Urban design and its discontents … Count me among the latter.
In the past decade and a half, at architecture schools in Los Angeles, “city talk” has gone deeply — and fruitfully — out of fashion. In advanced architecture studios at SCI-Arc, for instance, a resort to civics is often dismissed as an excuse or even a crutch — to borrow a term from Philip Johnson’s famous talk on modern architecture — to justify an underdeveloped project. Hernan Diaz-Alonso, the director-elect, has little time for the nitty-gritty tedium of what he pronounces as “the Herbanism,” and he isn’t alone; other faculty often wonder aloud whether urban analyses or arguments about city context can usefully inform the creation of new architecture. By now the question is largely rhetorical and the answer a rarely qualified “No.” Although some would grant that a focus on urbanism abetted architectural thinking decades ago — say, in the narrative of Delirious New York or even through the speculative and theoretical thickets of the early 1990s — most agree that the found geometries of the city have been exhausted as a source of design inspiration. And even less at issue are any civic or societal debts incurred by architecture-with-a-capital-A: it isn’t as though vanguard designers produce so many provocative works that they alter the city in aggregate. (Like their creators, when a few of these buildings play together, they usually get along fine.) The upshot is clear: For ambitious designers, “context” is a domain where all too often the roads — and bike paths — lead to mediocrity.
And yet … I spend most Saturday mornings in another Los Angeles, with friends whose faith in urban thinking has outlived my own. We meet at the Silver Lake farmers market, order coffee and something from the Siberian crepe-maker, grouse about local politics and professional prospects, and buy our week’s worth of artisanal produce, cash permitting. Often it is my only hour or two of direct civic engagement, though hardly a Parisian détournement. Still, I am outside and in the city, seated like Roland Barthes at a café table with a clear view up and down Sunset Boulevard. I am a happy Angeleno. 1
So is Victor Jones, another regular at the weekend market. Most Saturdays, Jones joins John Southern and Mimi Zeiger at Julie’s Night and Day Café for a round-up of the L.A. design scene, a klatch more informed by urban theorists Mike Davis and David Harvey than by architects Frank Gehry or Greg Lynn. Jones, Southern, and Zeiger are all design/theory hyphenates: Victor is an architect/educator, John a designer/pamphleteer, Mimi a writer/editor. Southern and Zeiger share a history in ’zines — John in his episodic archeologies, including my favorite Wilshire Star Maps, Mimi in her long-running loudpaper. So I’m inclined to read Jones’s new book through the lens of those fast, loose productions by his friends. A modest but sharply framed manifesto, (In)Formal L.A.: The Space of Politics brings together a range of insightful protagonists seeking a better future for Los Angeles architecture vis-à-vis urbanism.
For ambitious architects, urban context is a domain where all too often the roads — and bike paths — lead to mediocrity.
In a city whose pop-cultural dystopian representations have lately run to Shanghai (as in Her) or Tijuana (as in Elysium), that better future is by no means assured. As editor, Jones structured (In)Formal L.A. around a workshop/symposium he organized with Stefano de Martino at the USC School of Architecture in 2011, but did not limit the contributions to those presented at the event. In the broader scope of the publication, Jones assembles a formidable arsenal of approaches, bookended by Diane Ghirardo’s “Invisible Acropolis,” a prescient meditation on the ends and means of the Getty Center, and Warren Techentin’s recent riff on the double-entendre of “agency” in architecture and entertainment. In between the ideological spectrum runs from grass-roots urban recording to urban exploration à la Situationist derives to a counter-intuitive assessment of zoning rights by Roger Sherman. 2
As Jones underscores in his introduction, Diane Ghirardo’s essay leads the collection both chronologically and philosophically. Written in 1990, years before the Richard Meier-designed Getty Center would open to the public, “Invisible Acropolis” remains one of the most cogent critiques not only of that ambitious arts institution but also of the aggressive cultural capitalism that would come to exemplify the ’90s and ’00s. She notes that the Getty Center’s remove from the city to its spectacular hilltop redoubt echoed and amplified the oil magnate J.P. Getty’s earlier city-phobic retreat to a Pacific Palisades villa. Both Getty Museums promise “the fantasy of a world apart from the real world, but here one which is dedicated to the higher things of life — the arts — which remain uncontaminated by the mundane preoccupations of the city at its feet.” Twenty-five years later, the now completed Getty — whose lofty site is accessible via private tram— and assorted other personal museums have amply justified Ghirardo’s skepticism.
