Was There an L.A. School of Architecture?

For a city undergoing a cultural renaissance, Los Angeles has a lot to answer for. Or as architecture professors and native Angelenos Jeffrey Inaba and Peter Zellner put it, “L.A. is on schedule to become a great city without great distinction.” On September 7, the pair gathered a host of luminaries to address why the city has failed to embrace those maverick architects and their bold, sometimes daffy structural visions. And the best answer offered? In the minds of the so-called L.A. School, it would appear, there exists no L.A. School, and no unifying theme. Yet it is precisely this stalwart individualism, as Inaba and Zellner suggest, that remains the distinguishing feature of this generation of locally-based architects.

At the event—held in conjunction with the SCI-Arc exhibit Whatever Happened to L.A.?: Architectural and Urban Experiments, 1970-1990—local architects Julie Eizenberg, Eric Owen Moss, Craig Hodgetts, Ming Fung, and Ray Kappe wrangled with the premise that the unruly L.A. School, overlooked by the critical establishment, was in fact an incubator of ideas and thinking about urbanism. The group’s unconventional, mostly residential projects, Inaba and Zellner argued, were later globally exported via such Pritzker laureates as Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne, two of the night’s noticeable absentees.

The evening’s lively discussion confirmed that this scrappy group of L.A. architects maintains a pride in individual accomplishment, and in resisting academic definition. Or as Zellner put it: “These architects sometimes appear to disassociate themselves from one another. It’s a very different model from the New York Five, who wished to be seen as part of a movement of sorts.”

During the 1970s in Southern California, the paucity of architectural schools and embryonic state of cultural institutions meant L.A.-born architects worked outside the limelight. This allowed them the time and freedom to develop their own styles. “L.A. was not taken seriously by the New York intelligentsia,” said Inaba. For that reason, its architects “also weren’t waiting for anybody else’s approval.”

While most of Whatever Happened to L.A.? features smaller projects or unrealized civic schemes, this work asserted the guerrilla approach of its makers. “What’s distinctive about their work in this period,” said Zellner, “is the almost delirious investment in producing curious artifacts, such as lead-on-linen drawings and etched brass plates” featured in the exhibit. These models and ephemera peacocked their makers’ antiestablishment leanings and only added to their appeal. Groups like Thom Mayne’s Morphosis even have achieved a fan base, with collectors around the world clamoring for the firm’s drawings.

Moss, who is also the director of SCI-Arc, similarly agreed that “control and freedom … were part of the psychology of this place at the time.” Yet he says Whatever Happened to L.A.? remains “an amorphous excavation,” a grasping at what was happening.

“This was a city without a discernible architecture until recently,” he said. “This is a great city for architects, but not necessarily for architecture.”

Categories: Cities