The best architecture on TV is in Boots Riley’s ‘I’m a Virgo’

A 13-foot-tall Black man emerges from the front door of a Victorian house.
The 13-foot-tall Cootie (Jharrel Jerome) emerges from his parents’ Victorian house in a scene from Boots Riley’s “I’m a Virgo.”
(Prime Video)
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It’s hot and I’m not on strike, but I am here for Fran Drescher throwing down against entertainment executives. I’m Carolina A. Miranda, art and design columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and I’m here with the essential culture news:

Tiny houses and brutalist design

I have been enthralled by Boots Riley’s ambitious series “I’m a Virgo.” There is the charm of its lead actor, Jharrel Jerome, who plays the curious Cootie, a 13-foot-tall gentle giant who, having spent his entire youth hiding in his parents’ Oakland home, emerges at the age of 19 to the curiosity of folks in the neighborhood (and the looming ill will of those beyond). As my colleague Robert Lloyd wrote in his review of the series (which screens on Prime Video), it is “strangely beautiful and beautifully strange.” And in this era of labor unrest, the theatrically staged speeches about capitalism by an activist named Jones (Kara Young) are on point.

But, naturally, I’m obsessed with the aesthetics. And “I’m a Virgo” delivers.

A film still shows a single-story shotgun house elevated on a set of towering stilts.
In “I’m a Virgo,” the character of Lalo (Gino Montesinos) inhabits a house elevated on a set of exaggerated stilts.
(Prime Video)

The show deploys architecture in sublimely surreal ways. Cootie’s neighbor, Lalo, inhabits a single-family home placed on improbably high stilts. A loft inhabited by the show’s libertarian cartoon tech villain — a.k.a. the Hero (Walton Goggins) — embodies all the tropes of rich-people minimalism: a sterile environment of polished concrete and coal-black appliances. (Lydia Tár would love it.) Even better, the Brutalist tower moves around the Hero rather than him moving around it. In “I’m a Virgo,” architecture is a key character.


As outlandish as some of these settings may be, they nonetheless feel real because they draw from actual places and practices. Set in Oakland, the design draws from Riley’s experiences growing up in the city, as well as his directorial interest in creating idiosyncratic cinematic environments. Critical to that is the smart production design of Maxwell Orgell, who in the past has teamed up with directors like Michel Gondry.

The reality of this unreality starts with the Victorian home inhabited by Cootie’s parents. It is not pristine; it’s the sort of place that has borne the wear of daily living — a home whose wallpapers and paint colors and other elements have been upgraded piecemeal over the decades.

Cootie no longer fits into this space, so his parents, LaFrancine and Martisse, build him a secret backyard cabin assembled from an array of architectural remnants, including wood, brick and corrugated metal. The design cleverly imagines how parents of limited means might craft a secret house for their 13-foot-tall child — say, by employing a bathtub as a sink. Orgell tells me during a telephone interview that he studied the architecture of tiny homes in conceiving the space, since Cootie’s house is essentially a tiny home for a giant.

And Lalo’s fantastical stilt house? That was inspired by the ways in which wooden Victorian houses frequently are lifted in order to be relocated or to accommodate an expansion. “The structure that raises Lalo’s house is a play on the structure that raises a real house,” says Orgell. “Even when we’re doing totally fantastical things, I tried to ground it in the logic of something real.”

A man in white superhero armor battles a ninja dressed in black on top of a kitchen counter.
The Hero (Walton Goggins) fights off an assassin in his minimalist loft in “I’m a Virgo.”
(Prime Video)

Far more sci-fi is the Hero’s lair, also the headquarters of his evil comic book company, MCI. (The future will be mixed-use!) Because the building is required to do a variety of impossible things (such as travel up and down around the Hero), Orgell and his team imagined it from scratch, drawing from a variety of sources.

From within the Hero’s apartment, you catch sight of cast concrete X’s that evoke the geometric screens of L.A.’s American Cement Building, a ’60s-era structure on the western side of MacArthur Park (built at a time when cement meant something hopeful). Seen from outside, the tower resembles a kinetic Brutalist monument. “I’m a sucker for Brutalist socialist architecture,” says Orgell, “and you don’t often get to refer to it.”


Also informing the design were the urban settings of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and the models of Italian architect Gian Paolo Valenti, whose structures consisted of stacked geometric arrangements of angular forms. And I couldn’t help but think of the Torre Velasca, a Modern tower with echoes of the medieval that looms over Milan. Designed by Italian architecture firm BBPR and completed in 1958, it is a truly uncanny building.