In fact, at the start of her essay, she poses two questions that still animate the debates around the high-stakes game of high-end architecture for art: “Is it possible for architecture to distinguish itself from [its] patron? More importantly, should it?” For Ghirardo and her more left-leaning contemporaries — influenced by the philosophy of Manfredo Tafuri — the answers would appear to be an emphatic No and No. Buildings inevitably embody the inequalities that enabled their creation; capital-A architecture often devolves into a distraction, even an opiate, for a misinformed public. But many architects, and especially those of L.A.’s signature variety, want to believe the answers can be Yes and Yes, and in support they offer two tidy, albeit bourgeois, lines of defense. Whatever the brief, architects think for themselves as much as for their clients, and, great buildings ultimately transcend their circumstances.
In Los Angeles, in the last decade of the old millennium, these were polarizing debates, especially for the swell of Baby Boomers trying to establish careers in practice and academia. Yet since then the vitriol has eased. Starting in the mid-’90s, as the public Internet began to organize the world, the focus on local “place” has been eclipsed by a fascination with global “space”; and leftish designers in Los Angeles — Boomers no less than Gen-Xer’s and Millennials — who’ve wanted to erect actual buildings have devised various ways to get past the impasse of the Double No. Today we can categorize these local workarounds under the useful rubrics of Everyday, Interdictory, Infrastructural, Interventionist, and now Informal Urbanism. (While beyond L.A., a welter of more insurrectionist urbanism-without-urbanists has arisen: Burning Man, Occupy, and the Tea Party, to name a few; and taken to a city-altering extreme, one might even include the horrifically anti-cosmopolitan war crimes of ISIS.)
But let’s stick close to home. Published in 1999 and edited by John Chase, Margaret Crawford, and John Kaliski, Everyday Urbanism argued that in order to challenge the structural inequities embodied in high design, architects need to redefine the client —to figure out what everyday people, not wealthy patrons, want from their buildings. Chase took the radical step of making the city his client when he took the job of planning director of West Hollywood, but for most architects Everyday Urbanism meant an aspiration to modesty: an emphasis on designing small, even piecemeal projects for less-affluent people. Some of the early works of Barbara Bestor, in Los Angeles, and Deborah Berke, in New York, were celebrated as winning examples of the Everyday for their embrace of the quotidian, and both architect have framed their practices and sensibility in terms of designing around the lives of their clients, rather than requiring their clients to conform to their design dictates.
‘Lifers,’ as the Everyday Urbanists were sometimes called, enjoyed the moral high ground in the ’90s. They constituted a lively opposition to an academic vanguard of deconstruction and deconstructivism, movements whose unabashed theoretical excesses made a renewed focus on the actual fodder of daily life feel salutary; just as welcome was the philosophical shift from Jacques Derrida to more quotidian cultural theorists like Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre. 3 Everyday Urbanism was probably the last important architectural call to arms of the analog era. Yet the Everyday sensibility has been vulnerable to its very success. After all, can there really be an Everyday for Dr. Dre? The new, vast headquarters for Beats by Dre, designed by Bestor, sprawling through a few large industrial buildings in Culver City, raises this question in myriad ways; the building unfolds in a series of cross-axial sequences of escalating graphic intensity and spatial collage, with spaces that incorporate large-scale aerial photos of Los Angeles and standard residential finishes in various degrees of translucence and reflectivity. Bestor finds a winning decadence in the prosaic, but would the Everyday Urbanism authors approve the deployment of their ideas in the service of a client whose fortune, based on cultural rather than resource extraction, may now rival that of J. Paul Getty?
