Review: MOCA’s revamped architecture show a model of insularity
The new architecture exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art — and we’ll get to its ever-changing title in a moment — is the product of a museum in significant disarray.
That much has been clear for several weeks, as MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch nearly canceled the show, pushed out its curator and rushed to raise some 11th-hour funds to get the whole thing ready by June 16, two months later than originally planned.
FOR THE RECORD:
“A New Sculpturalism”: A review in the June 30 Arts & Books section of the exhibition “A New Sculpturalism” at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary space said several architects have a bigger presence in the final version of the show than they did in a version planned earlier. That statement was partly incorrect. Architects Neil Denari and Michael Rotondi do not have a bigger presence. —
Now that the exhibition has opened at the museum’s Geffen Contemporary branch in Little Tokyo, where it will limp along through the middle of September as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Presents series, it’s clear that it is the product of an architectural ruling class in Los Angeles that is not so much dysfunctional as increasingly insular.
Meant to celebrate the outstanding built work of the last 25 years in and around L.A., the exhibition instead is marked by fault lines, generation gaps and subtle power plays. It makes clear that the city’s most talented and ambitious young architects are struggling to complete even small projects in an increasingly dense and risk-averse city and step out of the wide, insistent shadow cast by their world-famous older colleagues.
More than anything the show seems confused: about its goals, about its point of view, about how much it wants to reveal to the public.
Just for starters, along those lines: It is not clear, as you walk through the exhibition, what it is called. Or who curated it. Or who designed the exhibits. Or, in the end, what it hopes to communicate about the wide variety of work on view and its relationship to Los Angeles.
Christopher Mount, who organized the exhibition and brought it to MOCA, is now barely a presence at all; a line at the bottom of the opening wall text reads, “Original concept by Christopher Mount, guest curator,” a phrase that sounds more like the product of a legal settlement than a curatorial credit.
For the last month or so, the show has been run from the Culver City offices of Morphosis, the architecture firm headed by Thom Mayne. Deitch acknowledged as much in a panel discussion about the exhibition on June 18, thanking Mayne for rescuing it and calling its revival “a miracle.”
“Thom put together a team,” Deitch said, “that in a very short amount of time took a foundering exhibition and made it into something extraordinary.”
But the only official reference inside the museum you’ll get to Mayne’s role is an indirect one. On a separate panel of wall text Anne Marie Burke, former head of communications and business development at Morphosis, is credited as project manager for the exhibition.
This second bit of text, this shadow boilerplate, does suggest some of the remarkable last-minute energy that was necessary just to get the installation up. It includes a section listing 17 people who helped with “pedestal fabrication.”
And the name of the exhibition? There apparently wasn’t quite time in the mad dash to get that detail nailed down.
Just outside the entrance to the Geffen hangs a banner announcing the show. Mount’s original title, “A New Sculpturalism,” has been scratched out with jagged white lines and the words “Contemporary Californian Architects” added along the bottom.
Inside, at the entrance to the show itself, the jagged lines are back, but they are accompanied this time by a different phrase, “Contemporary Architecture Comes from Southern California,” which is closer to the original subtitle of the show (“Contemporary Architecture from Southern California”).
Nearby, on one of those pedestals, stands a catalog of the show wrapped inside a new white cover. Here the updated logo is credited to graphic designer Willem Henri Lucas.
A telling title
To make the tumble down the rabbit hole even more entertaining, when I asked Burke and MOCA communications director Lyn Winter what title I should use in writing about the exhibition, they both said “A New Sculpturalism.”
The act of scratching out the original title while also insisting it’s intact and fully operational is not just typical of recent double-speak from MOCA. It is also emblematic of the odd way in which the show has been rescued — and the muddled story it tells about contemporary architecture in Los Angeles.
First, the rescue. The aggression of those jagged lines suggests that the exhibition is not being saved as much as remade, the original concept rubbed out.
The gesture, in turn, signals something of the sensibility of the architects who now stand astride the local scene, including Mayne, Frank Gehry and Eric Owen Moss. They make up the core of the L.A. architecture establishment. Gehry is arguably the most famous architect in the world. Like Mayne he’s won a Pritzker Prize. Moss is director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
And yet these architects — influenced deeply by the antiwar politics of the 1960s and the counterculture, having cast themselves for so long as rebels and outsiders, actively challenging the dogmas and conservatism of conventional practice — naturally have a hard time thinking of themselves as the privileged ones, despite all the plaques hanging on their walls and fancy invitations filling their mailboxes.
That ambivalence, combined with the machismo that has always been part of Mayne’s public persona, leads directly to decisions like the one to scratch out the original logo and replace it with something proudly slapdash and unrefined. It’s the logo of powerful architects behaving as though they are still underdogs, still marginalized and misunderstood.
To be clear, I was no fan of Mount’s initial approach. Relying so heavily on the notion of “sculpturalism” seemed to define the important Southern California architecture of the last quarter-century in a supremely narrow way, singling out form and aesthetics at the expense of all the other ways that buildings are made and operate in contemporary Los Angeles.
