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Sam Hall Kaplan

Museum Exhibit Raises Concerns

September 13, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan

The announcement by the Museum of Contemporary Art that it is planning a major architecture exhibit exploring the legacy of the so-called Case Study Houses is exciting--and worrisome.

Though the exhibit at the museum, and an accompanying off-site housing demonstration, is two years off, the ambitious effort raises issues quite pertinent to the drift today of architecture into the art world here and elsewhere.

In addition, there also are problems that, if not resolved by the museum soon, will in all probability be quite embarrassing to it when the exhibit and demonstration are scheduled to open in May, 1989 (and which has been funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities to the tune of $350,000).

For those who might not know, the innovative Case Study Houses program was conceived in Los Angeles in the wake of World War II to illustrate how modern design might meet the then pent-up need for both affordable and attractive housing.

However, the program, rooted in the social and service tradition of architecture, was not just another one of those well-meaning efforts that never goes much beyond the discussion stage at some design conference.

As organized by the then crusading "Arts & Architecture" magazine, actual sites were purchased and a host of mostly local architects were commissioned to develop plans and to supervise construction. About 28 distinctively modern homes were produced, most of them during the 1950s.

In addition to providing shelter for 28 families, the designs pioneered various structural and design concepts, garnered numerous awards, attracted national and international attention, reinforced the reputation of Los Angeles for innovative design and generated considerable builder and buyer interest.

That the program should be the first architecture exhibit mounted by MOCA is quite appropriate. The Case Study Houses program is considered by many to have been Los Angeles architecture's finest hour, and with its strong social purpose, deserves to be explored in a public format.

But an architecture exhibit in a museum poses some real problems, especially if the subject matter is so recent. An example of this problem can be seen in the Machine Age exhibit now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Fragments placed behind plexiglass or scattered out of context and photographs of something that was so pervasive in its time just do not convey the spirit of the age.

Perhaps, if the entire exhibit had been placed in a replica of a 1939 World's Fair pavilion it would have been more effective. Appropriate also would have been a streamlined circulation pattern.

Architecture, and, to some extent industrial and interior design, is, in my opinion, treated too preciously in museums. While sculptural, they are not pieces of sculpture, but something that was designed to serve a function, be it to provide shelter and comfort, or to sit on, or sharpen a pencil. That is the essence of their aesthetic, and therefore, somehow, should be presented alive, not placed in coffins.

A problem in architecture today is that many designers seem to be primarily worried about what sort of statement their buildings make instead of how they work; indeed how they might photograph and perhaps find their way into a magazine and, eventually, into a museum, to be catalogued, discussed on docent tours and toasted at receptions.

For too many architects, being "arty" has become a form of escapism, conscious or subconscious, from the social responsibility of their profession, or worse, an excuse for a design that just might not work. For these architects, being different and attracting attention appears to be more important than being good.

Playing to this self-absorption among architects have been a number of architecture schools and museums. While architecture is indeed a legitimate curatorial subject in these institutions, the pressure to be au courant has taken its toll in exhibits, their designs and, generally, the intellectual bent of the profession.

Art in these instances has given way to advertising, and fashion to fad, with museums, perhaps unwittingly, lending credence to commercial ventures and suspect careers.

It would be a shame if MOCA was co-opted by a few favored architects who, somehow, want to arrogate the program's mantle of innovation for their own grandiosity, just as the liberal "Art & Architecture" magazine was resurrected a few years ago, to end up serving a biased clique and, sadly, self-destructing.

But then again, given MOCA's emerging respect in the art world, perhaps it is best that the museum lead the architecture profession out of its current self-absorption. Certainly, it doesn't seem that the American Institute of Architects is capable or ready to do so, worrying as it does more about image than issues.

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