A man and a woman sit in profile before a buffet in a restaurant with a recessed ceiling illuminated by bands of light.
Jharrel Jerome (Cootie) and Olivia Washington (Flora) dine at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant — one of the few location sets in “I’m a Virgo.”
(Prime Video)

Riley, intent on avoiding CGI, shot much of “I’m a Virgo” using forced perspective, in which camera angles are used to make one person appear massive or another tiny. This meant that every set had to be built twice: one at human scale for the regular characters and another at half scale, so that Cootie would appear gigantic. This meant sourcing a Victorian doorknob, then re-creating it at smaller scale. “We had to reprint fabric patterns smaller and reupholster pieces,” says Orgell. Even so, he was devoted to maintaining those details. Start replacing the vintage doorknobs with plain ones, he says, and “you lose what makes these spaces special.”

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The complexities of shooting this way meant the majority of the series was filmed on sets. But one of my favorite settings was a real-deal location: an all-you-can eat buffet restaurant the team found in New Orleans (where the show was filmed). The room features a crystal chandelier descending from a recessed ceiling illuminated by bands of multicolored light. The delightfully weird vibe feels very Postmodern 80s.

Orgell says he was thrilled when they found the restaurant. “With Cootie, I know I’m looking up at the ceiling,” he says, “So you need to find these places that are interesting if you are using a real location.”

Interesting, indeed. Sometimes real design is stranger than fiction.

Just dance

In 2021, as theaters stood empty, L.A.-based dancer Kevin Zambrano teamed up with Bret Easterling of the nonprofit organization BeMoving to establish a residency that would allow solo dance artists to have an entire venue to themselves to develop new work. Two years later, the Ghost Light Residency is still going. “It’s so refreshing,” Mak Thornquest tells The Times’ Steven Vargas, “to be allowed to make work about whatever I want.”

A blue-tinted image shows a dancer, with arms extended toward upward.
Ghost Light Residency 2023 artist Yoli creates new work at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre.
(Josh S. Rose)

Classical notes

The L.A. Phil is back at the Hollywood Bowl for the summer and Times classical music critic Mark Swed was there for the first night back, a show that included Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” “One of our most effective conductor storytellers, Dudamel began by launching with startling urgency into ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ directly on the heels of a fervent ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’” writes Swed. “What that meant was left to ponder.”

A man dressed in black sits at a grand piano as a conductor in a white jacket leads the L.A. Phil.
Javier Perianes, left, performs a solo on the piano as Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Theater notes

The Antaeus Theatre Company is currently staging “The Tempest,” with actor Peter Van Norden in the role of Prospero, directed by Nike Doukas. Times theater critic Charles McNulty describes “a cacophonous affair, teeming with directorial ideas boisterously fighting for attention.” And he’s not kidding when he says “boisterous” — because this version of “The Tempest” is reimagined as a ’40s-style radio play, and therefore features live microphones onstage. “As a result, Shakespeare’s play seems as though it’s being delivered through a bullhorn.”

An elderly man in a suit speaks into an old-fashioned microphone onstage.
Peter Van Norden as Prospero in “The Tempest” at the Kiki and David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale.
(Frank Ishman)

In the galleries

Some of the totemic sculptures created by the late L.A. artist Kenzi Shiokava are on view at Nonaka-Hill — and it sounds like a show not to miss. “Shiokava didn’t fit neatly into any of the ready-made categories — Japanese, Brazilian, American, Black, Buddhist, Catholic, art star — often used to pigeonhole people,” writes contributor Sharon Mizota. “Yet he managed to hold all these strands and fuse them into a singular, elegant language all his own.”

A storefront with a sign that reads "Best Cleaners" is illuminated at night to reveal a series of sculptures.
Kenzi Shiokava’s sculptures inside Nonaka-Hill gallery.
(Kenzi Shiokava Estate and Nonaka-Hill)

An exhibition at the Hole is inspired not by the display of works but instead by the extensive periods they spend in storage. For the group show “Storage Wars,” gallery founder Kathy Grayson reached out to “gallery owners, collectors and artists across the city, asking them to unbox and share one of their favorite pieces of art that has been in hiding for too long,” reports The Times’ Jessica Gelt. “She wasn’t sure what kind of a response she’d get but was thrilled to discover that it was generous and enthusiastic, with more than 80 participants sharing work that has rarely, if ever, been seen publicly.”

Singer, graphic designer, artist and drag queen: Tabboo! (born Stephen Tashjian) has seemingly done it all. As of late, the New York artist has been focused on painting color-saturated landscapes and cityscapes that have been catching the eye of critics, galleries and museums. Now he is the subject of a solo show at Karma in West Hollywood. “It’s a spiritual experience when I paint,” he tells Deborah Vankin. “It’s like meditation.”

