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Editorial> As Rome Burned
In the wake of MOCA's New Sculpturalism show, Sam Lubell looks to the future of Los Angeles architecture.
Hodgetts + Fung, Wild Beast Music Pavilion, Valencia, California, 2009.
Tom Bonner

Many in LA’s art and architecture circles breathed a loud sigh of relief when the tumultuous reign of MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch finally came to an end. But while Deitch deserved to be terminated for his reckless behavior and his disregard of the city’s artists and art institutions, this doesn’t suddenly heal our community.

In his wake we, of course, get the mutated New Sculpturalism show at MOCA, which, while flawed, and stripped of its original direction, reveals some incredibly beautiful work and documents a period of significant experiment and growth in the city’s architecture. But the drama surrounding it, besides exposing supreme dysfunction in one of the city’s largest arts institutions, reveals that, somehow, the Los Angeles architecture community’s biggest fear is being labeled: being labeled sculptural, or being labeled superficial, or being labeled anything at all. The only thing the show is called now is Sculpturalism with a scribble through it. What does that say?

As difficult as it can be, architects in the city should allow themselves to be called anything; that’s what it means to become a part of the public discourse. If they try to control that discourse too much then they will be labeled the worst thing of all: nothing. The public will become tired of their behavior and move on. Just as clients do when their demands aren’t met in the field.

And in their place will continue to rise a breed of “architecture” that is much worse than any of the projects dreamed up in the show. Just look at what’s being planned in Los Angeles at this moment. Have you seen the sterile, ugly, anti-urban hotels being planned near the convention center? Have you seen the insensitive towers being planned next to Capitol Records in Hollywood? Have you seen the knock off condo towers near the historic core and the bland mixed use projects along Wilshire? How about the suburban style developments being proposed all over for a city that is, despite its objections, densifying more than almost any other?

There are some very exciting exceptions, including the return of top-flight firms like OMA and Gehry Partners to Santa Monica; splendid work by smaller firms near transit lines and in small lot subdivisions; cultural ambitions like the new Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum and the Broad Museum; transit ambitions at Union Station and LAX; and, of course, the incredible ongoing tradition of superb single family housing. But on a larger scale we’re still experiencing the same dichotomy between splendid ideas and not so splendid second-rate civic work.

Our insular world needs to engage with the public discourse—as ugly and, sometimes, plain wrong as it can be. The political process and the development processes are much uglier than any of the beautiful ideas and models that they’ll continue to dream up. RFQs and value engineering and city contracts are a pain, but they are reality. And if we want a more beautiful, effective city we need to engage with it.

Sam Lubell