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Sam Hall Kaplan

A Contest for Self-Congratulation

March 16, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

Los Angeles' divergent architecture community is restless. It wants to be noted, quoted and loved.

Once a focus of international attention for innovative design, a testing ground for new technologies and styles to serve a burgeoning, optimistic population, it seems to have become over the last few decades a relatively minor force on the shifting design scene.

The promise of the architectural traditions of such designers of the past as Greene & Greene, Gill, Goodhue, Parkinson, Wright, Schindler, Neutra, Ain, Ellwood, May, Lautner, Eames and Jones somehow have been submerged in the city's sprawl and the profession's self indulgences.

There have been a few recent exceptions: an isolated building here and there by Pelli, Lumsden, Moore, Meyer, Kappe and Gehry. When not catering to the cliche visions of Los Angeles extolled by professional publications, and not blinded by the flash of photos and fawning peers, each in his own way has perpetuated the promise.

And then there also was, a few years ago, an inspired team effort (including Myers, Moore, Halprin, Pelli, Gehry, Contini, Legorreta, Kennard, KDG and Pfeiffer) orchestrated by Robert Maguire and the late and lamented Harvey Perloff, to give new life to Bunker Hill downtown with an urbane redevelopment scheme.

What could have been the city's variegated version of New York's Rockefeller Center, and a model for an urbanizing world, was, unfortunately, rejected by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. Its board ignored the recommendation of Edward Helfeld and his staff and instead selected a safe, slick reworking of a typical urban renewal solution by a team headed by Arthur Erickson.

So much for history.

Now, in an apparent effort to garner anew some international attention, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects has announced the establishment of a biennial competition for something labeled the "Los Angeles Prize," replete with an award of $10,000 and a bronze trophy.

With a theme this year of "visions of architecture in the year 2010," the competition "will address the future of human habitat, terrestrial and extraterrestrial new materials and systems as well as new uses for existing materials and systems." Judges will be architects Erickson, Richard Meier and Hans Hollein and novelist Ray Bradbury, all of whom are traveling at the moment in their own orbits quite above the mob.

If anything, the competition should help to reinforce the prejudiced views of professional peers from around the world of spaced-out architectural concerns in Los Angeles. This is just the stuff that the waves of visiting architects, educators and critics searching for materials for lectures and articles thrive on. It's blast-off time for punk architecture in El Lay.

More pertinent and damaging, the competition also should reinforce the general public's view, at the moment, of an irrelevant architecture community, seemingly constantly congratulating itself and its friends.

What the public perceives is a community dominated by an odd combination of would-be artists drawing funny pictures and building funny little funky expensive houses, and corporate types fronting for developers who want to pave over neighborhoods and build a commercial cathedral or a mini-mall.

And heaven-forbid that a critic raise questions concerning these creations, trying to put them into a broader perspective rather than concentrating on the play of shadows on overwrought materials.

Though obviously established with good intentions by professionals of good will, the competition appears to be yet another attempt by the local architecture community at self-aggrandizement. A pity.

If architects want to prompt publicity and gain the interest of the public--if they want the public to "value architecture," a recent national theme of the parent AIA-- then perhaps they should take a lesson from Los Angeles' rich architectural history.

What attracted so much attention to architecture here in the past, such as in the 1950s, was the effort of the designers then to address current problems. And by trying to serve the public--trying to make a difference--they served themselves by demonstrating their relevancy. The acclaim simply followed.

An example was the Case Study program, sponsored by a then-inspired Arts & Architecture magazine to illustrate how modern design might meet the need for both affordable and attractive post-war housing. The program generated an enormous public interest in architecture, while also establishing Los Angeles as a world center of innovative design.

But the effort that attracted such attention was not like the kitsch or the bad art masquerading as architecture that some of our more vocal, local designers at present crank out when they snare a naive client--and for which they feel they should be venerated.

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