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Amid changing development landscape and high rents, Santa Monica Museum of Art begins search for a new home
Monsters, madmen, and magicians play starring roles in Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s, an exhibition that runs through April 26 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s a worthy successor to LACMA’s many explorations of that fertile era of experimentation. German studios churned out plenty of fluffy entertainments for mass consumption, but they also produced (as Hollywood rarely did) works of art that made few concessions to popular taste. The production sketches, stills, and movie clips from 25 features included in this exhibition reveal the huge potential of film to probe human psychology and imagine worlds that never were. Architects will be drawn to the elaborate sets and city streets, and by the installation, which was designed by Michael Maltzan and Amy Murphy.
The show has a strong emphasis throughout on architecture and urbanism. LACMA curator Britt Salvesen divided the 250 exhibits into four thematic sections and deftly wove them into a visual narrative, elucidated by succinct text panels. Within each section, one can review set and costume designs alongside production stills for a few features, and then step into a darkened space to watch excerpts of those films, back-projected onto suspended screens. Happily there was a rich trove to draw on, principally from the collection of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Hollywood studios squandered their treasures, treating talent as hired hands, and junking their archives. Most of their publicity stills were portraits of popular stars; at UFA, the leading German studio, up to 800 photos documented every aspect of a major production. Lotte Eisner and other dedicated archivists rescued prints and drawings that survived wartime devastation and carried them off to the Cinémathèque. In doing so, they preserved a legacy of art and history.
Like the painters and sculptors whom the Nazis would soon condemn as decadent, filmmakers—including Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Georg Pabst, and Robert Wiene—mirrored the turmoil and creativity of the Weimar Republic. The distorted houses, oppressive city streets, and sinister laboratories they constructed on stages and back lots mirrored a society struggling to break free of the past, even as its economy and government foundered. Whereas the best German architecture of the 1920s—from the Weissenhofsiedlung to luxury villas and workers’ housing estates—is cool and rational, filmmakers exposed the contradictions of the times and the dark underside of material progress. Their subjects ranged from grinding poverty in the slums to the polarization of wealth, futuristic fantasies and folklore, surveillance and the threat of new technologies. The demons that haunt these films would soon achieve power: critic Siegfried Kracauer entitled his history of film, From Caligari to Hitler.
To articulate this multi-layered story and heighten its impact, Maltzan and Murphy have constructed a trio of wave-like forms to enclose projection screens, which are set at angles to each other, so one can watch one or several clips simultaneously. In the troughs between, small drawings and production stills are displayed on the canted surfaces, shard-like columns, and a jagged, open-ended frame. Posters occupy the side walls of the gallery, and sound cones descend from the ceiling. The installation is easy to navigate, but it subtly conveys an air of menace, mystery, and insecurity. Within a confined gallery, one can examine the exhibits, absorb the febrile atmosphere of Weimar, and surrender to the timeless magic of the movies.
LACMA is an appropriate host. It frequently presents selections from its fine collection of German Expressionist art, and commissions leading architects (including Frank Gehry, Morphosis, and Frederick Fisher) to install exhibitions. And it is located in the city that lured the finest talents of Germany in the years between the two world wars. Writers, directors, producers, actors, and—most successfully—cinematographers and composers migrated to Hollywood, initially for the money, and later as refugees. They brought a new sophistication to an escapist industry, and they helped establish the genre of film noir. For a decade, LA became Weimar on the Pacific, and there’s a faint echo of that era in the more interesting independent movies of recent years. Haunted Screens takes us back to the source.
Patrick Tighe Architecture teamed with John V. Mutlow Architecture to design La Brea Affordable Housing—a newly completed sequel to the Sierra Bonita Apartments, which Tighe built four years ago for the same client, the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation (WHCHC). The first was a pilot project for the City of West Hollywood’s Green Building Ordinance, and it launched a plan to upgrade and densify the scruffy east end of a city whose west side, bordering on Beverly Hills, is choking on its success.
Tighe made his reputation with a succession of dramatically skewed houses and studios that drew on his experience at Morphosis. Sierra Bonita was his first affordable housing project, and he and Mutlow have applied the lessons they’ve learned on past jobs to this latest effort. It’s a five-story block with 32 wood-frame studios and one-bedroom apartments sitting atop a concrete and glass podium. Located a mile south of Hollywood Boulevard, the new facility provides a humane refuge for homeless LGBT youth and people living with HIV. More than a hundred such blocks are needed to meet the current demand: there were about 3,500 applications for these few accommodations.
At street level, there is parking and a narrow garden for residents to the rear, and a storefront office for the non-profit AIDS Project Los Angeles. The client wanted the building to have a strong street presence, and the architects have achieved that by wrapping the building’s exposed corner with looped ribbons of white lacquered steel. Assembled from short sections of flanged plate, they enclose the lobby, give the block a distinctive signature, and mask wire-mesh balustrades. Their sweeping curves mediate between the rectilinear storefront and the fretted aluminum plates that clad the upper stories along La Brea Boulevard. Comprising ten custom patterns cut with water jets and randomly arranged, they also serve as a decorative sunscreen that frames inset balconies. The balcony reveals are painted aqua, in tones that lighten as they ascend.
