) in the process. Many others (too many to list here), came out to help including Linda Dishman (from the LA Conservancy) and Leo Marmol. Raymond and Dion Neutra (sons of Richard and Dione Neutra) were both also involved in different capacities. Raymond helped with fundraising and outreach and Dion consulted on our restoration efforts. Raymond also took on writing the Historic Landmark nomination, which the house received with help from congressman Adam Schiff. Early on, Lauren Bricker and I, set up a course where students were trained to serve as docents for the Saturday tours. These tours are still our principal source of revenue, and are very effective in telling of the story of the house and describing its unique architectural character.
The artist-in-residence program came about when I was pitched an installation project in 2010 by artist Santiago Borja. The project he proposed was very compelling, and he created a giant loom on the roof of the house. After that installation, we decided that contemporary art at the VDL would be a great way to breathe new life into the house. In the ten years that followed we continued to pursue restoration projects as we developed the cultural and arts programming. Many of the cultural and arts programs have been collaborations with other institutions, including the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design. We did events with many well-known figures in the LA architecture and art world, including Mimi Zeiger and Pilar Tompkins Rivas. Over the years, we have continued to pursue the fundraising and programming missions at VDL, both of which became easier as time went on, as the house (in its role a cultural institution), became more widely known.
You have witnessed many artists, designers, critics, and educators use the House as a context for their work over the years, what are some personal highlights of yours from the past decade of programming?
My favorite exhibition was “Competing Utopias,” which we curated with Justin Jampol and others from the Wende Museum, and filmmaker Bill Ferehawk. The exhibit looked at the loss of purpose of the artifacts, objects and the spaces of the VDL House. The exhibit’s premise was simple, we took the original furnishings, books and objects out of the Neutra VDL House and replaced them with similar items made in East Germany and other countries in the former Soviet Bloc that belonged to the Wende. The stipulation was that the objects from the Wende’s collection would be from Ca.1965, which was roughly when the VDL II House was occupied. We have struggled with the term “house museum” because it implies such a static reading of the house. It is the problem of preservation in general, which requires that we present the house as existing within a particular time period. This fictional nature of the “house museum,” creates what are in fact “period rooms,” and the fallacy of this concept made this exhibition from the Wende so wonderfully relevant to us.
The Competing Utopias intervention replaced the “standard” fiction of the house with a new fiction that could never have happened, but that fit perfectly within the house. What made it so odd, but also pleasurable for visitors, was that we didn’t label any of the Wende’s collection objects so visitors were free to interpret or misinterpret the house and its history at will. The house looked more lived in than it has at any time since the Neutra’s lived there. There were toys on the living room floor, clothes laid out next to a suitcase on the bed, food and alcohol in the cupboards, and toiletries in the bathrooms. I believe we introduced over 2,000 items into VDL, all from the Wende. It was as if the fictional family that had inhabited the space during the 1960’s had just walked out. The critic Dora Epstein Jones described moving through this exhibit as “like through a non-narrative film, which was also the product of cold war, a kind of end of medium. The words are dislocated, things are dislocated, and there is a production of fiction.”
I was also really taken by the performance art piece “Case Study” by artist Stephen Lichty and Neil Marcus, accompanied on piano by Daphne Honma, which only ran for one weekend. Marcus and Lichty both have a neurological disease, which impairs their movements, and their art work offered a new way to understand and engage people with disabilities. The event began with a piano piece in the downstairs music/conference room, the audience then moved upstairs. During the performance, Lichty supported Marcus (who’s movements are extremely restricted) with his own body and together they performed a mutually enhanced dance in the upstairs living room. This was definitely the most striking and moving piece we’ve had at VDL.
How do you envision the future of the house and its role in the community of Silver Lake?
