Joshua White

How one responds to the exhibition now on view at SCI-Arc may very well depend on the ability to distinguish between a duck and a swan. “The Duck and the Document: True Stories of Postmodern Procedures” begins with a wall-sized construction drawing for a fountain in the forecourt of Michael Graves’ Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel in Orlando. The drawing at first seems to be a graphic representation of Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA’s definition of “duck”: an emblem of architecture’s most valiant form-making impulses.

But Sylvia Lavin, a critic, historian, and UCLA professor who curated the show with independent scholar Sarah Hearne, isn’t interested in exploring postmodernism as a style. Instead, she wants to document the actual process of “postmodernization,” as she calls it: namely, how the 1950s-era explosion of technology, updated building codes, and the waves of political, environmental, and social action began to exert new pressures on architects and how the resulting tension “produced the postmodern.” Says Lavin: “The architect is doing more and more work to maintain autonomy and authority over design, and meanwhile everybody else is also a designer and also emboldened to have opinions and think of them as important.”

In this context, the drawing of Graves’ fountain, shaped in the outline of a bird, is less a duck than what we might call a swan: a representation of the constraints that increasingly shackled architects in the post-war period. The construction details, including the bits of plumbing, reveal that the fountain was hardly the singular expression of a creative genius; rather, the project emerged through a collaboration between architect, engineer, and other team members.

Exhibition view
Joshua White Exhibition view

Today, we are deep into a postmodernism revival, one that to this point has played out mostly in what Lavin dubs “pastel drawings” as well as deliciously consumable types of architectural media: models, photographs, sketches. But “The Duck and the Document” salvages other kinds of artifacts from the dustbin of history, and in keeping with Lavin’s expanded conception of this period, includes examples of late modernism and hippie experimentation. The gallery is filled with actual building fragments and reproduced construction correspondence sourced by graduate students at Princeton University and members of the UCLA Curatorial Project team—thick binders of letters, invoices, and assorted memoranda from the offices of Venturi & Rauch (the duck originators), Charles Moore (Sea Ranch utopian), Mike Reynolds (Earthship pilot), and, of course, Michael Graves.

The exhibition was designed by Los Angeles-based Besler & Sons, which casually juxtaposed the building fragments in the gallery, a move that gives a bit of quirky humor to the found objects now freed from their old context. As precedent for this arrangement, Lavin cites architect John Soane's London home, an overstuffed house museum that doesn’t explain every chunk of entablature or caryatid. The whole is built out of the aggregate: a technique that holds just as true for neoclassical British house as it is for a Dada cut up or a sample-packed hip-hop track.

Wayfinding tubes by Sussman/Prejza from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics
Joshua White Wayfinding tubes by Sussman/Prejza from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics

For example, wall panels from Venturi and Scott Brown’s Best Products Catalog Showroom (constructed in 1978, demolished in 2006) are shown alongside letters, sketches, and Pantone swatches that document Venturi’s losing battle with his fabricator to get the right color spec’d for the building’s façade. Nearby, a window from Bertrand Goldberg Associates’ now-demolished Prentice Women's Hospital and Maternity Center in Chicago stands next to brightly striped sonotubes that Sussman/Prejza created as wayfinding for the 1984 Olympics in L.A.

A collection of additional materials accompany the Prentice window: four framed documents, including an abortion rally flyer and a report from the organization Women Act To Control Healthcare, as well as a supersized computer stress analysis diagram produced by Computer Services Incorporated, a company founded by Bertrand Goldberg. When I initially toured the gallery alone, I had been intrigued by this grouping (I can’t resist a protest poster) but didn’t understand the reason for including it in the show. Later, Lavin explained that the Prentice project was a case study in the clashing of technology and politics. Goldberg, who was committed to women’s health, designed the hospital using early computational analysis and developed a systematic method for maternal care. Coming as the project did at the height of the women’s movement in the 1970s, however, many patients rejected an over-determined approach to their most personal decisions. It is a difficult story to tell, however, without expansive didactic material.

Sea Ranch Supergraphics by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon
Joshua White Sea Ranch Supergraphics by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon

More successfully communicative is the assemblage for Sea Ranch, which presents letters from the office of Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull & Whitaker, salvaged redwood pavers from the first development there, Condominium 1, and original slides of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s supergraphics and building material regulations for the project. (“Colors to be shades of gray, brown, gray-green, and brown-green,” reads one.) There may be a tale here about the production and construction of environmental architecture in the late 1960s, but the more lucid narrative that emerges is one of collaboration. Namely, a 1965 letter from architects Charles Moore and William Turnbull to the Sea Ranch Sales Office protests that Moore’s name was made bigger and bolder than the others in marketing materials. Wrote the architects: “The Sea Ranch has not been the unilateral product of one person but the result of the combined effort of several. It has been this ability to produce notable architecture jointly that separates our office from most others, and the fact that our joint efforts are superior to the efforts of any one of us is something we are proud of.”

A handrail from Eisenman's House 1 and asphalt shingles from the architect's Frog Hollow barn, among other artifacts
Joshua White A handrail from Eisenman's House 1 and asphalt shingles from the architect's Frog Hollow barn, among other artifacts

One of the exhibition's most unexpected artifacts is a white handrail that was salvaged during a 2015 renovation of Peter Eisenman, FAIA’s 1967 House I (also known as Barenholtz House). A corner rail, it is no longer functional, nor is it beautiful. The meager supporting wall text isn’t particularly helpful in explaining the object’s meaning, but Lavin told me that the proportion of the rail was based on the golden section that governs the whole house. Or so the story goes. When she called Eisenman, Lavin says, the architect denied that the project even had a handrail—an apt example of his stubborn resistance to yield to any outside forces (like building codes)

As is the case with the handrail, the stories portrayed by “The Duck and the Document” are decidedly discreet, largely tucked away in thick white binders full of archival facsimiles. Visitors who know this period of architecture intimately might make some of the random connections in the gallery, but most will either need Lavin’s guidance (she gave a lecture at SCI-Arc on opening night) or will simply be content with a close-up look at these found objects. A drawing-room comedy full of historical innuendo and half-whispered asides, the exhibition inspires moments of delight and recognition. But the old PoMo baggage dies hard. Weighted down by the attempt to redefine this period of architecture, the exhibition fails to explain its way to its ambitious goal.