Their declarations of independence

The 1970s and 1980s were an odd, freewheeling and sometimes combative golden age for Los Angeles architecture. During those two decades, a handful of young designers, each trying do his own thing with as much stubborn independence as possible, managed to come together as a loose band of self-styled mavericks.

The members of what became known as the L.A. School — Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, Frank Gehry, Eric Owen Moss, Coy Howard, Franklin Israel and others — tried to incorporate the political and social ideals of the 1960s into their practices. They often cited visual artists as their main source of inspiration, lest anyone think they actually learned from one another. ("The first time I heard of Frank Gehry I was 38 years old," Mayne once said.) And they took pride in the fact that they spent more time building than talking about building — in contrast to their counterparts on the East Coast and in Europe, who seemed to be drowning in theory.

The result was a cowboy intellectualism new to architecture, an approach that like a Sam Shepard play was chaotic, provocative and studied all at once, that both built upon and sent up clichés about masculinity and the American West.

The complicated legacy of that architecture is the subject of "Whatever Happened to LA?," a small, dense exhibition on view at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Curated by two members of the SCI-Arc faculty, Peter Zellner and Jeffrey Inaba, the show crams models, photographs, plans, sketches and architectural ephemera from the period into a single-room gallery. A symposium in connection with the show will be held at SCI-Arc on Sept. 7.

The work on view suggests the diversity of these architects' output: It could be bright and playful (Moss' Fun House and Pinball House), theatrical (Studioworks' Gagosian Gallery and Residence) or hard-edged (Mayne and Rotondi's Kate Mantilini restaurant). What connected it, more than anything, was an effort to avoid looking refined — or, God forbid, genteel — along with a budget-conscious pragmatism.

Because the L.A. School's most prized quality was resistance to compromise — and because its architecture was so different from the smoothly finished late-modern style then favored by corporate clients — its members were almost predestined to work in a kind of collective isolation. Few were able or willing to forge the relationships with developers, politicians and other power brokers that might have allowed them to shape Los Angeles in more than a piecemeal way.

They turned their attention, instead, to residential or modest retail projects, mostly on the Westside. Then a paradoxical thing happened: Those small, scattered designs, by their very idiosyncratic strength, wound up becoming symbolic of the city and even Southern California as a whole.

It's on this theme that the exhibition raises its most intriguing questions, especially at a time when Gehry (who declined to take part in the show, suggesting that the issue of membership in this group was always a complicated one) and Mayne have been embraced by the developers and institutions they and their peers once shunned. Los Angeles is struggling to produce a coherent definition of itself for the new century as it embarks on large-scale developments on Grand Avenue and elsewhere: Does it want to be a dense metropolis? Maintain its dispersed, informal suburban character? Or seek some new middle ground between those poles?

The exhibition also pauses to consider what happens when the wider fame that Gehry and Mayne now enjoy fails to materialize. In one corner of the gallery, running on a loop on a small TV, is Lucia Small's fascinating documentary about her father, Glen Small, a member of SCI-Arc's founding faculty. The 2002 film, "My Father, the Genius," chronicles Glen Small's growing desperation as he struggles to land even the most modest of commissions and, significantly in debt, moves in temporarily with another of his daughters. Through it all he shows a remarkable, even steadfast lack of self-awareness; the contrast between the utopianism of his environmentally minded designs and the mess he's made of his family life seems cringingly obvious to everybody but Small himself.

The show's curators — Zellner, who is 36, and Inaba, 42 — grew up in Los Angeles. The architecture they've chosen to put on the walls is, to a large extent, the architecture of their youth. Returning to Southern California recently after stints on the East Coast, they began putting together a SCI-Arc seminar on this architecture because, as they put it, they were surprised by "how little currency" it had among today's students — and by how little of it had been properly cataloged or preserved, at SCI-Arc, where Moss is now director, or elsewhere.

While it's certainly true that the particular forms of this proudly un-pretty style remain out of fashion, architects seem lately to be flirting with the idea of reviving designs from the 1970s and 1980s, whether it's the barbed post-modernism practiced here or a better behaved, classically minded version. Last week, one British journalist wondered whether 1980s architecture, like "mullet haircuts and white jeans," is due for a comeback.

Zellner and Inaba have an interest in this architecture that runs quite a bit deeper than a fashionista's interest in white jeans. But the fact that an exhibition planned just a couple of years ago to shed some light on an underappreciated architectural period has opened amid a revival, however nascent, of that very period suggests the ridiculous speed with which cultural and artistic trends wax and wane these days.

In the end, this is the key difference between the generation of the L.A. School and the one to which Zellner and Inaba belong. However much savvy the older architects brought to their naïve-looking work — and in many cases it was a considerable amount — they were working in relative isolation and with genuine freedom. If they had a sense of what was going on in New York or Berlin or Tokyo, they didn't spend much time worrying about it.

Most young and ambitious architects today, by contrast, are acutely, sometimes debilitatingly conscious of their own place in architectural history and the wider contemporary culture. As a result, their architecture could not be more different from that of the L.A. School. Thanks largely to powerful software, it is polished where the older work, deliberately and by virtue of inexperience, was rough around the edges. It is global, not local or regional. And it is often more shamelessly self-promotional, if a good deal easier on the eyes, than the buildings on view here.

It also lacks the earlier work's raw energy, its toughness and its willingness to offend. And that is precisely what colors this exhibition not just with the pessimism inherent in its title but also a certain poignancy: the fact that its curators have painstakingly and rather politely documented the work of a group of architects who never took the time, or became convinced of the need, to document it themselves.

*

'Whatever Happened to LA?'

Where: Southern California Institute of Architecture, 960 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Ends: Sept. 11

Price: Free

Contact: (213) 613-2200; www.sciarc.edu

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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