I am very happy that the house is in much better shape financially and physically, but I am most proud of having created a cultural space for the neighborhood. It is amazing how many people come to our events and openings. For our current installation by Shio Kusaka curated by Douglas Fogle and Hanneke Skerath, over 500 people came through the house on the opening day. It is a bit chaotic to manage so many people through the VDL, but everyone was incredibly respectful. I love seeing all the Cal Poly Pomona alums (many of whom were docents before they graduated), colleagues, and neighborhood regulars at these events. One local resident, told me how much she loves coming back to see the house transformed in novel ways with every new artist. Most of our visitors are tourists, primarily interested in the architecture and history of the house. They likely come once to take a tour on a Saturday. But local Silver Lake residents, and local (meaning greater LA) architects, artists, and critics come back over and over. That is why doing these events and exhibitions is so important. My hope is that this programming will continue when I step down.
An important aspect in how we run the house is that all our events are free (or had a very minimal fee) and are open to all. In a world where access to these kinds of houses (both private and public) is reserved for those with means, we took the opposite tack. I have often joked that you were invited to stay at VDL if you were doing interesting work and couldn’t afford a hotel room in Los Angeles. Given that the Neutra VDL House is run by CalPoly Pomona, which is a public university with a mission to be as inclusive as possible, I think it is very important to reflect those inclusive values in all the programming that we do. I sincerely hope that the incoming director will continue to perpetuate these principles as the Neutra VDL House moves into the future.
This Saturday marks the closing event of Soft Schindler, an exhibition by Mimi Zeiger, and includes the launch of a special publication created by PIN–UP magazine in collaboration with the artist Ian Markell. LA Forum spoke to Soft Schindler curator Mimi Zeiger, who will lead an exhibition tour prior to a conversation with artist Ian Markell and writer Leslie Dick, a contributor to the publication. The conversation will be moderated by PIN-UP magazine’s Editor and Creative Director Felix Burrichter.
For those who haven’t yet seen the show, can you tell us a bit about Soft Schindler at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler house?
Soft Schindler brings together the work of twelve artists and architects to explore soft and non-binary ideas, from questioning the hard edges of modernism to featuring installations employing soft materials like drapery and latex.
It isn’t a “history show,” however a springboard for the exhibition is a moment in the history of the Schindler House from late 1949, when Pauline Schindler, estranged from R.M. Schindler but still living on one side of the house, painted her side of the interior salmon pink. Featuring works by Design, Bitches, Bryony Roberts, and WELCOMEPROJECTS, among others, Soft Schindler celebrates her act as “softness as resistance.”
How does the catalogue and your collaboration with PIN-UP magazine expand upon the work and intentions of the exhibition?
It was a dream to collaborate with PIN-UP editor/creative director Felix Burrichter. The magazine has a history of pushing boundaries of design, especially relating to larger cultural issues of aesthetics and sexuality. We wanted to use the space of the catalog to do a couple of things: the first is representational. Ian Markell’s photographs are very different from our press photography. He shot Soft Schindler while we were installing the exhibition and he captured it when it was a bit undone—there are tangles of cords, packing materials, moving blankets in the images, which counters the idea that exhibition photography has to be perfect and neat. Second, we commissioned essays by Leslie Dick and Susan Orlean to reflect on the changing domesticity of the house and R.M. Schindler’s architectural legacy. Leslie looks at certain juicy proclivities underlying the architecture itself, while Susan explores her own personal history of living in Schindler’s architecture.
Tell us about the panelists and their relation to the work in the exhibition?
Felix will lead a conversation between Ian Markell and Leslie Dick. Leslie is an L.A.-based writer and she teaches at CalArts and Yale. I loved an earlier essay that she wrote about artist Alice Lang (who is also included in Soft Schindler) that touched on ideas of softness in criticism, and I reached out to her to contribute.
Ian is an emerging artist based here in Los Angeles. He makes objects that undermine assumptions, often incorporating unexpected images into his sculptures. When Felix suggested we ask him to shoot the catalog, I jumped at the chance. His photographs have a delicate, almost haunting quality, as if something or someone just left the frame.
Dear Friends of the LA Forum –
Happy New Year 2020 – and to a Fantastic New Decade! As we are getting ready for a new year of programming and celebrations, we wanted to take a moment to send a big thank you to those who helped us make 2019 a success: our friends, supporters, participants, collaborators, members, as well as our Advisory Board.
