The L.A. Forum for Architecture and Urban Design is 25 years old. As one of the co-founders, I find that an amazing fact, especially given the organization’s ad hoc nature. It was a joy to be able to celebrate the anniversary last Saturday at the Forum’s semipermanent home in Hollywood in the presence of some of the original instigators, as well as of several generations of people who care about architecture and design. The title of the event, the exhibition that accompanied it, and the newspaper the Forum published, was “Unfinished Business,” and it is obvious that, after a quarter of a century, there is still much of that in Southern California.
The forum started when a group of us gathered in the late architect Frank Israel’s office to see if we could convene a reading group. The confab quickly turned into a discussion group, one that loved to argue vociferously about what made L.A. architecture and urbanism so important and, above all, different. As transplanted East Coasters, Christian Hubert, Ben Caffey, John Kaliski, myself, and others, thought that L.A. had a beauty and a history that could not be described by the architecture and urban design terms we had learned beyond the Rockies. We also thought that there were new forms and ways of doing things emerging in Southern California that were radical and important, and deserved to be talked about and shown.
Pretty soon the forum became a real organization, started meeting mainly in the Schindler House, and produced a series of publications on that topic. Doug Suisman analyzed SoCal's roads, Central Office of Architecture mapped it, and Grant Mudford photographed it. We even tried to collect what we thought was the best work in a book, Experimental Architecture in Los Angeles (Rizzoli, 1992). Our lecture series was called “Out There Doing It,” and that is what it felt like: a bunch of mainly young designers out on the Pacific Coast, doing stuff that to many looked way out.
Soon, Ed Soja and Mike Davis gave us a theoretical framework for what we were doing, pointing out the ways in which social and economic power shapes and is shaped by the physical environment. Local architects, starting with Frank Gehry, began to acquire international fame and commissions. L.A. also became less of an outpost and more of switching station between New York, London, and Paris, and between Mexico City, Vancouver, Beijing, Tokyo, and every place else. The forum became more professional, the publications slicker, and the discussions more serious.
Now L.A. is still the place that Craig Hodgetts described in one of the original publications, reprinted in the current pamphlet: “The grids open vistas, frame trivialities and frame inconsistencies –of thoughtless breadth and pragmatic anticipation which has bred, albeit carelessly, the culture of cruising, hatchbacks and convenience corners, which exemplify the present vision of the future city.”
It is true that hybrids have replaced hatchbacks, and that taco trucks, rather than malls, are the new emblems of melting pot. It is also true that L.A. is becoming a place with a mass transit system and even bike plans. But, as the area around the forum event showed, it is also a vital, sleazy, fun, and terrifying mess. There is indeed a great deal of unfinished business for the forum, and I look forward to seeing what they accomplish in the next 25.