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Theirs is the talk of the city

L.A.'s designers and dreamers tackle the future. Party, anyone?

July 16, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

ON a night in May, on the sleek roof deck of the Petersen Automotive Museum, a group of architects, urban planners and graphic designers get together in their best party duds to drink, gossip and discuss the future of Los Angeles' built environment.

The guest of honor is architect Thom Mayne, who stands by gamely through a slide show portraying him as an alien who came to Earth to populate it with otherworldly structures. Rising star George Yu is there in his enormous glasses, and eminence grise Eric Owen Moss presides as partygoers chat about "seeing L.A. through a different set of lenses" and exposing "the unseen city."

A few weeks later, on a warm, clear evening, some of the same crowd gathers at a striking Modernist house in Venice. The atmosphere is less clubby and the task at hand more focused: After touring this new glass and steel structure designed to demonstrate the possibilities of a tight plot, the crowd of 40 or so sits in the backyard as the home's designers and tenants, Olivier Touraine and Debbie Richmond, speak about this and previous projects. Bottles of Bohemia Pilsener sweat in an ice bucket and pretzels, cookies and bottled water sit nearby.

The Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, which put together both events, does more than throw cocktail parties and offer lectures -- though it seems to do these things pretty well. The group, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, also commissions urban-themed art projects, issues publications of various degrees of heft, occasionally sponsors competitions, and gathers for oddball slideshows at Chinatown's Mountain Bar, a red-leather watering hole designed by artist Jorge Pardo.

The group aims to provide connection between professionals spread out across the L.A. area and create an architectural discourse with the public.

Neither task is easy. Architects tend to work long hours, rushing in and out of meetings and hunching over their Macs. Still, says Frank Escher, a Silver Lake architect and past forum president, "it's absolutely crucial to be able to discuss your work with other people and get feedback, whether they support what you do or not."

Escher finds the city's architectural discourse frustrating compared with dialogue in his native Switzerland. "Every architectural intervention was reviewed in newspapers, so people talked about them. What's really important is to let the general public know how architecture shapes the environment," he says.

The consensus, at least among forum members, many of them local architects who teach on the side, is that the area's architecture schools don't sufficiently facilitate discussion or extend it to the public. "Los Angeles," says Forum President Warren Techentin, who teaches at USC, "is either blessed or cursed with eight architecture schools" -- and in each the architectural conversation can become closed off and pedantic.

"Every school believes it's very diverse," says Michael Pinto, the group's treasurer. "But the platform of any school encourages some things and restricts others. In schools you deal with the history of an idea; we're more interested in the life of an idea."

The forum's orientation, then, is somewhere between critic Reyner Banham's winking, fascinated optimism for the city of 35 years ago -- the group has commissioned a series of art objects based on the English writer's work -- and the debunking despair Mike Davis brought to the city decades later in "City of Quartz."

"If there's a guiding philosophy," says Kazys Varnelis, the group's director of publications and immediate past president, "it's to try to be experimental in a way that the schools aren't willing to be." He tries to showcase "people who are far outside the architectural profession, interested in new media or political subversion."

These days, Varnelis says, the group is hard to pin down, and many of its members -- there are about 200 paying members and 2,500 on the mailing list, and most are young for the field -- regard themselves as outsiders. "If anything, it's the idea of nonconformity and trying to look at cities in new ways. If you just want to do what's already taking place at the schools, you might as well do it at the schools. Maybe that's what unites this group of malcontents or rebels -- even if we're very diverse."

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First contacts

THE Los Angeles Forum was founded in 1987 by a group of young architects and urban scholars on the Westside, some living in lofts off Venice Boulevard, who wanted to bring to the city some of the connective tissue the Architectural League offered New York's design community.

"In the '80s, there was fundamentally no architecture culture whatsoever here," recalls architect Craig Hodgetts, who helped found the group soon after arriving from New York City and Yale. "It didn't exist. We were a small, pathetic group of people who banded together and said, 'There's not even a place to have coffee!' And the city was way too big for a spontaneous meeting."

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