The facades demonstrate the architects’ skill in exploiting a budget of $160/square foot, employing durable materials and imaginative design to better effect than most market-rate apartment blocks. The interior is even more imaginative. The corner lobby soars five stories to the roof and the openings between the steel ribbons pull in light, cooling breezes, and glimpses of sky. When it rains, the furnishings can be sheltered and water drains from the concrete floor. At the upper levels, apartments open onto a densely landscaped courtyard, which is oriented north-south and gives every apartment natural light and cross ventilation. It provides a sheltered gathering place in winter, and a cool, shady retreat in summer. Bamboo plants rise to the height of the building from sinuous concrete planters, which incorporate benches. A communal room, warmed by millwork and armchairs of reclaimed wood, opens off the second level, beside a laundry and social services. Solar panels, a gray water system, and a white vinyl roof membrane combine with passive strategies to achieve a high level of sustainability.
To reduce costs, the living units are stacked, but each has a full bathroom and kitchen, plus storage and an 80 square-foot outdoor space. The WHCHC is funded from different sources, and each lender has a different set of requirements for access, materials, and open space, challenging the architects to reconcile conflicting demands. Large cities, from LA and San Francisco to New York, are notoriously over-regulated and that constraint, combined with a shortage of Federal and State funding, slows construction of affordable housing to a trickle. Many architects, from Rob Quigley in San Diego, to David Baker in San Francisco are eager to contribute more. In LA, Tighe and Mutlow join Michael Maltzan, Koning Eizenberg, Kevin Daly, Frederick Fisher, and others in reaching out to the needy only to find themselves frustrated by inflexible rules and a dearth of funding.
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.
The City of West Hollywood is preparing to get a lot greener. While still mired in lengthy delays related to its Plummer Park, further east, on Monday city officials unveiled the finalist schemes for the second phase of its new West Hollywood Park, located next to Johnson Favaro’s new public library and public spaces, just west of San Vicente Boulevard.
Three shortlisted teams — Frederick Fisher and Partners with CMG, LPA with Rios Clementi Hale, and Langdon Wilson —unveiled conceptual master plan renderings. The ideas are still considered “conceptual,” because they could be scaled down due to practical concerns, explained city officials.
“These are just ideas. When the project begins all this stuff goes away and we start with a blank piece of paper,” reiterated Frederick Fisher during his presentation. But Jeffrey Huffer, the city’s Strategic Initiatives Manager, noted, “In all I would expect to see the style and type of buildings would remain very similar to what they’ve presented.”
The $80 million project will remove several existing buildings from the site—including the Edward Fickett–designed Library, and the current auditorium, swimming pool, park office, and support buildings, to make room for an expanded core of grass and trees. The park will now contain over five acres of uninterrupted open space. New buildings will be highlighted by a new 70,000 square foot recreation and community center with a rooftop pool, park support facilities, and children’s playground areas.
All of the proposals focused on the new recreation center and rooftop pool, and tried to encourage interaction between the new building and its adjacent park. The finalists were culled from an original field of 24 design teams, which was later narrowed down to nine.
Courtesy Langdon Wilson
The Fisher team’s proposal includes a large grass-topped podium, and a stair, connecting the park to the rec center. “The building itself is an extension of the park,” said Fisher. Its fractured landscape, set with meandering pathways, would be divided into varied zones, including a reading garden, a sloped garden walk, garden “rooms,” and the “great lawn,” a large open grassy space.
LPA’s proposal also fused the recreation center with landscape, with vertical green screens, a park-like podium, and a larger grand stair leading down from the pool to the park. Its rooftop pool would be “resort style,” with cabanas and a view terrace, and inside a two-story volume would contain a large rock-climbing wall. Its “public park,” programmed for larger events and athletics, would be set along much harder angles, overlaid with a sinuous “neighborhood park,” set for passive activities.
“We feel the two parks in one gives West Hollywood the best of both worlds,” explained Rios Clementi Hale senior associate Samantha Harris.
Courtesy Frederick Fisher
Langdon Wilson presented a slightly more traditional proposal, dividing architecture and landscape, with a layered building clad with a glass curtain wall. “The facility needs to reflect the park, but it’s about the park at the end of the day,” explained Langdon Wilson project architect Rick Sholl. The team’s garden would create an “outdoor living room,” made up of greensward, recreation, and an “outdoor living room,” combining structured with open areas. A “Rainbow Garden Walk” and amphitheater would link the upper level of the park with San Vicente.
West Hollywood’s Huffer said that the winning scheme will be revealed at the city’s next council meeting, on January 21. Construction would likely be completed sometime in 2017, he noted. He added that he didn’t expect this problem to be beset with public outcry the way Plummer Park had.
“I think people seem very pleased with the first phase of improvements that were done,” he said,” referring to the new library, promenade, and basketball courts. “I think it’s only excited people more about what the project could look like.”
Olin’s plan for Plummer Park had come under fire from residents for, among other things, plans for new buildings, plans to demolish existing buildings and plans to remove mature trees. That project had been put in further jeopardy because of the dissolution of the state’s Redevelopment Agencies. The city has confirmed that Olin is no longer associated with that project. Unofficially the city is now having discussions with Brooks + Scarpa about the upcoming direction, said one city official.