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05.29.2013
Review> About Face
Alan Hess reviews SCI-Arc's exhibition, Confederacy of Heretics, on a generation of architects that redefined Los Angeles.
View of the exhibition.
Joshua White

A Confederacy of Heretics:
The Architecture Gallery, Venice, 1979

SCI-Arc Gallery
960 East 3rd Street
Los Angeles
Through June 15

The ability to regenerate is in LA’s architectural DNA. It happened in the 1920s, in the 50s, and then again in the 70s—the subject of A Confederacy of Heretics at SCI-Arc, part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Presents series.

Curated by Todd Gannon, Ewan Branda, and Andrew Zago, it focuses on a group of young architects in the 70s and 80s, including Craig Hodgetts, Robert Mangurian, Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, Coy Howard, Frederick Fisher, Eugene Kupper, Eric Owen Moss, Peter de Bretteville, Frank Dimster, Frank Gehry, and Roland Coate, Jr.

This group is still making a mark on international architecture through buildings and teaching. Confederacy of Heretics invites us to observe the spirit of fresh exploration and rebellion that gave their ideas birth.

The 1960s and 70s demanded renewal. In the era of Nixon, there was plenty to rebel against. Mainstream modernism was stagnant. These “heretics” (the word traces back to the Greek word for “choice”) chose to strike out in many new directions.

Stamps, 1979, Morphosis Architects.
Courtesy Morphosis Architects
 
   
Left to right: Gehry Residence, 1978, Frank O. Gehry; Daniel Studio, 1980, Coy Howard; Five Condominiums, 1981, Eric Owen Moss.
Grant Mudford; Coy Howard; Tom Bonner
 

 

Where Modernism was highly polished, several of them picked and chose from the visual richness of LA’s commercial, industrial, and construction industry vernaculars, especially those seen in Venice (then still funky), where many had their offices—see Mayne and Rotondi’s messy Sedlak house. Where mainline modernism considered history taboo, some of these rebels helped themselves to traditional architectural forms. Where establishment modernism was intensely serious, these architects embraced the new age of pop, of Ruscha, Moses, and Oldenburg, of Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour, who awakened us to what was out there on the streets.

For all their rebellion, it was also the ongoing themes of LA architecture that drew them: the freedom to explore unconventional ideas, and the irresistible provocation of advancing technology.

Seven of the architects who participated in the Architecture Gallery, from left to right: Frederick Fisher, Robert Mangurian, Eric Owen Moss, Coy Howard, Craig Hodgetts, Thom Mayne, and Frank Gehry at Venice Beach, 1980.
Ave Pildas
 

Confederacy of Heretics shows us how these ideas energized this group of architects. The Alexander house by Roland Coate, Jr. draws from the sweeping forms of freeway engineering. Peter de Bretteville and Michael Rotondi’s Ajax Car Rental agency, a gem of FotoMat-like architecture, tunes up the big, bold graphic signs of the LA commercial strip. The pop/tech drawings of Craig Hodgetts and Robert Mangurian’s Southside Settlement house are annotated, grafittied, and ennobled with imprints of comic books, Jack in the Box wrappers, Fiorucci glam, toys, robots, and a sleek adding machine as handsomely crafted as anything recovered from King Tut’s tomb.

Just as this exhibit reveals the birth of deconstructivism (see Frank Gehry’s house), it also shows a rebellious interest in the history of architecture, which came to be labeled, then derided, as postmodernism. The classical symmetry and forms in Fred Fisher’s rock star drawing of a solar crematory were taboo in the world of late modernism. So is the Piranesian plan and presentation of Studio Works’ “The River and The City” model.

These days, the show’s gorgeous hand-drawn Prismacolor drawings may seem closer to the fine craftsmanship of Marion Mahony’s gorgeous prairie house renderings than to today’s fly-through CGI graphics. We may think of the 1970s as modern, but it is startling to realize that the pinnacle of high-craft presentation media then was the color Xerox machine, a medium used in many of these presentations. Imagine what a drag on creativity such a limitation would seem today—but look at what they coaxed out of it!

These buildings and ideas stand up. They are tied to L.A. They drew on its identity. And then they took the city in yet another new direction.

Alan Hess

Alan Hess is the architecture critic of the San Jose Mercury News.