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Incessant Ramblings on a Theme: Exploring the Architectural Landscape of Los Angeles and Southern California

(FRANK O. GEHRY: LOYOLA LAW SCHOOL 1984 (ARCHITECTURAL "GURU" AND CULT LEADER)

It is here, under the glare of the Southern California sunshine, that somehow we view ourselves differently. On the edge of the continent, ringed by mountains and surrounded by the desert or the sea, our isolationism has helped to foster the individualistic identity that we savor. It is from this forced persepctive that we try to connect ourselves to our environment—one that is both harsh and beautiful. It is an artificial paradise that we have created as our oasis in the midst of the wilderness.


We have forged an identity with this place and created our own version of Eden (not unlike the Pilgrims before us) in the hope that we can tackle the everydayness of our western culture with its brutal obsessiveness. It seems truly odd, not just ironic, that the building stock (in particular housing) in southern California is generally quite poor, both in quality and appearance. We continue to survive, buld, create and justify it all within this arbitrary dreamscape of a city we have envisioned in this latter part of the 20th century. Attempt are made to create a “place” that defines who we are as individuals as well as a community. Isn’t that one of the definitions of civilization? Yet attempting to define our present day culture is too introspective or myopic for our own good. We are too close to be objective. It is only within the continuity of history that we can find clarity. History grounds us and allows us a place to start, We all live in a world designed and constructed by our predecessors, with their own conceptions and morals and a code of ethics adopted by us that we now use to explain and define ourselves. We are constantly and conuming our everyday world, creating the appropriate environment for the moment. Our world has throwaway quality already built into it. Our only true reference point is where we have been and where we come from.

Since few of us in southern California are natives, we attach significance to our historical baggage along with a sense of disconnectedness that permeates our attitudes about inhabiting this place. We have lost some of the significant qualities that an indigenous history may provide. In allowing ourselves to become temporary citizens, like players on a stage acting out the appropriate fantasy, our real identities are lost within hedonistic pursuits of southern California.

And so it is with architecture. Buildings are a concrete manifestation of a forced reality of thoughts and ideas that make up who we are and what we do. They are our stage. We live in a meaning that others have projected for us. Originally, there was a sense of permanence built into earlier constructions, but that has been replaced by the surge of innovation. Our pursuit of newness has engulfed our cities and the landscape with a fury. We brazenly dispose of the unwanted or obsolete with ease. When we cannot build from the group up, we renovate, refurbish or just tear down. The world of construction is by its very nature kinetic and capricious. Our ability to remake our environment is staggering. But what is most astonishing is the gusto with which we have adopted this as our leading form of cultural self-expression. Through our vanity, we have created abominable excess. This self-perpetuating cycle of recreating ourselves over and over again, almost simultaneously, is an indulgent and consumptive set-up. It is an obvious trap we have set for ourselves. Within this limited context, without a more expansive framework, the archictural world shows little evidence social or environment concerns. It is an end within itself and means.

LUBOWICKI/LANIER: STRINGFELLOW RESIDENCE (AN INVITING JUXTAPOSTION OF MATERIALS)

Inthe world of the architectural landscape, here in southern California, we have what is called the Los Angeles School. or more precisely the Santa Monica School, a movement attributed to the reverend founding father and architectural demigod Frank O. Gehry. Gehry allowed for a great deal of freedom by opening the “norms” of architectural building and physically opening the building envelopes themselves. He allowed for a process of experimentation based on our benign climate and stage-set construction. His looseness has been an inspiration followed by a broad group of architectural thinkers and doers. Though self-conscious and expressive, the work has allowed for a broader range of architectural “types,” using sculptural, often organic, forms juxtaposed against geometric matrices. the next generation, those who take Gehry’s enlightened thinking on to the next level of departure or direction, begin to render and place their work in our everyday context. Colleagues Frederick Fisher, Franklin Israel, Barton Phelps and others, all Gehry descendents who initially copied, then interpreted, Gehry’s forms and philosophy, now appear to have established significant reputations for themselves while still continuing with the established rules and idioms of the architectural profession. Tjeir work blends the mastery of novel, clunky exterior forms and construction materials with pared-down interior shells.

Another faction within the School concerns itself with more theological and esoteric exercises within current architectural practice. Derived from a spacial order with imposed geometric principles, this work uses basic analogous drawing concepts as generators of form. It is through these apparent cosmic manipulations that buildings are spawned, along with detailed drawings, articulating the entire “process”. The finished buildings appear light and fragile, mere skins tautly strtched over flexible framing with single-paned glass used extensively. Their highly conscious individualism and quirkiness render them as calculated, almost unapproachable and at times, pretentious.