We look forward to working with you in the coming year, as we continue our mission to instigate dialogues on design and the built environment through public programming, exhibitions, and publications and to reflect on what architecture means in our ever-evolving city. We are also proud to mention that we are entering the 33rd year of the LA Forum in 2020!
Some highlights from the last 12 months:
We were very excited to re-launch the Pamphlet Series, our platform for critical ideas on architecture and the city after a ten-year hiatus. Made possible in part by a grant from City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, UnScene LA (created by Aja Bulla-Richards, Mari Beltran and Josiah Cain and with an afterword by Sarah Cowles) explored leftover spaces within the urban fabric. We celebrated this important benchmark with a Launch Event at Studio MLA, which featured a panel discussion with Mia Lehrer, Aja Bulla-Richards, Mari Beltran, Josiah Cain, and Susanna Battin. Our next pamphlet is underway – please stay tuned!
With Promenade 3.0, a panel on Santa Monica’s iconic Third Street Promenade, we discussed the future of public space. Participants included Alan Loomis, who spearheads the City of Santa Monica’s initiative with the same name, and Steven Welliver (DTSM), Nate Cormier (RCH), and Sofie Kvist (Gehl).
In 2019, we also celebrated 100 Years of Bauhaus. Moderated by Tim Durfee, Bauhaus → L.A. → Now was a conversation at the WUHO gallery among leading Los Angeles creatives, including Jessica Fleischmann, Andrea Lenardin Madden, Yunhee Min, Heather Scott Peterson, and Pae White, about their personal connection to Bauhaus. We organized a private tour of “Bauhaus Beginnings”, the exhibition at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, which was led by the curators of the exhibition, Maristella Casciato and Gary Fox, and by the architect and consultant on the exhibition installation Tim Durfee.
We also organized the J.R. Davidson House Tours, where visitors had the opportunity to see the Sam Taylor House (1947) and the Rubin Sabsay House (1940, remodeled in 1944 by Rudolph Schindler).
In conjunction with her book launch and the exhibition Closed Worlds at WUHO, the L.A. Forum hosted a discussion on self-reliance and closed systems with Lydia Kallipoliti. Moderated by Anthony Fontenot, the panel included Aaron Vaden-Youmans, Shane Reiner-Roth, Ginger Nolan, Marikka Trotter, Daniel Lopez-Perez, and Jimenez Lai.
Our Fall 2019 newsletter On Listening, edited by Wendy Gilmartin and Steven Chodoriwsky, explored an often-neglected virtue through texts and interviews with practitioners who listen for a living. The newsletter, supported by a grant from City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, was launched with a limited-edition vinyl record at our Listening Party at Betalevel in Chinatown LA.
2019 was also the year of ForumFest, our big bi-annual Fundraising Event. Held at Self Help Graphics, the iconic community arts center in Boyle Heights on the Gold Line, ForumFest 2019’s theme was ON THE GRID, celebrating the evolving public transport system in Los Angeles. ForumFest not only allowed us to meet our financial goals for 2020, thanks to the generosity of our sponsors and supporters, but it also brought together more than 350 people for an evening of conversation and live performances, featuring Sound Field with Randy Randall & Aaron Farley, the all-female Mariachi band Las Colibri, as well as a Live Printing station run by Self Help Graphic’s team.
We are planning a great year of programming and celebrations for 2020 to continue to carry out our important work for our community and city. Our members, participants, and supporters are what makes the Forum thrive. If you haven’t already, please become a member and join us during our 33rd year in 2020!
I am extremely excited about the recently elected leadership of the L.A. Forum: President Wendy Gilmartin, and Vice-President Nina Briggs, Vice-President of Information Mitchell De Jarnett, Vice-President of Grants Development Greg Kochanowski, Vice-President of Membership Development Lilian Pfaff, Vice-President of Operations Ismaelly Peña, and Treasurer Edward Ogosta.
