Deconstructing a monumental ego

Times Staff Writer

“THAT’S why the cult of the starchitect is so reprehensible,” Bruce Wagner was saying as he sat in the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge. He was ranting about the narcissism that motivates high-profile architectural competitions, and the ridiculousness of over-designed memorials to the dead.

“The cathedrals were built anonymously. Now anonymity is a horror,” he continued. “To me the most beautiful memorial for 9/11 are just the two lights. But that can’t happen -- because there’s no gift shop.”

The fashionably bald novelist, known for being the most penetrating observer of Los Angeles’ shallowest side, has fancy eyeglasses and wears self-conscious, jet-black duds that make him look like, well, an architect, or at least a designer of modernist-minimalist chairs. His new book, “Memorial,” is about a lot of things -- broken families, weasel lawyers, the wonders of India, the inexplicability of fate. But one of its most persistent and intriguing subjects is the world of architecture, or more specifically, architectural hype.

Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel, for instance, show up repeatedly, most frequently in the bitter fantasies of an architect character.

The novel is surely the first in which Renzo Piano and Frank Gehry make cameos, in which Richard Meier is likened to “a well-heeled dentist, the type with something questionable on his hard drive,” in which Hadid’s fame is attributed to her “unkempt Fat Actress kohl-smeared gypsy-soprano” look. (Much of the rest is too profane to be printed here.) Celebrity architects are name-dropped the way big-time Hollywood agents were in Wagner’s earlier books.


“I was not someone who always thought one day I would write my ‘Fountainhead,’ ” Wagner said of the Ayn Rand novel that’s captivated generations of high school libertarians with its uncompromising architect hero.

And while he’s interested in the way architects have become celebrities -- “almost now what fashion designers were a few years ago,” he said -- he makes it clear that the day-to-day workings of the field don’t much interest him.

Still, “Memorial’s” very origins came from architecture, or rather from Wagner’s bafflement at the way that architecture and disaster have been increasingly tied together in the public mind since Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam memorial.

“Since I consider this to be the era of the memorial,” he said, “I thought of writing a play that pitted two architectural firms against each other for the memorial of a nameless catastrophe.

“What are the emotions one goes through when one is chosen to honor tens of thousands of dead?” he asked. “And what emotions do you go through when you realize you haven’t been selected?

“But then I thought, Neil LaBute is probably going to beat me to the punch on that one.”

The novel evolved, as all of Wagner’s do, with a jumble of characters and themes he carries around in his head, hoping they will converge in a single harmonious narrative. Wagner has so many of these competing voices that he tends to plan his novels three and four books ahead.

One of those characters was Joan Herlihy, an ambitious L.A. architect nearing 40 who had built nothing and begun to worry that “she would never be asked to design MoMA knickknacks or waterfront condos; never be asked by Miuccia Prada to conjure the splintered jewel of a flagship ... never collaborate with Thom Mayne on government-subsidized wastewater treatment plants,” and so on. But she’s on the short list to design a vanity memorial for two well-connected victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Like Wagner’s Hollywood characters, she’s driven by envy, self-aggrandizement and status anxiety. The author described her as “a woman who wakes up every day cursing Zaha Hadid,” which he concluded is “a terrible way to live.” (In her review in The Times, Meghan Daum wrote that Wagner’s characters’ “interior lives consist mainly of comparing themselves to others.” The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani described their world as “the bizarre, solipsistic bubble of rumors, gossip, news and urban legends that people inhabit in this television and Internet-addicted age.”)

Thanks to Joan’s arias of envy, Mayne is virtually a character in the novel. One day Joan spots him at a Santa Monica Peet’s and dubs him “ridiculously tall, cranky-looking, and gorgeous.” Her partner, a former Koolhaas lackey, “hated him more than ever since he’d won the Pritzker.” (Neither Mayne’s nor Hadid’s offices were aware of the book when contacted by The Times.)

