Lavin operates here in something of the same spirit. Choosing looseness as a theme was a canny curatorial move given how quickly the exhibition — like most of the PSTP series — came together and how tricky it can be to use the Schindler House, watched over protectively by preservationists, as a gallery. The exhibition design, by the L.A. firm Johnston Marklee, puts many of the items inside glass domes that look a bit like terrariums.

That sense of slipping experimental work under glass — fixing in history projects by artists and architects who always fiercely resisted being defined or pinned down — gives the exhibition yet another layer of meaning. What does it mean for looseness to land, for experimental work to gain legitimacy or a design-world pedigree?

What does it mean for an institution like the Getty, by funding these PSTP exhibitions, to give its stamp of approval to the kinds of architects it has elsewhere — in building its own hilltop campus in Brentwood, for example — seemed to disdain? How much acclaim, combined with how much historical distance, is required to turn pointedly unorthodox work into its own kind of establishment?

These questions hover over nearly every installation in the show, which is also bolstered by a number of remarkable finds by Lavin. I never knew, for instance, that Ed Ruscha hired Gehry in 1977 to design a conventional-looking, almost generic house for him, a project that does not seem to have gone smoothly for either architect or client.

A collaboration between Chicago, illustrator Carlos Diniz and designer Peter Pearce was also new to me. The project, never executed, proposed a large, almost mountainous structure — Chicago described it as a "ceramic room" — to contain her installation "The Dinner Party,"completed in 1979.

There is also terrific work in the show by artist Terry Schoonhoven, architect Craig Hodgetts and the little-known design group Environmental Communications.

The 1970s was a time, as Lavin puts it in the exhibition catalog, when architecture was "in the process of change rather than achievement."

The current decade could be described precisely the same way. Architecture is struggling to find direction and meaning, particularly in L.A., after the demise of the celebrity-architect complex and the economic collapse of 2008.

Many young firms are turning away from form-making for its own sake and pursuing new kinds of architectural innovation, largely connected to technology collaboration or inexpensive, bottom-up efforts to remake cities. Worries about the environment are again on the rise.

Those parallels give "Everything Loose" — above and beyond its fresh assessments of early work by a range of now-famous figures — a subtle but important connection to contemporary culture.

Architecture feels a bit unmoored at the moment. But as the show implies, that uncertainty offers freedom and opportunity.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com