By now most of us in the LA architecture world have heard about the troubles surrounding the upcoming MOCA exhibition A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture in Southern California. Just before press time the show had been reinstated, although delayed from June 2 to June 16. This piece of news came after the show had been put on hold for weeks, its future very much in doubt, and after LA’s best-known architect, Frank Gehry, had already pulled out. It’s still unclear what role, if any, the show’s curator, Christopher Mount will hold. Rumors have been swirling that he has been replaced and that Thom Mayne is "facilitating" the exhibition, although nothing has been confirmed.
Full disclosure: I was one of a group of advisors on the show, although I had no role in its curation or execution. The combination of problems says so much about the trouble with Los Angeles architecture and the trouble with one particular Los Angeles architect.
For architecture, there’s no reason for a show of this scope, with this many resources, to be in such a precarious position just a few weeks before its opening. No matter what really happened, and who was truly at fault—be it curator Christopher Mount, MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, others at MOCA, or some combination thereof—for the sake of our architecture community such a show needs to be settled and in good shape at this stage of the game. We need more of these types of shows, not less.
As Neil Denari told me, the doubts about the show raised “questions about the ability to have a public discourse about architecture, which I think LA desperately needs.” Indeed, for architecture to break out of its insulated shell—in which the best architects often get sidelined doing houses and other private work while the jumbo, well-connected firms do the major civic projects—the talent here needs to have an interaction with the community.
The show is part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in Los Angeles series, and for all of that initiative’s brilliant scholarship and excitement, this is the only show that showcases what is current in Los Angeles. For a place where the future is so important, that investigation is a much needed complement.
As for that one architect, Frank Gehry told the LA Times that he was leaving because “it didn’t seem to be a scholarly, well-organized show.” He added: “I’m subject to misunderstanding about the seriousness of my work. People assume I am just crumpling paper, and so forth. This was feeling a bit that way, a trivialization.”
Gehry of course has the right to pull out of whatever exhibition he wishes, and he certainly raises valid questions about the show's focus. But even if he finds the show unscholarly and unfavorable to him, does that give him the right to jeopardize the work of so many others? The show includes a lineup of more than 150 projects from more than 30 of the city’s firms. Its catalogue totals more than 250 pages. Sure, any endeavor of this scale will miss architects and get things wrong, and this one seems to do both. A debate about its merits is not just allowable, but necessary. That doesn’t seem trivial.
Have star architects reached the point where they can dictate—like star athletes and star actors—everything that’s said about them and revolves around them? You would think someone with a career as illustrious would be a little more resistant to criticism and interpretation. It seems that one man’s insecurity, and his intellectual differences with the show, are enough to jeopardize a whole community, in particular the generations to follow him. It’s a classic act of selfishness that only reconfirms people’s stereotypes about architects.
That being said, this show shouldn’t need Frank Gehry. One entry, even as prestigious as his, shouldn’t be able to jeopardize an entire exhibition. None of us have seen the final result, but we have seen a museum whose commitment to architecture is still in doubt, and an architect with a lack of commitment to the architecture community at large.