PRINT October 1990


California Architecture

I finally got to swim in one of those pools where you dive down through an underwater opening, swim along a passage, and surface in a totally different space. I’d been dreaming of that kind of pool since I was a child, and it turned out to be just as fantastic as I always knew it would be.

Architectural dreams come true in L.A. Moments after my swim, I went walking with Richard Meier along the ridge of the mountaintop site of the museum and study center he is designing for the Getty Trust. The Getty was the dream commission of the 1980s—the apex of a fabulous decade of museum architecture—and the site is a dream site: the best place in the most dynamic city on the most beautiful planet we know of in the year 1990. By 1997, Meier’s design—really a whole campus of buildings—will gleam above the smog like a heavenly city.

But on our walk Meier told me of another dream: he’d like to be accepted as a “California architect.” An odd desire—a bit like a president of the United States wanting to be “Washingtonian”—and though sincere, half-hearted. After all, Meier’s main office is still in New York, he has projects going up all over the world, and while he employs 45 people in his California office, following his example most of them wear white shirts and ties to work.

But who wouldn’t want to be a California architect right now? You don’t have to be on a mountaintop to see that L.A. architects enjoy a prestige comparable in the scheme of things to that of artists in New York. They design the restaurants and command some of their finest tables. They may not have the clout of movie tycoons, but they are often called upon to provide the aura of cultural significance to which “the industry” still aspires.

And architecture is still inflected with the industry’s aura of fantasy. Craig Hodgetts’ beautiful recent work, which conceptually explores the expansion of film companies into large-scale real-estate development, adds a new chapter that began in the 1920s with dream housing for silent stars. At the recent opening of Frank Israel’s offices for Bright & Associates, in a complex formerly occupied by the studios of Charles and Ray Eames, some guests were heard grumbling that the new design was insufficiently faithful to the Eames’ industrial esthetic. What industry did they have in mind? The dream of architecture here is a dream of casting off the idea that it is architecture’s job to ground us in reality. Frank Gehry’s fish—fish out of water, fins flashing in the sky—is the perfect symbol for this city that is a mirage in the desert, an oasis signifying water that does not exist.

It’s easy to see why Meier, with his rational, sächlich (neuter) forms, doesn’t quite fit in. One of the original purist “Whites” confronted by the populist “Grays” in an early post-Modern skirmish of the 1970s, Meier has little sympathy for aficionados of Southern California’s pop culture. To him, the best California architecture remains that of Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Frank Lloyd Wright, and certainly an architect working in that tradition was an ideal choice for this commission. Moving from the “post-Modernism” of the present Getty in Malibu to Meier’s Modernism may turn chronology upside-down, but it also signifies how solidly Modernism has taken its place in history. Conceptually as well as physically, his complex of refined, metal-paneled buildings will claim the high ground for that vision of civilization which it is the Getty’s declared mission to uphold.

But wasn’t it part of the Modern idea to come down from the mountain and mingle with the folks? Well, not to I. M. Pei, apparently. His new offices for Creative Artists Agency on Wilshire Boulevard may not be on a mountaintop, but with its facades of repellent slick marble punctuated by square windows of reflective glass, the building is as intimidating as Everest. CAA is no dream pool: plunge through the doors and you come up in exactly the same place that has awed you to headaches in countless Pei buildings around the world. Roy Lichtenstein’s huge cartoon version of Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus Staircase would almost redeem CAA’s interior if only the building knew that it, too, is a caricature. In place of Schlemmer’s “Das Triadische Ballett” (Triadic ballet), we are greeted by a trio of disembodied receptionist’s heads bobbing above a marble counter. What a welcome for “creative artists.”

Perhaps to be a “California architect” is to see how far down the staircase you can slide without losing your grip—or your mind. If the Getty occupies the high ground, surely the lowest point—so low it’s located in San Diego, 100 miles to the south—is Horton Plaza, Jon Jerde’s fiesta marketplace. That distance may account for the enchantment it holds for so many L.A. architects now. This is Happy Face architecture, the pastels, flags, fairy lights, and fountains laid on so thick you suspect cynicism, though probably only conviction could pull off this spectacle. And behind the Happy Face there’s even a Happy Social Conscience; at least, I took the agricultural nomenclature of the parking levels—carrot, pepper, etc.—for a Smiley tribute to the migrant workers who figure so problematically in the social picture here.

But for all its populism, Horton shares with Pei’s building the problem of insularity. The Happy Fountain at the entrance to the complex is nearly as disruptive to the urban fabric as a blank wall turned to the city would be. Neither project brings cohesion to the cityscape. This was the issue explored by “Recycling L.A.,” a show of projects by six young L.A. architects and firms curated by Barbara Goldstein. First organized for Artists Space in New York, the show was worth seeing a second time when it went on view this summer at L.A.’s Municipal Art Gallery—like the Getty, a hilltop monument, initially designed (by Wright in 1919) as an outpost of civilization in Southern California.

L.A. may be a fata morgana, but as these (fantasy) projects remind us, the people are real, the problems are real, and while there isn’t much architects con do directly to address the economic hardships of migrant workers or the quality of air and water, the city’s visual disorder is a problem traditionally subject to amelioration by architectural means. Thus Pico and La Brea Hiring Site, a project by Heather Kurze, Kathleen A. Lindstrom, and Paige Norris, uses a minimal vocabulary of poles, street signs, and even shadows to create a sense of place at a forlorn intersection where day laborers assemble to find work. The Central Office of Architecture proposed a street wall for Miracle Mile, a desolate stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, to tidy up a street-scape of unused public plazas; slits through the wall allow views of the street’s former fragmentation. Janek Bielski’s whimsical Urban Mission envisions the city’s diversity formalized in a metropolis of city-states, some no bigger than a block, each providing refuge for a different special-interest group.

Of course, as the entire show demonstrated, architecture is itself a special interest: a form of thought applied to connecting parts with the whole. But how can you stitch together parts of a dream? And why try? The disconnectedness of L.A. accounts for much of its grandeur, provided you are in a car. Then the moment arrives when the illusion breaks. You are hurtling through the carpet housing, the Plex-plex offices towers of Orange County, and terror strikes: night is falling on the planet before we have managed to make a home here, and no car, no radio station, no cassette booming on the Delco sound system can restore one’s grip on the wheel. One has the sense, then, of Gehry, Morphosis, Israel, and the others as equivalent to Hudson River painters, operating in a man-made-world version of the natural sublime, reducing its terror by compressing this vast, disjointed panorama into compositions suitable for dwelling. If architects can only control the isolated plot of land, they can at least make the plot continuous with the discontinuities that lie beyond and everywhere.

Of course, there would be no point for Richard Meier to attempt that kind of compression at the Getty; by itself, the site harnesses Niagara. And indeed Meier himself may be more useful as symbolic outsider; his aloof, Modern purity helps conceal the profound conservativism of his hipper colleagues, the extent to which, for all its true boldness, California architecture continues to operate in that transcendent space honored at the Getty. The acceptance, the celebration, of urban fragmentation only continues in new forms the architect’s traditional concern for the overarching values of unity, order, and cohesion. To be a California architect is to be an architect after all: to inject the extraordinary into everyday life, to conserve the mind by using it

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism of the Parsons School of Design, New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.