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Review

SCI-Arc show cleverly tweaks the myth of the all-powerful — and typically male — hero architect

Sylvia Lavin, a professor of architectural history at UCLA and an independent curator, has a superb exhibition running through Sunday at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, better known as SCI-Arc. On the opening night of the show, “The Duck and the Document: True Stories of Postmodern Procedure,” she gave a lecture that began with a contradictory sort of disclaimer.

“The Duck and the Document,” she said, is definitely not a SCI-Arc kind of show. Everybody nodded: the architects in the audience, the students, the director of the school (Hernán Díaz Alonso) and the critic in the second row. We nodded because we knew exactly what she meant. SCI-Arc is a school that has shown relatively little interest in history (except perhaps its own!) while focusing on technology and craft — on making new things with digital tools, not analyzing old ones with words or gallery displays.

And yet there we were, gathered at SCI-Arc for the opening of Lavin’s show, which is definitely not a SCI-Arc sort of exhibition. It was a riddle worthy of the show itself, which you might think of not as a single Trojan horse as much as a series of them, nestled one inside another like a bunch of insurrection-minded Russian dolls.

On the surface, “The Duck and the Document” is a modestly scaled and deeply photogenic exhibition about the physical decay of the landmarks of Late Modern and postmodern architecture, buildings by Charles Moore, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Cesar Pelli, Peter Eisenman, Stanley Tigerman and others from the 1960s and ’70s.

The smallish SCI-Arc gallery — which more often holds parametric pavilions that may or may not have the ability to survive upright in the real world, without nearby walls to depend on in moments of structural crisis — is filled this time with large, freestanding fragments of well-known facades and interiors.

This layer is the skin the show wears on social media — especially on Instagram, where Moore’s mantelpiece from the Tempchin House (1967, Bethesda, Md.) was busy during the first few days of the show’s run competing for hearts with sheets of spandrel glass from Pelli’s 1975 Pacific Design Center, better known as the Blue Whale, in West Hollywood, and panels of porcelain-enameled steel from Venturi and Scott Brown’s 1979 Best Products showroom in Langhorne, Pa.

These pieces of postmodern architecture suggest a movement that has been in ruins precisely long enough to warrant rediscovery by a new generation of architects, historians and critics. Plucked from storage or scavenged from construction sites after the buildings they once decorated were demolished or remodeled, the fragments are mesmerizing simply as objects.

And full of melancholy, especially if you know even a little of their history: If postmodern architecture was a movement in which the surface became nearly all-important — in which buildings became signs advertising themselves as well as their increasingly media-savvy designers — the surface has now become the scrap heap.

The next layer of the show (which first appeared, in slightly different form, at Princeton University and will travel next year to the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal) consists of words on paper: the documents of the show’s title, in the form of memos, lists of rules and regulations and letters between architects and various contractors and suppliers. These do more than merely explain the process by which postmodernism’s canonical designs were built. They expose the flimsiness of the myth of the hero architect, the all-powerful and fully autonomous designer.

Here is Venturi scrawling an expletive in red pencil across a letter from Pantone telling him that the precise color he wants for a project is not available. Here is a letter from Moore’s office asking for a missing check from Dr. Stanley Tempchin, one of the clients for the Maryland house, in the amount of $21.11. Here is a display connecting a flyer for an abortion-rights rally with Bertrand Goldberg’s design for the Prentice Women’s Hospital (built 1975, demolished 2014) in Chicago.

And here (blown up to huge scale on one of the gallery walls) is a list of rules from 1966 governing the design of houses at the Sea Ranch, the architectural enclave along a spectacular stretch of Northern California coastline that counted Moore, the architect Joseph Esherick and the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin among its earliest designers. The list includes one rule that is somehow uptight and poetic at the same time: “Colors to be shades of grey, brown, grey-brown, brown-green.”

For Lavin, these documents and the rules they lay out suggest a shift in the balance of power from architects to suppliers, builders, clients, regulatory bodies, lawyers, accountants, homeowners associations and insurers. There was also a change in the 1970s in the way architecture was shepherded through the building process. New specialties and jargon emerged. Schematic design. Construction administration.

To a certain degree, the show paints the architects’ reactions to these obstacles as ingenious (as distinct from daring). Because nearly all of the architects in question are men, their failure to vanquish the spreading bureaucratization of the profession was also a kind of impotence. As was the case in her 2013 exhibition “Everything Loose Will Land,” which ran at the Mak Center in West Hollywood as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time series, “The Duck and the Document” subtly skewers the machismo that has long been virtually impossible to separate from the heroic-architecture narrative.

This skewering is one more reason the show appears proudly estranged from its surroundings at SCI-Arc. The school moved without skipping a beat two years ago from one male director (Eric Owen Moss) to another (Díaz Alonso). Its lecture series this spring featured 12 men and three women (including Lavin). More than 80% of its trustees are male.

To assemble an exhibition like “The Duck and the Document” inside an architecture school like that one — and to do it in in collaboration with two other women, associate curator Sarah Hearne and architect Erin Besler, who designed the show’s smart, carefully choreographed layout — is to mix the scholarly and the political in a particularly effective way. This is certainly the first SCI-Arc exhibition I can remember that raises abortion and women’s labor as subjects related directly to architecture.

The funny thing is that few if any of the men running SCI-Arc, as far as I can tell, noticed what was coming — noticed that the exhibition, ostensibly a historical one with little to say about their own preoccupations, might put some of those preoccupations in the crosshairs. They never thought to duck.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The Duck and the Document’

Where: SCI-Arc Gallery, parking lot at 350 Merrick St., L.A.

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

Admission: Free

Information: (213) 613-2200, www.sciarc.edu

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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