While the idea that Los Angeles has no history is a crude caricature—one not infrequently sketched out by people who wish their own cities had a little more going on in the present day—it would certainly be fair to say that L.A. hasn’t always tended especially well to its past. We have ignored the work of certain artists and architects and destroyed the work of others. We have whitewashed important figures and communities in a figurative sense and important murals in a literal one. We have fostered a culture, relentlessly fixated on churning progress and expansion, that produces what the writer Norman Klein has called “collective forgetting.” Paraphrasing Italo Calvino, Klein describes Los Angeles as “a city incapable of holding a memory, or a shape, rather like a bad battery unable to hold a charge.”
Just as important, the informal, ad hoc, and even improvisational nature of so much art—and especially architecture—in Los Angeles has made both documenting and preserving our cultural heritage especially difficult. A modern house made of plywood and inexpensive aluminum-frame windows, clinging to a steep hillside, isn’t simply an alternative to the monumentality of East Coast and European architecture; it’s also a challenge to the idea of permanence, to the business of conservation, and even to the state of cultural record keeping. The same could be said of structures both markedly ambitious and designed to be temporary, of which Los Angeles has built an unusually large number over the last century, by architects and designers including Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, FAIA, Jon Jerde, Deborah Sussman, and the husband-and-wife team of Craig Hodgetts, FAIA, and Ming Fung, AIA.
For all those reasons, “Pacific Standard Time” (PST), a series of exhibitions, publications, and public events on the art and architecture of 20th-century Los Angeles, has brought about a sea change in how the city frames (and markets) its own cultural history. Conceived and largely funded by the Getty Foundation, PST launched in 2011 with a focus on the postwar art movements of Southern California. It returned two years later with a collection of exhibitions on the region’s experiments, spanning the years 1945 to 1980, in modern architecture.
A Hall of Mirrors
This fall, the third iteration of the series, “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA,” takes a wide-ranging look at the traffic in art, architecture, and other fields between Los Angeles and Latin America. Propelled by $16 million in Getty Foundation funding and the product of nearly four full years of planning, it in certain ways is the most ambitious PST effort yet—and not simply because it involves 70 different cultural institutions, from heavyweights such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to lesser-known locales including the Torrance Art Museum and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, as well as another 65 commercial galleries.
Conceptually, too, the series is taking a bigger leap this time, attempting to grapple with the hall-of-mirrors cultural relationship that has existed for several centuries between Southern California and Latin America. That means the pre-Hispanic art and architecture of the Maya and the Aztecs and how it has been repurposed by artists both Anglo and Latin is as much fodder for the new round of exhibitions as the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture that began to spread across Los Angeles a century ago or the Chicano art movements that first gained notice in the 1970s. Given the extent to which our border with Mexico emerged as a primary theme—arguably the primary theme—of last year’s presidential race, exploring the historical roots of this north–south relationship is also, unmistakably, a political act.
One major contention of “PST: LA/LA” is how deeply established this cultural conversation is, how many twists and turns it has taken; in that sense the series also becomes, inevitably, a commentary on the relationship between west and east, which to say it makes clear just how much more in common Los Angeles has with Latin America, in terms of history, language, art, architecture, music, and food, than it has with the East Coast of the United States.
There are several museum and gallery shows that focus directly on architecture and design, and dozens more that include significant references to architecture or artworks with architectural themes. Many of those exhibitions hadn’t opened when this article appeared in the October issue of ARCHITECT, but enough had to suggest a pretty clear sense of the role architecture plays in this installment of the Getty series. Unlike the first two editions, which largely ignored the period before World War II, this one can’t help but extend deeper into the past, preoccupied as so many of the shows are with the various regimes—Spanish, Mexican, independent, the U.S.—that have ruled over Southern California, not to mention the ways in which nostalgia for the Spanish period produced the varied revivalism of the 1920s in L.A., with its simultaneous infatuation with Mission architecture and Spanish palaces.
In a broader sense, the shows serve to deepen—and in much-needed ways to complicate—our understanding of the trajectory of Southern California architecture over the last century. The ways in which our buildings were shaped by the region’s Latin inheritance, and how that inheritance has been undermined, rejected, pre-empted, or remade by the most talented and ambitious architects to work here, has never been especially well understood, even by historians, critics, and designers who’ve spent their entire careers in Los Angeles.
What is the relationship between Wright’s pre-Columbian experiments in residential architecture in 1920s Los Angeles and the handsome Spanish Colonial Revival villas of Gordon Kaufmann, Myron Hunt, or George Washington Smith? How much Latin American influence can we detect in the Modernism of R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, or Irving Gill? Why does interest in the Mexico City architect Luis Barragán (1902–88) remain strong in the United States when the work of his compatriot Juan O’Gorman (1905–82) is so little known? Are there threads, historical through-lines, connecting that work from the early 20th century with the better-known Los Angeles architecture of the postwar decades, the buildings that put L.A. on the design map in a global sense? Taken together, the “PST: LA/LA” exhibitions sketch out some fascinating answers to these questions, suggesting a more coherent connection between prewar, largely Latin American–centric revivalism and postwar Modernism in L.A. architecture than we have acknowledged up until now.
