By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
There was a surprising shortage of fin-de-siecle summaries of 20th-century art over the course of Y2K madness, in the form of either major museum surveys or critical Top 40 lists. One exception is Crawdaddy-daddy (not dwarf-rocket-scientist) Paul Williams’ forthcoming book, The 20th Century‘s Greatest Hits, a quirky countdown including such unlikely milestones as Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, Thich Nhat Hahn‘s Buddha biography Old Path White Clouds, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From the opposite reaches of the idiosyncrasy rainbow comes ”At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture,“ a massive traveling show winding down its two-year global tour of duty at MOCA‘s Geffen Contemporary. Organized by departed MOCA heavyweights Richard Koshalek and Elizabeth Smith with researcher and loan coordinator Cara Mullio, the exhibit is so overwhelmingly comprehensive and ambitiously scaled that any hint of individual curatorial vision is subsumed in the monumentality of the grand scheme. Which is fine. Up to a point.
Drawing on an international advisory committee of scholars and practicing architects, and hundreds of individual and institutional lenders, from Berlin’s Stiftung Archiv der Akademie der Kunste to Domino‘s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, the show is almost unimpeachably inclusive of the various utopian urges, Modernist, Socialist, Fascist, Capitalist and Other, that have defined the scale and quality of our place in the world. Arranged in 21 thematic sections ranging from yadda to yadda, ”ATEOTC“ attempts to establish a sort-of post-historical fuzziness that resolves the us-them, then-now, brain-body dichotomies that have heretofore defined 20th-century architectural theory and practice. In other words, the show tries to accommodate everyone from academic feminists to Vegas apologists, sacrificing the entertainment value of pugnacious critical engagement for the Big Picture.
Aesthetically, ”ATEOTC“ is rich and riddled with surprises. Much of what appears under the rubric of educational illustration would kick butt if it popped up unannounced in a contemporary commercial gallery. The drawings -- design schematics, maps, elevations and illustrations -- are particularly impressive. Constituting an unacknowledged substratum of 20th-C high-art draftsmanship, these traditions are only now starting to creep into the accepted vocabulary of painting and drawing. Renderings for Burnham & Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago have a vertiginous hyperrealism more reminiscent of Windsor McCay‘s wack landscapes for his contemporaneous comic strip ”Little Nemo in Slumberland“ than of the slick Modernist semiotics we’ve come to expect from architectural mockups. Renaissance dudes Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright deliver predictably elegant and lyrical graphic works, ranging from meticulous perspectives to atmospheric renderings. The swinging-‘60s collective Archigram is represented by a few of the small but supercharged drawings that blow its many contemporary art-world imitators out of the water.
I have to confess to a fondness for the crass museological trend of anchoring little TVs every 20 paces throughout an exhibit, presumably to provide Joe Public with a series of reassuring steppingstones in order to negotiate the morass of unfamiliar media. This implicit condescension notwithstanding, the video programs provide a relatively unregulated curatorial arena, often containing funnier and more self-reflexive insights than the received wisdoms of text-panel purgatory. ”ATEOTC“ is no exception, incorporating often surreal period footage with filmwork by Charles and Ray Eames and Le Corbusier, and bang-on cinematic quotations -- from Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera and Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will -- that manage to translate both the formal and conceptual concerns of the relevant architecture into another medium without compromising their integrity as autonomous artworks.
My highest accolades are reserved for the generous array of scale models that litter the exhibition. All are interesting enough, but many -- Le Corbusier’s rickety 1932 plan for an Algerian skyscraper, the mysterious miniature of Hans Poelzig‘s Grosses Schauspielhaus, the exquisite patchwork of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, the almost-comic egotism of Albert Speer‘s monstrous Great Hall, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion prototype Wichita House, a newly commissioned wooden scale model of Brasilia by Lucio Costa, Co-op Himmelblau‘s loony late-’60s Cloud, the terrifying-even-at-one-sixteenth-scale Menara Mesiniaga Tower Selanger by Tr Hamzah and Yeang, Wes Jones‘ hilarious Sub-’Burb: 2025 Project, and even Frank Gehry‘s overhyped Bilbao museum -- offer more actual art kicks individually than most gallery shows.
On my first visit, during the press preview, an unfortunate tone was set by the terrifying opening remarks of a representative from the annoyingly ostentatious underwriters Ford Motor Co. (to the point of one of the exhibit sections, ”World of Tomorrow: The Future of Transportation,“ seeming to have been grafted on as a sop to the donor). After expressing contempt for janitors daring to hold opinions about architecture and design, the spokesman delivered an impassioned call for America to awaken to its responsibility to develop a truly world-class luxury automobile. Spooky. a
In spite of Smith and Co.’s attempt to synthesize every possible angle, the history of 20th-century architecture as presented here is pretty much a trickle-down affair, even when intentions are at their most egalitarian. The inherent authoritarianism of architecture, museology, exhibition design and corporate sponsorship is addressed theoretically ad nauseam in the voluminous catalog, but is countered in practice only by the lip-service inclusion of ”ecological“ and ”populist“ architectural movements as competing (and losing) paradigms.