All practitioners within the school have a reverence for new, often raw, materials and their sublimation or manipulation. Their main objective is always to build buildings. It is commendable that they seek out commissions so they may realize their concepts. Not too long ago, architectural schools preached about the “death of architechture” and a subsequent stagnation was being proclaimed in a defiant gesture to all of the nonarchitecturally consulted development. Fortunately, few listened.

A new generation of younger, mre symapthetic designers and architects who care about their environment (on both macro and micro levels) is incorporating the humanistic qualiies lost in the avarice and greed of the superficiality in the 1980s. Works by heavy-handed masters, Peter Eisenman or Stanley Tigerman perhaps, whose self-proclaimed, quasi-Fascist, macho-maniacal exercises in abstraction that alienated everyone on purpose, couldn’t be further from the minds of this new generation of thinkers. Their renewed sense of idealism is an obvious inspiration: one that allows for positive change and growth in the world, adding that any contribution, however minute, is still a change all the same. The small-scale residential and commercial projects from this new breed engage the occupant/participant; they are not mereky abstracted exercises in form and space-making. They are the logical next step toward a softer, more casual approach to buildings; friendlier, if you like.

RUDOLPH SCHINDLER: SCHLESINGER HOUSE 1952 ("DEVELOPER'S BOX" WITH A TWIST)

Their sensitive, humane touch is displayed in the use and quality of materials, craft, scale and light, which focus to create a habitable and pleasant environment. “Sensible” and “comfortable,” words considered too frivolous to earlier architects, are good descriptions of the work. Their projects have an inherent simplicity and intelligence that not only describle the project in totality but also define the pieces that render the whole. They are complete works that use their surroundings to enhance their meaning. It is hoped that the universal and human aesthetic appeal to this work will transcend time and style to become a subtle version of its predecessors. Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler represent a clear and acknowledged point of departure for this group and their aspirations.

Neutra and Schindler’s residential works of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, in southern California, are obvious references. Schindler’s work of that time can be described as the manipulation of volumes of space within rhythms of the structural components, all on a very contrained budget. It has been noted by historian David Gephard that Schindler’s work in this latter stage of life was a direct derivation of the “developer’s box” that was popping up all over southern California at the time. Gephard views this work as almost trivial in the overall scope of Schindler’s architecture career (he died in 1953). Yet the new designers have used this union of high and low art as a starting point; a platform already rooted in our cultural tradition. This new work takes the essential sloppiness of the ranch house layout with the underlying bone structure or shell, and elaborates it into newly generated forms, decomposing, then reconstructing and correcting as they go. Added are newer materials, updated amenities, closets (never considered essential before) along with a softer approach to furnishings and landscape with a subtler, more natural color palette. It is refreshing.

RICHARD NEUTRA: BONNET HOUSE 1942 (SLOPED ROOFS EASED INTO LANDSCAPE)

Neutra’s work at the same period battled with the restraints of a wartime lack of supplies that fortunately led to some rarely-seen, atypically sensitive, pitched-roof and wood-siding houses. These subtler works heralded the postwar suburban ranch style bungalow so prevalent now in the “flats” and hills of southern California. The eerily prescient features of window glazing, door systems and roof lines foreshadow the stereotypical suburban tract houses we identify in america with the 50s and 60s. These were of course adaptations of earlier, turn-of-the-century craftsman bungalows whose everyman quality was embodied in the scale and ease of construction in these often understated and elegantly simplistic houses. Asttention to detail is everything, since proximity was deemed a valuable commodity within the home. Furnishings and lighting (both natural and artificial) were qualities that were as important as how the shingles looked on the outside. It was a love affair with the materiality and textures of homes and also the quality of the lives within them. This humanistic approach has at its core a fair sense of house and home, qualities the new generation is exploring based on a pragmatism rooted in compassion. It stems from a belief that a change in the dominant values and place us in a more appropriate posture towards one another and in turn the community as a whole. The seminal idea is to tear down the divisions and fear we have created in our world and trade them for a softer, gentler environment both public and private. This means privatizing or humanizing our monumental structures and spaces to become more approachable and in consequence more benign culturally. Phrases loke the Depression-era “sicial justice through social action” (Roosevelt) form the basis for a renewed sensitivity to ourselves and our environment. A humane theme of programs should encourage us to deal with each other much more sensitively and compassionately.

