Sometimes architects are compared to artists. But often the closest counterpart to what an architect does is not that of an artist, but a screenwriter. A friend of mine, a sculptor, once pointed out that filmmaking is “art by committee.” And so, can be, architecture.
The client, like the director or studio exec or actor, changes it because — never mind that the screenwriter brought to life an overall vision — they think they know better.
The bank, like the studio, won't make a loan on an architect's plans because it's too different from all the rest. And the architect has to dumb it down.
Or, the sub-contractor makes a mistake in execution that's too expensive to fix.
It. Just. Gets. Hacked.
To the point that by the time the thing is built, the public doesn't see all the hidden items the architect had to shimmy into place — the horrible, uneven site, the number of units the developer wanted, the enormous space the city wanted dedicated to parking, the compromise made with the community on the retail component — and what they see on the outside is jumbled crap. And looking up as they drive by for half a second without knowing any of the backstory, they say to themselves, “The architect sucks.”
Even if an architect's vision makes it through the entire process, a critic, who has his own career as a taste decider to drive, might come along and savage the thing.
“A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California,” the MOCA show featuring the work of thirty-eight architectural firms based or working in Los Angeles today, fails to explain the work of its architects as some of these architects had hoped for. Nor does it accurately represent contemporary architecture from Southern California.
Where it succeeds is in turning the architect into artist. Not in the ultimate completed work – the sculptural building the show celebrates — but in the process of making the work. It does this by showing the beauty, the ephemeral moment, in architects' first simple authentic impulses: early sketches, hand-drawn plans, and models developed at the beginning of their process that are more abstract sculptures than a building layout. In other words the moment before things get complicated, before the messy real world intervenes. And the messy world intervening is how the show came to be. It almost didn't happen at all.
In the spring, shortly before it was to be installed, it was cancelled or “stalled” due to money issues. Conceived by curator Christopher Mount, “A New Sculpturalism” imagined the world of architecture in the Frank Gehry and post-Frank Gehry epoc as centering on the aesthetic. As the art world would say, the building as “object.” Meaning, in English for the rest of us, the building was only about how it looked. Not about how it responded to place –the site of a project, who will use the space, how, the environment etc. — a factor that good architects consider and address in a physical solution.
Amongst the architects dissatisfied with this approach was Thom Mayne, who was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the profession's highest honor. Mayne, whose shifting planes, life-on-a-fault-line visuals are often misunderstood by Angelenos, and who works almost entirely in other cities now, like New York and Paris, is a voracious student of all fields — science, philosophy, film, politics. Inspired by the explosive cultural and political moves of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including a group of Venice based artists that featured James Turrell and other, Mayne's work is less about its sculptural elements than a drive to answer larger societal questions.
“If you can't draw the connections to these larger issues, cultural, socio, political — we're out of a profession,” he said at a panel discussion that marked the opening of the show.
Mayne was not alone. As time went on, a growing number of architects chaffed at the presentation of their work as simply an aesthetic. The most prominent was Frank Gehry, who bailed on the show, and was coaxed back in it shortly before it opened.
But when MOCA money woes caused the show's cancellation it was Mayne who took up the reins to install 500 pieces in less than four weeks on a shoestring budget with no money to light the show.
“A New Sculpturism” is a sprawling exhibition that often leaves the visitor confused. Devised as a show about the visual, it was never intended to have explanatory cards that would provide museum visitors with basic context of individual architects overall work or pieces.
Mount has profound admiration for the work of the architects he gathers in this show, for the practices that have made Los Angeles “the creative center of American architecture…for the last 25 years,” he says. On the phone he points out that decades ago, in the vacuum that was post-modernism — the movement that was a reaction to the easy-listening corporate architecture that a certain segment of modernism had become but on the surface looked busy or kitschy — “We all thought the next step was 'New York White,'” Mount says referencing the clean white volumes of architect Richard Meier, who designed the Getty Center. “What happened is that Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne amongst others came along.”
That was good news. But that's not explained in the gallery. Neither are Mount's choices. The show is as incomplete as it is unedited. Why were many respected firms in the city left out, such as John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects, whose work of sculptural blocks of color complement rather than defy their larger context, or Clive Wilkinson Architects, a 2011 recipient of the prestigious Cooper-Hewett Design awards, just to start. Others included in the show are misinterpreted. Brooks + Scarpa, designated a national firm of the year by the organization who represents architects, is represented, but its game-changing moves are not about sculpturalism. (Disclosure: I've written for the firm and currently am commissioned for a book about them.)
Mount says that the show was not intended to be all encompassing, “It's never been a survey show. It's not even a definition of the best architecture. It's a definition of the most visually expressive, the most avant-garde,” he says
But by picking a sub-field of Southern California's contributions to architecture, a lot of California contributions are left off the table. Instead he favors the gestural move and gives Eric Owen Moss' aggressive imposing work, which turns inward rather than outside for answers, a disproportionate amount of space and pushes the work of those influenced by the school Moss heads, Sci-Arc.
If the show fails to help Angelenos understand the men and women who design our city better, it does beautifully help deliver Director Jeffrey Deitch's vision for MOCA: broaden the definition of what gets defined as art.
The show's best parts are not the more-complete, late stage models that so fully replicate a final building, but in the early stage work. These individual objects dazzle, producing a rich, tactile mosaic. The best feel dreamy, from the subconscious, or minimalist yet so sensually evocative. Hagy Belzberg's lantern-box of a model; Mark Mack's color-drenched paintings generated to communicate to clients; Lorcan O'Herlihy's whisper of a sculpture, with elliptical lines of lightly colored acrylic squares that served as a model for the negative space in a condo project; Mayne's ghost-like apparition of a Paris sky scrapper; Neil Denari's hand drawings so beautiful in their precision and specifics; the saturated royal blue background of a Michele Saee drawing; Moss miniatures at dollhouse size; Marcelo Spina and Georgina's Huljich's changing-in-the-light pavilion; Patrick Tighe's blown-up multi-layered prints on paper; and the lush flower patterned electric-pink-colorful pavilion of Elena Manferdini.
Art freed from the streets indeed.