Just in the way of Raymond Chandler, this spring and summer’s Pacific Standard Time Presents (PSTP) exhibits showed us that things in LA aren’t necessarily what we thought they were. It turns out that we are the city of Victor Gruen and William Pereira as well as of Charles Eames and Frank Gehry.
The next question is, can we handle this?
Taken together, the eleven southland exhibits in the series lay to rest the old yarn that LA’s only significant contribution to world architecture is the Modern single-family house. PSTP’s mothership exhibit at the Getty, Overdrive: Los Angeles Constructs the Future 1940–1990, told the same stories of design innovation in commercial and public architecture as we’ve come to appreciate in those beautiful steel and glass houses for which we’re famous. Drawing on three decades of new scholarship, “Overdrive” sets a broad stage for a new story with buildings that have rarely been seen in exhibits: the high rises of Sidney Eisenshtat and Claud Beelman; the high-tech campuses of Kem Weber and A.C. Martin; the coffee shops, car dealerships, and shopping centers of Armet and Davis, John Lautner, and Edward Killingsworth; the housing tracts of Palmer and Krisel and Edward Fickett, and so on.
It’s about time. An entire social-urban engine generates such wide-ranging design, not a small group of avant-garde architects. Two key exhibits—Windshield Perspective at the Architecture and Design Museum and In Focus: Ed Ruscha at the Getty—concentrated our focus on the layered, colliding, intertwined, pragmatic vernacular environment of this LA. The creative ideas embedded in this popular and vernacular landscape echoes through many of the other exhibits.
Through this lens of diversity, even our most famous architecture looks different. The solidly researched and original approach taken by Cal Poly Pomona’s exhibit Technology and Environment: the Postwar House in Southern California, rescued the single-family residence from the gilded cage of fashionableness by analyzing the bones beneath their glamorous steel and glass skins: These beautiful creatures have real jobs moderating the sun and heat, real souls serving their residents day by day.
Though small, this exhibit drew on an admirably broad cross section of work in the 1940–1990 period, including examples by Ray Kappe, Charles Moore, Frank Gehry, Raphael Soriano, Schindler—everything from Modern to Postmodern.
Two other exhibits highlighted the fact that we don’t really know what we thought we knew about two specific offices: the UC Santa Barbara Art, Design & Architecture Museum’s Outside In: The architecture of Smith and Williams, and the Hammer’s A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living. Yet both exhibits raise the troubling question, why have such major, prolific talents been overlooked by our major institutions for decades? And why are we still overlooking other influential architects, such as Stiles O. Clements, Douglas Honnold, George Vernon Russell, Harold Levitt, and Millard Sheets?
This is a complex question. In many ways, Southern California has been blessed by the absence of a strongly rooted critical, historical, and publishing establishment. In other architectural centers such entrenched establishments have enforced an oppressive orthodoxy, while our generally benign, laissez-faire attitude has allowed John Lautner’s spirit of experiment and Wayne McAllister’s pragmatic creativity to flourish.
Will PSTP’s avalanche of new information produce a narrow, orthodox architectural culture, or encourage experiment and diversity? On this question will rest the ultimate judgment of PSTP.
Indeed, some of PSTP seems to be under the thrall of avant-garde nostalgia—the deeply rooted Modernist belief that architecture is led by a handful of architects who push away the boundaries of design and form. Fully three of the nine institutions participating focused on one group of architects (sometimes called the LA School) who emerged in the 1970s to become well-known locally and globally: SCI-Arc’s A Confederacy of Heretics, MAK Center’s Everything Loose Will Land, and MOCA’s A New Sculpturalism.
The victors are claiming their time-honored right to write history. These are good architects who deserve to be part of the story. But this much attention throws PSTP out of balance—as demonstrated by the almost complete absence of Charles Moore, another profound presence in the 1970s. Today’s urbanism sorely needs his perspective on place, history, and popular taste.
Even more out of place among the curatorial gems unearthed in other PSTP exhibits is LACMA’s The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA. The title seems to promise fresh insights into William Pereira, the influential Southern California architect who designed LACMA’s original buildings. But the continuum from the city’s past identity to the proposed Zumthor LACMA replacement remains unexamined.
Southern California’s antidote to orthodoxy is its democratic streak, well represented by historian Charles Phoenix’s PSTP talk for the Getty. Phoenix revives the populist documentation of photographer John Margolies and archivist David Greenberg’s Environmental Communications. If one of Southern California’s great contributions to world Modernism is its embrace of pleasure (and it is), Phoenix captures the sheer delight of architecture more vividly than anyone since Reyner Banham.
Raymond Chandler taught us that knowledge is usually attained at a price. We Angelenos have been pleased with our international reputation as the city of the classy Case Study houses. Will we be reluctant to embrace a reputation as a diverse, democratic, suburban metropolis throwing off creative sparks across the entire spectrum of class, ethnicity, and taste?
The test will come when we see how—and if—our major institutions follow through on the subjects PSTP raises and left out.