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Review: MOCA's revamped architecture show a model of insularity

The messy run-up to the Geffen Contemporary's exhibition culminates in a jumble of work that marks how closed off the profession in Southern California has become.

June 29, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • Installation view of "A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California" at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.
Installation view of "A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture… (Brian Forrest / MOCA )

The new architecture exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art — and we'll get to its ever-changing title in a moment — is the product of a museum in significant disarray.

That much has been clear for several weeks, as MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch nearly canceled the show, pushed out its curator and rushed to raise some 11th-hour funds to get the whole thing ready by June 16, two months later than originally planned.

"A New Sculpturalism": A review in the June 30 Arts & Books section of the exhibition "A New Sculpturalism" at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary space said several architects have a bigger presence in the final version of the show than they did in a version planned earlier. That statement was partly incorrect. Architects Neil Denari and Michael Rotondi do not have a bigger presence. —

Now that the exhibition has opened at the museum's Geffen Contemporary branch in Little Tokyo, where it will limp along through the middle of September as part of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time Presents series, it's clear that it is the product of an architectural ruling class in Los Angeles that is not so much dysfunctional as increasingly insular.


Meant to celebrate the outstanding built work of the last 25 years in and around L.A., the exhibition instead is marked by fault lines, generation gaps and subtle power plays. It makes clear that the city's most talented and ambitious young architects are struggling to complete even small projects in an increasingly dense and risk-averse city and step out of the wide, insistent shadow cast by their world-famous older colleagues.

More than anything the show seems confused: about its goals, about its point of view, about how much it wants to reveal to the public.

Just for starters, along those lines: It is not clear, as you walk through the exhibition, what it is called. Or who curated it. Or who designed the exhibits. Or, in the end, what it hopes to communicate about the wide variety of work on view and its relationship to Los Angeles.

Christopher Mount, who organized the exhibition and brought it to MOCA, is now barely a presence at all; a line at the bottom of the opening wall text reads, "Original concept by Christopher Mount, guest curator," a phrase that sounds more like the product of a legal settlement than a curatorial credit.

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For the last month or so, the show has been run from the Culver City offices of Morphosis, the architecture firm headed by Thom Mayne. Deitch acknowledged as much in a panel discussion about the exhibition on June 18, thanking Mayne for rescuing it and calling its revival "a miracle."

"Thom put together a team," Deitch said, "that in a very short amount of time took a foundering exhibition and made it into something extraordinary."

But the only official reference inside the museum you'll get to Mayne's role is an indirect one. On a separate panel of wall text Anne Marie Burke, former head of communications and business development at Morphosis, is credited as project manager for the exhibition.

This second bit of text, this shadow boilerplate, does suggest some of the remarkable last-minute energy that was necessary just to get the installation up. It includes a section listing 17 people who helped with "pedestal fabrication."

And the name of the exhibition? There apparently wasn't quite time in the mad dash to get that detail nailed down.

Just outside the entrance to the Geffen hangs a banner announcing the show. Mount's original title, "A New Sculpturalism," has been scratched out with jagged white lines and the words "Contemporary Californian Architects" added along the bottom.

Inside, at the entrance to the show itself, the jagged lines are back, but they are accompanied this time by a different phrase, "Contemporary Architecture Comes from Southern California," which is closer to the original subtitle of the show ("Contemporary Architecture from Southern California").

Nearby, on one of those pedestals, stands a catalog of the show wrapped inside a new white cover. Here the updated logo is credited to graphic designer Willem Henri Lucas.

A telling title

To make the tumble down the rabbit hole even more entertaining, when I asked Burke and MOCA communications director Lyn Winter what title I should use in writing about the exhibition, they both said "A New Sculpturalism."

The act of scratching out the original title while also insisting it's intact and fully operational is not just typical of recent double-speak from MOCA. It is also emblematic of the odd way in which the show has been rescued — and the muddled story it tells about contemporary architecture in Los Angeles.

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