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SAM HALL KAPLAN

Is Architecture Becoming the Latest Merchandising Fad?

August 06, 1989|SAM HALL KAPLAN

"Fad, fashion and style merchandising should not be called architecture," declared the venerable John Lautner, the designer of some of Los Angeles' more singular and lyrical houses.

Lautner's comment was scribbled on a newspaper item he sent me announcing that the American Institute of Architects had sold its monthly magazine, Architecture, to a company that also publishes the tony Interiors magazine, as well as the Hollywood Reporter.

The magazine's new direction is to be "unabashedly marketplace-oriented," said Donald Canty, its editor of 15 years, who subsequently has resigned.

The announcement disturbed Lautner, one of the profession's icons, whose creations in a 50-year career are distinguished by expressive structural innovations. Among his designs is the octagonal Chemosphere House perched on a concrete stalk in the Hollywood Hills.

This magazine's sale also should disturb architects and others who had looked forward each month to its relatively unbiased survey of the latest noteworthy designs.

There also were occasional, welcomed discussions of social, political and moral issues confronting the profession that most of the design media has tended to ignore, preferring instead to focus on trashy but trendy confectionery.

While these discussions might seem at first glance too professionally introspective, their implications go far beyond the design world to shape the look, feel and function of our homes, neighborhoods and cities.

Lautner contended that architecture appears to have become just another bottom-line business, with select architects as promotional artists catering to clients in search of status symbols. "And an undiscerning media is playing right into their hands," he added.

How undiscerning is the design media was underlined by Janice Evason, an advertising and marketing executive based in Los Angeles.

"Much of the media is no longer interested in informing and educating," she said, "but simply wants to be entertaining, in the hope of building circulation and increasing advertising.

"So what we have is eye-catching formats decorated by articles about inoffensive hot properties and warm, cuddly personalities, replacing the cold steel of criticism and social commentary architecture and city planning needs," added Evason, whose has worked for Young & Rubicam and Foote Cone & Belding.

Cited was the redesign of House & Garden magazine, now called HG (some say short for Haute Gauche), into a gossipy Architectural Digest, the emergence of Metropolitan Home as a sort of yuppie guide to what's hot and what's not, and the proliferation in Los Angeles of various facile art and design publications.

"They are pretty, but they present a very narrow, elitist view of architecture, in which architects over-design teapots and decorate overpriced restaurants," observed Michael Ross, of the architectural firm of Ross/Wou International.

"The essence of design--creating usable, attractive space--is being submerged in a self-indulgent sea," added Ross, who also swims against the tide on the faculty of Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Ironically, the current drift of design was commented on in the July issue of Architecture in an article entitled "The Architect and Society," written before the disclosure that the magazine had been sold.

Under examination was the profession's shift over the last decade away from issues of social responsibility, such as dealing with the environment, urban growth and affordable housing, and toward what is described as "sentimental fritterings with form."

Among those quoted was Michael Brill, of the respected Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation, who declared that architecture "has become part of the distraction and entertainment industry," with "a fraudulently soothing and sentimental Bartles & James quality."

He and other educators from the Boston Architectural Center to USC and UC Berkeley, contended in the article that many architects, whether out of impotence or indifference, have retreated from the social concerns of the profession to posture as artists.

They noted that the current emphasis in design is not on how buildings respond to their settings, serve their users or simply whether they work or not, but rather on their image.

Unfortunately, images are what catches the eye of trade publication editors, desperate to be au courant, and potential clients, in particular those wanting to flaunt their wealth.

And so in Los Angeles these days we have the rich and famous buying designer houses and restaurants like they buy designer clothes, followed by a flock of photo-publicists and fawning writers. Criticism has given way to promotion.

For a glimpse of this world, check out the latest issue of Metropolitan Home, which features a collection of puff pieces promoting Los Angeles as a font of trends.

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