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ART & ARCHITECTURE

A Designers' Envoy in Washington

As an NEA board member, Hsin-Ming Fung believes the beleaguered body can help make architecture matter.

April 08, 2001|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

Hsin-Ming Fung has been a fixture on Los Angeles' architectural scene since opening an office with partner Craig Hodgetts in 1984. Since that time, the duo's playful, informal designs have established them as local rebels-throwbacks to an era of hard hats and hippies. Now Fung is taking on a new challenge: dealing with Washington bureaucrats. In January, she was appointed by then-President Clinton to serve on the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Arts.

She is well equipped for the task. Born in Vietnam in 1953, Fung came to the United States as a teenager to study sculpture and art history at Western College in Ohio. Her parents moved to Los Angeles in 1975, after the fall of Saigon, and Fung soon took up architecture at UCLA, where she graduated with a master of architecture degree in 1980.

It was at UCLA that she met fellow architecture student Hodgetts. Influenced by the works of 1960s-era British Pop architects such as Archigram and Cedric Price, who saw the city as one big, spontaneous street festival, Hodgetts + Fung became known for creating playful, lightweight structures that seemed to capture the city's ethos of ephemerality and freedom.

Among the partnership's most celebrated works is the 1993 Towell Library at UCLA, a temporary replacement for the school's undergraduate library, which was then undergoing a seismic retrofit. A tent-like structure with a lightweight aluminum frame propped up on a cinder-block base, its colorful, geometric forms became an instant sensation among students and architects. The building was dismantled in 1997 but will soon be rebuilt at Cal Poly Pomona.

Other recent projects include restoration of the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, completed in 1999, and the renovation of the Hollywood Bowl, which is scheduled to break ground in October. Both projects reflect a deep sensitivity to the city's historic fabric, but without the sappy nostalgia. The Egyptian Theater, in particular, is a shrewd blend of old and new. The partners restored the theater's original faux Egyptian shell and inserted a high-tech interior, as if history were an ornamental skin.

Fung, who recently returned from her first board meeting in Washington, spoke to The Times about the NEA's role as an advocate for contemporary design.

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Question: How is morale at the NEA now, given the years of attacks it has weathered from the far right?

Answer: It is a very delicate situation right now. We can't really rock the boat. The fear is that if we do, then Congress will cut us off. Ever since the [controversial] Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition [in 1989], funding has gone down. The NEA has the same amount of funding now that it had when it started. It went up twice as much in the 1980s, then it was cut back down.

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Q: How active has the NEA been in promoting architecture?

A: I looked back at the history of the NEA when I accepted the appointment, and I realized that in 1965, when it was started, the public seemed much more aware of art and culture. Unfortunately, we have lost that notion, that art is an important part of the culture. Art is everywhere. But I think the public today really doesn't understand that-that art is film, it is literature, it's media and it is also design.

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Q: How has that affected the programs you are able to support?

A: The NEA was able to give individual grants, and that was cut back so that now we really only fund community-oriented organizations, public institutions. The only individual fellowships left are for literature, jazz and national heritage.

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Q: What about the political climate in Washington? Will that affect your work there?

A: Even people who support the arts often don't consider architecture and design as part of it. They see architects as professionals, not artists. Artists work in isolation, they work alone, they write books or make paintings. Architects are seen as different. It is a service-related industry-they work in offices. So part of what we need to do is to actually re-educate the public. To show them that there is creativity involved.

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Q: How can the NEA help?

A: By bringing architecture out into the public domain, supporting competitions, supporting urban design projects. I think it is particularly good that they are starting to fund design competitions ... this is very, very important.

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Q: So that is one concrete example of how the NEA can promote good architecture. Are there others?

A: I think it would be very interesting to get people to look at design issues that affect the everyday environment-a competition on wheelchair designs, for instance, which are so badly designed. Hopefully, we could sponsor housing competitions, since housing has been completely forgotten as a subject.

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Q: Are there any similar projects in the works?

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