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UCLA's Hitoshi Abe and USC's Qingyun Ma on the ugliness of L.A. architecture, 'Uberism' and more

In 2007, L.A. architecture saw a major changing of the guard as Hitoshi Abe, an architect from Sendai, Japan, became chair of the department of architecture and urban design at UCLA and Shanghai-based Qingyun Ma took over as dean of the USC School of Architecture. Now both men are moving on from those posts: Abe stepped down last year, while Ma’s final day in the job is June 30. (Both will retain professorships at their respective schools.) For this week’s column I sat down with the two of them to conduct a kind of exit interview about the decade they’ve spent running the two departments.

Arranging the conversation wasn’t easy. There has sometimes been tension in their relationship, especially early on when Abe fumed that Ma was trying to steal away his star faculty (something Abe alludes to in the conversation below). Neither wanted to hold the Q&A on the other’s campus. Eventually we settled — as neutral territory — on a cafe in Culver City. What follows has been edited and condensed.


In a basic sense, what did you set out to accomplish at each of your schools and how successful do you think you were?

Qingyun Ma: To take the heritage of the school and push that forward — that’s what I decided to do. To make a point that this school is about training people to make buildings. It’s boring, maybe, but a fresh view. The second focus was to recruit as many new faculty as possible, although I had to do this in a sort of buckshot way. That resulted in more practicing architects coming to USC, especially as adjunct professors, which is a category over which I had more control than the tenure track. People like Patrick Tighe, Lorcan O’Herlihy, Larry Scarpa. It’s a bit like changing not the bedrock of the institution but the soil.

Hitoshi Abe: In my case, we had a strong faculty and still do, and the curriculum was largely set. Sylvia Lavin [Abe’s predecessor] focused on setting up the curriculum. So the first thing I did was think about how to get all of that talent moving in basically the same direction and build more of a sense of community.

Ma: Maybe this is a cultural difference. I’m shooting buckshot, he’s thinking about community.

Abe: The one big surprise for me was that in America architecture is much more curriculum-based. The time the professor spends with the students is divided, and limited, by semester or quarter. In Japan you work with a professor in your specialty over a much longer period of time ...

Almost like an apprenticeship.

Abe: Right. In the undergraduate program there’s nothing I could do at UCLA — it’s fixed. But at the graduate level you have more flexibility. So we added what we called Suprastudio, a one-year, one-professor course of study. Each program is custom-made by these professors, so the students can spend a lot more time with them. And a funny thing happened after 2009, after the Lehman shock and the economic collapse, when the university had to cut the budget. I began meeting with people from Toyota, Disney — they were excited to collaborate with us. That led us to create an Ideas Campus in Playa Vista.

Dean Ma, you’ve been at USC during the presidency of C.L. Max Nikias, who’s been ambitious about raising money and building new facilities in a very consistent and conservative architectural style, which he calls Collegiate Gothic.

Ma: This is where I made the decision not to bring my own personal design agenda to the job. I think architecture is a tool that has really helped the university in its ambition to fund-raise, as a tool to promote the university. That’s been quite successful, and I have to say Max is very smart about using that tool. But as architects, we don’t treat buildings as tools. We treat them as part of an intellectual discussion. That’s where our intellectual substance is as professionals, and as a department. As a faculty, collectively, we’ve been constantly challenging the look of the new buildings ...

Without much success, it would seem.

Ma: Right. And I regret that I didn’t spend a lot of time on that front.

What’s your sense of the other architecture schools and departments in town and how they’ve changed in the decade you’ve been here?

Abe: We all have this kind of default understanding of the other schools: that USC is more professionally oriented, that SCI-Arc [the Southern California Institute of Architecture] is more technique-oriented, and maybe UCLA more research-oriented.

That’s the conventional wisdom.

Abe: Yes. But what’s interesting is that there are overlaps and exchanges. So there are a lot of ways — maybe I shouldn’t say this — that the schools are the same. One of the biggest surprises for me was the different schools competing for and sometimes trying to steal faculty from one another. This would never happen in Japan.

Ma: In the later years, in my second term, I came to understand the strengths of the other schools not as a threat but as a reference point. So we all know that SCI-Arc is heavy on craft: Whatever they do, it contributes to that sense of craftsmanship. And there’s no real research platform there — it’s very thin. UCLA: amazing critical and theoretical work. So what we can contribute is thinking about how to make great buildings that still matter. Do what you’re able to do, but do it better — this is probably a better model.

A question about Los Angeles: How would you compare the city that you encountered when you arrived with the city that exists or is emerging now?

Abe: I was first here in the 1980s, as a student. And when I came back in 2007, one of the first things I noticed is that everyone uses chopsticks now. Nobody did before. And so many Japanese phrases have entered English — omakase menu, daikon radish. The city has become much more cosmopolitan. And I don’t think that shift has happened as much in Europe. There’s so much more of a hybrid culture here. Also the freeways are so much more congested. The infrastructure doesn’t work. Uber has changed the way we behave. And Waze. Somehow the unfinished or non-functioning infrastructure created the room, or the gaps, for that new technology. If you talk about Uber in Tokyo people will still say, “What’s that?” But L.A. is starting to come back as a testing ground for new ideas and has started to nurture these services and technologies.

Ma: For the sake of simplification, I would say that the urbanism gets worse in L.A. and the Uberism gets better. By urbanism I mean the new projects are getting so monolithic now. The projects get so big, and there’s a lack of local developers participating. All the global developers, mainly Chinese, come in and somehow choose the worst [architecture] firms. That is making the city really ugly now.

Which buildings are the worst offenders?

Ma: The Marriott hotel [at L.A. Live, by the architecture firm Gensler]. I call it the pregnant tower. It’s crazy.

Abe: But was L.A. beautiful before?

Excellent question.

Ma: Maybe it’s not ugly but just a sameness. The new towers all look like they’re done by one guy.

You said unlike the urbanism in L.A., the “Uberism” is getting better. What did you mean by that?

Ma: Uberism gets the city really connected and diversified. Now I can go anywhere.

And do you mean just Uber or a larger set of forces?

Ma: A larger set of forces. And I think on the one hand it’s great — urban development that doesn’t really have to rely on physical or architectural space. On the other hand, as architects, we have to worry if we’ll get left out altogether.

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My sense has been that neither of your schools has been very involved in a civic conversation, in a debate over the emerging Los Angeles. Some of that is maybe because architecture and planning departments have drifted apart over the years. Do you think that’s fair?

Ma: It may be related to the first initiative I described, taking architecture back and focusing on making buildings. But you’re right — we haven’t been engaged in that dialogue. Maybe as a dean you can only do so much.

Abe: It is true that dealing with the reality of L.A. itself was not really part of our conversation. This curricular system I described before just doesn’t leave a lot of room for research into these other related areas. My hope is that there could be a new system to allow postdocs, connected to centers like cityLAB [directed by Dana Cuff, a professor at UCLA], to pursue urban issues more seriously. And maybe to understand why all of these new buildings are so ugly, as Dean Ma said.

Next week: A conversation with Milton Curry, Qingyun Ma’s successor at USC.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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