West editor Antonio Pacheco sat down with Maristella Casciato, the new senior curator of architectural collections at the Getty Research Institute, to discuss her recent appointment. The position—left vacant for nearly three years after Wim De Witt’s departure for Stanford University’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts—puts Casciato at the helm of one of the most important research archives in the world.
Casciato, formerly the associate director of research at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, as well as a licensed architect and expert on 20th century European architecture, shared some of her goals for the GRI, including the pressing need to increase digitization efforts, the rising importance of postmodernism, and the value of cross-cultural pollination to the field of architecture.
The Architect’s Newspaper: What do you see as your role as senior curator of architectural collections at the Getty Research Institute?
Casciato: For me, this is a research position, meaning that anything I’m engaging with here at GRI is part of a larger research process, including acquisitions.
It’s important to consider what the GRI had in mind as an institution for the position when they hired me. They have been looking for someone who is fully embedded in the architecture world as a licensed architect, who understands architecture, and who can look at buildings as part of a particular discipline. They were also looking for an architectural historian, someone who can look at the possible relationship between architecture and history. Not someone who simply considers history as a tool for architecture, but who uses history as a way to expose architecture to many layers of understanding across time.
Tell us about your acquisition goals for the Getty’s collection.
My idea is that we have to look at more than one beautiful drawing, because one beautiful drawing doesn’t help us build a solid research center. One drawing, you can hang that on the wall for an exhibition, but who comes here for a single drawing? Scholars come if there is enough documentation to write a paper. So, my idea is to always look at the acquisition with relation to collecting complete records for a project—the papers, working drawings, the final drawings—because if you hold on to some of these aspects of history, whoever is writing the history in the future will have it easier. You have to provide enough meat and bones to complete your narrative. That’s our philosophy.
For example, one possible acquisition is a set of drawings by Eric Mendelsohn of a power station in Berkeley, California. We currently have a collection of Mendelsohn’s papers in the special collection. [The GRI’s existing collection] are not architectural projects, though, they are documents we received from his daughter—lectures, notes, and so on.
So, the requirement going forward for a new acquisition is first, that the documents relate to an architectural project and second, that project be one in the U.S. that will give us another perspective into Mendelsohn’s work. Mendelsohn is someone who has worked in Europe, of course, then he went to Israel, and he came to the U.S. He’s someone who has lived his life as an immigrant architect. [The Berkeley power station project] is a project that happened toward the end of his life with a very interesting brief: It’s a nuclear lab in Berkeley. It’s part of a very important plan in the U.S. that happened in the middle of the Cold War, where the nuclear research was still extremely relevant and several architects were involved in a program.
In another case, I was recently discussing a portfolio of 12 photographs taken as part of a survey by Princeton University students of the National Arts School in Havana, Cuba, with a colleague who questioned why these documents were a priority for our acquisition. My response was that these photographs are an important form of documentation of this incredible architecture. This is a place where architecture needs to be documented. It’s not an issue of aesthetics here, it’s an issue of recognizing the value of certain buildings in Cuba that represent an immense effort in terms of technique, such as the vaulting, the brickwork, and the forms. Those buildings have represented such an effort in making architecture valuable in Havana that we have to document that phenomenon, period. These buildings might be restored, they might disappear; we need to have this documentation.
Is the exhibition, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA starting up again?
Yes, we are also working on a research project for PST on photographs of 19th century Latin America at the end of the colonization era, as many of those countries were becoming republics. We have photographs from Argentina, Cuba, and Brazil; it’s incredible documentation that shows how some Latin American cities became metropolises as they entered the 20th century. It will be an exhibition specifically on late 19th century and early 20th century urban planning that looks at how the new cities developed with leisure becoming a new component of urbanism: the new infrastructure, the new parks, the developments of certain port cities, and so on. São Paulo, for example, was a small city until the coffee boom of the 19th century when it became the modern place we know today. Looking at those transformations will cover a gap between the very incredible Spanish colonial period and the 20th century depicted in the  MoMA show (Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980), which covered the modernist city. What happened in between?
So is the broader absorption and appropriation of modernism something that interests you?
Yes, but cultural transfer goes both ways. My earlier research relates to when Europeans were exploring what was considered the “known” Western world and what I’ve seen is that they received culture too. It’s a concept that has been used in other disciplines like sociology, but it is not fully understood within architecture. For younger PhD students, this idea of cultural transfer is a way to
enter a multidisciplinary and a multicultural approach. So, for the Latin American exhibition, we are looking at this transfer in both directions because locals interpret it in one way and the foreigners in another, but there are examples where the two transfers come back together and that’s one of the things that makes Latin America so interesting.
Also, being in Los Angeles, we are in the best position to look toward the Pacific. Australia, as part of the British Empire, looks to the west, but from here in L.A., we can look east to Australia and Japan, but also the Philippines and Indonesia. If we understand this as an encounter between the west and the Pacific, it could be an interesting way of reconsidering this idea of cultural transfer. And Los Angeles could be the center of this new process.
Modernism is an important part Los Angeles’s history, but increasingly, postmodernism is being re-evaluated in terms of its architectural-historical significance. How do you think that is going to play into what you do here?
Los Angeles, for postmodernists, was the most fruitful ground. The issue is that postmodernism here is not one pediment
or column; it’s a very ludic architecture and it’s very valuable. I’ve noticed that PhD students are more and more interested in postmodernism and I think we would be very interested in increasing our postmodern collections. I visited the offices of Jon Jerde, who designed Horton Plaza in San Diego, and thought, “This might be very interesting as an acquisition.” Victor Gruen was so important in establishing the idea of the mall, but postmodern architects made this mall not a closed box, but an open, civic space. And this is an important shift that we need to think about, so I would really value having some of these experiments in our collection.
LACMA was recently gifted John Lautner’s Sheats Goldstein Residence. How does the GRI view having an actual building as a part of its collection, as opposed to collecting only building documentation?
I think there is a big difference in approach between a museum that collects items and a research institute. Here, for example, the Getty Conservation Institute works very closely with the Eames House, but that’s because there is an Eames Foundation who is overseeing the restoration. I don’t think for GRI it’s so important to own these kinds of artifacts, to make sure that, for instance, the Eames House is preserved, conserved, and properly restored—there’s an Eames Foundation, they can deal with that. For us, it’s more important to understand that the documentation is well preserved (which allows the Eames Foundation to do its job). I’m glad LACMA is taking the house, but for me, it’s more important to keep archives, like we do for the Lautner Foundation, and allow scholars to come and work.
Documents conservation is a big issue with architecture; digitalization, to make architecture available everywhere else, is a big issue. Our digitization project is one of my major priorities. We need to digitize as much as possible so that people, if they cannot come here, can have access to these archives. Foundations can’t really do this because they need devices, climate control, and the skill of the conservators who can make sure the drawings can be properly kept, etc. I think this is our major mission.