But at least his goal was clear. Mount was ready to make an argument about new and recent L.A. architecture that could have been debated in straightforward and maybe productive terms.
Now that the theme of “New Sculpturalism” has been banished, what’s left? For the most part, a hodgepodge of work from the last 25 years by a group of roughly three dozen Los Angeles firms, many — but not all — of which have put bold form-making at the center of their approach.
At least superficially, the new show looks a lot like the one Mount was planning. The cast of characters is mostly the same, as the exhibition tries to trace a line of connection from older architects such as Mayne, Moss and the late Franklin Israel — founding members of the so-called L.A. School — to midcareer figures and emerging offices.
Though a planned entry pavilion to the show by the talented firm Ball-Nogues Studio couldn’t be finished in time, three other pavilions big enough to walk into (by Tom Wiscombe, Elena Manferdini and the firm Patterns) are lined up at the start of the exhibition.
There is strong work here by Michael Maltzan, Barbara Bestor, Johnston Marklee, Lorcan O’Herlihy and Daly Genik. In formal terms most of it hovers somewhere between sculptural and a more straightforward neo-modernism.
Many of the notable projects, particularly those by Maltzan and Daly Genik, are deeply engaged in questions relating to housing policy and other political issues, though you would never know that from this display. Wiscombe’s all-black pavilion, sleek and monolithic at the same time, is superb.
The catalog for the show, which Mount edited, and the revamped exhibition both celebrate Southern California as a laboratory for architectural innovation. But the designs on view tell a more complicated story; at least indirectly, they suggest all the ways in which it is tougher now than it was 25 years ago to find the land, clients and building permits to pursue experimental work.
Few if any of the young architects included in the show have built as much as Moss, Israel and Mayne had by the time they reached their mid-40s; instead many are best known for producing temporary installations like the ones lined up at the entrance to the show.
That fact alone is enough to raise the tricky issue of what it means to work in the shadow of world-famous architects like Gehry and Mayne, who are still scooping up major commissions at ages 84 and 69, respectively. Meanwhile the talented young architects of Tokyo and a handful of other cities are now building on a scale, and with an innovative streak, that easily outpaces the emerging firms in and around L.A.
A few elements in the resuscitated show break from the original concept. The exhibition includes a number of unbuilt projects, a reversal of Mount’s misguided insistence that it feature only completed work. Certain architects — Greg Lynn, Neil Denari and Mayne’s former partner Michael Rotondi, most obviously — have a bigger presence now. So, it must be said, does Morphosis; the firm’s design for the Phare Tower on the edge of Paris stands at the center of the remade show both literally and symbolically, paternally standing guard over projects by younger firms.
The planned exhibition design, by the L.A. firm Chu + Gooding, has been scrapped in favor of an intentionally plain approach — lots of white models standing in front of white walls — that doesn’t flatter the projects on view. Ribbon-like video boards have been hung near the ceiling, and QR codes lead visitors with smartphones to online material about the featured firms. The lighting is uneven.
The projects meanwhile are divided into categories based on building type. The largest sections cover residential work, the smallest civic architecture.
And then there’s Gehry. Mount wanted to feature his firm prominently, but Gehry wound up withdrawing, saying he was concerned about the seriousness of the exhibition.
Once Mount was sidelined, Mayne and others coaxed Gehry back and gave him his own gallery, in what is usually the Geffen’s reading room, to show his firm’s second-place entry in a recent design competition for a new National Museum of China. It is a perfect spot for Gehry given his longstanding anxieties about being included in group shows, a way for him to signal some solidarity with the other architects in the show without having to actually swim in the same pool.
The biggest change in the exhibition since the Morphosis rescue has been to make the show even more insular than it was before, which is saying something.
Mount had little or no interest in addressing politics, ecology, the rise of so-called public interest design or that the 25-year period he was examining happened to be the period that L.A. became an unmistakably Latino city. But as a curator he was at least hoping to reach a wide audience with a populist (if superficial) approach.
As installed the exhibition is even more unapologetically a celebration of white male architecture, floating in a bubble of its own making, hardly pausing even to glance in the direction of contemporary Los Angeles and its cultural complexity.
Many of the remade show’s problems can be explained, of course, by how little time the new team of organizers had to work with. But the steps it takes to close ranks against the outside world — against politics, demographics and even judgment — seem pointed and strategic.
To a large extent that stance reflects Mayne’s own evolving views on the relationship between architecture and its public. In the recent panel discussion he argued forcefully that it is up to architects alone and never curators, critics or historians to define architecture’s agenda and meaning.
But there are quite a few architects in the exhibition (and I suspect many officials at the Getty Foundation, which has invested $445,000 in it) who oppose that idea.
And for good reason: It is a recipe for the profession’s isolation and ultimately its irrelevance.
When architects decide that they’re interested only in talking to — or worse, designing for — one another, the result is a display as hermetically sealed and politically naive as this one.
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