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Sam Hall Kaplan

Confusing Architecture With Art

May 11, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

Architecture, with all its confounding challenges, came to the surface recently at a studio review at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, but only briefly before being submerged in a wave of art.

On display were student solutions to a design problem that involved developing a dismal section of the Los Angeles River at the 1st Street bridge into an asset for the adjacent communities and the city.

Los Angeles was founded because of the river, which sustained the city in its first 100 or so years. Such amenities usually are cherished. Other cities, such as Paris, New York and San Antonio, among many, line sections of the rivers with parks, promenades and housing.

But Los Angeles has turned its heritage into a raw concrete conduit, a raceway for that one-day, once-in-a-100-years flood. As for the other 99 years and 364 days, we have ugliness rationalized by unimaginative engineers. The river pleads for a vision.

"It was my hope that the students would come up with something that would take advantage of the river, bring it to life, and be useful," said Prof. Glenn Small, who directed the studio. He could not hide his disappointment with the solutions, nor could the visiting jurors.

While some of the art executed by the students in various sculptural forms and decoration was engaging and would have done any art school proud, it was not architecture. Only one student in a dozen, Abimbola Ogunmowo, dealt with the site as a place where people might work, shop and live, as well as play.

The rest of the class, with varying success, dealt with the site as a place to put a favored object in or create a static, if colorful scene, with the hope that it might attract attention and somehow generate vague activity.

In defense, some of the students said they had considered more ambitious and architectural solutions, including residential and commercial schemes. But as Abdulla Darwish said, "the reality was too much."

Other students chimed in about problems of jurisdiction, financing and engineering in explaining why they retreated to execute water sculptures and other flights of fancy. As such, the "design solutions" of the students, with the exception of the scheme by Ogunmowo, were reflecting an unfortunate trend in the profession today.

Faced with increasing complications when addressing a site, from economic and political to physical and aesthetic, many architects are shrugging their shoulders to put on the cloak of an artist.

And while the critical design decisions, such as scale and massing and effect on street life, are being left to others, if not to whim, they retreat to simply decorate the structure or play games with materials.

It is not that architecture is not art, dealing as it does with materials and space to create images and mood. It is most certainly art in that it is an aesthetic experience, proposing "an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame," in the words of historian John Ruskin.

But architecture's initial rationale and prime purpose is that of service, creating a usable, logical and reasonable structure, be it a place to live, work, recreate or contemplate. That is why it is known as a social art, and not simply as an art.

And whatever structure is created is not an isolated object, drawing as it does from, and in turn affecting, the surrounding environment as an element in a community and reflective of the time and culture in which it was created.

It is a tough row to hoe, and therefore understandable why many architects and their student mimics retreat these days into art. Understandable, but not excusable if they want to be considered and judged as architects.

Meanwhile, the potential of the Los Angeles River as an attraction instead of an attractive nuisance, remains untapped. But in studios of students hope springs eternal, if only in the kernel of one aspiring architect and one inspiring, sympathetic teacher.

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL . . . also in the breasts of the members of Los Angeles Beautiful that the city soon will come up with a stronger sign ordinance.

In this not best of all possible worlds, all things are relative. The controls now have about as many holes in them as a "No Shooting" sign across the road from a gun club.

Led by Ted Wu, and up against one of the stronger lobby groups in the state, the environmental group has gotten the city to consider establishing some limited restrictions on on-site billboards.

Some billboards in select commercial zones, in particular along Sunset Boulevard, have a pop appeal that lend a special ambiance to the area. These tend to be in the jurisdiction of West Hollywood, and is that new city's heritage.

But most are in Los Angeles, marching lock step down retail strips adjoining residential neighborhoods, or sitting on, or pasted against, office towers that stand like poorly bandaged sore thumbs. The billboards and signs are, in a word, tacky, making the city look cheap and transient.

Of course, whatever ordinance the city comes up with will only affect future proposals. Existing signs and billboards in the city and across the state are protected under a law signed by Edmund G. Brown Jr. in his waning days as governor.

Brown did save some trees in his environmental crusades, but sometimes it is hard seeing them behind the billboards he has left us as a token of his administration. Then again Gov. George Deukmejian is not doing anything about them to better expose our wonderful California scenery.

Library Update . . . While the fire that ravaged the Central Library was tragic, it did tap an encouraging wellspring of concern for the facility as a community resource and a national landmark.

The challenge now is how that wellspring can be channeled into support for the proper and prompt restoration of the landmark and its grounds as a focal point of downtown, and not dissipated in the petty politics of City Hall.

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