We stand on the threshold of a post-organic landscape we already know but cannot see, with induction hums instead of mechanical rattles, the secret interiors of solid-state diodes instead of the livid glow of the vacuum tube, the seamless box instead of the bottled contraption.
With that image of a future in which communications and computing technology would bring about a world of iPhones and crystal city skyscrapers, streamlined forms from grips to cars to cities, and a mysterious interconnection of energy that binds all that and us together, the architect Craig Hodgetts, FAIA—writing way back in 1970—pretty accurately predicted the reality we inhabit today. He might not have foreseen the remaining messiness and the ephemeral quality that the digital turn and the emergence of a hyper-object world has created, but he did understand that we would indeed, as the title of his essay indicates, live in a “Synthetic Landscape.”
The observation is one the hyper-productive author, editor, and section head at Ohio State University’s Knowlton School, Todd Gannon, AIA, has collected in an array of Hodgetts' writing entitled Swimming to Suburbia and Other Essays, published by ORO Editions in 2018. (Full disclosure: I once worked for Hodgetts and his wife and partner, Hsinming Fung, FAIA, and they have remained close friends.)
Born in Cincinnati, Hodgetts has spent most of his life being the Los Angeles-based and -inspired bad boy of architecture. Trained first as an automotive designer and then as an architect at Yale—where he came under the sway of the architect he still admires most, James Stirling—Hodgetts remained fascinated by cars, gizmos, and tools. But he was equally in love with movies, cartoons, and anything science fiction, letting those extra-architectural visions inspire his work as much as his thorough knowledge of both the technology of building and its history. While pursuing commissions, first with Robert Mangurian as Studio Works, and then with Fung as Hodgetts + Fung Architects (which recently merged into Seattle-based Mithun), he kept producing a stream of ideas and stories, including several movie scripts and set designs, while teaching at schools such as CalArts, SCI-Arc, and UCLA.
In all of this work, Hodgetts has kept arguing for an approach to architecture that is both pragmatic and narrative. As he said in the essay “Object Lesson: Four Short-End Views” for ARCHITECT’s predecessor Progressive Architecture in 1973 and collected in this volume:
The pragmatist employs one set of objects to ventilate the space, another to light it, and a third to fill it with atmospheric sound with the proper reverberation time. His buildings have the erasable qualities of magnetic tape. Always adjusting image to content, configuration to information flow, his buildings are conceived as a field of environmental controls, supporting a range of activities in a loose-fitting matrix, rather than fitting a single activity into a customized mold. The luxury of exclusively formal constraints, like the luxury of couturier clothing, is only for those who can afford it.
He was part of the gang of designers, which, in addition to Mangurian, included architects such as Thom Mayne, FAIA, Michael Rotondi, FAIA, Eric Owen Moss, FAIA, and Coy Howard, who brought their tinkering, hot-rod-loving, improvisational approach to what soon came to be known as the LA School of architecture. As Mayne once told me: “If the British high-tech guys are the researchers in lab coats, we’re the mechanics with dirty overalls sliding under the car.” This is how Hodgetts describes it, referencing his generation’s adaptation of European forms:
The svelte, disciplined fuselages of the Italian machinery didn’t look right—they didn’t somehow express the American fascination with machinery as an instrument of change. But in no time, the kids found just the thing to hop up all that classy Italian machinery. They removed the engine, a marvelous construction of polished manifolds and monogrammed bolts, and replaced it with a domestic V-8. The resulting machine, with a super light chassis and tuned up power plant, was the prototype for most of the avant-garde architecture of the ’60s—and a lot easier to maintain than the twenty-four overhead valves that came with a Ferrari.
Just souping up architecture was not enough for Hodgetts, though. He felt our cities needed actors, a plot, and a motivation as much as anything else. As he said in his 1992 take on MTV (back when it still actually showed music videos):
Imaginative control of the context, particularly in the construction of convincing replicas of long-ago places or never-to-be fantasies permeates the creation an ephemeral world which often supplants the “architectural” backdrop. There are no exceptions. Automobiles, window displays, street signs, reflections, even the trash on the street, become active design elements in a filmic tradition that requires the designer to consider every item within the pictorial frame.
It was in his beloved Los Angeles where he found that filmic landscape, composed of both working and cast-off technologies, and of moments of sense (neighborhoods) that zoomed out on freeways to other places of inhabitation or jump-cut to shopping malls. Over the years, he designed countless proposals for the city, all of which moved beyond standard forms and hierarchies. His model for and in LA was, as he described it in the title essay of this volume, Venice Beach:
The beach is benign, providing equal accommodations for all—so long as you’ve got your umbrella, your radio, and your suntan oil. As a city metaphor, it suggests a benevolent framework which replaces hierarchies, haves and have-nots, towers, and centers, with a uniform network of services and delights. It provides an invisible structure without visible corollaries to the activities which it is able to sustain. The beach and, by extension, Los Angeles, is a new city, frustrating to architects and planners who seek correspondence between physical form and tradition, but perfectly suited to [sic] generative moment.
In 1979, he brought it all together and produced what I think is still his most visionary work, a proposed movie version of Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia, which had come out four years before that. Callenbach and Hodgetts (in drawings collected here) imagined a Pacific Coast that had seceded from the United States and had turned into a world of self-organizing and -sustaining communities. Hodgetts’ drawings showed cable cars across San Francisco Bay and towers festooned with solar collectors rising on the ridges of mountains. In 1990, he and Fung collaborated with author William Gibson to develop his vision of a city of migrants living on the abandoned Bay Bridge, a proposal that found its way into the 1995 movie Johnnie Mnemonic (and, if you look carefully enough, into the recent Ready Player One).
His model as an architect, other than “Big Jim” Stirling and utopian visionary and set designer Syd Mead (with whom Hodgetts co-wrote a book on the latter’s work), was John Lautner:
The gusto Lautner brings to a job, the relaxed rhythm of plugged railroad ties, exposed welds, and rough concrete reminds one mostly of mine-works and industrial yards; the floating, extra-terrestrial planes suggest a desert mirage, not the Pantheon; the exaggerated geometry and hip-hop gestures infer recklessness, not historical calculations.
Not only that, but “[i]n Lautner’s best work, it is not only the eye of the designer and the mind of the engineer, but the imagination of a storyteller at play.”
Hodgetts never was able to make any of the movies he dreamed of, but he did manage to produce promissory notes for them in exhibition designs for landmark exhibitions such as Blueprints for Modern Living, in such buildings as the Temporary Powell Library at UCLA, and, more recently, in a series of arts and performance spaces around Los Angeles. However much he might have felt frustrated in trying to sell his ideas to an often elitist L.A. set of clients, he kept dreaming and scheming, coming up not only with building designs, but also ideas for modular kits for the LA public school system, for instance. He remains an avid tinkerer and pragmatist, a self-proclaimed outlaw in Lautner’s model:
After all, the era of the cowboy is over. The urban condition more often demands the Blade Runner instinct than that of the guy in the white hat who rides slowly into the sunset. Lautner gave it his all, and we should be grateful to him for paving the way for a new generation of outlaws.”
Swimming to Suburbia should give license to a whole new group of designers to follow that path.