Small, trendy projects in Venice and environs were the focus of this year's design awards of the American Institute of Architects.
The focus was further narrowed by the judges, who chose to ignore the categories into which the entries had been submitted, such as education, commercial, industrial and government, to simply honor projects that engaged them.
The result was a myopic view of faddish eateries, fashionable boutiques and designer-jean houses--an architecture for the age of the yuppies. Interesting, but limited.
In the shuffle of the awards, six went for single-family residences, two for remodeling restaurants, and one each for an office interior, a retail complex and a bus stop. Some of the projects also were completed more than a few years ago; their latent submission apparently prompted by the recognition of a sympathetic jury.
With the exception of the modest bus facility designed with verve by the firm of Archiplan for the RTD, all the projects were privately developed, most were personal exercises, and few dealt with any design issues of any public consequence.
The judges explained that they were seeking projects that expressed Los Angeles, or at least their transient vision of the city. The judges were architects Audrey Emmons of San Francisco, Bruce Graham of Chicago and Robert A.M. Stern of New York City, and New York Times architectural writer Joseph Giovannini, the latter a recent resident of Los Angeles.
Their comments were quite revealing. In general, Stern, who is also an architectural historian, expressed the opinion that the small buildings in Los Angeles were "really delightful, and among the best being built in the world today," while the larger ones were "very ordinary."
Graham, who is the partner in charge of design for the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, added that Los Angeles architects "seem unable to understand the complexity of the city and to express it in large-scale projects." A humble Howard Cosell couldn't say it better.
In conferring an honor award to Frank Gehry & Associates for the Norton residence in Venice, a constructivist melange, Graham declared that "this is Los Angeles in every sense: the people, the sun, the new roots..."
Giovaninni disagreed, declaring that the project was "not a Los Angeles house, but a Venice house," noting that the owner was a retired lifeguard and that the tower Gehry had designed as part of the building had "the power of an Oldenburg sculpture." Stern simply called it "a wonderful kind of tree house."
Honor awards also went to Barton Phelps for the design of his own house as a series of nicely detailed components over a drainage gully, and to William Adams for his imaginative remodeling of a temporary studio in Venice.
The firm of Morphosis garnered three merit awards for a fragmented house in Hermosa Beach, and, in Venice, a nervous, sculptured renovation of a restaurant and a raw, cubist addition to a house.
Stern commented that the Hermosa Beach house demonstrated "a very complicated, technically derived vocabulary that manages to fit into a rather shack-like context," while Giovannini declared it was "slightly out of context and somewhat over-designed." Emmons simply said that the photographs of the project were "exceedingly beautiful and so symmetrical."
Commenting on the addition in Venice, Emmons said she was "disturbed by the lack of cohesiveness of materials used on the exterior." This did not bother Stern, who declared it "very witty and simply done." Graham added that it all was "very strong poetry, really representative of Los Angeles."
This prompted Giovannini to state that the addition was "not of Los Angeles, but of 'Progressive Architecture,' " one of the more avant garde-conscious trade publications. "Certainly not of The New York Times," snapped Stern. As for the restaurant, 72 Market Street, a hangout of celebrities and sycophants, all seemed to love it.
Also receiving a merit award for a restaurant remodeling, Eats in El Segundo, was Rebecca Binder. Noting that he generally was "not interested in how much a project costs, only in how creative the work is," Stern said he wasimpressed with what had been done on a very low budget.
"It is pretentious, but that's why it is fun," Stern commented. "The pretense is to a grander room, more money and maybe better food than it serves."
Merit awards also sent to Appleton & Associates for a well crafted and sensitive addition to a dated house; to Van Tilburg & Partners for the elegant remodeling of a row of elegant shops on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills; and to the Gehry firm for creating a singular, pricey penthouse, also in Beverly Hills.
Stern called the penthouse "without qualification...the most delightful works of architecture in the Los Angeles area." But Emmons said she did not understand it at all, noting that the top was "quite chaotic," though perhaps not as chaotic as the jury, and its selection process.
Awards by the chapter also included a commendation to the Los Angeles Conservancy, for its involvement in the planning of Library Square downtown; a "25-year award" to the Shulman residence, designed by Raphael Soriano; and "distinquished achievement awards" to Carl Maston, Arthur O'Leary and Bernard Judge, for their work, respectively, with the Los Angeles Planning Commission, the construction industry and in various preservation efforts; and to Panos Koulermos, for his research and teaching.