COMMENTARY : Culver City Plan Bad for Artists, Architects


The art life of Los Angeles took a sharp body blow Monday night, as the five-man City Council in Culver City dusted off an artistic doctrine that once held sway in the United States, before the horse and buggy was relegated to the history books. Next, the council turned this aged chestnut into law.

Goodness, the city fathers sentimentally decreed, is the mother’s milk of art. As the vote was being taken in council chambers, you could practically hear the swelling of the heavenly chorus.

Here’s what had happened. Coast-to-coast headlines had exploded in the spring of 1994, when the City Council made a startling decision to radically alter its new percent-for-art program. Like many American cities attempting to revitalize an urban core, Culver City had put in place a public art ordinance for new development projects within the city. The original ordinance required that 1% of a building’s costs be set aside for public acquisition of art.

But then, the City Council had another idea. What if the design of the new building was itself deemed to be of substantial merit? Couldn’t the art requirement then be said to have been met? And if the building design met the art requirement, shouldn’t the 1% fee charged to the developer be waived?


“Yes , hollered developers and their supporters. “No,” retorted artists and theirs. On Monday night, guess who won.


The uproar over the proposal had led to city-sponsored public meetings to debate the issue, and to a council request to the city’s arts committee to come up with guidelines for implementing what was being hailed as an innovative plan. During Monday’s council meeting, arts committee chairman Ronald Ostrin unveiled the guidelines.

These he stoutly defended--using, not incidentally, a viewpoint that has been out-of-date for decades. The argument went like this: If the design of a building is good enough, the building transcends its mundane status and becomes a work of art. Therefore, good building design should satisfy the city’s percent-for-art requirement.


Sensible, yes? Well, no.

To claim that a building is a work of art if its design is good is absurd on its face. To make the claim is to draw an equation between art and goodness. And to equate art with goodness is to assert, by default, that no such thing as bad art can exist.

I don’t know about you, but I run into bad art all the time. Less often I run into good art, but either way, to equate art with goodness is to sentimentalize and make trivial what artists do.

The dreamy equation between art and goodness that Culver City has now revived for its municipal code proliferated in Victorian America, as all manner of moralizing sculptures, paintings and architectural decorations were churned out in the name of cultural improvement of the citizenry. You don’t see much of this once wildly popular, period-piece art anymore, because most of it languishes deep in the bowels of museum storage.

Taking advantage of what flesh-and-blood artists actually do is, ostensibly, the reason for having a percent-for-art program in the first place. And the percent-for-art mechanism was invented as a civic way to produce a relatively small amount of public money, relatively painlessly, with which to pay for it. The bizarre new revision in the Culver City ordinance actually takes percent-for-art money away from the public, and gives it back to developers.

The revision in the ordinance came at the request of influential Culver City developer Frederick Smith and his favored architect, Eric Owen Moss. They were supported in their quest by L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art director Richard Koshalek, whose background is in architecture, and by MOCA curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith, who has organized several architecture shows for the museum. (The Smiths are not related.)

I do not know why Frederick Smith and Moss and their museum supporters are unhappy to have their work thought of as architecture, and instead long for it to be thought of as art. Architecture has always seemed to me a perfectly noble practice, and good architecture a worthy aim.

Monday’s discussion of the need for the ordinance revision was peppered with expressions of desire for a way to encourage Culver City developers to hire architects of unusual merit, but it’s hard to see how the criteria laid down by Ostrin and the arts committee could accomplish that. The guidelines combine empty artspeak with a surprising condescension for architecture.


The first criterion says the work of an architect shall only be deemed eligible to qualify for a percent-for-art waiver if the architect has been “substantially recognized by the art world,” through the vehicles of gallery and museum shows and art publications. Being recognized by the architecture world isn’t mentioned. Authority for deciding which architects are significant is taken away from peers in the architecture field and is given to the world of art.

The second criterion requires that--hold on to your hat--"the underlying concept of the architecture shall be expressive as more than mere utilitarian architecture. The architecture as a whole or certain architectural features shall express ideas or meaning and involve cultural significance or conceptual complexity in relation to the totality of the object.”

I don’t know what those tortured sentences mean. (Don’t shopping centers and strip malls express meaning and involve cultural significance in relation to the totality of the object, even if we decide their meaning and significance are negative?) Presumably Culver City’s council members understand them.

The civic wish to encourage better architecture is commendable, but goodness can’t be legislated. Fabrication of an architecture-as-art exemption from the percent-for-art requirement is nonsensical. Rather than raid the city’s art program, distorting Cinderella-architecture to fit in art’s glass slipper, the goal should have been met head-on.

Monday’s passage of the revision means that Culver City has instead killed two birds with one misplaced stone. Architecture has been unwittingly denigrated, as a practice worthless without the imprimatur of art, while the life of art has been thoroughly sentimentalized. Of course, a way was also found not to offend one of the most prominent developers in Culver City, which I guess counts for something.