Weekend Plan: MOCA Opens New Southern California Architecture Show

WireImage/Courtesy of MOCA
Thom Mayne

The "New Sculputuralism" exhibit, which threatened to fall apart after Frank Gehry exited it (but then returned), looks at the best local structures created in the last 25 years by names like Thom Mayne and Neil Denari.

There is a large grey mouse sitting cartoon-like on its tail, with a Pac-Man figurine nestled in a niche within its belly, in a large grey room in a major museum in Los Angeles. Beside it, there is a crude finger drawing of two dancing teeth on the wall. To the left a sculpture of a powerful man aggressively absconding with a reluctant woman melts before the museum-goer’s eyes. The head of the man has severed due to the heat and fallen to the floor. No, this work by Urs Fischer at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA is not an homage to Jeffrey Deitch so far as I know (though numerous Deitch portraits that were crafted by the 1,500 Angelenos who helped Fischer can be seen in the installation). But the scrutiny and criticism that Mr. Deitch has received since his arrival as director of MOCA in 2010 somehow connects the two. And as the tragic/heroic/comic sculpture by Fisher is still lit by candles within, Deitch forges on and continues to deliver a fresh, invigorating museum experience at MOCA.

Earlier this week saw the opening of an exhibition at MOCA whose name won’t stop changing (A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California at the moment of publication) of 38 emerging and established architects from Los Angeles and the immediate vicinity. This ambitious and mesmerizing multi-media installation endured some controversy in its inception due to the sudden exit and eventual return of Gehry Partners from the lineup of studios selected.  The show is a remarkable collection of meticulously executed architectural models interspersed with drawings and schematics organized by broad categories of building type. Three pavilions produced by some of the edgier, emergent design firms and a series of multi-media overhead projection shells energize the space and remind viewers of the spatial emphasis of the exhibition.

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The Hollywood Reporter sat in on a panel discussion featuring five architects included in the show: Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects; Georgina Huljich of Patterns;  Tom Wiscombe of Tom Wiscombe Design; Neil Denari of Neil M. Denari Architects (NMDA); and Eric Owen Moss of EOM Architects, who was the moderator of the discussion.

The panel discussion was most interesting when it highlighted the differences between the different generations of architects participating.  In a discussion of who defines architecture, the more established architects, Mayne, Denari and Moss, were determined that it was the architect’s role to define the term. The younger, emerging talents Huljich and Wiscombe argued for a more fluid, less categorical approach in which the user ultimately determines the boundaries of the concept. Following the discussion, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with architect Thom Mayne and MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch about some challenges for architecture in Los Angeles and about the exhibition on view. Below are some excerpts from the conversations:

THR: Do you see this younger group of LA architects embracing the challenge of civic architecture and taking on projects with public spaces?

Thom Mayne: Well, the civic entity has to engage the architect. Architects, by nature, we’re trained in a classical way. It starts with Vesuvius, Palladio, and the highest esteem of architecture is public work. Everybody as a student knows that. Somehow in their brain they have an idea of a trajectory as an architect as they grow older. They’re going to build a concert hall, a music hall, a city hall, a school, a building on a college. That’s the work. And to get there you do residential work. In some cases, you continue doing that. But that’s still the highest order of work – it has a broad social agenda, a cultural agenda. You are invited for that. The architect doesn’t get the choice for that.

THR: So in a way you have to earn that.

TM: In a way. The council, the mayor, the city decides that architecture is important and instead of hiring a business practice just to build a building, they hire someone to design a building that has monumental, enduring qualities, which by the way is the history of the world -- it’s nothing unusual. Any city, if you look at buildings, you can immediately differentiate important buildings by the stature of the architect.

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THR: In that case, do you think that cities are embracing the challenge of hiring architects?

TM: This city has started to. Obviously with the Caltrans building and Frank [Gehry] with Disney Hall.  It’s a young city, so it’s just beginning the process. It’s a signal of an early development of a city. It’s a big city, but it’s a young city. It’s a city that you could say started at the first of the twentieth century, but really started as a city with institutions in post World War II. So here we have a city that is only half a century old – it’s a young, young city -- it’s first growth.  If you think about even our institutions -- you look at Ahmandson, you look at MOCA and LACMA -- it didn’t have museums or concert halls until the early 1960s.  Well, now you couldn’t even define it as a city without those things…There is no possibility that it won’t take place. It will take place, but it just takes time.

THR: There has been a little bit of turmoil with this show coming together. Based on your life with MOCA so far, would it be fair to say that you might be a little disappointed if this show just came together without a hitch?

Jeffrey Deitch: See, this is what the creative process is about. And I’ve been immersed in this for forty years. To realize a great creative project it’s not always a smooth course. And sometimes you have to change course, sometimes there are impediments, but if you have the belief, the vision, I try to push it through. And in the best cases, when there is some difficulty, if you approach it strategically and understand how to deal with the challenges you can make it better. And in this case, we were able to make the show better than we would have imagined in the beginning. And the privilege of having one of the greatest architects alive conceive the installation -- what a privilege. This is incredible. It is very difficult to make an exhibition of primarily architectural models and drawings -- 38 architects -- look exciting. And Thom Mayne and his team have succeeded in doing that. And in addition to creating this visually exciting platform here, they’ve figured out a way to put the central content up there on these screens – images of the real buildings in the world, the voices of the architects.  It adds tremendously to the experience of the exhibition.

A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California will be on view at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through Sept. 16.  The exhibition is presented in conjunction with Pacific Standard Time presents: Modern Architecture in LA, an initiative of the Getty Museum.