After the Everyday comes the host of iUrbanisms — Interdictory, Infrastructural, and Interventionist — to which Jones’s (In)Formal may prove the coda. Interdictory Urbanism, described by Steven Flusty in his 1994 Building Paranoia: The Proliferation of Interdictory Space and the Erosion of Spatial Justice, and Infrastructural Urbanism, delineated by Kazys Varnelis in The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, which appeared 2008, each owe specific debts to their Everyday precursors: Kaliski wrote the Foreword to Building Paranoia, and Crawford lured Varnelis from Cornell to teach at SCI-Arc in 1995. But the broader, proto-globalist ambitions of Flusty and Varnelis suggest an even stronger alignment with the ideas of Mike Davis and Edward Soja, and their revolutionary work in urban history and geography. 4
Flusty defines “interdictory spaces” as “spaces designed to intercept or repel or filter would-be users,” and his book is a critique of the increasing privatization of public space, exemplified by the rise of gated communities, the proliferation of militarized security systems, and the like. In his pithy Foreword, Kaliski positions Flusty’s thesis somewhere between Davis’s “noir vision of a totalizing ‘scanscape’” and Soja’s critique of a cynical city “scamscape.” 5 Akin to Davis in both his radical politics and biting prose, Flusty outflanks Everyday Urbanism to the left in his portrayal of the contemporary city’s corporatized, “prickly” and “jittery” zones of exclusion and surveillance. More cool at the wheel, and less overtly political, Varnelis is concerned more with the mega-scale, though often invisible-seeming, “networked ecologies” that support contemporary metropolitan life — “a series of codependent systems of environmental mitigation, land-use organization, communication and service delivery,” as Varnelis says in his introduction. 6 And even more than the Everyday Urbanists, both Flusty and Varnelis seem pointedly indifferent, if not hostile, to high design. Though each author can be read for his aesthetic fixations — Flusty includes haunting images of high-tech security cameras and paramilitary street features; Varnelis clearly enjoys decoding the stealthscapes of advanced capital formation, among them the false office building that conceals an oil derrick on Pico and Doheny, and the telecom hub of 1 Wilshire Boulevard (“this nondescript thirty-nine story skyscraper functions as the prime communications hub between Asia and the Western world”). Both authors argue that the dehumanizing — or at least post-humanist — residue of hyper-urbanization constitutes the most “meaningful” of new architectures.
In contrast, Interventionist Urbanism functions at a different scale, more grounded and street level; it edges closer to the actions and environments of political protest and civic reclamation. It’s an urbanism of “stakeholders” that builds upon a long history of public defiance and community activism. Architects are welcome here, if they can curb their professional condescension. A doyen of interventionist design, Mimi Zeiger provides a fine survey of these operations in her series for this journal, “The Interventionist’s Toolkit,” the subtitle of which suggests the spectrum she explores: “Provisional, opportunistic, ubiquitous, and odd tactics in guerrilla practice and DIY urbanism.” As Zeiger argues in the series’ four installments, and further in “An Aesthetics of Participation,” on a Guggenheim blog, the many strains of Interventionist Urbanism now on offer beg a framework for judgment. Like Relational Aesthetics in fine art, which seeks to understand art in its larger civic/social contexts, these urban practices broaden the field of possibilities for civic engagement dramatically; yet often as not these new possibilities seem less the guerrilla operations of an emboldened public than the curated efforts of new professional cohort of “public interest” designers.