I am grateful for the opportunity to serve as the President of the Los Angeles Forum in 2019, together with Chris Torres as the Vice-President, and would like to thank everyone for their support and dedication, especially the hard-working Board of Directors and the LA Forum Advisory Board, who all made 2019 a successful and meaningful year.
I look forward to what’s to come in the next years and decades!
Former President, Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design
Next week’s TECH+ Forum and Expo at the Line Hotel in Koreatown (Thursday, February 6th) will unite top professionals from the worlds of design, research and tech to consider how multi-industry collaborations might contribute to and shape L.A.’s unique architectural landscape. In advance of the event, and as a conference media sponsor, the LA Forum talked to Susan Kramer, Programming and Events Coordinator for TECH+ and Architect’s Newspaper, about data bombardment and other new realities in the building industry at large, like finding ways to harness the power of emerging platforms towards enhanced operability in practice.
Tell us about TECH+ FORUM and EXPO and what attendees might expect at the symposium?
The architects, engineers, designers and construction and real estate professionals who attend TECH+ will hear from a high caliber of leaders from across all these industries in individual presentations and three panels, all taking a deep dive into the lightning-quick changes they’ll need to understand in order to keep their practices relevant and ahead of the curve. Many of the speakers — like Kerenza Harris from Morphosis and SCI-Arc — have a tandem academic career, so are at the forefront of research and design innovations. Several of the presenters have developed their own platforms which create a collaborative and efficient workflow, facilitating creativity in design and conservation of man hours and materials. There will be hands-on demos at the expo adjacent to the forum.
Why is it important for L.A.’s designers to engage in tech-related topics right now in 2020?
With the sea-change washing over the AEC industries, one can’t afford to be a late-adopter. Just in the last couple of years, construction is seeing immediate ROI by utilizing digital surveying tools and specialized BIM platforms, with architects needing to be onboard in order to be in sync. TECH+ shares this knowledge across platforms and industries, creating a dialogue and offering opportunities for new relationships locally, regionally and worldwide.
What group of presenters are you most looking forward to and why?
Our keynote, Dr. Upali Nanda, Director of Research for HKS and professor at University of Michigan, will lay out the groundwork for how we can best utilize all the data we’re being bombarded with, without losing our humanity and purpose. She will explore the links between data, design and experience, and reminds us that whatever is built is in the service of the occupant. (Please see our interview with Dr. Nanda here: https://techplusexpo.com/upali-nanda-uses-neuroscience-to-create-living-buildings/) And of course the underlying topic today across the board is how architects are responding to climate change, so I am especially looking forward to hearing from our last panel, Reaching for Net Zero with Smart & Responsive Building Materials. There are some real innovators and leaders on this panel — like Doris Sung from USC, Director of Sustainability with Skanska Stacy Smedley, and Kate Diamond of HDR — who are setting the necessary high standards to change the methods and materials we are building with, hopefully to change the world for the better. I find them to be very inspiring, and I think our audience will feel the same.
Scientist. Artist. Author. Museum Educator. You have such a fascinating multi-disciplinary career that touches on so many disciplines and genres. For those who may not already follow you, can you share a little bit about the work you do on your own and at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County?
I grew up on a farm in the U.K. and literally pretended to be a badger in a hollow tree. I think this helps to give a sense of how my love for nature developed. Then when I was 14 I moved halfway across the world, to the Inland Empire. I didn’t so much experience culture shock, but I did experience nature shock. It wasn’t until I attended university, at UC Riverside, and studied entomology, that I really began to understand my new environment. Through the lives and ways of insects, I began to understand nature in Southern California. After focusing on entomological research for my undergrad, I made a switch to communicating science and got a master’s degree in environmental education. I have since focused my life’s work on connecting people to nature. I prefer to do this work in cities, because I feel that this is where the greatest need and opportunity lies. My work at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County centers on getting the general public involved in scientific research on the nature in L.A., through community science. I also work in service to the L.A. River, by advocating for her revitalization. I run picnics on the river, I lead tours along her banks and adjacent parks, and I attend lots of community meetings.
