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Architecture Review

Ideas are building

The seven firms featured in 'Mix' may not philosophically agree, but


SAN DIEGO — It's not the Hatfields and the McCoys, Yankees-Red Sox or even Palin-Letterman. Increasingly, though, emerging American architects are settling into two opposing camps. On one side are the digerati: the inventive, computer-savvy futurists creating on-screen worlds that may or may not succeed in built form. On the other are the communitarians: politically committed designers using their practices -- sometimes at the expense of formal invention and aesthetic appeal -- to repair torn neighborhoods, provide alternatives to sprawl or pare back man-made damage to the planet.

The seven firms featured in "Mix," a lively if occasionally overstuffed show at the sublimely located La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, fall decidedly into the second group. Led by architects mostly in their 40s, the firms operate in and around San Diego, particularly in its increasingly crowded downtown core and, separately, along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The firms' work isn't perfectly homogeneous, by any means: The community activism that the most prominent member of the group, Teddy Cruz, is known for is quite different from the precise minimalism produced by Jennifer Luce; the smart, hyper-economical designs of Todd Rinehart and Catherine Herbst; or the architect-as-developer strategy pursued by Jonathan Segal.

But all seven are dedicated to the idea of engagement, in one form or another -- with social, political, ecological or economic forces. All finished architecture school before digital design became commonplace. All work in anticipation of the moment when abstract design inspirations meet the realities of building codes, material technology, developer formulas, client preconceptions, rigid pro formas or community feedback.

For the most part, theirs is not the architecture of theory or novelty but, rather, of pragmatism, entrepreneurship and negotiation. Call it, for lack of a better catch-all term, the architecture of gumption.

Organized by Lucia Sanroman, assistant curator at the museum, and Hugh M. Davies, its director, the show is the most ambitious architecture exhibition MCASD has mounted since 1982's "The California Condition," which helped introduce the work of Frank Gehry, Frank Israel, Rob Wellington Quigley and others to a wide Southern California audience. In a sign of realism that well suits its overarching themes, the layout of "Mix" is determined by the shape of MCASD's La Jolla campus: There are seven firms in the show because there are seven discrete gallery spaces in the museum. Each of the firms has been given a room of its own and then asked to produce and design a sort of self-portrait, suggesting the kind of architecture it is interested in and the process it follows to get that architecture built.

There are some inherent drawbacks to this approach, particularly the danger of self-indulgence, or at least unchecked self-regard. Luckily, Sanroman has been an active collaborator in helping the various firms fill their appointed spaces, and the show never strays into full-on eclecticism.

Still, as you might guess, the one-room-per-firm approach works best with architects who bring an already honed, disciplined aesthetic to the proceedings. Luce's gallery is dominated by objects that have inspired the architect and her colleagues in her firm, Luce et Studio. The objects are laid out in careful rows on long tables and occasionally set delicately into trays. The result is something like a yard sale organized by Joseph Cornell.

Also successful in this format are the firms that have worked to build sizable new spaces inside the museum. Sebastian Mariscal's display is entered through a narrow tunnel made of salvaged 2-by-4s; it is a model of economy and suggests the architect's interest in materiality. (The display itself includes building permits and drained coffee cups, among other symbols of architecture as practiced in the real world.) Lloyd Russell has hung some of his models in a grid he compares to an architectural abacus. Others he displays atop pedestals made of rammed earth.

In some of the other rooms, though, you wind up wishing for a stronger curatorial hand, a clearer effort by Sanroman and Davies to frame the work in a more rigorous or legible context. The busy room filled by Public, a firm founded two decades ago by James Gates and James Brown, tries several competing visual strategies at once. Segal's entry, a multimedia presentation complete with slick video component, is for all its diverse appeal more like a pitch to a potential client than a museum display.

That closeness between curator and subject -- and the blurring of lines between salesmanship and scholarship -- is hardly unique to this exhibition, or even to architecture shows in general. In this case, though, it seems particularly out of step, because all the firms in "Mix," in one way or another, practice a kind of architecture that is actively and productively critical of the status quo.

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