As such, Interventionist Urbanism spans from micro- to macro-scale, and rides a fast-expanding, semi-interchangeable terminology: strategic, tactical, and alternative urbanisms are related positions, and all are defined against the after-effects of neoliberalism. (Confusingly, a recent MoMA show, “Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities,” describes some of the macro-scale proposals, such as collective housing alternatives and rent restructuring, as tactical; which suggests, perhaps, that strategic urbanism would need to be understand at the national or planetary level. MoMA’s co-opting of the term “tactical” appears, in fact, rather strategic.) In theory, the commodification of daily life is now inspiring pleas for — or seizures of — the right to the city and the resurrection of “the Commons,” a transient, perhaps utopian, bastion of civic space enjoyed collectively and apart from top-down economic imperatives. In practice, the antidotes to the wastescapes of the market economy which are being created by the Interventionist or Tactical Urbanists look more like … gifts. There’s often an unexpected, understated kindness to Interventionist endeavors. For a quarter you get a parking space not for a car but rather for a tiny, temporary park. If some of us clean a dumpster, we’ll all get to take a swim. The themes of generosity, fairness, and inclusion, and their corresponding absence in today’s capital-driven cities, are hallmarks of IU enterprises large and small. To date, John Southern’s guerilla pocket parks are among the most ambitious and lasting of Interventionist endeavors in Los Angeles.
This hyper-flexible, do-it-yourself ethos has led to some unlikely and inspiring outcomes — publications such as Vendor Power! actually do look empowering, and I’m not immune to the charms of yarn bombing or dumpster pools — but the dance between aesthetics and politics can be uncomfortably close in Interventionist Urbanism. Some IU activities are so earnest they run a risk of Portlandian absurdity, as Zeiger notes in the Guggenheim post, and some border on radical chic: it’s easy enough to imagine an “Occupy” Urbanism, but what about the heady carnival of today’s Tea Party, or even more illiberal actors? Some of today’s more zealous “alternative lifestyle” advocates aspire less to liberation than to a kind of medieval piety. As Zeiger argues, the most fruitful trajectory of Interventionist Urbanism, in terms of design if not altruism, may require a closer alignment of art and architecture, as was seen in a dizzying ad hoc memorial to artist Mike Kelley, which claimed much of the street outside his home in Los Angeles.
And now come Victor Jones and the (In)Formalists, who offer a knowing mix of answers to Ghirardo’s two-fer challenge, ranging from “No, we can’t avoid complicity, but … can’t we just move on?” to “Perhaps, if we choose our battles carefully, we might get to pick our powers-that-be.” (The latter strategy, urbanist or otherwise, seems especially suited to academia.) Like Zeiger, Jones is quick to take the side of artists. His own contribution to (In)formal L.A., “Trash,” brilliantly evokes episodes from an earlier era of Los Angeles urbanism — the embrace, by artists as diverse as Andy Warhol and Thomas Pynchon, of the Watts Towers, that extraordinary assemblage created by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia over decades — in order to position his own innovative design proposals for a part of the city that remains misunderstood and contested. As Jones writes, the Watts neighborhood in southeast L.A. “resides in the collective psyche as a euphemism, a one-word cautionary tale of persistent cultural, social, and economic tension.” The chapter incorporates various projects that build upon the work of the Watts House Project, created in 1997 by the Houston-based artist Rick Lowe as part of an L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition that explored the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
In another contribution, “Speeding,” designer/photographer Reid Cigolle also navigates the art/architecture axis, contemplating how Ed Ruscha documented urban phenomena in photo series like Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and how Reyner Banham cherry-picked Ruscha’s images to convey a more ironic, and static, portrayal of the city. And in another chapter, Marcos Sánchez and Mark Wasiuta offer an evocative proposal for the “reconstitution of historical smog” — a soft-form, translucent building envelope that would contain historic pollutants and particulates and which recalls at once the spent pneumatic sculptures of Claes Oldenberg and the Blur Building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It’s a clever scheme, and the text is erudite enough for a rarified art journal like Cabinet; but it raises another question — that of audience, for both the book and more broadly for urbanism. At what point does work crafted so sharply for scholarly consumption simply become a self-referential urbanism, or no urbanism at all?