What is the Community Science Program and why is it important for Angelenos to participate?
In essence, community science partners the general public with professional scientists to answer real world questions. The questions we have at the Museum are about nature in Los Angeles. For instance: What species live here and where? What new species are showing up? Are there undiscovered species living here that we don’t know about? How are things changing over time? By partnering with our community, we can ask and answer questions like these, in ways there were not possible before the technological revolution that are smartphones, digital cameras, and personal computers. Many of us literally carry around a tiny computer in our pockets, which we can harness to document nature in our city, county, state and beyond. We can collectively cover a lot more ground–all over the Southern California region–with a lot more eyes/cameras. We can amass a lot more data. With this large data set we are making big discoveries. Our community has helped the Museum discover 40+ new species of flies in L.A, documented the first brown widow spiders in Torrance and Mediterranean House Geckos in Chatsworth.
It was fascinating to learn from your book WILD LA, that Los Angeles is the only city in the US that has a major mountain range running thru it and its claimed as the “birdiest” county in the County with over 500 recorded bird species. What were some new things you learned about Los Angeles during the research for the book that excited you?
I learned so many things! With my background in entomology, I had a lot of knowledge about insects, but because we cover 101 species in the book, I got to learn about many new species. I wrote the first drafts of two snails, a slug, two mushrooms, a slime mold, and also a lichen. I learned that the local garden snails we see sliming all over town, actually use love darts–a type of biological cupid’s arrow, if you will–to harpoon their mate with hormones that induce mating! I mean how cool is that?
I also got to visit and explore the 25 different field trips we highlight in the book. Some of these places were brand new to me. My new favorite is Arlington Garden in South Pasadena. This garden sits on an old Caltrans yard, but now is a haven for wildlife–a place for humans to sit back and enjoy nature in the city.
Travel seems to be a constant in your life. Why is traveling so important to you and your work and what do you look for when planning your next adventure?
Travel is definitely something that feeds my soul. When I was 14 I moved to the U.S.A, on the way we visited the Philippines, where my step-mum is from. That trip profoundly affected my sense of the world, and my place in it. I feel very fortunate to have had this experience at such a young age. I still love traveling today, and enjoy adventuring to new places. However, I have been working to severely limit my travel because of the carbon footprint. Did you know that for one round trip flight from L.A. back to visit my family in London, it emits 3.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Which is equivalent to what a meat-loving diet would emit in an entire year! Food for thought indeed.
If you could you take us to any place in Los Angeles County that inspires you most as an artist and scientist, where would you take us and why?
This is easy, it would be the L.A. River in the Glendale Narrows stretch. A section of this part of the river, is one of the two areas on the river where you can kayak, which is one of the funnest nature experiences (IMHO) people can have in L.A.! There are even class I and II rapids here. When I’m not kayaking, I love bird and bug watching. Standing on top of Sunnynook bridge is a great place to do this. You can stand above the middle of the river and see into the willow and cottonwood tree canopies, and spy on the birds and the bees and butterflies too. I also love playing pooh sticks here. Pooh sticks is a game lots of kids play in the U.K. As the name suggests it originates from a Winnie the Pooh book. Each person playing takes a stick and throws it off the upstream side of a bridge. The winner is the stick that comes out the other side of the bridge first. It doesn’t quite work on this very narrow, pedestrian bridge, but I do it anyway!
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Can you tell us a little bit about the beginning of your music career in Los Angeles and how the experimental nature of the venue ‘The Smell’ helped shape some of the storytelling in your early music?
I first went to ‘The Smell’ in ‘98 when it was in its North Hollywood location. The second time I went was in ‘99 and it was at its current downtown location. I was fundamentally birthed from the egalitarian creative presentation of music at The Smell. People played on the floor to people that wanted to be there. It cost five bucks and the artists made all the decisions on how, when, where and why they played. I volunteered my time stamping hands and learning to do live sound there. Downtown LA in these days was scary and exciting. The music was personal and the space was dirty. I loved every minute of it. I thought that was how music should be presented everywhere. Once we started touring, I quickly realized how lucky we were to have a place like ‘The Smell’.
