For the last several weeks, the best way to try to understand Beverly Boulevard has been to head for a different boulevard — Wilshire — and the western end of the Miracle Mile.
On view there, at the Architecture and Design Museum, is one of the more gregarious exhibitions in the Getty's ongoing Pacific Standard Time Presents architecture series.
Curated by the writer and critic Greg Goldin, "Windshield Perspective" is a colorful, deceptively ambitious and in the end oddly dated look at a relatively short stretch of Beverly, between Normandie and Virgil avenues, just northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
The goal is not just to re-create the experience of driving that distance — just under a mile — but to suggest everything we miss in a normal, uneventful car trip. As Goldin argues, "Typically, our way of seeing from behind the wheel is unconscious. Beverly Boulevard, in its apparent bleakness, is easily dismissed as 'nowhere,' falling into the hole in our consciousness put there by the dominant notion that much (if not all) of Los Angeles is not a city at all."
The exhibition promises something different: "a choreographed drive" meant to reveal "the very essence of the built city: messy, disorderly, impromptu, and vital."
The charismatic installation design, by Lara Hoad, Todd Erlandson and Andrew Byrom with help from the well-known team of Deborah Sussman and Paul Prejza, amplifies the show's contention that this stretch of Beverly is "a thriving village" emblematic of L.A.'s dizzying diversity and stereotype-defying layers of architectural and social history.
The show includes quotes from Charles Baudelaire and Ambrose Bierce and figures from the most recent census about the neighborhood surrounding the boulevard, which is more than 71% Hispanic, per capita annual income of $10,519, far below the city average of $26,096. Along with Spanish and English, the languages spoken along this part of Beverly include Korean, Tagalog, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, German, Mandarin, Arabic and Armenian.
There is text not just on the walls but on the bus benches that are part of the show and on the backs of the graphic cutouts that fill the gallery. There is even a working shop near the door selling, alongside catalogs, Mexican sodas, postcards and coffee mugs.
The most fascinating element of the exhibition is the way in which it excavates the history of each storefront along the boulevard — illustrating, say, how a mannequin store morphed over time into a pet-grooming service. The show makes the case that the architecture in this neighborhood is practically as diverse as the population, with examples ranging "from late Beaux-Arts to Tiki Room Lava Rock to Brutalist box."
Given the care and intelligence with which it's all been assembled, it's puzzling that the show's theoretical outlook seems stuck not just a few years but nearly five decades in the past.
The patron saints of the exhibition are Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Reyner Banham, Charles Moore and Ed Ruscha — architects, writers and artists who beginning in the mid-1960s celebrated the same car-dominated post-war urbanism, with its high-low architectural mix and energetic signage, that has inspired Goldin.
The layout of the exhibition mirrors Ruscha's 1966 book "Every Building on the Sunset Strip," with photographs of the north side of the boulevard on one wall and images of the south side on the other. In tone and design it borrows liberally from Venturi and Scott Brown's hugely influential study "Learning From Las Vegas," published in 1972.
To revive one of the signature lines from Venturi's earlier book "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," Goldin's main suggestion here is that Beverly Boulevard — and the contemporary L.A. boulevard more generally — is "almost alright."
And yet the show's focus on a "windshield perspective," as opposed to the one gained by a pedestrian or cyclist, or even a passenger looking out the side window of a bus, is noticeably out of step with a city that is falling out of love with the private car and investing heavily in mass transit.
More to the point, the automotive frame is at odds with the spirit of the exhibition, which emphasizes really slowing down to see, analyze and understand the boulevard — all things that are tough to do while driving, as the wall text itself acknowledges.
In other words, if "our way of seeing behind the wheel" leaves so much to be desired, why organize the exhibition around precisely that view?
The answer seems to be that Goldin wants to playfully undermine the auto-centrism of Los Angeles as a way to tug Venturi and those other cultural figures into the present day. He wants us to realize how much we continue to rely on the windshield perspective and to think carefully about its limitations.
But I'm not sure you can separate the energetic defense or close study those figures made of Los Angeles (and cities like it) from their enthusiasm for automotive culture and the architecture it produced.
Sure, philosophically speaking, you can take Reyner Banham out of the car. But can you take the car out of Reyner Banham?
Where: Architecture and Design Museum, 6032 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Ends July 7
Contact: http://aplusd.org, (323) 932-9393
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