Here’s a current-events quiz of a truly depressing kind: What do Walt Disney Concert Hall, the shiny, stainless-steel Bean sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park and the headquarters of the New York Times have in common?
The short answer is that they all star in a bilious, minute-long video ad released by the National Rifle Assn. at the end of June. The more revealing one is that they were designed by people who are either Jewish (in the case of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall) or born outside the United States (as with Anish Kapoor’s Bean, an Instagram staple officially called “Cloud Gate,” and Renzo Piano’s New York Times tower).
The ad appeared one day before Infowars, the conspiracy-happy website founded by Alex Jones, posted a video even more screed-like than the NRA’s, which is saying something, called “Why Modern Architecture Sucks: And How It’s Used as a Tool of Social Engineering.” (A sample: “The globalists’ goal is to make the whole planet identical in its atomizing dreariness. By dulling our senses, they hope to dull our very life essence.”) It came two days before President Trump tweeted a GIF of himself wrestling to the ground and pummeling a man with a CNN logo where his head ought to have been. Oh, and four days before the country celebrated the 241st anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Quite the long weekend.
“They use their media to assassinate real news,” begins the NRA video, narrated by talk-radio host Dana Loesch, over moody black-and-white footage of the New York Times building. “They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler.”
Manhattan is only the appetizer. Anybody familiar with videos of this kind knows the real Gomorrah is on the West Coast. So we get a quick cut to images of the Hollywood sign, the Los Angeles Times building, the downtown skyline and, finally, Disney Hall, as Loesch spits out more charges: “They use their movie stars, singers, comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.”
At this point, we’re only 14 seconds in and it’s immediately clear who “they” is meant to refer to: urbanites, writers and artists, which is to say also the foreign-born, the gay, the nonwhite, the Jewish, the Muslim. The nonbelievers. The pacifists on the Pacific.
If that part of the equation isn’t hard to solve, the relationship between the architecture of Los Angeles and the NRA’s message is fuzzier. The L.A. Times building (designed by Gordon Kaufmann, an architect generally remembered as Jewish, though his biographers say he may not have described himself that way) appears not in the media section at the start of the ad but just as Loesch is moving from “movie stars” to “singers” in her list of those who belong in the crosshairs. (No need to mince nouns: Rifle is literally the NRA’s middle name.) Disney Hall, for its part, flashes on the screen just as we’re hearing about “award shows.”
Precision is not the goal here. The A-roll and the B-roll don’t quite match. Instead, the NRA is happy to lump together as many symbols of cosmopolitanism and the culture industries as it can in 60 seconds’ time. The chosen buildings are meant to suggest how fully the various landscapes of American urbanism — architectural, political, academic and financial — are dominated by the same handful of elite institutions.
That message is familiar. Chillingly so. But in L.A.’s case, there’s a twist. Hollywood itself has often felt a similar urge to distance itself from innovative or experimental (which in California has often meant Jewish) architecture. It has characterized modernist houses in particular as deviant — owned by criminals or the mentally unstable — as a way to shore up its populist or heartland bona fides.
In “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” still the best documentary ever made about the city and its architecture, director Thom Andersen wonders why “modernist architecture connotes epicene villainy” in so many movies. (“The most celebrated episode in Hollywood’s war against modern architecture is ‘L.A. Confidential.’ Richard Neutra’s Lovell house, the first great manifestation of the International Style in Southern California, plays the home of Pierce Patchett, pornographer, pimp, prince of the shadow city where whatever you desire is for sale.”) Gabriel Kahane asks a similar question in a song called “Villains,” from his 2014 L.A.-themed (and architecture-obsessed) record “The Ambassador.” It begins: “Why do villains/ Always live in houses/ Built by modernist masters?”
Here’s what the NRA ad makes clear: After a presidential campaign that largely broke along urban and nonurban lines, the class of villains that unconventional architecture stands in for has expanded exponentially, at least as far as certain culture-war activists are concerned. The target they’re eager to paint is citywide, which is to say the target is cities themselves, the free thinking they represent and everyone who chooses to live in them. All Angelenos — and our dulled life essences — now qualify.
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