There's a seven minute long video projected on the back wall of the A+D Architecture and Design Museum's recently opened exhibit, “S, M, L, XL, L.A.,” in which, from a driver's point of view, the viewer is catapulted along a series of freeways from the Port of L.A. out to both valleys. Every few seconds along the way the trip freezes on one frame just long enough for text to pop up and call out passing geographical highlights just beyond the freeway's walls. The very general hit list includes “Glendale,” “Vincent Thomas Bridge,” “118 Freeway,” “downtown.” We rarely see any of the landmarks or context.
Evan Mather's video is a playful and polished drive-by, quick and audience-friendly — a fitting analogy for the exhibit and its featured group of young designers. The exhibit uses dutch architect Rem Koolhaas' 1995 book, S, M, L, XL, as its thematic prompt, asking them to explore issues of scales and sizes. Participants work across many disciplines, in jewelry making, fabrication, multimedia displays, video, animation, environmental design, textile design, digital media, landscape, lighting and, yes, even some architecture.
“Many of these practices started in L.A. within the last 5 years,” says curator Danielle Rago “and we're providing a platform for them at this early stage of exploration.” This kind of exposure is key to young careers too, she explains, since most architects aren't at their peak until 40 or maybe even 50 years of age.
At the opening, the group FIELDWORK (Maya Santos and Rani de Leon) combined historical re-created within the museum one of L.A.'s little-known gay-friendly “safe districts” of 1930s downtown. Attendees were invited to scrawl graffiti and messages across a door that led to a re-imagined, red-lit “hook-up” room.
Similarly, another group, Los Angeles Arts Collective (who design environmental graphics, signage and projections for events), ambush the actual women's and men's bathrooms of the space, occupying them with a spectacle of glam silver wall graphics that blur the line between the public space of the exhibit and the private space of the loo, making for some awkward interactions. (Overheard: “Pardon me guys, could I step in there and take a piss?”)
Out in the main space, the brother and sister team of architect Matthew Rosenberg and sculptor Leah Rosenberg's colorful rubber tube-covered lounger, entitled Bench Press, had opening party audiences splayed over its surprisingly comfortable protrusions that are fixed to an oblong, memory foam cushion. The piece changes slowly throughout a day, retaining visitors' imprint long after they've moved on. (See photo below.)
Objets d'architecture, from Grey Crowell's organization the Foundation for Architecture and Design, invited attendees to sit down and pen a drawing that the designers will then convert to model form using various fabrication techniques: The little models will populate the museum's space as the show continues through August. Jonathan Louie's Cut, Bend, Fold, Score invites visitors to manipulate pre-drawn templates from Koolhaas' book with straight edges and xacto blades, and to riff off of others' work and create their own designs (under the close watch of whoever is manning the museum's front desk). Like the Foundation for Art and Architecture's models, these creations will also fill the museum space until the show closes.
Steven Christensen and Mads Christensen's ZOOM is easily the most resolved and architectural piece in the show, and simultaneously fits each size mentioned in the title “S, M, L, XL.” The matte black, faceted and rock-like looking object stands about 8 feet tall with its back to the main space, while at the other side facing the wall, one slice through its side reveals the glossy black interior of the piece. Inside, glowing bands of white and purple light scan across the surfaces and overhead, compliments of Mads Christensen's skewed LCD displays – the space inside has about enough room for two people to enjoy the show.
Steven Christensen, an architect who works often with digital display artist Mads Christensen (no relation), likens ZOOM to the experience of seeing a mineral or a gem through a microscope. “As you zoom in, you see more and more definition,” says Steven Christensen.
The metaphor works. As one approaches the exterior skin of the piece, a finely etched line pattern across the surface comes into view, while the video displays within hint at a larger set of imagery playing out elsewhere – but the viewer inside only receives a glimpse.
“There’s a vibrancy and a playfulness across the board with this group,” says Christensen, “and we all have an awareness of audience.” He adds, “I think there’s been a lot of gloom and doom over the first part of our careers too,” he says, alluding to the economic downturn. “Maybe we’re just breaking out from that.”
Whether breaking out from an economic or disciplinary malaise, the young designers of “S, M, L, XL, L.A.” separate themselves from older generations in their cheekiness and desire to promote public interaction. But like their forebears they've become a formidable pack of self-promoters. Last year's “On the Road Projects” series of pop-up events, organized by curator Rago, two of “S, M, L, XL, L.A.”'s participants (Jonathan Louie and James M. Tate) and Courtney Coffman, also featured young architects and designers in light-hearted guerrilla happenings across the region. For example, they set up their own exhibit in U-Haul trucks outside of another exhibit that featured older, more established architects — the “New Sculpturalism” show at MOCA.
Using equal parts humor and subversion, these architects have established themselves an alternative to the older (and white, straight, male) “dinosaurs” of L.A. architecture who do still get the commissions and press. (Think Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne, but also to a lesser extent Michael Maltzan, Greg Lynn and Neil Denari).
When asked how a take on an older Dutch architect's work, a film, or a glittered-up bathroom could initiate a change for L.A.'s brick and mortar architecture, Rago says, “The impact of these emerging practices on the city is yet to be determined,” she adds, “but what's happening among this group is a strong indication of what's to come.”
The group assembled for “S, M, L, XL, L.A.” no doubt possesses the creative fervor and energetic capacity to grow collectively. Whether they ultimately change L.A. depends on whether or not they keep it together long enough to follow through.
(Full disclosure: The author participated in one of the On the Road events).
“S, M, L, XL, L.A.” continues through August 31 at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum.More info at aplusd.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the relationship between Matthew Rosenberg and Leah Rosenberg. They are brother and sister, not husband and wife.
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