Since the first No Age show at ‘The Smell’ back in 2006 how would you describe the changes you’ve seen in Los Angeles’s cultural and built environment and what kind of impact has it had on your music and art?
LA has changed so much since 2006. Specifically, Downtown LA has become a center for arts, fashion and cultural performances. This was not always the case. Most people viewed Downtown as a dangerous place and they were not wrong. I think there was a “wild, no man’s land” kind of vibe that was very attractive to a certain like-minded group of creative individuals that eventually led to an awareness of the place that would change the perception of what went on down there.
Can you describe the inspiration behind your new experimental soundscape project ‘Sound Field Volume One’ and what role Los Angeles and the Southern California landscape played in the making of the LP?
I was inspired to document the many varying landscapes of Southern California because in my travels around the world with No Age I would constantly be asked, “What is LA like?” And my answer was always, “There is no One LA”. There are 400 different small communities of wildly different ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic status, and cultural variety. One way of showing that was taking a singular element, the 10 freeway, and following it on its journey from Palm Springs at sunrise, though the eastern suburbs, into Downtown at 12 noon and ending at the Santa Monica Pier at sunset. There is a daydream like meditation on moving through these kaleidoscopic landscapes seen from the window of your car.
‘Place’, urban or rural, seems to be very important to you when creating these soundscapes. Rumors has it that there may be a ‘Sound Field Volume Two’ coming in the near future which will focus on the pulse of another City. What cities are you considering?
I love the idea of examining what it feels like to move around a city and reflecting the emotional abstraction of what resonates with the location. I would love to look at the bike paths, canals, and small streets of Amsterdam. Or the subways, bridges, tunnels, sidewalks, stairwells of Manhattan. I think the most important thing is to be able to identify a singularity of movement through to space that allows the views to observe the changes in setting, feeling and tone within the city environment.
Randomly, but also related: I remember the first time I drove through Nebraska on tour and was able to see 360 degrees of nothing but the flat fields, it felt like floating in the middle of the ocean. There is a feeling of being dwarfed by the scale and expanse that knocked me out. That would be a challenge to tackle a space of that scale.
If you could you take us to any place in Los Angeles County that inspires you most as an artist, where would you take us and why?
Oooo… that is tough to just pick one. I would have to say driving through the Angeles National Forest along the 2 is still one of the most inspiring journeys that resets my clock and allows me the space to see the city and environment anew. Finding a peaceful vista point to view the city below day or night is a pallet cleanser that can let new ideas flow and creativity to bloom fresh.
The design experiments presented as “closed worlds” in the exhibition offer an opportunity to reflect on the planetary crisis and consequent human fears that gave rise to their invention. In the wake of the recent political decisions that largely dictate our planet’s fate, including the U.S. rejection of the Paris Agreement, China’s Ban on importing Waste, and Japan’s decision to resume whaling, how do you see younger designers reacting to these contemporary issues?
One of the main premises of the Closed Worlds exhibition and book is to argue that the history of twentieth century architecture, design, and engineering has been strongly linked to the conceptualization and production of closed systems. As partial reconstructions of the world in time and in space, closed systems identify and secure the cycling of materials necessary for the sustenance of life. As such, contemporary discussions about global warming, recycling, and sustainability have emerged as direct conceptual constructs related to the study and analysis of closed systems.
Nevertheless, I am not necessarily arguing that the study of closed systems offers solutions to a diverse range of problems related to global warming and climate change. The case studies analyzed in Closed Worlds offer insight into how existential perceptions the idea of circularity, simulating the metabolism of natural resources, has been institutionalized in sustainable policies, although in many cases it promotes an idealization of handling world resources, which is not automatically applicable to field conditions.
