Wednesday, 20 July 2011

City of Angels

When I began this blog last summer I had in mind that it could act as a sounding board for ideas that arose from my doctoral research. I also wanted to practice writing – as writing down what it is that I am thinking is proving to be just about the hardest thing about this PhD (second only to generating the thoughts in the first place). This blog was also principally born of the fear that the formless summer months, devoid of the structures of teaching and fortnightly seminars, would swamp me – and as they swing around again I have the same worry, hence this post!

The topics covered in this blog so far are somewhat of a hodge-podge, perhaps with a few unifying themes such as architecture and class, housing and the role of the architect. I am not going become anxious over the apparent lack of coherence between the posts on this blog, because it’s actually a fairly accurate approximation of my thoughts most of the time - skipping from one thing to the next with scant regard for how the whole may hold together. But the ‘whole’ is on my mind at the minute. I am trying to write a short statement about my project to date, for the purposes of a university procedure, and while it is tedious, it is forcing me to reflect on the bigger picture as opposed to the minutia that usually preoccupy me. Having said all that I’m not going to try and sum up the entirety of my Phd here, instead I want to write a post about another seemingly divergent subject – Los Angeles. It does relate to my research though, in more ways than I had anticipated. 

Way back in September 2010, I was searching for Nikolaus Pevsner’s archive – he worked on and edited The Architectural Review with Jim Richards for many years and I hoped his archive might contain elusive documentary material about the running of the magazine. Pevsner’s papers, I soon found out, are owned by the J. Paul Getty Institute and available at the Getty Research Library in Los Angeles. After a month of agonizing over the application form and several months waiting for the verdict, I received a Getty Research Library Grant, which allowed me three weeks in LA to consult not only the Pevsner papers but several other collections as well. 

The research was great – new material, new ideas, etc, but Los Angeles was quite something.

Let me start however with a negative aspect of my visit. The absolute worst thing about L.A. in four words was the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Seeing the concert hall, in downtown L.A. was the moment I decided that I have seen enough Frank Gehry buildings. I don’t ever want to see another Frank Gehry, ever again. In fact, I’ll say it - I hate Frank Gehry.

Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall 
Earlier in the year I visited Zurich (another archival trip) and while in Switzerland thought it opportune to go to the Vitra factory in Basel. With the exception of the 2008 Serpentine Gallery Pavillion, the Vitra Museum and Gallery was my first real life Gehry experience. Coincidently, at the time of my visit there was a retrospective exhibition of Gehry’s work on at the Museum and printed on the exhibition wall, among various other quotes, were the words of Marty Filler who described Gehry’s architecture as “logo-tecture”. This phrase, logo-tecture, like the term starchitect, sums up Gehry’s buildings which, like all good branding, are instantly recognizable and are identical, regardless of context. 

Gehry's Museum and Gallery, Vitra, Basel
It is the disregard for context that is so irritating about Gehry’s architecture. Its not the monumental and spectacular nature of his designs but the fact that there is no more to them than that. Unlike the spectacular architecture of Las Vegas, which celebrates glamour, luxury, frivolity and the purely visual, Frank Gehry buildings are empty shells. The Walt Disney Concert Hall reflects the downtown surroundings from the polished stainless steel exterior but has no relationship to the city. Gehry, who purportedly “doesn’t do context”, appears to believe his buildings relate only to him, to his creative process and in doing so he ignores the place of history in his architecture – something which as a historian I find very irritating.

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Las Vegas Strip
Fantasy architecture, Las Vegas
By way of contrast, the Gehry designed Museum in Vitra is flanked by a small, anonymous sheet metal shed. This anonymous shed was an example of the mass produced architecture developed by Jean Prouvé in post Second World War France. This type of standardised design that repeats shapes to create architecture that can sit anywhere, may appear to neglect context in the way that Gehry does. However, the Prouve shed does something very different, it allows the use and context to construct meaning around the architecture; Gehry’s buildings bring their own meanings and struggle against anything that attempts to impact or effect this meaning (mainly people who use the building).

Back in Los Angeles and just down the road from Gehry’s concert hall in the city's Downtown is the County Hall of Records designed by Richard Neutra. While the Hall of Records has its own problems – described by Reyner Banham as “neither tough-minded nor sensitive, nor architectural monuments, nor Pop extravaganzas” – it does at least relate to the streets around it.

