One thing that outside observers tend to forget about Los Angeles—the people who see it only as a superficial place of image production—is that Los Angeles has a history and a reality all its own. What is sadder is the way in which critics and institutions also seem to suffer from this collective amnesia. That sense that everything exists only in the now of freeways or in the celluloid dreams that will never realized in the Southland’s expanse is prominently, and depressingly, on display in the array of exhibitions on view as part of the second edition of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-funded survey of the arts that this city has produced over the last half century. Focusing on the flash and the frustration of mostly unbuilt projects, these exhibitions manage to ignore what L.A. architecture has contributed—albeit while displaying a delicious banquet of models and drawings across half a dozen venues.
The lack of history is especially surprising as most of the exhibitions are historical, focusing on work that was made from the 1940s on ("Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990" at the Getty), the 1960s and 1970s ("A. Quincy Jones" at the Hammer Museum), the 1970s and 1980s ("Everything Loose Will Land" at the MAK Schindler House and "A Confederacy of Heretics" at the Southern California Institute of Architecture), and the 1980s through the present (the exhibition formerly known as "A New Sculpturalism" at the Museum of Contemporary Art).
The last show, which takes things into the present, is the biggest mess. Not merely for its near cancellation, but just in terms of its mindless sequence of seemingly randomly selected projects, poorly lit and overwhelmed by the Paris tower designed by de facto curator Thom Mayne, FAIA. (Paris? Really? A skyscraper? Really? Why?) Originally conceived by Christopher Mount—who, in good Hollywood manner, receives credit for the conception in the exhibition text—the show fell apart and was rescued, in a manner, by Mayne and his office. Though I am grateful that the exhibition is there, and I found quite a few things to like (or at least to make me nostalgic for the 1980s), the gallery is a mixture of the good, the bad, and the ugly, without any sense of influence, commonality, effect, or quality. It is, quite simply, not a good show.
In that sense, the small presentation at SCI-Arc does much better, even though, or perhaps because, it is even less about the context in which the work appeared. Instead, curators Todd Gannon, Kwan Branda, and Andy Zago start the presentation with an explanation of the arcane formal tricks evident in the drawings and models, from plan rotations to fancy axonometrics. The show is based on the work presented in the short-lived Architecture Gallery of 1979, which managed to show some of the best work then being made in L.A. Architecture Gallery alumni Craig Hodgetts and Robert Mangurian (then working together as Studio Works), Mayne and Michael Rotondi (Morphosis), Eugene Kupper, Roland Coate, Fred Fisher, Frank Dimster, Peter de Bretteville, Eric Moss, and Frank Gehry were and are here again—all present with work that is exquisite in its formal invention, sensual material, and intricate composition. What gives the work more power is that it was a refinement of exactly the complexity, physical landscape, and innovation that made Los Angeles such an exciting place—and one that was difficult to understand.
Like the other exhibitions, "Confederacy" does not explain or show what the work is about. (The show is marred also by too much work by SCI-Arc director Eric Moss.) And that is, I think, the point: The architects of the post-war era created building blocks with which we can and, to a certain extent have, helped make a better human-made environment out of the technology, material, and social landscape that L.A. developed during this period. What is missing, so far, is a taxonomy to clarify what these elements are.