Earlier this year I was asked by the editors of Curbed LA, a real estate and architecture blog, to help judge a contest to pick the ugliest building in Los Angeles. They'd set some basic ground rules; single-family houses weren't eligible, for example. But I don't think they had even the slightest idea what they were getting themselves into.
There is no bigger can of worms when it comes to L.A. and its architectural history than the subject of ugliness. Many of the city's leading architects, including Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and Eric Owen Moss, rose to fame in the 1970s and '80s by finding inspiration in the unplanned, un-beautiful chaos of the L.A. strip. They used workaday materials--cheap stucco and chain-link--and arranged them in off-kilter, colliding forms. They wanted their buildings, above all, to look tough and unforgiving.
As Moss told me recently, the worst thing an architect could say about a colleague's work back then was, "It's just not ugly enough." As a result, to dismiss a building on its aesthetic merits alone is to risk sounding naive or old-fashioned, or reveal how little you understand the real Los Angeles.
But in the end I found the Curbed contest refreshing--and overdue. The art world already has spent more than a decade wrestling with the relative value of beauty and ugliness. Beginning in the mid-1990s, writers such as Dave Hickey and Arthur Danto argued that painting had been hijacked by politicized "message" art and that it was time to start talking again about beauty. Rather than creating two rigid theoretical camps, the debate that followed proved to be healthy and productive. It bent to accommodate new perspectives, folded back on itself and rippled off in new directions.
We who make and write about architecture, on the other hand, have barely begun to grapple with these topics. In L.A., that's partly because those architects who helped give ugly a good name have become some of the most prominent in the world. Mayne and Gehry have won the Pritzker Prize, the field's top international honor. Moss is now director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
The idea that Los Angeles lives by a different set of aesthetic rules than other cities therefore came to seem unassailable. But somehow we let an interest in ugliness among certain experimental architects morph into the idea, practically Stalinist in its inflexibility, that every building in Los Angeles has a right to be as abysmally self-important and oversized as it wants to be.
That architectural free-for-all worked fine for the sprawling, essentially private city that inspired Gehry and others as young architects. That L.A. was arranged like the urban version of a night sky, with points of architectural interest shining like individual stars and connected by the freeways and boulevards that Reyner Banham and other writers rhapsodized about. But ugliness wasn't something architects and critics lived with in any real sense, or even closely analyzed. It was ugliness as seen from a moving car--ugliness as a series of architectural billboards that receded as quickly as they appeared.
Now the L.A. that gave us the Banham drive-by is itself fading, replaced by a city that is more crowded, denser and more neighborhood-focused. Traffic is keeping everybody closer to home; our circle of daily experience is drawing tighter. We are less able to create our own spontaneous a la carte experience of the city--combining a Pasadena trip here and a Malibu interlude there--and more often are handed the urban equivalent of a prix fixe menu: a city in which gridlock and class divides limit where we go and what we see. That means those ugly buildings we used to race past in our cars are now the buildings we live next door to or walk by every day. And ugliness seen through a windshield is quite different from ugliness seen through your kitchen window.
To measure how much the city has changed in that regard, consider the Steel Cloud, perhaps the greatest example of ugly-chic design in L.A. history. Created by the New York firm Asymptote, it won a 1988 competition to select a monument for contemporary Los Angeles and, in the words of Mayor Tom Bradley, "welcome immigrants to America's shore." Asymptote's proposal for this "West Coast gateway" called for a chaotic-looking metal superstructure designed to straddle the Hollywood Freeway and hold restaurants, galleries and a movie theater.
The Steel Cloud was never built, which is a shame: As an expression of a certain heady moment in L.A.'s architectural history, it was pitch perfect. But viewed from the distance of 20 years it looks like a monument to an old L.A., a wide-open place with an underdeveloped sense of geographic or aesthetic boundaries.