BREAKING NEW GROUND IN L.A.

Byline: Paul Young

LOS ANGELES — Last week’s highly anticipated announcement that radical Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas will rebuild almost all of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus marks the latest sign that this city with a shaky architectural history is finally rebuilding its reputation.
There’s little argument that Los Angeles has yet to achieve its full potential as an architecturally vital city. Despite a world-class rep for residential design, the city’s public and commercial buildings have never achieved the same status.
That might be changing. “It’s an exciting time to be in L.A.,” enthuses Neil Denari of SCI-Arc, the West Coast’s preeminent architectural school, widely hailed for its experimentation. “A lot of designer architects, critics and theorists are migrating here, specifically to explore new forms and ideas. We’re starting to see the result of that on every level of architectural design.”
As testimony, the Museum of Contemporary Art is offering “What’s Shakin’: New Architecture in L.A.,” featuring eight world-class projects currently under construction, including the Koolhaas-designed Prada flagship in Beverly Hills. The two-site exhibit, running through Dec. 30 at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood and through Jan. 20 at the Geffen Contemporary downtown, isn’t meant to cover all the designer architectural projects in the works. It excludes a number of essential buildings currently in the planning stages, including Morphosis’s new Caltrans building, the remake of the Hollywood Bowl and the $200 million LACMA remake.
“I consider the projects included to be some of the most significant being undertaken in Los Angeles,” says Brooke Hodge, the newly appointed curator of architecture and design at MOCA. Hodge also notes that this revival is hardly new. In the mid-1900’s, interest peaked when high architecture came to be considered high art. Over the past decade, a renewed interest has resulted from concerns with technological advances and high style. Plus, modern masters like Los Angeles’s Frank Gehry almost single-handedly brought world-wide attention to the notion of designer architecture.
And there are specific economic events, such as the 1994 earthquake. “That’s when the city received a large dose of money earmarked for rebuilding, and it came at a time when the economy was pretty flat and there wasn’t a lot of construction going on,” says Hodge.
Since architecture has been branded as sexy again, it’s not uncommon to hear comparisons between designer architects and fashion designers. Architect Wes Jones, who designed the Armani Exchange in New York, says that association signifies a decisive break from the modernists of the past. Whereas architects like Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra and John Lautner saw architecture in universal themes and used mass-produced designs to promote equality, today’s architects are interested in creating buildings that are utterly unique. Like fashion designers, they also want to create that which moves, shifts and adapts to individual users.
“There’s a long history of fashion designers using designer architecture as backdrops for their clothing — whether advertisements or fashion shows,” says Hodge. “But now you’re starting to see architects becoming more aware of fashion — at least in a deliberate sense. You can see several examples of that in the [MOCA] show, where architects are using fashion images and fashion magazines in their renderings.”
No surprise then that the first image upon entering the exhibit is the storefront of the still-under works Prada store on Rodeo Drive. Koolhaas (pronounced “coal”), who conducted extensive research into the nature of shopping with his Harvard Design students, designed the space that resembles a shoe buckle, with a vertical loop intersecting a horizontal plane. It’s a monument to high tech display. Aside from such unusual materials as thermoplastic and technogel, he plans to use liquid crystal walls that will change color depending on their proximity to people. Dressing rooms will be appointed with digital cameras so customers can snap pictures of themselves and view them on plasma screens.
“Koolhaas is very interested in this idea of shopping as an experience as opposed to a service,” says Hodge. “His stores are an attempt to create an environment that can accommodate performance as much as merchandise.”
Like Koolhaas, L.A.’s Marmol & Radziner is a darling of the fashion industry. In the last five years they’ve designed three houses for Tom Ford, a house for Mossimo Giannulli and a house for Trina Turk. But it’s the team’s design of the Costume National store on Melrose Avenue that has won them the greatest kudos within fashion circles. It’s a virtual cube of shimmering light, natural and artificial, accented by pearl gray concrete floors and minimal displays.
“We have a lot of creative clients,” says Ron Radziner, whose father was a garment exec. “They may relate to the fact that we not only come up with concepts and designs but we have our own construction company to see those designs through. As designers themselves, they understand how important the individual building blocks are to the entire process.”
If Koolhaas explores the interaction between people and technology, Marmol & Radziner prefer to explore the interaction of people and space — which makes them traditionalists in the modernist sense. Their design for the Accelerated School in South Central Los Angeles, featured in the exhibit, breaks down boundaries between inside and outside, negative space and practical space. An ordinary roof becomes a recreational area, and a typical classroom blends into a communal hall.
Eric Owen Moss, also of Los Angeles, is building the “Pterodactyl,” one of the most radical buildings in the city. It’s an office situated on top of a four-story parking garage. But it looks like Moss dropped nine rectangular boxes from a helicopter and let them land by chance, thereby successfully fragmenting the conventional, rectilinear office space, and transforming it into a cubist sculpture. What makes it fashion-like, at least according to some critics, is the way it literally “drapes” itself over the edge of the building and uses a kind of “skin” on the exterior, like a form-fitting garment.
But Moss is quick to point out he’s much more interested in duration. “Fashion, however intriguing, seductive and persuasive, is much more ephemeral. Artistically, the two are at odds with each other. Architecture is more about what is consistent and durable in human affairs.”
The two real gems of the show may turn out to be this city’s most important landmarks in future years. (They are the only two appearing at PDC.) The first is Jose Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Moneo has likened the awkward downtown location between the 101 Freeway and Temple Street to that of Notre Dame in Paris, which is sandwiched between two waterways.
What appears as a relatively conservative design turns out to be more radical. The building uses ingenious “scoops” and “louvers” to manipulate light throughout the space. More importantly, the building literally floats on a foundation of revolutionary shock absorbers that will protect it from an 8.3 magnitude earthquake, making it the most earthquake-proof building in the city.
Frank Gehry’s long-awaited, $170-million Disney Concert Hall, on the other hand, represents the most expressionistic, look-at-me design ever built in the city. Predating Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, it’s a spectacular creation that has been likened to a blooming flower, a ship at full sail, a cubist fish and a three-dimensional collage.
The rest of the show concerns the transformation or redesign of existing buildings, from Greg Lynn’s new interior office space for Uniserve’s corporate headquarters downtown to Michael Maltzan’s complete transformation of UCLA’s Hammer museum.
If there’s a problem with “What’s Shakin’,” it’s that some viewers might have difficulty understanding the real innovation of each project in terms of architectural history and personal vision. Despite its suggestion of a new city renaissance, the show is still relatively conservative compared to some of its European counterparts.
“There may be more experimentation going on [in L.A.] at the moment,” says SCI-Arc’s Denari. “Most of the people commissioning these new buildings are conservative, yet they know the value of having a designer building. Today’s audience is much more media-savvy, and, therefore, more educated in the visual language of creativity. So it becomes a financial imperative. The more stylish building that you have, the more people it will attract.”

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