Credit: Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation

Los Angeles and its relentless sprawl has long been the whipping boy of urbanists and comedians. “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city,” goes the quip regularly attributed to Dorothy Parker (probably incorrectly). A city that, according to the conventional wisdom, sacrifices the public (plazas and pedestrian life) in favor of the private (houses and automobiles). “People don’t think of L.A. as a true urban space because it’s not a place where people can interact easily,” says Spanish architect Andrés Jaque. “I found that there are arenas where you can find urban and political activity. But because they’re not familiar, they’re often disregarded.”

Those disregarded arenas? The very symbol of suburban-ness: the backyard.

In a new exhibit at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) gallery in downtown L.A., Jaque, principal of the Madrid-based practice Andrés Jaque Architects and the Office for Political Innovation, explores the ways in which Angelenos have turned these personal, private spaces into social experiences. “We try to think of gardens as not important, as something ornamental,” he says. “But they contain a great deal of complexity.”

Credit: Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation

This topic—the social and physical spaces that people make for themselves—is something that Jaque has studied in the past. Currently a visiting professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, he has created installations for the Venice Architecture Biennale, the Gwangju Biennale, and the Mies Van Der Rohe Pavilion (in Barcelona). Last September, he staged a performance at the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in New York that explored the ways in which domestic spaces can also serve social and business functions. Ikea Disobedients was the first piece of performance to be acquired by MoMA’s architecture and design department.

For Different Kinds of Water Pouring Into a Swimming Pool, Jaque turned his attention to the home’s outdoor spaces—researching everything from the water systems that surround the celebrity enclave of Malibu to a terraced vegetable garden developed by a Uruguayan immigrant on a freeway embankment in the gentrifying neighborhood of Silver Lake. Jaque analyzed the way in which these purportedly private worlds do double duty as daycare centers, meeting spaces, showcases, retreats, and places of agricultural experimentation.

Most significantly he was drawn to the bits of vernacular design he uncovered along the way, such as the gazebo constructed by a Pasadena couple that traps rainwater, which is then used to water plants and provide drinking water to the neighborhood cats. “Informal architecture doesn’t just happen elsewhere — it’s not just a phenomenon of the developing world,” Jaque says. “It happens right here.”

Credit: Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation
Credit: Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation

The exhibit, which takes its title from a painting by David Hockney, gathers Jaque’s Los Angeles investigations and drawings into a slim book of the same name. The show also features four large gallery installations inspired by the homegrown architecture he saw. This includes a terraced garden made from plastic storage containers filled with tomato plants, herbs, and chilies. The self-watering gazebo is interpreted by totems of artfully-stacked kitchen implements—from punch bowls to funnels—through which several hundred gallons of water are circulated with a system of shower heads and pumps. At the rear of the gallery, a small retreat is crafted out of a mound of laundry baskets.

The show explores Jaque’s primary interest in architecture—which has less to do with buildings than the social institutions that sprout up around them. “For me, it is vital that architecture not just be about containers, but about ecosystems,” he explains. “When you design something, you are shaping social possibilities. The best way to understand that is to see how people construct their ordinary lives. Architects should be allies and accomplices in this.”

Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation

Ruth Estévez, the gallery director and curator at REDCAT, says she was drawn to Jaque’s work specifically because of this bottom-up approach. “He doesn’t see architecture as a static thing,” she says. “He really wants to know how people live, how they make their own architecture.” In the process, he is unraveling the ways in which the concept of public spaces might take on different shades of meaning in a city like Los Angeles.

Ultimately, what makes a city like Los Angeles so intriguing to Jaque is the very aspect for which it is most criticized: its sprawl. “It’s not a soup—the ingredients don’t mix,” he says. “You can feel like you’re in Latin America or China or Japan. The diversity stays alive. Architects and urbanists have a lot to learn from that.”

Credit: Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation

Different Kinds of Water Pouring into a Swimming Pool is on view at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles through November 24.