LA Story

September 5, 2005

A provocative exhibit at the Southern California Institute of Architecture extols the legacy of the LA School. But the LA School, true to form, begs to differ.

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For a city undergoing a cultural renaissance, Los Angeles has a lot to answer for. Or as native Angelenos Jeffrey Inaba and Peter Zellner put it, “L.A. is on schedule to become a great city without great distinction.” Why has the city failed to embrace the previous generation of maverick architectural talents and their bold, sometimes daffy visions? During an evening symposium held September 7 at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), the best answer offered was that, for the L.A. School of architects, there remains no L.A. School. It is precisely this sense of individualism, however, that Inaba and Zellner claim to be the unifying mark of the previous generation of locally-based architects.

At the event, a panel of local architectural luminaries including Julie Eizenberg, Eric Owen Moss, Craig Hodgetts, Ming Fung, and Ray Kappe wrangled with the premise that the unruly LA School, long overlooked by the critical establishment, was in fact an innovative incubator of ideas and thinking about urbanism. These unconventional, largely residential projects, Inaba and Zellner argue, would later be exported widely to the world via figures such as L.A.-based Pritzker laureates Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne, the evening’s only noticeable absentees. The symposium was organized in conjunction with the exhibit “Whatever Happened to L.A.?: Architectural and Urban Experiments, 1970-1990,” which ran at SCI-Arc through September 11.

The symposium’s lively discussion, and the politely ruffled feathers of its participants, suggested an ironic confirmation: this still-scrappy group of L.A. architects maintain a pride in individual accomplishment, in a maverick intellectualism, and especially in resistance to traditional academic definitions. Or as Zellner, who, along with Inaba, is on the faculty of SCI-Arc: “They work very hard, it sometimes appears, to disassociate themselves from one another. It’s a very different model from the New York Five, for example, who wished to be seen as part of an organic whole.”

During the 1970s in Southern California, the lack of architectural schools and the embryonic state of museums and cultural institutions meant L.A.-born architects worked well outside the limelight. This allowed them the time and freedom to develop their own styles. “The architects who were from here could surf,” said Hodgetts.

“L.A. was not taken seriously by the New York intelligentsia,” said Inaba. For that reason, its architects “also weren’t waiting for anybody else’s approval.”

While most of the exhibit features residence-scale projects or unrealized civic schemes, they helped the members of the L.A. group assert a guerrilla practice. “What’s distinctive about their work in this period,” said Zellner, “is the almost delirious investment in producing nearly unprofessional artifacts, such as lead-on-linen drawings, the bronze plates, and drawls”—referring to the curious half-model, half-drawing figures in the exhibit. These models and ephemera peacocked their makers’ antiestablishment leanings and only added to their appeal. Groups like Thom Mayne’s Morphosus even achieved a fan base, with collectors around the world clamoring for the firm’s drawings.

“They weren’t waiting on anybody,” Zellner emphasized, “or on invitations to the biennale.” Yet, “this is architecture as high art. and they clearly draw influence more from the art world, which is very notable,” he concluded, to their sense of individual effort.
Moss, who is also the director of SCI-Arc, similarly agreed that “control and freedom … were part of the psychology this place at the time,” but that Whatever Happened to LA? remains “an amorphous excavation,” a grasping at what was happening.

“This was a city without a discernible architecture until recently,” he said. “This is a great city for architects, but not necessarily for architecture.”

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