If fine art is the model for diverse approaches to the city, including both Interventionist and Informal Urbanism, then designers have considerable catching up to do. Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship and Pamela Lee’s Forgetting the Art World each offer sophisticated examples of urban reprogramming by artists such as the Invisible Committee and the Atlas Group, as well as challenging assessments of the value, success, and historical significance of social practice in art. Bishop’s scathing verdicts on most contemporary participatory art, within Relational Aesthetics and otherwise, and her investigation of the roots of those movements in the developing world, is a model of scholarship still missing from architectural and urban studies. Architects looking to contemporary art for guidance need a working grasp of that world today, well beyond Gordon Matta-Clark: at minimum, Gabriel Orozco, Rikrit Tiravanija, and Thomas Hirschhorn should be touchstones. If architects held themselves to the standard that art must meet — to be compelling before useful — it would raise the bar considerably for those hoping to work in shared territory.
But if we can’t all be artists, then maybe we can be agents? Perhaps it’s less who you work for, though that matters, and more how you negotiate the competing priorities — those of the client, the discipline, and one’s own. I find myself in agreement with Warren Techentin, who in his essay in Jones’s book, “Agency and Politics in Architecture,” observes that “the architect is perpetually caught in-between: contractually operating in the interests of someone else at the same time as being an artist in the critical position of purveying a cultural milieu.”
In the main, however, (In)formal L.A. demands a re-engagement with the actual city and showcases some of the rewards to be reaped by architects and urbanists who traffic in reality rather than rarefied speculation or digital high jinx. This is especially the case with “Everyday Cities” by Rachel Berney, who writes from Bogotá with a street-smart, politically informed set of tenets for immediate, demonstrable urban improvements; her focus on ordinary daily activities — “using the park, riding bikes, and going to the library” — breathes new life into the Everyday agenda (though at a continent’s distance). In another chapter, on “The Studio and the City,” Kenny Cupers laments that contemporary architectural training overlooks the actual in favor of the digital, the global, even the “green.” Cupers ties his argument to the 1968 Yale studio taught by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown, and Steven Izenour — which produced the ground-breaking Learning from Las Vegas, and which really is ground zero for all these alternative urbanisms. He argues convincingly that we have yet to learn all the pedagogical — as distinct from postmodernist — lessons from that long-ago studio. 7 The volume also incorporates the brief and projects from a USC studio, on “the space of politics,” taught by Cupers and Markus Miessen. 8
(In)Formal L.A. is a model production of its kind in content, and a direct realization of its politics in form. The essays are acute, if at times focused to a fault on relatively unsung urban phenomena; the results of the workshop are sincere attempts to read and then amplify neglected passages and actors in the city. In terms of production, (In)formal L.A. wears its counter-formalist politics on its sleeve, so to speak, in its no-frills, black-and-white pamphlet format and mimeograph-like printing. For those attuned to the post-punk subtlety of Werkplaats Typography, the normcore vibe of (In)formal L.A. will read as authentic and sharp, the literary equivalent of a radically stripped fixed-gear bicycle. For those who prefer a plush ride … well, there’s always the latest oversize tome from Rizzoli, or more low-res porn from Taschen.
And yet … I must return to my dissatisfactions with urbanism and urban studies. All these flights into the informal, modest, everyday, quotidian, etc. are surely a relief from the pretensions of architectural formalism, but they are not, frankly, a substitute for its rigor or potential for disciplinary advance. And by formalism I mean precisely the bête noir of most self-effacing urbanist positions: digitally sophisticated, often sculpturally daring, frequently “narcissistic” or insensitive attempts to test the outer limits of architectural expression. In fact L.A. architects lead the world in these experiments, while the city’s urban theorists have for years framed their early careers against these indulgences (and then often left town for the comforts of the Ivy League). The local dialectic between ambitious design and urban critique could use some realignment.
