Cal Poly professor Stephen Phillips interviewed nine of the ten Los Angeles architects featured in the new book L.A. [Ten]. Frank Gehry, the most notable of this loosely linked pack that came to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, is absent. The majority of these mavericks were featured in A Confederacy of Heretics, the exhibition that SCI-Arc presented last year. As with the New York Five, and other ad hoc groupings, each went in a different direction. As Phillips observes in his introduction, “The group as a whole seemed less important to them than their own individuality… LA was a place of free expression.” The label originated with a series of lectures and exhibits, inspired by the European Team X, which Thom Mayne organized in his Venice home-studio in 1979.
These interviews, a group endeavor by the Cal Poly LA Metro Project and the Getty Research Institute, constitute an oral history of a turbulent and creative era. Even Mayne, whose career has burgeoned in the past three decades, looks back on that time with wistful nostalgia. He recalls the genesis of SCI-Arc as a throwaway remark by Ray Kappe, who gathered the dissident faculty of Cal Poly Pomona and said “Let’s start a school.” Forty senior students signed up for a penniless institution operating out of an empty warehouse; five faculty worked long hours without pay for the first two years. Against all the odds, SCI-Arc flourished, while keeping its edge. That provided a hub for experimentation that channeled and stimulated the talents of young architects who wanted to break away from the stale conventions of modernism. It helped that there was a confident mood in LA leading up to the 1984 Olympics, and the Los Angeles Times gave architecture critic John Dreyfuss a prominence unthinkable today. UCLA’s School of Architecture under Tim Vreeland was another incubator. Excitement was in the air, and it is fascinating to hear how these ten architects saw their contribution, then and now.
And how they talk! Mayne and Eric Owen Moss are celebrated for their 30-minute responses to simple questions, and the way they leap around from one book or movie to an abstruse theory, and on to a personal anecdote without a pause for breath. Phillips, former Getty Architecture Curator Wim de Wit, and other participants in the discussion offer a few cues, but these sections are essentially monologues. In contrast, Michael Rotondi talks up a storm, but the tone is radically different from that of his former partner at Morphosis—friendlier and much more accessible. He recalls the evolution of 72 Market, a sadly short-lived restaurant, and the way he learned by doing. Many of the LA Ten came to the city from back East; Rotondi confesses that he has always lived within two miles of where he was born, in Silver Lake—the neighborhood that was home to Richard Neutra for four decades. And he provides the best response to the question of what makes building in LA different from other places. “Simply said, I see unity and diversity all around,” he said. “And I always believed that the umbilical cord from Europe never made it over the Rockies…That’s why things became hybrid in LA. That’s why fusion begins here.”
The other architects—Neil Denari, Frederick Fisher, Craig Hodgetts, and Ming Fung, Wes Jones, and Coy Howard are more conversational, recalling their first encounters with LA and especially with Venice, which was then a cheap, seedy backwater, beloved by impecunious artists. It is the LA that is 98 percent mundane with a few scattered sparks of brilliance and eccentricity that nurtured Reyner Banham, the Eameses, and a long succession of architects who found opportunities here they would never have enjoyed in conventional cities. The perspective of the LA Ten is invaluable—as social history and as a spur for another tide of talent to ameliorate the mediocrity.