It was a SCI-ARC night. LAPD helicopters thumping overhead, spotlights sweeping down. The twinkle of downtown just beyond. Derelict shopping carts and garbage just outside the fence. I parked between a shipping container and sheets of plywood near the shop. As I looked in, I could see some students pulling their hair out over the CNC machine. “Architecture and Beauty: A Troubled Relationship”, catalyzed by Yael Reisner’s new book (and the fact that these architects were all in town), was off to a good start even before I sat down.
By Guy Horton
Here, in the parking lot, enveloped within the giant LED-illumined space-frame of the Graduation Pavilion, on plastic folding chairs, behind plastic tables, one therapist tried to get six patients to talk about their inner worlds. This was one of the most interesting aspects of the evening: watching six architects wrestle with the nature of beauty as mediated through their work, positioning themselves in the profession, within culture, and as people.
Ms. Reisner’s introduction neatly framed the problematic as the struggle between utilitarian tendencies and emotional creative drives. This analysis came across as suspiciously linear and selective. It tended to universalize and partition off what could be classed as anti-aesthetic functionalism while allowing a democratic, subjective aesthetic realm to thrive in opposition. This overlooks the multiple streams and aesthetic impulses of what later became historicized as “modernism.” Despite this epistemological problem a few good points come through: one is that while aesthetics are intrinsic to architecture, it is problematized because of outside cultural, historical, or political forces. The “depth-scape”, as she calls it, is compromised as it is translated from the personal to the social arena of appearance.
Panels like this seem more fitting for the presentation of papers or positions rather than free-wheeling discussions that jump back and forth. For this reason it was not always easy to get a read on what the participants actually thought about aesthetics or what might determine the terms of beauty. The repeating slideshow of their work may have spoken more to their understandings. Some were more revealing than others. Reisner’s book, however, presents a more complete picture of how they view themselves and their aesthetics—or at least instances of this are frozen in time.
Rather than a blow-by-blow recounting (you can view the evening from the SCI-ARC archives), here are brief fragments that try to capture what each architect said. It follows the order of their “last supper” positioning from left to right.
Hernan Diaz Alonso: Clenching an unlit cigar. Bad readings, misinterpretations of science, philosophy and other disciplines can be a place from which something starts. There exists in architecture an insecurity that enables it to look to other things. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Afterwards, I will present some of the more colorful exchanges that took place.
Frank Gehry: We respond to our times. Architecture doesn’t have much meaning anymore. The type of work we do is on the margins. There are different reasons for doing things. Self-expression is not necessarily the most important thing in architecture. Let people do what they want. Allow multiple points of view to coexist and don’t talk down to people or impose your will on them. Critics can be a force for good because you can learn things from them. We are small pieces of the puzzle.
Greg Lynn: It’s important to be contradictory and challenge global and accepted norms. Find your own position with the software rather than let the software’s signature determine your position.
Thom Mayne: Looking up at helicopters every time they drown out the speakers. What we are really talking about is the shift in operational strategies and processes that came about in the 80’s and 90’s. The “I” is not static. Architects like us frighten people, don’t you think?
Eric Owen Moss: Critical distance is important. Outsiders provide important perspectives. Lewis Mumford, John Dreyfuss, Herbert Muschamp all had productive things to say.
Peter Cook: What we are really talking about is bull shit, but good bull shit. What Reisner is doing is pushing us out of our comfort zones. You have to watch out for those creepy guys (critics) because they can have a direct impact on how you are perceived and affect your business.
There were some tense moments that produced some oo’s and ah’s from the audience. Laughter would erupt when certain architects who were not present were mentioned. Frank Gehry didn’t laugh at anyone—he was too thoughtful.
In one exchange Reisner, in response Greg Lynn asking why she didn’t include architects like David Chipperfield and Richard Meier, stated they weren’t included because they represented mere continuations of the modernist movement. To this, members of the audience booed and hissed. Ms. Reisner seemed shocked that they didn’t agree.
Gerhy, with sage-like coolness, jumped to Mr. Chipperfield’s defense by saying that he had “figured out a way to exist.” Chipperfield, not present to defend himself, was thus invoked as an example of someone who had successfully negotiated the complexities and difficulties of the profession to carve out an identity. No easy task.
There was another moment when Ms. Reisner declared Greg Lynn to be a “digital” architect. In response, Mr. Moss said he didn’t think Lynn was a digital architect at all and that he couldn’t be determined by such labels. This is what Peter Cook was talking about when he called critics “those creepy guys.” There was irony this. After all, Ms. Reisner, who is also an architect, is Cook's wife and I somehow doubt he finds her creepy. This reminds me of a line from a movie in which one character says, “You think I’m an asshole but I’m really just British.”
When Ms. Reisner repeated something Lynn had said in the interview for the book. Mr. Lynn empathically stated, “I never said that!” At least he didn’t think that is what he had said, but that was how it was interpreted. This is often what happens in the process of translation. The interviews in the book were conducted by Ms. Reisner, but the actually narratives in the book were written by a journalist by the name of Fleur Watson. Mind the gap.
The point here is that what these architects say about themselves and their work can have different meanings and their ideas can change over time. Their work can change too, a theme Gehry, Mayne and Moss repeated. They didn’t seem to recognize transformations in Lynn’s work, but what comprises change for one architect might be different for another. Plus, Lynn can respond—or not respond if he so chooses—to different sorts of pressures that someone like Moss may not react to.
When it was time for questions a queue formed behind a microphone. A gentleman, who identified himself as “one of the creepy guys”, made a brief speech about something. Greg Lynn voiced everyone’s desire to leave by saying, “We’re done, right?” I made my way to the buffet table but it was swarming with starving SCI-ARC students.
Arriving at my car, I looked into the shop. The same students I had observed struggling with the CNC were still there, scratching their heads. The machine seemed to be not producing the results they had desired. How do you make your inner world a reality and what happens when you do?
Guy Horton, based in Los Angeles, is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record and other publications. He is also the author of the weekly column, The Indicator, featured on Arch Daily.
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Guy Horton is a Los Angeles writer and author of the critical blog, The Indicator on ArchDaily.com, which covers issues ranging from the culture, politics, and business of architecture to theory and aesthetics. He is a frequent contributor to The Architect's Newspaper, The Atlantic Cities ...