An Eye to Mexico
The exhibition that tackles these questions most directly is LACMA’s “Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico, 1915–1985" (on display until Apr. 1, 2018). Organized by LACMA’s Wendy Kaplan and Staci Steinberger, the exhibition, as Kaplan writes in the remarkably well-illustrated catalog, “explores interconnections essential for understanding the material culture of Mexico and California in the twentieth century. … [E]ach place has found a more distinct voice through ‘translations’ of the other.”
Among the most important revelations in this intelligent and wide-ranging show, whose installation was designed by Frederick Fisher, AIA, and is squeezed into fewer square feet of LACMA’s Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA–designed Resnick Pavilion than it deserves, is that California architects designing prominent Spanish Colonial Revival buildings in the 1910s and 1920s were often looking more closely at Mexican sources than Spanish ones. For example, the model for Bertram Goodhue’s exuberant Churrigueresque-style California building at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, a legendary design in the annals of the Spanish Colonial style in Southern California, was a parish church, Santa Prisca y San Sebastián, in Taxco, Mexico.
Day of the Dead, by Charles and Ray Eames
Chronologically, the exhibition stretches all the way through the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, contrasting the design of those Olympics (by Jerde and the Eames office alumna Sussman) with the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. In between it explores the way L.A.’s first important architecture critic, Esther McCoy, promoted the work of O’Gorman and other Mexican modernists in both the Los Angeles Times and Arts & Architecture magazine. It also includes fascinating material on the 1957 film Day of the Dead by Charles and Ray Eames, the influence of Mexican arts and crafts on the sculpture of Ruth Asawa, and the ways in which Maya, Aztec, and other pre-Columbian design motifs were borrowed first by American architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and his son, Lloyd, and later by a number of Chicano political activists. Xavier Viramontes’ famous “Boycott Grapes” poster of 1973, in support of the United Farm Workers, featured a formidable pre-Columbian figure, a dripping bunch of crushed grapes in each of his clenched fists.
On the top floor of LACMA’s other Piano building, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, is installed another PST exhibition with strong architectural overtones. “Home—So Different, So Appealing” (on display until Oct. 15), which takes its title from an arch-ironic 1956 collage by British artist Richard Hamilton, brings together work by more than three dozen Latino and Latin-American artists on the subjects of domesticity, residential architecture, and the American Dream. Given that the subset of the American Dream that involves homeownership has long been inseparable from the idea of Los Angeles (this is the place, as everybody knows, of bungalows, glass boxes, and backyard swimming pools), the show is mining an especially deep vein; the focus on Latin American artists adds a layer of symbolism involving immigration and domestic labor. Among the standout pieces are “Under Discussion,” a video by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla that shows a man circumnavigating the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in a motorboat made of a dining room table flipped upside down, and “Excision,” by the Colombian artist Leyla Cárdenas, which consists of an almost impossibly thin slice of a Bogotá living room, from a house built in 1886, displayed in the center of the gallery, with each of its layers, from moldings to various coats of paint, separated out for close inspection like the wings of a butterfly in a lepidopterist’s display.
“A Country Condemned to be Modern”
Though not the biggest of the PST shows with links to architecture, “Condemned to be Modern,” on view until Jan. 27, 2018, at the Municipal Art Gallery (MAG) next door to Wright’s Barnsdall (aka Hollyhock) House, packs a serious punch. The MAG, operated like Barnsdall by the city of Los Angeles, scored a major coup in landing the show’s curator, Clara Kim, moonlighting from her day job at the Tate Modern in London. She’s organized an exhibition featuring work—some of it a few years old, some of it brand new—by Latin American artists who take modernist architecture, and often modernist state architecture, as subject matter. Its title is borrowed from the Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa, who used the phrase to describe the peculiar architectural conditions of Brasília, his nation’s just-add-water capital. (“We are a country condemned to be modern,” he lamented.) In that sardonic spirit, the work in the show suggests the ways in which architectural modernity, as well as the economic variety, was often imposed on Latin American cities from the outside, less an inheritance than a kind of straitjacket.
Yet it doesn’t stop there. The most affecting pieces in the exhibition suggest the tenderness with which many Latin Americans now see the decaying, sometimes abandoned products of that colonizing Modernism, and how much of it is now ripe for rediscovery by a new generation of artists and architects. In cases where the modern architecture was genuinely homegrown rather than forced on a subject nation, the tenderness can become nearly impossible to bear, as in a multimedia installation by the Cuban artist Felipe Dulzaides called “Water Runs.” The work stars Cuba’s vaulted, red-brick National Art Schools, designed in a burst of utopianism in the early stages of the Cuban Revolution by Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti, and Roberto Gottardi. Dulzaides cleans the brick gutters of the ballet school with a hose, nudging out the leaves that have clogged them, and then films water as it trickles down roofs and across wide plazas. It’s an act of archaeology, hopefulness, and palliative care all at once, touchingly highlighting a group of buildings that hover near death.
And it suggests that the role of PST extends well beyond the scholarly or historical. The series has grown flexible enough to include the sort of humanizing portraits of architectural experimentation that only an artist can provide.