Kirsten Kiser—architect, architectural curator, gallerist, bon vivant, and founder of Arcspace, one of architecture’s first webzines—died on October 20 in her native Denmark, having pursued a peripatetic career in architecture as original as any of the buildings she championed. Kiser, 78, was a victim of cancer.
In the 1980s, before most Los Angeles architects understood that their drawings and models had artistic value, she opened and ran her eponymous architecture gallery on La Brea, in a blizzard-white storefront gallery surrealistically sited right next to a ghostly, skeletal concrete factory. The gallery established a market for architectural art, and it caused a sensation that galvanized the architecture community: the crowds that descended on her openings usually spilled out the door. In 1988, making no small plans, she invited 14 of the world’s most famous architects to design that icon of Southern California, the lifeguard tower, and exhibited their fantastical, speculative models and drawings—all designed to code—in her gallery.
“Kiki was part of the scene, supporting the architects and their conceptual thinking,” Thom Mayne, FAIA, told me, adding that he paid his rent back then by selling drawings. “She had a great eye, and had the perseverance to put together a complicated gallery. She made it happen. She was very much part of what was going on in L.A. at the time.”
In 1990, Kiser organized a variant of the lifeguard tower idea in an old orchard of a Copenhagen suburb, but this time with real structures: about 15 architects built pavilions inspired by the garden cottages that Danes constructed next to their private garden plots. With this architecture park, called “Kolonihaven,” Richard Meier, FAIA, Enric Miralles, Arata Isozaki, Hon. FAIA, and Dominique Perrault, Hon. FAIA, among others, contributed avant-garde architectural energy to a city that had been recently named the European cultural capital.
Building on her career as a cultural entrepreneur, Kiser understood early on the power of the internet to mediate and broadcast architecture, and in 1999 she founded Arcspace, a webnews pioneer of the dot-com boom. She wrote, photographed, curated, and disseminated thousands of articles, short and long, curating an always fresh, up-to-date webzine that became one of architecture’s most highly trafficked sites. When she was in Los Angeles, she produced this one-woman journalistic miracle poolside, bivouacking at the Beverly Hills Plaza Hotel (Suite 540), dining on sushi. Arcspace helped catalyze an international architectural community in the same way that her gallery, in the thick of Hollywood, had focused Los Angeles’ architects a dozen years before.
Comfortable operating behind the scenes, Kiser sought little name recognition in the field. The irony was that she had come to New York as a young Danish beauty and worked as a model in the legendary Ford Modeling Agency, where high-profile visibility was the coin of the realm. As a young, demure blonde, Kiser graced the covers of Mademoiselle and Seventeen.
She gave up her modeling career when she moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s. With her husband, Tony Kiser, who ran Columbia Pictures, she was soon hosting Hollywood’s beau monde, the two of them gliding like a golden couple in a Fitzgerald novel through their Art Deco masterpiece, the Dolores del Rio house in Rustic Canyon, designed by the famed art director Cedric Gibbons for his wife. According to Caroline Graham, a friend of the Kisers and a former editor of Vanity Fair and Talk, “Ali Magraw, Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, and Dennis Hopper would have been guests at the parties.” There were picnics under beautiful trees, eerie Helmut Newton art shots on the tennis court with a defiant Kiki modeling on the court, nude. “It was like an ongoing film,” said Graham. “She lived at the edge of the Warhol, Irving Blum. and Helmut Newton world, at the edge of things happening at that time. Kiki was an unexpected woman.”
Meanwhile, in the same house where Cedric Gibbons had designed an elaborate, well-organized dressing table for his left-handed wife, the new chatelaine, Kiser, was at the drafting table instead of the make-up table, designing buildings. Inspired by the architecture of her house, she had enrolled at the Southern California Institute of Architects when it was still nearby in Santa Monica, where she earned her architecture degree in 1978. After SCI-Arc, she practiced in New York until she returned to Los Angeles and opened her gallery. Only a few other galleries and museums were paying much attention to architectural drawings and models: Max Protetch in New York, Kristin Feireiss in Berlin, and Mildred Friedman at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Architects trusted Kiser: she understood them and their work.
From her bicontinental addresses in Los Angeles and Copenhagen, she was soon branching out, pioneering the “studio” show, in which she simulated the design pen in architectural offices by displaying the models and drawings of the whole messy process by which a single building gets designed. “She took one building, the business school for Case Western, and filled a whole room at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark with models, showing the real depth of the investigation,” says Frank Gehry, FAIA, recalling “Architect’s Studio” (1999-2000), a traveling exhibition. “It was the first time a show explained how I work. She nailed it. She took one project from the beginning to the end, to the final building. I loved the show. Everybody did. I guess people are mystified by what I build but it’s not a mystery. I just put one foot in front of the other. She demystified it and made it real.”
There were plenty of other shows, including “Santiago Calatrava: The Architect’s Studio,” a major exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. But wherever she was, she fed the voracious appetite of Arcspace: writing, shooting, editing. “She never monetized Arcspace,” notes Kristen Richards, a friend and co-conspirator and collaborator who herself founded the webzine and newsletter ArchNewsNow, at about the same time Kiser founded her site. “Kiki had boundless energy, a warm heart, a great laugh, and a generous spirit.”
In 2012, Kiser sold Arcspace to the Danish Architecture Center, where for many years she had worked as a curator. She remained an active contributor to the webzine.
“Kiki was smart, respectful, and beautiful,” says Gehry. “And she got it. She knew what was art and architecture. She was on it.”