A New Sculpturalism, the contested, once on, then off, then on again exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary annex, has been generating heated arguments and debate since its inception. First there was the problem with the “superficial” title. Then Frank Gehry backed out. Then MOCA and the show’s guest curator, Christopher Mount, parted ways. The whole thing was in free-fall until Thom Mayne’s handpicked team—and a lot of assistants and pedestal makers—stepped in to save it.
Isn’t all of this quite possibly the best pre-opening buzz a show could ever hope to have? Time will tell. But it seems like that fighting, the back and forth, and the rush to pull it out of disarray—not to mention pushing the opening date back two months—set the show up for a rough landing.
A New Sculpturalism is about the work and the lives that go into the architecture. The blood, sweat, and time. It is work that is never absolutely finished. To be finished would equal death for a profession that must continue to reinvent itself cycle after cycle.
Here we are at the end of the Great Recession, and architecture has somehow carried on. The architects have been busy! The work continues regardless of what the world thinks. Regardless of what the title is. All the work on display, from sketchbooks to models and even the three “pavilions” that dominate the entrance could be said to have been stopped rather than absolutely finished.
Benny Chan; Marvin Rand
A case in point would be Michael Rotondi’s expressive sketchbooks, arrayed under glass and illuminated like rare manuscripts. They exhibit, in an explosive and precise hand, the font of his architecture. And just adjacent and on the wall are some playful, sinuous, and technologically fabulous pages from Neil Denari’s ruled sketchbooks. Yes. Architects can still draw.
Then there are all the islands of intricately wrought models—those LA models with the gesso and color influenced by early Morphosis et al. and leading up to cleaner, if somewhat soulless, 3D-printed distant cousins and laser-cut acrylic. This and so much more that you could pull out of an architecture office, like the huge curved glass panel prototype Hagy Belzberg has been working on, all sit under Alexis Rochas’ suspended multimedia installation, Flock of Walls where we see the architects themselves projected and hovering over their work.
All the artifacts are tools, operations, the materialization of sometimes very personal thought-worlds that, once built, can either take flight in the minds of viewers or get crushed under the weight of critique. So it goes. It’s architecture; always misunderstood and struggling with representation. So critique away! The participants can take it. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doing this. We here in architecture land already get this. The question is will the public get it? Will they even show up?
As Eric Owen Moss asked as moderator of the panel discussion on the show that took place on June 18, “Who says what architecture is? Is the architect what the architect says he is? Is it what Christopher Hawthorne says it is?”
Regardless, there are a lot of aesthetics going on in the exhibition. There is even, one could argue, a lot of beauty. But don’t look for a simplistic story that goes from A to Z. Don’t look for the coherent narrative or syllogism. It’s the circus that came to town, pitched its big top, and brought out its trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, and fire-eaters. It’s something amazing and difficult. There are many lives and careers assembled in that room. But it has to be accepted in that spirit without the expectation that it all holds together in some perfect, totalizing vision. Just enter it like you might a strange yet somehow familiar city. Step behind the curtain and allow yourself to move from one object to the next. Outside of the fact that they coexist in the same institutional context, there is no absolute narrative. That being said, the materials are remarkably similar in spirit and exhibit creative forces that mutually resonate.
Richard Powers; Iwan Baan; Roland Halbe
Sculpturalism has been critiqued for being a bunch of models and drawings in a big room. But so what? This is what happens when you put stuff in a museum. The show hardly needs any artifice or superstructure to prop it up. The work stands up.
If we didn’t already get this fact, Sculpturalism puts in high relief how LA architecture has as much to do with the ideas and struggles that emanate from the city’s practices as it does with what gets built, or not built as the case may be. It is not a bad thing to put more of this creative process under the public’s eye.
So as the negative reviews pile up and the architects shout from the balconies, what we shouldn’t lose sight of is the fact that Sculpturalism is the most ecstatic tribal dance around the bonfire of contemporary Los Angeles architecture to have been staged in recent memory. Here the arguments are loud and the fire burns ever so brightly. Let it burn, ABI Billings Index. Let it burn, critics. Let it burn in office after office. Let it burn in the schools and across the city—even if mostly at residential scale.
If we absolutely have to have an alternative title because some of the participating architects are overly-sensitive about being misrepresented, it should be called “Busy Working, Not Hiding.” And when did architects become so sensitive anyway? Was the term “Sculptural” viewed as reductive rather than open and provocative? Open to interpretation? Since when did architects become so literal? No matter what is written or said, the basic truth of the work shows that this fire we call LA architecture burns brightly no matter what forms it may take. Moreover, now that the public can get a rare glimpse into the rarefied world we call contemporary architecture, hopefully it will no longer just be the architects getting emotional. The more opportunities for the public to understand and even misunderstand what architects do, the better.
In the words of participant Tom Wiscombe, “We don’t have a name anymore. What’s important for shows like this is something that resonates, something people can identify with.”