PRINT May 2001

Sam Durant

Self-love and love of others are both modes toward increasing self-valuation and encouraging political resistance in one’s community. These modes of valuation and resistance are rooted in a subversive memory—the best of one’s past without romantic nostalgia . . .
—Cornel West, Nihilism in Black America

No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income.
—Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”

R.M. SCHINDLER’S BETHLEHEM BAPTIST church in South Central LA was built in 1944. It replaced a previous structure that was destroyed by fire. Schindler’s only church, the building is all the more remarkable as the lone example of modernist architecture to cross LA’s economic and racial boundaries during the era of Jim Crow housing covenants.

The Bethlehem Baptist Church has not been restored. And like all built things, it’s disintegrating in slow motion. Exterior elements are rotting and falling off. The paint is peeling; there is graffiti all over the place. Windows are boarded up. There are signs posted on the building: no loitering, no drinking, no gambling. The church is now Pentecostal; it is in process, it’s evolving, it’s living (a hard life to be sure). Christmas lights are strung along the side of the building and turned on for evening services. Inside there are banners and signs quoting scripture. To the left of the pulpit a circle of folding chairs holds a big sheet of plastic that is collecting rainwater.

The Schindler House in West Hollywood has been restored. It is a community meeting place, a site of cultural production, and an educational institution. The house and the church are akin. The Schindler House is a secular equivalent to the Bethlehem Baptist Church, a place of support, hope, and encouragement, each within its community. The house was built as an experiment in communal living (mostly out-of-doors). The roof still leaks, and you still feel that the structure is more tent than house. It was built as a social space as much as a living and working space.

In the eight and a half years since the uprising in LA the Schindler House has been restored and South Central hasn’t changed much. I’ve never been able to separate architecture from thoughts like these. I can’t see buildings as entities disconnected from their conditions. I look at carefully composed period pictures of modernist designs and I wonder, What is not being shown, what is out of the frame? These nostalgic images, reflecting a past that never was, promise a modem lifestyle without conflict. Schindler’s work resists these conditions. The church offers evidence of his commitment to modern architecture’s utopian posture as it quietly lives on and decays, in South LA. Perhaps within Schindler’s own work lie its opposites and its reflections. Could the Bethlehem Baptist Church be the opposite of the Schindler House and its mirror image?

I have a book on Schindler with a recent picture of the church. It does a good job of minimizing the signs of decay, although they are there if you look carefully. But the flowers in the court are in full bloom, the plants are healthy, and the grass is neatly trimmed; the area is cared for. This picture is more accurate than I realized; it shows hope pressing against collapse. To quote Cornel West, it represents the “painful struggle for self-affirming sanity in a history in which the nihilistic threat seems insurmountable.” From a sign on the side of the church: “Adventure into faith, for we walk by faith, not by sight.”

Sam Durant is a Los Angeles-based artist represented by Blum & Poe. He was the subject of James Meyers’s April 2000 Artforum feature “Impure Thoughts.” In the decade since he graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, he has shown extensively throughout the United States and Europe. His work is the subject of a one-person show forthcoming in 2002 at the Kunstverein Düsseldorf.