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Comment: Michael Webb
Why LA Needs a Compelling Showcase for Architecture
The Architecture of Frank Gehry, organized by Brooke Hodge, at MOCA.
Courtesy MOCA/Squidds and Nunns

When LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) was founded 30 years ago, it was directed by Richard Koshalek, who had been trained as an architect and wanted to show the work of architects alongside top contemporary artists. Major exhibitions on the Case Study House program, Louis Kahn, Franklin Israel, and late modernism were enthusiastically received, but Koshalek had to struggle constantly with his board, which wanted to focus exclusively on art.

Now, years later, it appears that the board has won. Brooke Hodge—the imaginative curator of an exciting Gehry retrospective, as well as the more recent Skin and Bones (on the interplay of fashion and architecture) and inventive smaller shows—has been axed as part of a desperate attempt to balance the budget and remedy a decade of financial irresponsibility. Major exhibitions on Morphosis and the architectural photography of Luisa Lambri, scheduled for the fall, have been abruptly canceled.

On the brighter side, the Architecture + Design Museum (A+D) on Miracle Mile has recently achieved a measure of stability that it lacked during eight years of shuffling from one vacant space to another, always dependent on the charity of developers. Now it has a six-year lease on a spacious storefront in an ideal location on Wilshire Boulevard, across from the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA). At last it can raise funds and plan ahead.

Skin & Bones, organized by Brooke Hodge, at Moca

Director Tibbie Dunbar wants to reach out to schools and the public at large, using digital technology to bring architecture to life rather than relying on architect-designed boards and balsa models. If she realizes her ambitious goals, LA could eventually boast a showcase worthy of its history and potential: an institution to match the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and the best architectural museums of Europe.

The need is pressing. It is a cause for celebration that, in contemporary art, LA has gone from provincial outpost to key hub, thanks to the energy of institutions and individuals, and because artists find it a congenial place to work. But for architects, the picture is still bleak. Often, their work is marginalized or ignored. There is a huge disconnect between the abundance of creative design talent in LA and the timidity or philistinism of the client base. Too often, institutions and public authorities settle for the second-rate. In San Francisco, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake spurred a dramatic renewal. In LA, the 1994 Northridge earthquake produced little but bureaucratic fumbling. Walt Disney Concert Hall was nearly aborted, taking 14 years to realize, and the public realm has stagnated.

Work by major firms, including Morphosis’ Caltrans District 7 headquarters, Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and Coop Himmelb(l)au’s School for the Performing Arts, were seriously compromised. USC is an architecture-free zone for which George Lucas’ Spanish revival film school is a perfect fit. Tepid contextualism is the theme at UCLA, and the fundraising campaign for the $185 million makeover of Pauley Pavilion makes no mention of the original architect, Welton Becket. Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne have won the Pritzker Prize and international acclaim but have secured few commissions on their home base, and other talented firms have had a tough struggle—even before the collapse of the market.

What's Shakin, curated by Brooke Hodge, at MOCA.

Koshalek had the vision to expand the mandate of MOCA to foster enlightened architectural selections behind the scenes, and to bring Art Center out of its ivory tower. For that last achievement he was hounded from his post, and is now directing the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The munificence of Eli Broad highlights the lack of philanthropy among other super-rich Angelenos. It’s unhealthy to become dependent on a single patron in the arts. In contrast to other great cities, LA is an archipelago of self-absorbed neighborhoods with little sense of the larger whole.

What’s needed is inspiring leadership—of the kind that has spurred a revival of architectural excellence and adventurousness in Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and even the depressed cities of Ohio. It could be the mayor, the archbishop, university chancellors, CEOs of major companies, or the head of the school board. In every one of those areas, LA falls short.  A vibrant showcase, stirring public debate, exhibiting and promoting the best architecture, cannot make up for an absence of civic pride, enlightened clients, and generous patronage. But it can alert the public to what it is missing. A+D can set a lead and play the role of catalyst.

LACMA director Michael Govan is passionate about architecture, and might be persuaded to make architecture a part of his mandate—as it is at MoMA, SFMOMA, the Chicago Art Institute, and other landmark institutions. The Hammer’s Prouvé exhibit and Lautner retrospective were big hits, and director Ann Philbin has repeatedly demonstrated her commitment to architectural excellence. The Getty now has a department of architecture, acquiring major archives, and its deputy curator Chris Alexander recently convened (with AN) a meeting of 50 curators and activists to encourage them to communicate effectively and form the Southern California Architecture and Design Consortium.

All of these initiatives can advance the agenda. The fragmentation of LA could be turned to advantage if its diverse and scattered institutions were to make common cause. MAK, the LA Forum, the Italian Cultural Institute, and a score of others have distinct perspectives that could enrich the public discourse. A provocative exhibition or speaker or an introduction to the visceral experience of a great building can provide a moment of revelation and enrich the culture of a city that badly needs a lift.

A version of this article appeared in AN 05_07.15.2009 CA.

Michael Webb

Michael Webb is a frequent contributor to AN.