The new desingers appear to have the monumental task of socially responsive architecture to contend with. Keeping ideas simple and not losing sight of the immediate goal of building will surely help. There exists a certian amount of anonymity or discretion in this work that provides a place for it comfortably on any site or in any setting. The site is customarily the initial generator of the theoretical ideas that encompass the design. The building is intertwined with the landscape; a strong component expressed in this work. Memory, tactileness, a sense of historical continuum, and attention to detail enable these buildings to be approachable, understandable and always sensitive.

I have chosen to highlight two achitectual firms and their work which embody whte essence of this persuasive attitude toward the built environment. Lise Matthews and Lubowicki/Lanier are young, energetic proponents of a more compassionate, sympathetic architecture. Jointly, they represent a similar response to particular programs and sites within their projects.

LUBOWICKI/LANIER: STRINGFELLOW RESIDENCE (COMPONENTS DEFINE AND ARTICULATE SPACE)

Lise Matthews, a gradutae of Sci-Arc, and actual school within the Santa Monica School, has created a studio for herself of surprising beuaty and simplicity. Located along a small commercial strip amongst residential beach cottages, it blends in discreetly with its neighborhood surroundings. At first glance, the facade appears almost banal, with colors that are muted and subtle, but as one approaches, the intricate detailing and design idiosyncasies begin to emerge. The selection of materials is fundamentals to understanding the whole. The exterior bearing walls are articulated differently from the front facade, which is artfully divided into windows, doors, entrance, marquee and a low, broken, concrete wall. Light and shadow are orchestrated to delineate the street/entrance boundary. It is so straightforward. The entrance alcove has clear wood (Douglas fir) where it can be touched and rubbed against. It is not often that an architect uses sensory clues, other than the visual, to stimulate the building/participant orientation. It feels tangibly correct. Inside, the spaces soar into lot-like rooms, divided for privacy. This is a contemporary living/working environment, clearly predicting our standard for the future. Opening onto a garden, there exists a loving interconnectedness between inside and out. The ceiling is articulated in wood structural members with sunlight filtering though carefully placed skylights. Although a new building, it appears to be connected with dignified and indigenous. historical references. It embodies the essential ideas of the past but articulated them differently—experimentally. One can eaily imagine, in time, with the patina of age and the accompaniment of the inevitable abundant planting, that this well-scaled building will only increase in its ease and beauty.

Equally impressive is the Stringfellow residence by Lubowicki/Lanier. Through remodeling and additions, this design team has created a pavillion for living extended into the landscape. Ots omponent puzzle of distinctive building parts (walls, roofs, structural beams, etc.) all rendered in a variety of explicity differentiated materials that are then synthesized into an abstracted “house” form. These elements expand and turn to catch glimpses of foliage and to work the interplay of light between solid forms and glass enclosures. This allows an abundance of natural, shimmering light in which focuses our attention ont he precise execution of the details. As with the Matthews studio, it is easily “read” and understood; the whole being the sum of th parts. Lubowicki/Lanier has taken this elementary concept and abstracted and clarified it beautifully. It is a place of ease and excitement purposefully suited to its climate and environment. Any historical references are rooted in traditional building typology. With an intentional decrease in scale, the building deconstructs into the garden, a perfect synthesis between man and nature. Like its Japanese allusions, it illustrates a thoroughly conscious sense of beauty.

The projects concern themselves iwth an atitude towards life and objects, as a value statement, not a design style. The moment it becomes a design style it will lose the very individuality that is its essense. This new generation is concerned with the tradtion of a lifestyle along with a degree of experimentation, aesthetic value judgements, and an involvement with materials. The familiarity conveyed in this philosophy is at its core. Acceptance of the most modest mortal qualities will assist and expand our understanding of how best to inhabit our world on a deeply conscious level. No new novel concept—we just need to prompt ourselves more often.

Is it reflective of our character to build without any cognizance of the future? As one of my well-respected professors so aptly declared when I was in school: “Architecture is now in the hands of women.” I am presuming he meant it metaphorically. His statement was in response to the increased arrogance exhibited by the profession dominated by a male hierarchy. He was enticing and challenging us to view our culture as an arguably divisive environment. Men, making the most decisions, built the majority of what we view today as architecture. Women on the other hand, create the places we truly inhabit. This view is shared by author and critic Aaron Betsky as outlined in his recently published book, Building—Sex. He states that we are more nurtured by our female spirit of interiors and sense of commonality than by the repessive, abstracted man-made structures and cities. With a simple application of those intelligent principles, we can find menaing in our environment.

 

So it is here in the Land of the Giants that the new generation has the herculean task of making meaning out of this place and time as we progress toward the coming millenium.

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