Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Heretics, History & the UCLA School of Architecture

I realized Friday night that I was once part of history. All I remember is that it was fun.

The Friday night opening of "A Confederacy of Heretics" at Sci-Arc kicked off the Getty's Pacific Standard Time shows on architecture this year. This one focuses on the so-called "Santa Monica School," the group of architects (young in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including Craig Hodgetts, Robert Mangurian, Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, Coy Howard, Fred Fisher, Eugene Kupper, Eric Owen Moss, Peter deBretteville, Frank Dimster, Frank Gehry, and Roland Coate, Jr.) whose designs and ideas became the latest chapter in LA’s self-renewing architecture world. They're still making a mark on international architecture.

Jury, UCLA Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Planning,
April 1978. L-R: Manfred Schiedhelm, Coy Howard, Robert
Mangurian,  Craig Hodgetts, Cheryl Kaprielian.
But I prefer to think of it as the Getty's "This Is Your Life, Alan Hess" exhibit. I was part of it, a little, as an architecture student at UCLA in the late 1970s, where many of these guys were my professors. Walking into the galleries with models, drawings, and model-drawings that I have not seen in thirty years, it became instantly clear to me how these ideas had taken root and helped develop many of the things I've done in architecture over the last thirty years. 

I could not have suspected where they would lead. Or how well these ideas stand up.

We may think of the 1970s as modern, but I'm not so sure -- it was an age before computers. As architects like Mangurian, Hodgetts and Howard taught, there should be an explicit attention to making a thing --  a drawing, a model, a building. Everything from Prismacolor pencils to Pantone to axonometric drawings to color Xerox machines (available then only at copy stores -- the cheapest were in the Valley) were tools in making drawings. Beyond the nerdy fascination with amazing new technology, these teachers taught me that the drawing is an end in itself, to be thought through and crafted as an object, and to be made beautiful. It was also an analytical tool which, if used masterfully (as the objects in the exhibit demonstrate), would help me explore and refine the ideas I was aiming for in the final building. Every line's color, placement, and texture meant something -- if I did it right.

Then there were the models. The astonishing detail of Studio Works' models of cardboard and basswood with a layer of colored Bondo scraped thin -- the stuff they use to repair cars -- was pushed to an absolute perfection, with the precise cut, the exact amount of glue so that it would not squeeze out and spoil the scale of the model. This lesson from Mangurian was not lost on me, but damned if I could ever come close to such perfection (classmates Heather, Andra, Victoria and Cheryl were the masters of that.) But I never forgot the care for craft, for a drawing, a model, a plan, a program, a building, an idea -- a blog. 
John Beach and Frank Gehry,  UCLA GSAUP
Thesis Jury, June 1978.

So there was a world-view of perfection, precision, devotion. Add to that a layer of meaning that ties a design to the real world where people actually think and live. Los Angeles has long reveled in such populism. That was Craig Hodgetts' Pop/Tech vision embracing the astonishing possibilities in everything going on today. In the exhibit, the base of his drawings of the South Side Settlement house are standard blueprints, but elaborated, annotated, grafittied, and ennobled with imprints of comic books, Jack in the Box wrappers, Fiorucci glam, toys, robots -- and a backwards color Xerox of a sleek, now ancient adding machine as handsomely crafted as anything recovered from King Tut's tomb. Craig started in design styling cars; industrial objects were his forte; they were something you could touch, rub your hands over, enjoy the resistance of a button to your finger's touch, and appreciate the pleasing curves of the casing. So he plopped one of his favorites down in the middle of the drawing.

These are only a few of the exhibit's wondrous artifacts. There are Coy Howard's wild liberated creations that pushed us to break down the walls; Eugene Kupper's intellectual discipline making hash of our half-baked ideas. What I could not have realized in the 1970s when I saw so many of these drawings lying haphazardly around the UCLA studio is how these architects were part of Los Angeles' ongoing architectural history. Then, these were something new; now I see that newness as a constant character in Los Angeles design, renewing without entirely forgetting.

Charles Moore, UCLA GSAUP, April 1978.
What freedom we were given to draw on the widest range of sources, from history to technology to popular culture! What expansive delight to mine the commercial and industrial vernacular landscape! What disregard for the respectable! Take Peter de Bretteville and Michael Rotondi's Ajax Car Rental agency, a gem of FotoMat-like architecture with graphic signs big and bold and LA. Or Morphosis' interpretation of Venice's then-funky urbanism in Sedlak house. This was an age of Pop, the popular architecture to which Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour awakened us with Learning From Las Vegas. No good LA architect ever ignored the commercial vernacular all around us. It fills your windshield the minute you turn the corner onto Ventura Blvd. You either ignore it at your peril (some have, and produced tasteful but shiftless buildings) or you let it wash over you and enter your creative pores. 

The missing man, though, is Charles Moore. He was not, of course, part of this group, but he was a palpable presence at UCLA where many of them taught, and in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Just as this exhibit shows nascent hints of Deconstructivism (see Frank Gehry's house), it also shows a rebellious interest in the history of architecture which came to be labeled, then derided, as Postmodernism; Moore lead that interest. The classical symmetry and forms in Fred Fisher's rock star drawing of a solar crematory were taboo in the world of late Modernism. So were
Nicolet Island Redevelopment, Minneapolis, MN,
Studio Works. Copyright Studio Works 1977.
the Baroque and Piranesian plan and presentation of Studio Works's "The River and The City" model. The interest in the popular vernacular and bold colors in Eric Owen Moss' Fun House -- these were taboo, too.

Though architects object to it being said (as Moss did last January at a Getty preview), these designs are now a part of history. This group of architects and their ideas, competition, and comradeship formed the latest in a succession of groups of architects who have spurred LA architecture forward -- as Frank Lloyd Wright, Lloyd Wright, R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, Morgan Walls and Clements, and others did in the 1920s, as Koenig, Eames, Eames, Killingsworth, Jones, Krisel, Armet and Davis, Ellwood and others did in the 1950s.

These days, gorgeous hand-drawn Prismacolor drawings may seem closer to the fine craftsmanship of the Greene brothers than to today's fly-through CGI graphics. But being part of history doesn't make them irrelevant today; they, as all good architecture, are an expression of the ongoing identity of this city.