It took me a few weeks to catch on, but the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Presents series, whose final shows come to a close Sunday and Monday, wasn’t notable just as a wide-ranging reassessment of Southern California’s postwar architecture.
It was just as revealing — maybe even more revealing — as a collection of institutional self-portraits. Nearly every exhibition in the series said as much about the ideals, ambitions and leadership of the museum or school that organized it as it did about architecture and urbanism in Los Angeles.
The Getty produced a classically Getty-esque presentation in “Overdrive,” the anchor exhibition in the series: smart, thorough, well-starched and rather Olympian in its determination to tell a comprehensive, far-reaching story. SCI-Arc mounted a show, “A Confederacy of Heretics,” about SCI-Arc, starring a number of SCI-Arc faculty past and present, that resembled a self-congratulatory hall of mirrors. The opportunistic, expansion-minded Los Angeles County Museum of Art used the series to pitch — on the Getty’s dime, no less — a new design for its campus by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.
The Architecture and Design Museum, always plucky but sometimes prone to shoot itself in the foot, positioned a minor exhibition, “Windshield Perspective,” as its designated PSTP show. That left a much bigger and more fascinating A+D show, “Never Built Los Angeles,” outside the Getty’s charmed circle and doomed its curators, Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, to rounds of hat-in-hand fundraising.
And the Museum of Contemporary Art? The chaos surrounding its “New Sculpturalism” show, with Frank Gehry quitting and then rejoining the exhibition and Thom Mayne and his handpicked team taking over from the original curator, Christopher Mount, mirrored the chaos in the museum’s executive suite in the run-up to Jeffrey Deitch’s departure as director.
Taken together, what the shows suggest most of all is that architecture remains something of a curatorial stepchild both at the Getty Foundation and at the participating museums. Compared to the Getty’s first Pacific Standard Time effort in 2011, which focused on the visual arts and produced perhaps half a dozen top-notch shows, the architecture exhibitions were as a group noticeably less intellectually ambitious.
The central reason is simple: Few of the major museums taking part have dedicated architecture curators on staff, even as part-timers. When the Getty Foundation announced a series of major grants to launch PSTP, curators at each museum with expertise in other areas — or hired guns brought in from outside — moved to fill that vacuum, sometimes out of necessity and other times out of self-interest.
As a result, some of the exhibitions became less about architectural scholarship and more aboutan institution promoting itself, pleasing or motivating major donors or burnishing its self-image.
That’s not to say that the series didn’t include a number of strong shows. But the strongest rarely seemed to echo themes found in other exhibitions. Instead, they found room to operate on the PSTP margins, exploiting or taking pains to protect their curatorial independence.
A case in point was “Everything Loose Will Land,” the show that UCLA historian and critic Sylvia Lavin organized with the MAK Center’s Kimberli Meyer and installed at the Schindler House in West Hollywood. It was a standout, exploring topics overlooked elsewhere in the series, including feminism, the environmental movement and the long history of intellectual traffic in L.A. between artists and architects.
Other strong but peripheral contributions included the Huntington’s online-only exploration of the Southern California Edison photo archive — bolstered by essays from D.J. Waldie, Eric Avila and others — and a series of tours and special events organized by Echo Park’s Machine Project.
The big-ticket PSTP shows, by contrast, fell into one of three main categories. Some were carefully and beautifully mounted and a bit over-earnest (“Overdrive” and the Hammer Museum’s tribute to A. Quincy Jones).
Others were marked by red flags and conflicts of interest (at SCI-Arc and MOCA, especially). The third group was rather plainly self-promotional (LACMA’s study of its Wilshire Boulevard site, which doubled as a way to unveil the Zumthor design).
In terms of content and thematic emphasis, the shows spent altogether too much time exploring the single-family house and the legacy of big corporate firms at the expense of more political or more surprising topics.
I compiled a list over the summer of the PSTP shows I wished somebody had organized. I would have loved to have seen a monographic exhibition on the career of Charles Moore or Albert Frey, two figures of increasing interest to younger architects and historians.
A show on the influence of helicopters on L.A. architecture is overdue. So is one on the pioneering female writers and critics — Jean Murray Bangs, Esther McCoy and Pauline Schindler, among others — who helped shape the narrative of modern architecture in L.A.
There was very little in the series on the materials — the use of stucco, glass, corrugated metal and chain link, to pick just the most obvious examples — that gave the L.A. architecture of the 20th century such a particular, singular character. There was virtually nothing on how successive waves of Latino immigration have changed the architectural and urban character of the city.
An update of Thom Andersen’s documentary of how the city shows up (and disguises itself) on film, “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” might have considered how 21st century L.A. looks not just in movies but also on Instagram, TMZ and in video games such as “Grand Theft Auto.”
The consistent sense I got in visiting the various PSTP shows was how many of them messily or cannily exploited the Getty’s rather hands-off oversight of the series. In some cases, this led to happy results, as in Lavin’s “Everything Loose,” which reveled in how different it wanted to be from the Hammer and Getty shows and turned the very notion of ad-hoc, freewheeling improvisation to terrific curatorial advantage.
In other cases, it let museums and institutions either pat themselves on the back or get in over their heads. The MOCA debacle got the most press in this regard. But for me, the SCI-Arc exhibition “A Confederacy of Heretics,” which looked back at a series of 1979 shows organized by Mayne, was equally telling.
Its curators, Todd Gannon, Ewan Branda and Andrew Zago, pledged from the start that their show wouldn’t be a piece of hagiography, despite that many of its main subjects — Eric Owen Moss, Gehry and Mayne, in particular — sit atop the school’s leadership structure. But the title alone suggests how much trouble they had keeping that promise.
In the baby boomer-inflected lingua franca of SCI-Arc, where the stars of the faculty still like to think of themselves as rebels and the 1960s, philosophically speaking, have barely ended, “Confederacy of Heretics” is how you say “Hall of Fame.”