My relationship with the subject of my research is arguably schizoid in some ways. I am enticed by closed systems and the idea of demarcated perimeters within which new material and social worlds can evolve through self-organization; at the same time I see the idea of wholeness as a delusion that we have fostered for too long, both in theoretical speculations as well as factual constituents of practice and policy.
Your research suggests that there is a crucial relationship between waste and closed worlds, not unlike the relationship between excrement and the body. Is there an important relationship between cities and waste? What might we learn by studying the relationship between Los Angeles and the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in the Santa Monica Bay, for example, one of the largest plants in the world?
The affinity between money and shit, between capital and excrement, has been a pervasive subject of theoretical analysis, but also a factual constituent of capitalist production. Waste needs to go away; and this very process of purging, transporting and carrying into oblivion all that is worthless is utterly profitable. Future market ‘bubbles’ are prognosticated to rise from the trading of urban waste. Congested metropolitan environments like New York and Los Angeles produce massive amounts of solid waste and sewage that is then transported out of the city. The purging of this waste is invisible to our perception, yet it generates capital for those who manage and transfer the raw materials. Shit is a phantom material condition, but at the same time it is a product, or better stated a by-product, of social reality.
New York City for example, the beating heart of global finance and culture, home to more than 8.5 million people, creates an enormous amount of poo. As reporter Oliver Milman wrote in The Guardian (2018), a substantial amount of the city’s shit is expelled to Birmingham, Alabama, causing major stink methane clouds 900 miles away. The treated sewage – euphemistically known in the industry as “biosolids” – travels by a poo train to a landfill west of Birmingham causing what the locals and the mayor’s office call the “death smell.” Since the Environmental Protection Agency decided in 1988 that shit was not to be evacuated in oceans, where to put New York’s fecal matter has become a constant challenge. In Alabama, the avalanche of northern poo is part of a wider concern over the environmental risks for residents, particularly the impoverished and people of color. Further south, a landfill bordering the majority African American settlement of Uniontown contains around 4m tons of toxic coal ash and welcomes other debris from 33 states. The dismissal of the environmental concerns of Alabama residents, mostly residents of overwhelmingly African American communities, has been reported as a case of civil rights and environmental racism.
As a New York resident for the past twelve years, I am less familiar with the water sewage facilities in Los Angeles like the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in the Santa Monica Bay, the City’s oldest and largest wastewater treatment facility. I assume, nevertheless, that similar to New York’s Newton Creek facility the challenge of treating, maintaining and disposing billion gallons of human waste is one of the most enormous spatial and economic challenges that metropolitan areas face and a major constituent of real-estate fluctuations. Nobody wants to be close to shit, our most intimate bodily byproducts and thus the reality these facilities bring forward are extraordinarily uncanny. As the VICE documentary “You Don’t Know Shit” argues, biosolids have become a financial asset worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
The trail of waste from butt to big-money biosolid and beyond is indicative of the fact that that shit and money exhibit two sides of the same coin. This is precisely the argument of Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi who wrote “The Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money” in 1950, several decades before biosolids would emerge as a driving force of urban economy. Ferenczi argued that shit is ejected from the body and rejected by the psyche, whereas money is introjected by the body and accepted as a highly desired form. Nevertheless both entities derive from the same prime matter in an ongoing recycling process. Ferenczi does not view currency in the form of concrete metallic coins or paper, but rather as a disguise for a sequence of other materials that brought it into existence; in other words, shit undergoes a serial transformation assuming different material states all the way to money. In this sense, materials exist merely in stages, while they absorb qualities from their previous stages: mud is shit deodorized, sand is mud dehydrated, pebbles are sand hardened and coins are pebbles unearthed. This logic of liquefaction and transformation of materials which physically exist only in phases, as well as the logic of converting wasted matter exhibits recycling as an ideational and philosophical system of viewing the world of ideas, information and matter as flow rather than as the accumulation of discrete objects. More than a material system, recycling signals the migration of life through the conversion of one thing to another.
You have placed excrement at the center of ecological design debates. Why is shit so significant “Or, What is the Power of Shit?”
