In 1979, architect Thom Mayne hosted 10 exhibits, one a week, in his own house, each featuring an emerging local architect or architecture firm. In old photos of the shows, what stands out — aside from the big, feathered hairdos and unironic mustaches — is how the work was presented: Drawings made of leftover studio trash hung on the wall, a dining table had a model at each place setting, and Frederick Fisher installed a giant structural rafter to slice through Mayne's house. These were definitely not the clean lines of the elegant L.A. modernists a generation before.
But beyond the work's outsider content, what was most unprecedented was that each show was reviewed by the L.A. Times' architecture critic, John Dreyfuss. Todd Gannon, SCI-Arc faculty member and co-curator of the reincarnation of the Architecture Gallery at SCI-Arc this spring (with Ewan Branda and Andrew Zago), part of the exhibit “A Confederacy of Heretics” opening March 29, says of the 1979 shows, “People in the architecture world knew about these architects, but after the Dreyfuss articles, it really reached a boiling point and opened up architecture in L.A. to the national scene.”
The 10 original exhibits in 1979 featured the work of Frank Gehry, who was already successful and on his way to international fame, and Eric Owen Moss, whose Morgenstern Warehouse in Culver City had just been built, using sewer pipes and concrete block, with utility lines exposed as decoration. Eugene Kupper presented his newly finished house for singer Harry Nilsson, which looked like a shadowy collection of stucco-coated Greek ruins.
Coy Howard talked a kind of stream-of-consciousness ramble for his show, and Craig Hodgetts and Robert Mangurian (of the firm Studio Works) also were featured. Mangurian and Hodgetts made photocopies of everything in their office they were working on at the time, including playing cards and McDonald's wrappers, and laid them out on a long table in order to highlight the process they used to design.
Dreyfuss saw Studio Works as the most exciting prospect in the group, writing that they “combined historicism, originality and practicality to an extent demonstrated by no other architect in the series except for Gehry.”
Today, Hodgetts recalls, “I think we became Dreyfuss' darling. John was completely bored with corporate architecture at the time and really interested in our backyard operations. Our lack of pretension and the fact that we avoided all the trappings of high art really resonated with him.”
More a group of outliers empathetic to one another's specific interests than a cohesive movement, Hodgetts and the other men featured at the Architecture Gallery shared a dissatisfaction with the status quo. Says Hodgetts, “There was an odd depression in the architecture realm. The fervor of the '60s had petered out and L.A. had a vapid culture. The music was all Henry Mancini.”
The work of the L.A. School — as they were occasionally called in the national press — was described as “thrown-together” or “woodbutchery,” and the group offered an undeniably ad hoc aesthetic. Asymmetry tended to be the rule, as were big, formal moves such as out-of-scale address numbers and gratuitous roof peaks, and the use of cheap materials like asphalt shingles and chicken wire. “And most of us lived in Venice,” Hodgetts says. “There was nothing there — it was bare and placeless, and we could remove ourselves from things.”
East Coast architecture establishment types took tentative notice. Architect Philip Johnson, a lionized figure in American modernism, dubbed Moss “the jeweler of junk.” It was a moniker in which Moss delighted.
Part of the Getty Institute's citywide Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. series, “A Confederacy of Heretics” will reshuffle the work presented in the original Architecture Gallery.
Using Dreyfuss' reviews as a starting point, Gannon and co. worked through the archival materials, piecing together the drawings, photographs, video and sculptural pieces that comprise the show. Works on display include the meticulously labored drawings of Mayne's firm Morphosis, and Coy Howard's “Drawl” series of skewed sculptural drawings from found objects.
The exhibition's architecture, by Andrew Zago, is a nod to the pushed-and-pulled forms of Howard's and others' works in the show. Zago designed a series of drywall partitions, which make places for models and drawings to be displayed but also are intended to form thought-provoking spaces and create unexpected connections among the ephemera.
The curators say the show is not nostalgic, but it's a big pat on the back for those emeritus members of the L.A. School, and it highlights a time in L.A. when a collective intellectual spark ignited some national recognition — even by established critics like Charles Jencks, who admitted the scene had potential but still seemed annoyed by its easygoing ennui when he wrote that the L.A. School was “on one hand a perfect expression of the laid-back Angeleno with his shoes off, drink in hand, contemplating the next way he can extend his personal fulfillment, and on the other hand a free celebration of architectural motifs.”
More importantly, back in L.A., the idea was taking root that a group of confident, scrappy, alternative design offices could inherently change the architecture of the city, by taking the little jobs nobody else wanted — renovated bungalows and garages, front walls and fences, designs for art exhibits and gallery spaces where pieces of exterior walls project out over alleys to enclose a volume of space for a great view, or where ceilings soared 25 feet for the hell of it.
These kinds of formal architectural moves are manifold in L.A. now, and while those 12 original architects and their firms aren't necessarily leading the way in innovation anymore — a few having grown supremely conventional themselves — their spirit is directly linked to an understanding of what design practice could look like in a city that lacked a strong architectural heritage the way Chicago or New York had. Their ideas about DIY architecture practice and formal experimentation really took off in academia with the deanships of Michael Rotondi (of Morphosis and RoTo Architects) and Moss at SCI-Arc.
That academic trajectory fostered the current success of firms like Ball-Nogues Studio, Oyler Wu Collaborative and FreelandBuck, to name a handful, which make spaces out of materials like twine, aluminum tubing, electrical conduit and plastic party streamers. Echoing the L.A. School, these young offices work in collaboration with artists on public art pieces, exhibition designs and publications, and they generally harvest alternative types of work and clients in L.A., for example producing temporary outdoor canopies for restaurants or helping large-scale installation artists with the more technical aspects of their pieces.
On June 15, a symposium related to “Confederacy of Heretics” will unpack some of these issues and their repercussions as they apply to the current batch of L.A.'s homegrown talent, represented by younger (and nonmale, nonwhite) architect panelists and speakers including Barbara Bestor, Annie Chu and Hernan Diaz Alonso.
“A Confederacy of Heretics' ” opening reception is Friday, March 29, at 7 p.m. A discussion of the exhibit is set for Friday, April 5, at 7 p.m., and a symposium takes place Friday, June 14, 3-9 p.m., and Saturday, June 15, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. SCI-Arc Campus, 960 E. Third St., dwntwn.; sciarc.edu.