Downtown is a marked departure from the architecture of the rest of the city of Los Angeles, again Banham describes it best when as a place full of “memorials to a certain insecurity of spirit among timid souls who cannot bear to go with the flow of Angeleno life”. In other words, Downtown L.A. contains the vestiges of mid to late twentieth century attempts to emulate the architectural practices of more conventional cities (New York for example) but in doing so they ignored the unique urbanism of Los Angeles. 

That said, down town was home to one of my favourite L.A. buildings – Union Station. Against my better judgement – I am sucker for a bit of Art Deco (I think it can be a bit politically suspect, at times offering glitz over substance). Nowhere I have ever been does Art Deco like Los Angeles, and no-where that I visited in Los Angeles does Art Deco like Union Station. Jim Richards deplored Art Deco in Castles on the Ground he used his usual style of ‘damning with faint praise’ to describe the suburban Odeon cinema as “glamorous in chromium plate” – glamour was another word for fashion and to Richards’ mind fashion was the antithesis of architecture, which should be universal. However, Richards did admire the popular appeal Art Deco managed to attract and it is the celebration of the everyday through glamorisation, which draws me to Art Deco buildings.

Something I think Richards would have liked about L.A. are the cottages. While there are blocks of Condominiums (condos), much of L.A.’s housing is made up of single story dwellings that are partly responsible for the cities extensive sprawl, but also a symbols of the city’s basis in individualism and penchant for what Banham called “doing your own thing”. While these streets and streets of detached, low rise houses may not fit into Modernist ideas about urban planning or Townscape, they do represent a vernacular style. Richards worked tirelessly to promote the idea of a vernacular Modernism with varying degrees of success.

Towards the end of my stay I ventured to the outskirts of L.A. to Pasadena where, following in Banham’s footsteps (see Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles) I found the ancestor of the L.A. cottage (or the California cottage as is spreads throughout the state), the Gamble House.

The limited knowledge that I had of the house prior to my visit came straight from histories of Modern architecture. In these design history narratives the Gamble House, with it’s Arts and Craft styling was grouped into the ‘ancestors of Modernism’ category along with William Morris and the Red House. Thus, when I arrived, sweaty and disorientated from my walk from Pasadena station (much further than the map indicated – note, all distances in L.A. are measured by driving, not walking) I was ready to see the honesty in construction and use of materials in the house, which had foreshadowed the Modern Movement. 

However, the guided tour administered by a dedicated volunteer was a lesson in the role of discourses in the construction of meaning around buildings and objects. By discourses I mean a specific way of thinking and talking about something. The tour was based on a completely different set of values and ideas to those of the design history discourses I had previously engaged with. While the honesty of construction in the building was commented on, it was not as a symptom of architectural Modernism but as a testament to craftsmanship and local traditions. The house was presented through the biographies of not only its’ architects, the brothers Charles and Henry Greene, but also it’s owners David and Mary Gamble. I hasten to add that I am not suggesting the discourse of the tour was any less significant or important than the discourse of design history, but the contrast between the two was an invaluable reminder that anything I (or anyone) write or say about a building is determined by a discursive context (what we read, watch, listen to) and in turn constructs a discourse about the object that coexists (and perhaps contradicts) all other interpretations.

Reyner Banham created a new discourse about L.A. in his book An Architecture in Four Ecologies – rather than criticise the city through the accepted criteria of urban planning, Banham approached L.A. on it’s own terms and while still acknowledging its’ problems and idiosyncrasies found things to love about it. I loved L.A. too, except the Concert Hall of course. 

Venice Beach Mural 
Individualised houses, Venice Beach

Some of the other things I loved about L.A...
China Town
Dilapidated Deco 
Hollywood Hills


  1. omg these are amazing buildings!!

    hope you'll visit

  2. What an interesting point about Gehry, and looking at it in a fresh light, I have to say I completely agree with you. How out of place it looks! You may dislike the comparison with fashion but to me it kind of looks like a woman wearing a Chanel bag with everything she owns - expecting it to make its own statement without working with it.

  3. Ah, I love the comparison with fashion... although I would compare Gehry to a Louis Vuitton Graffiti bag rather than a Chanel, because he believes he is providing a piece of timeless design, but actually it's a fashion statement that clashes with everything and speaks only about itself rather than the people that use it.

    Actually, I'm really enjoying this architecture/handbag comparison - Thanks! I could definitely make a whole blog post just on this theme, any more suggestions welcome.

  4. Chic an dstylish! follow each other darling? Kisses