Last Tuesday's book launch for L.A. [TEN]: Interviews on Los Angeles Architecture 1970s-1990s at the A+D Museum brought author Stephen Phillips in conversation with the book’s publisher, Lars Müller, and architecture critics (among other things) Aaron Betsky and Sylvia Lavin. The book is a collaborative effort, culling work from students in Cal Poly’s L.A. Metro Program in Architecture and Urban Design, Wim de Wit and Christopher Alexander of the Getty Research Institute, and Phillips himself. As an initiative that pits students alongside practicing professionals, combining oral history with journalistic investigation, L.A. [TEN] is both the artifact of an educational performance and a signpost in the continuing attempt to historicize L.A.’s messy architectural identity.
Lavin and Betsky kicked off the launch with miniature lectures, riffing on L.A.’s environmental and cultural context during the book’s era. Lacking the institutional validation of a strong publishing culture, architects in 1970s Los Angeles didn’t place much value on producing books. Without those historical artifacts to convey how its players were posturing themselves at the time, L.A. [TEN] tries to flesh out the picture through personal interviews with those same players. Both Betsky and Lavin grappled with the pitfalls of historicizing a period through its participants’ memories, especially when L.A. architectural output in the 1970s was motivated more by cultural politics than any regional identity. Betsky described the [TEN] as (in a way) avant-garde -- operating on the fringes of their discipline, producing very little built architecture, and working out of small offices that didn’t practice a consistent theory. In light of recent exhibitions such as “A New Sculpturalism” at MOCA, “Never Built Los Angeles” at A+D, and the whole of Pacific Standard Time’s “Modern Architecture in L.A.”, there’s a lively fascination with the diffuseness of L.A. architecture, sometimes accompanied by attempts to contain it all within a simplistic historical narrative.
The architects featured in L.A. [TEN] first garnered international repute in the 1970s -- that list (see the press release below) will probably look familiar, but their inclusion in the [TEN] was not determined by a common professional community, singular idealism, nor academic affiliation. This added a healthy dose of complexity and contradiction (h/t to Lavin’s Venturi reference) to a discussion of by what category, then, is the book collectively historicizing these “L.A. [TEN]”? What does Los Angeles in general, or architectural history, stand to gain by leaning on the narrative conventions of the “New York Five” and “Chicago Seven”, forty years after the fact?
L.A. [TEN] aims to “offer a casual, witty and approachable retrospective on the characters, environment and cultural history of L.A. architecture as they remember it.” That last part, “as they remember it”, was a bit of a snagging point in the Betsky, Lavin, Müller and Phillips conversation. Lavin pointed out that an individual's memories are inherently personal, and inevitably become parochial, which isn’t the strongest foundation for historical reference. But what L.A. [TEN] can do, in this case, is offer a discrete slice of data for discussion, and hopefully motivate educational institutions to interrogate their professional contexts in similarly generative ways.
Here is the press release for L.A. [TEN]: Interviews on Los Angeles Architecture 1970s-1990s:
Catapulted to fame by the international media in and around the 1980s, a loosely affiliated cadre of architects – the so-called L.A. Ten – emerged to define the future of Los Angeles architecture. In this book, L.A. Ten architects Neil Denari, Frederick Fisher, Ming Fung, Craig Hodgetts, Coy Howard, Franklin Israel (posthumously), Wes Jones, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, and Michael Rotondi offer a casual, witty, and approachable retrospective on the characters, environment, and cultural history of L.A. architecture as they remember it through a series of oral history interviews conducted by Stephen Phillips alongside Wim de Wit, Christopher Alexander (both Getty Research Institute), and the students of the Cal Poly LA Metro Program in Architecture and Urban Design. Touching upon the intrigue and development surrounding the Los Angeles architecture scene from Postmodernism through Deconstructivism, this book reveals deeply personal and moving stories and events about many of the formative conferences, exhibitions, pedagogical developments, and formal and material strategies of the avant-garde Los Angeles architecture community from the 1970s to the 1990s.
STEPHEN PHILLIPS, an architect, historian and educator, is Associate Professor of Architecture at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and Founding Director of the Cal Poly L.A. Metro Program in Architecture and Urban Design.