Overall, Wagner said, the architects in the book help dramatize something he’s increasingly interested in -- the absolute boundlessness of the human ego. We need what he calls “more sex, more attention, more violence, more MORE.”

“At a certain point it becomes obscene,” he said. “I’m not even talking about any architect in particular. But there’s a side of us for which it’s never enough -- we’re these bottomless holes that cannot be filled by the praise of the world.”

Growing up largely in the flats of Beverly Hills, where he dropped out of high school to devote himself seriously to becoming a writer while toiling in bookstores and driving an ambulance, Wagner grew interested in structures the same way he was drawn to food and fashion. Spending a few childhood years in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights and making occasional youthful visits to New York City sparked his interest even more.

Today, at 52, he’s not the kind of Angeleno who worships homegrown Modernism or culty L.A. architects. In fact, part of what’s striking about Wagner’s taste in architecture is that, for a guy who runs comfortably in the world of Hollywood and whose characters speak in corrosive, racist rants, it seems so darned innocent.

“My aesthetic sense is drawn to the purity of timeless architecture,” said Wagner, whose tricky, baroque prose is the opposite of the austerity he champions in buildings.

“I respond to simplicity. Anything that’s successful in inspiring a kind of awe and quietude is tremendously appealing to me.”

Like cathedrals. “Every building that interests me, whether it’s modern or ancient, has a temple-like or church-like mood to it,” he said. He’s inspired by abandoned barns in Northern California, by monk’s caves in the mountains of India, by early-20th century mental hospitals being gentrified into condos.

“I’m not obsessed by Craftsmans or by Wright,” he said. “The only thing that obsesses me really are the anonymous structures, or buildings with the whiff of anonymity like the Rothko Chapel, or the old Farmers Market.”

And he’s interested in architectural follies -- oddball structures built to demonstrate a rich person’s eccentricity and wealth -- one of which plays a role in his Dickensian “I’ll Let You Go.”

In the new book, the proposed memorials become more and more outlandish as the book goes on. Wagner’s personal taste runs to simple cemeteries marked with headstones.

“There’s something quite lovely about it -- because it removes you from the world of commerce,” he said. “But everything becomes a quote, competition; everything becomes a golden braid to wear on the uniform of self.”

The architect cult aggravates him since its noise and hype, he said, intrude on experiencing these “valleys of beauty.” As with his mentions of the spiritualism in India, which he appears to regard with veneration despite sending up Eastern-mystic pretensions in his books, Wagner ends up seeming oddly ... reverent.

“It’s how a person feels sitting in a space that can be gloriously composed,” he said. “Which can have the simplicity of a sonata or a prelude. It’s about how one feels -- that’s the only thing that matters.”


‘A Gehry-esque doodle’

A cynic might say that the mix of ego, hierarchy and competitive sadism in the world of architecture resembles the culture of Hollywood Wagner has sketched so well since his 1991 novel, “Force Majeure.” But Wagner, for whom “cynical” is a dirty word and who is graciously formal and philosophical in person, doesn’t entirely agree.

He will say that part of what compels his interest in architecture is its service as a metaphor for the making of a novel: Both are forms that require structure and symmetry, that have to be beautiful and functional, that require planning and inspiration.

Designing a building, he said, is like a novel, “a rather long project that can take three to five years.

“In the best of circumstances, it begins as a Gehry-esque doodle on a piece of a paper. For a novelist it might begin with the smoky image of a character. Then the blueprint, the visit to the site, the excavation, the gathering of raw materials, the solving of structural problems, the polishing, the unveiling of it.”

These days when he hears people hammer a book they don’t like, or praise one they do, he thinks back to the way certain buildings were considered monstrosities or masterpieces, only to have the judgment reversed a generation later.

“I remember when buildings were going up in the ‘70s that people thought were glorious ... Now they’re either being torn down or they look like juvenile detention centers.

“Time,” he said, “will tell. That’s why I’m drawn to dead writers and dead architects.”