MAK Center for Art and Architecture
835 North Kings Road
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Through July 23
Although Seeking Zohn, an exhibition now on display at the Schindler House hosted by MAK Center for Art and Architecture, focuses a spotlight on the career of the Mexican architect Alejandro Zohn (1930–2000), it wouldn’t be exactly right to call it a monographic exhibition. And while it is largely composed of photographs of the architect’s work, it also wouldn’t be accurate to call it an architectural photography exhibition. It is, instead, a portrait of a man through the afterlives of his products.
As a Jewish Austrian refugee who would later establish a prolific architecture career in Guadalajara, Mexico, Zohn’s career is similarly difficult to categorize within the canon of late modern architecture. Virtually unknown outside of Mexico, he maintained a successful career designing civic and commercial buildings in his adopted city through negotiations between the ordering principles of modern architecture and the eclectic built environment of midcentury Guadalajara.
Curated by Los Angeles–based Mimi Zeiger and Tony Macarena, a Mexico-based “design queeratorial duo” composed of Lorena Canales and Alejandro Olávarri, Seeking Zohn is concerned less with the original purposes of Zohn’s buildings than how they have intersected with the civic life of Mexico’s second largest city in the decades since the works were completed. For this exploration, the curators commissioned six artists to interpret Zohn’s structures, giving license to portray those structures however they wished, to together paint a picture of an aging city by focusing on a single architecture career.
“We were not interested in approaching Zohn’s career as historians,” Zeiger told AN on-site, “because his buildings are simply not frozen in time.”
Like Soft Schindler, Zeiger’s exhibition on Rudolph Schindler held at the MAK Center in 2019, Seeking Zohn reanimates the career of a male modernist architect without the predictable gendered framing typically imposed upon them. In both cases, the exercise arrived at entirely new interpretations.
In a small alcove, Sonia Madrigal profiles Atzhiri Paulina Sánchez, a woman that visited Edificio Mulbar, a parking structure designed by Zohn in 1974, to reportedly take a photograph of a sunset before her death by femicide in 2019. “In Mexico, every day more than ten women are murdered for reasons pertaining to their gender,” Madrigal wrote in the exhibition catalog. The violence of conservative gender divisions plays out just as easily in the supposedly enlightened compositions of modernist spaces as in any other, it seems. Across from several intimately composed photographs of the building’s architectural details, Madrigal stages a large-scale photograph of the pinkish-blue sunset that Sánchez was tragically denied.
In a series of tightly arranged photographs, Onnis Luque documents the present living conditions of INFO33, a collective housing project completed in 1979. Compositions of graffiti, paint jobs, renovations and other markers of time and usage, juxtaposed against detailed portraits of a few of the building’s residents, depict a building worn in like a well-made pair of jeans. “Each [of these appropriations] displays an identity,” Luque wrote in the exhibition catalog, “that counters the prototypical homogenization and the unity of the modern ideal.” Hard materials familiar to a modernist palette—brick, concrete, and glass—are apparently softened by their necessary engagement with the city’s pedestrian-centric character.
Attempting to import the everyday aesthetics of the markets of Guadalajara to Los Angeles, the French furniture and product designer Fabien Cappello places several hojalata (“tin art”) objects throughout the exhibition space at floor level. The result is a smooth visual dialogue between the delicate metal vases, chandeliers, and watering cans with the equally functionalist yet romantic qualities of the Schindler House. Though Cappello’s contributions to the exhibition are those that are least related to Zohn’s career, they effectively mediate between the surrounding photographs of the architect’s built work—all more than 1,500 miles away from Los Angeles—and the material qualities of the exhibition space itself.
Though the show engages a small fraction of the architect’s complete body of work, Seeking Zohn gets at the heart of what the modern movement in architecture would achieve at its best: the facilitation of many ways of life—as well as the many experiences possible—within the contemporary city.
Shane Reiner-Roth is a lecturer at the University of Southern California.