The southern California architecture scene just received a well-deserved slap in the face from local critic Christopher Hawthorne. In a recent Los Angeles Times review of A New Sculpturalism, at the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Hawthorne labeled the exhibition the product of “an architectural ruling class in Los Angeles that is not so much dysfunctional as increasingly insular.” The city, which considers itself a leader, or the leader of American architectural experimentation and creativity, may see Hawthorne’s review as simply a criticism of a failed exhibition. But it is more accurately a condemnation of a scene that is top heavy with a few design stars, a local educational model that promotes the notion of individual genius, and a culture that celebrates formal innovation over civic engagement.
I once had a prominent L.A. architect claim when I asked him to suggest good architecture writers, “we don’t need criticism here because our buildings are critical and they carry on an architectural debate with the history of the city and our contemporaries!” Well that may be true in the mind of a few star L.A. architects but Hawthorne believes that the MOCA exhibit is a troubling sign “that the city’s most talented and ambitious young architects are struggling to complete for 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.” He blames these older colleagues, including one—Thom Mayne—who stepped in and reinstalled the MOCA exhibit when the museum pushed aside its original curator, Christopher Mount, for creating an exhibition that “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.”
A review of this “confused” exhibit is hardly the most important criticism that Hawthorne is leveling here. Rather, he is bravely taking on the leaders of the city’s architectural establishment. He writes that Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, and Eric Owen Moss who though they are “influenced deeply by the antiwar politics of the 1960s and the counterculture, having cast themselves for so long as rebels and outsiders,” are behaving “as though they are still underdogs, still marginalized and misunderstood.” It may seem odd that this city, which prides itself on a lack of tradition, has evolved an architectural culture that is un-generously strangling its younger generation of architects. Hawthorne—who represents a newer voice in the California city—is supporting this younger generation who must sometimes feel overwhelmed by the legacy of the older generation, who are still winning competitions and getting big commissions.
It is true that southern California is a center of a uniquely creative architecture—even New York’s own Ada Louise Huxtable admitted as much in her writings. New York has benefited in recent years from thrilling new structures by Neil Denari, Morphosis, Frederick Fisher, and Frank Gehry. But so much of Los Angeles public discourse and debate has the ring of Chamber of Commerce self-promotion (How many more exhibits and lectures can it produce on Austrian emigrant architects in L.A.?) and breast beating about what a great culture it has created. In fact, the rest of the country needs L.A.’s creative design spirit and lack of traditional tropes. It would be a shame if its design community does not take Hawthorne’s remarks to heart and reinvigorate its culture—much in the way it seems able to constantly spin out inspiring new architectural forms.