Frank Gehry was on the panel. So was Thom Mayne. And fellow architects Eric Owen Moss, Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso and Greg Lynn. The subject was the "troubled relationship" between architecture and beauty. The setting, on a warm recent evening, was an outdoor pavilion in the main parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where Moss is director. The impresario, moderator and ego-wrangler was architect Yael Reisner, Cook's wife and the author of a new book of interviews with architects on beauty.
In the end, if the panelists didn't exactly embrace the topic at hand — and if the uneven discussion that resulted was, itself, far from a thing of beauty — that could hardly be counted as a surprise. The group of architects Reisner asked to take part, representative of the larger group she features in the book, have always eyed beauty with wariness, if not outright hostility. There were times during the panel when it seemed the huge, standing-room-only crowd had gathered to listen to a bunch of Hatfields discuss the McCoys.
Gehry, after all, found his early breakthroughs in the 1980s by mining the less-than-gorgeous urban landscape of Los Angeles, incorporating chain link and corrugated metal into off-kilter, deceptively ad-hoc buildings. Mayne's most powerful work is similarly interested in subverting and breaking apart conventional ideas about symmetry and prettiness. Moss once told me that the worst insult one L.A. architect could give another, when he was starting out three decades ago, was to call his or her work "beautiful." Something closer to ugliness or toughness was the goal, or at least architecture unconventional enough to reliably rattle bourgeois sensibilities.
That attitude still holds sway, despite the fact that the architecture world — not to mention the world at large — has changed radically since the emergence of Mayne, Moss, Gehry and other members of the L.A. School in the 1970s and '80s. Nearly two decades after the art world went through a difficult but cathartic debate on beauty, architects — or at least these architects — continue to find the subject remarkably nervous-making.
The younger members of the panel, Lynn and Diaz Alonso, are in some ways the L.A. heirs of these decades-old notions about beauty, and how it's best held at arm's length, though they use it to different aesthetic and strategic ends. Diaz Alonso, known for remarkable and highly theatrical digital designs, describes the effect he is after as "grotesque."
Cook, a founder of the hugely influential London group Archigram, was happy to stand apart a bit from the locals, playing devil's advocate or court jester while the conversation meandered. Eventually, the group circled around to the subject at hand — at least indirectly.
Moss, who literally held his head in his hands for long portions of the discussion, said he didn't think a conversation about beauty was "useful" any longer. Gehry, who struck a refreshingly pragmatic, if typically self-flagellating, note throughout, said it was better not to consider outside judgments of any kind, whether they had to do with which buildings qualify as beautiful or which architects were important.
"You do your work and you shut up and you take your lumps," he said, as police helicopters buzzed overhead. "And if you keep doing that, maybe you find your own sort of Zen self. And that's probably a great place to be as human beings."
Mayne said that in an age of globalization, the Internet and instantly shifting and remixed fashion, it was impossible to determine a single standard for beauty. "Whose beauty are we talking about?" he asked.
At one point Lynn wondered why the panel didn't include architects such as Richard Meier and John Pawson, whose work is refined and precise to the point of elegance. But they were straw men who Reisner was only too happy to knock down. "I didn't include them because I find their work boring," she sniffed. She said she prefers the work of the panelists and others featured in her book, a group that practices what she calls "exuberant architecture."
Fair enough, but what about the fact that there is a new generation of architects, several decades younger than Meier or Pawson, who don't consider beauty and experimentation to be at odds? You never would have known, by listening to this star-studded group, that for a large number of talented architects in their 30s and 40s, the anxiety about beauty that was on display on that night has faded away, replaced by an entirely new group of concerns and priorities. The recently opened Architecture Biennale in Venice, curated by Kazuyo Sejima, brings beauty back front and center in a quietly polemical way. It features unabashedly beautiful projects by Madrid's Andres Jaque; the Indian firm Studio Mumbai; and the young Tokyo architect Junya Ishigami, among many others.
And the truth is that any explanation for why Gehry and Mayne rocketed to international fame over the last two decades has to at least touch on beauty. In the 1990s, Gehry took a modest but decisive step in the direction of conventional beauty by wrapping his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in a unifying cover of shimmering titanium panels. Where earlier he had combined a jumble of architectural forms with a matching jumble of materials, piling dissonance on top of complexity, in Bilbao, and then at Walt Disney Concert Hall, he controlled at least one variable, packing his swooping forms inside a single, relatively coherent — and undeniably, shimmeringly beautiful — skin.
Mayne did something similar in his Caltrans District 7 Headquarters down the hill from Disney Hall, a building that possesses all the unorthodox, disjointed power of his earlier work but wraps its hard-edged forms inside a unified facade of perforated aluminum panels. There are lots of reasons why those buildings became their architects' great breakthroughs. One of those reasons is the complicated, hard-won sensuousness of their exteriors.
The panel wrapped up before the group had a chance to explore in any depth what ought to have been the focus from the start: Why certain architects continue to see pursuing, confronting or embracing beauty as something to be embarrassed or even ashamed about, or something that diminishes the seriousness of their work, all these years after that notion emerged. When I spoke with Gehry by phone this week, though, he offered a pretty good explanation.
"When you go directly after beauty, it's like you're competing with God," he told me. "If you go after other things, you're only competing with Borromini and Bernini. That's still tough, but it's not impossible."