A man wearing a floral shirt sits on the floor before a painting of palm trees and Randy's Donuts.
Tabboo! at Karma Gallery, where he is having his first L.A. solo show.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Design time

Last month, I found myself trotting through the new Harvey Milk Terminal 1 at SFO, which recently received a top-to-bottom refresh. The $2.4 billion redo, unveiled in 2021, added seven new gates to accommodate a 70% increase in passenger capacity. Naturally, a battalion of architectural firms — led by Gensler — were involved, including Kuth Ranieri, HKS, Woods Bagot, ED2, KYA and Hamilton + Aitken Architects.

I was in a bit of a rush when I landed at SFO and didn’t get to spend time exploring. (Read John King’s story in the San Francisco Chronicle if you want more detail.) But on my way out, a pair of play areas that have been integrated into the terminal’s design caught my eye: one by Gensler, the other by Woods Bagot.

Tree limbs rise from a play area with cushioned ground, with multicolored benches and a colorful mural.
A children’s play area designed by Gensler at the Harvey Milk Terminal at SFO.
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Both provide thoughtfully designed spaces — such as soft floors for tumbling — so that small children can work out some energy prior to boarding a flight. Beyond that, they are nicely composed — with murals and bright, child-size seating in the Gensler area and a large log for climbing in the space created by Woods Bagot. It’s a nice organic touch within the sterile airport environment.

The 4-year-old me — who endured many 20-hour flights to South America — would have loved this. The adult me says, More like this please.

Children clamber around a pair of large logs in a soft-floored play area inside an airport terminal.
A play area designed by Woods Bagot inside the renovated Harvey Milk Terminal 1.
(Woods Bagot)

Want more? Elaine Glusac had a good story in the New York Times in 2021 about what airports are doing to make their spaces more tolerable. SFO figures prominently.


The American Youth Symphony has announced its 2023-24 season and said that director Carlos Izcaray has renewed his contract for the next three seasons.

Grant Gershon has extended his contract as artistic director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale through the 2027-28 season.

A man in a black suit stands before the stainless steel facade of Disney Hall with his hands clasped.
Grant Gershon has led the Los Angeles Master Chorale for more than two decades.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Printed Matter’s L.A. Art Book Fair is making a comeback on Aug. 10.


Arkansas-based Marlon Blackwell Architects have been chosen as the designer of a new monument to the Global War on Terror on the National Mall.

Museo Jumex in Mexico City will be celebrate its 10th anniversary in November.

Updates from the Gagosian-Zwirner-Hauser-Wirth Art Industrial Complex: Frieze has acquired the Armory Show and Expo Chicago.

Artsy laid off 35 employees — about 15% of its workforce.


Jeffrey Carlson, an actor who appeared in the Broadway musical “Taboo” and in numerous Shakespeare productions, and was perhaps best known for playing trans character Zoe in the TV soap “All My Children,” is dead at 48.

André Watts, a pianist who made his debut with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at the tender age of 16, has died. He was 77.

Architect Robert Mangurian, a key member of SCI-Arc’s founding generation, who helped design schools and an early gallery for Larry Gagosian, has died at the age of 82. “Robert,” says former partner Craig Hodgetts, “had a religious devotion to the role of architecture.”

A man in a black blazer and a man in a tan jacket stand before an architectural model hanging on a wall in a vintage photo.
Robert Mangurian, left, and Craig Hodgetts stand before a model of a community center they designed in Columbus, Ohio.
(Mary Frampton / Los Angeles Times)

Milan Kundera, the award-winning Czech author whose celebrated novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” wove together themes of love and politics, is dead at 94. David L. Ulin has an appreciation in The Times.

In the news

This story about the appalling wages paid to actors on “Orange Is the New Black” pairs well with this story about how the creator of “Squid Game” forfeited all intellectual property rights to his show.
— The Whitney, Guggenheim and MCA Chicago’s social media accounts have been setting Threads ablaze.
Colony Little has a dispatch about the rise of the Black Arts Movement in California in one and two parts.
The nightmare of staging a school play in our politically polarized (read: wildly homophobic) era.
— If you have a spare $7 million, Stephen Sondheim’s New York City townhouse is for sale.
ProPublica and Capital and Main investigate how the owners of affordable residential hotels in downtown L.A. have turned their properties into hotels for tourists without suffering any penalty.
— The animal uprising continues: In addition to orcas that terrorize yachts and a sea otter that jacks surfboards, birds are now using anti-bird spikes to fortify nests.
— The Nigerian American designer behind the Barbie Airbnb house in Malibu.
— The Dallas Museum of Art has unveiled six proposals for expansion plans, including designs by L.A. firms Johnston Marklee and Michael Maltzan Architecture.
— I’m always here for @cyberexboyfriend’s design critiques on TikTok.

And last but not least ...

The best (darkest) Barbie/Oppenheimer memes.