Shit forces us to look at questions of ecology viscerally, via the raw ecology of our bodies and the understanding that recycling is not simply as a statistical problem relayed to the management of urban resources, but also a basic bodily reality affecting the water and air we breathe.
The Power of Shit suggests on a first level that our unwanted, odorous and degenerate bodily product is technically powerful and worthy; shit can generate methane, meaning power, if treated properly. In this logic, the life and metabolism of living creatures may be decoded, replicated via technological instrumentality and directly transposed to industrial and design systems advocating for a full circle of life with no loss. Yet, this simplistic and frankly, false sense of holism, which has been directly applied to building systems and cities under the umbrella of integration, is not as carefree as one might think.
The production of food and power from the management of organic excrements was key to several countercultural domestic experiments of the 1970s that heralded self-reliance from the grid of urban supplies. Making food and power from shit was the ultimate aspiration, carried out through tedious, repetitive and dirty routines like sorting, composting, mixing mulch for vegetation and animal-feed crops. With these aims in mind, the space of the house was nurtured and dependent on the subtle fluctuations of materials’ phase changes and the growth of living substances. It remains a paradox that the questionable model of total circular regeneration, imbued with the vitalism of a digestive stomach, has prevailed as the mainstream model of what we now call a sustainable, net-zero habitat, opposing energy loss.
Let us not forget that more than a material, shit also indicates a general stage of incoherency, degeneration and malevolence. It indicates a stage where information is so finely grained and scattered that it cannot form bonds identifiable patterns. In the “shit” stage, information is so unrefined and randomly grained that it is “interrelational loss” or in-cohesion between bits and particles that defines the degenerate condition of the shit stage.
For all respects and purposes, to write a counter history to optimized circular economies in material conversions, one perhaps needs to look at shit. Only through this raw confrontation may the ecology of life be somehow useful. We need to investigate, monitor, and document the strangeness of the real, to invent an architecture completely devoted to the problems of the real but not one that is unaware of its uncertainty and complexity. Shit engulfs our existence in more ways that we want to observe and acknowledge. It is not about constructing fictions and fantasies but about closely observing, conducting forensic analysis, asking questions, and instrumentalizing our findings in a creative way. Possibly shit is our only way out.
Exhibition showing through Sunday, April 3, 2019 at WUHO Gallery in Hollywood.
Explore and purchase your copy of The Architecture of Closed Worlds, Or What is the Power of Shit here.
Join LA Forum on Thursday, March 7th for a discussion on self-reliance and closed systems with Lydia Kallipoliti — architect-engineer, scholar and Assistant Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The event also marks the launch of the book The Architecture of Closed Worlds, Or, What is the Power of Shit? published by Lars Müller (2018), and the opening of the exhibition Closed Worlds, originally commissioned by the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York (2016).
Lydia Kallipoliti (RPI/ ANAcycle studio), Aaron Vaden-Youmans (Grimshaw Architects), Shane Reiner-Roth (Archinect), Ginger Nolan (USC), Marikka Trotter (SCI-Arc), Daniel Lopez-Perez (University of San Diego), Jimenez Lai (UCLA/ Bureau Spectacular)
Moderated by Anthony Fontenot (Woodbury University), panelists will discuss how the history of twentieth-century architecture, design, and engineering has been strongly linked to the conceptualization and production of closed systems: self-sustaining physical environments demarcated from their surroundings by a boundary that does not allow for the transfer of matter or energy. As partial reconstructions of the world in time and in space, closed systems identify and secure the cycling of materials necessary for the sustenance of life. Contemporary discussions about global warming, recycling, and sustainability have emerged as direct conceptual constructs related to the study and analysis of closed systems.
Closed Worlds document a disciplinary transformation and the rise of a new environmental consensus in the form of a synthetic naturalism, wherein the laws of nature and metabolism are displaced from the domain of wilderness to the domain of cities and buildings. While these ideas derive from a deeply rooted fantasy of architecture producing nature, The Architecture of Closed Worlds displays their integration into the very fabric of reality in our contemporary cities and buildings.