Perhaps there’s a hybrid position between pure and applied logics, between digital academia and street engagement — here one thinks again of the design offices of Bestor, or of Ball-Nogues. Yet these mediating practices tend to shortchange either the techniques (Bestor built a lot of boxes before her recent projects for more daring clients) or notions of enclosure (Ball-Nogues are, to date, installationists, or maybe pavilionists). At either end of the scalar spectrum, thriving offices like those of Michael Maltzan and Margaret Griffin and John Enright, on the one hand, and the micro studios like those of UrbanOps and Fritz Haeg, on the other, chart some intriguing courses for how the quotidian-minded might factor in not just the digital but also the biological and entropic — and even some advanced form-realization — while still delivering for righteous causes and underserved clients. Maybe we need a more relaxed attitude toward both authorship and its absence.
But at least Los Angeles fosters these conversations. (In)formal L.A. sharpens the debate in crucial ways; it introduces a valuable new perspective for urbanists, one that underscores not just the link between intent and impact but also, and crucially, the link between intent and form. Jones’s notion of “(In)formal” offers a number of possible interpretations of disciplinary formalism, and his authors offer diverse readings. For Techentin and Cigolle, it might mean simply informal, i.e., a relaxed or easy attitude toward form; Ghirardo and Berney seem more emphatically anti-formalist; whereas Sánchez and Wasiuta aspire to a more haute a-formalism of shape and content neutrality. Sherman and Cupers seem to want something closer to (inform)al — design driven by information and by the actual. At this point teasing out the nuances among these various counter-formalisms, on the one hand, and the many neo-formalisms of high design, on the other, might constitute a public service — or an impossibility.
For Jones, the very multivalence of his title is perhaps its real strength — a way to enter the urban fray without jettisoning the disciplinary ambitions for his own work. His design proposal for the Watts House Project, for instance, recalls both the nearby Bethlehem Baptist Church, designed by Rudolph Schindler in 1944, and Daniel Buren’s many placeless paintings of stripes. Both Schindler and Buren have been, in their respective fields, groundbreaking and controversial informalists —but the shared market for those two cultural allusions is vanishingly small, especially in comparison to the mass of planners and residents who will view Jones’s project only in terms of its potential for urban improvement. The waist of the hourglass that tips between appeasing civic constituencies, on the one side, and intriguing a rarified audience, on the other, has become truly granular.
These flights into the informal, modest, everyday, quotidian, etc. are surely a relief from the pretensions of formalism, but they are not, frankly, a substitute for its rigor.
In the catalogue for MoMA’s Uneven Growth, Nader Tehrani touches on this divide when he writes that “we must examine the notion of ‘informality’ in this discussion. … [T]he informal tactics of urban mobilization, the result of Twitter and Facebook on the streets of Tehran in 2009, is one thing, and the aesthetic of informal decomposition as practiced by Sou Fugimoto is altogether another.” 9 Architects, however, should challenge Tehrani’s segregation of mobilization and decomposition. For in such a bifurcated conception of informality, even heroic advances in cultural expression will pale in comparison with the unassailable valor of mass resistance against the powers-that-be. Informality has the convergent virtues not only of upending hierarchies, but also of undermining conventional, and costly, vanities. Some of those young protesters in Tehran’s Saei Park, or in Tahir Square in Cairo, may well aspire to live in homes as low-impact and transparent as those realized by Fugimoto — at least, we from the liberal, wasteful West had better hope they do.
Jones knows that “Informalisms” — with or without parentheses — need to make a stronger case for themselves, and not just an ethical or professional one. New Babylon — that vast, imaginary urban playpen for homo ludens created in the middle of the last century by the Dutch artist/architect Constant Nieuwenhuys — was the last instance of an informal, collage-based architecture that actually looked good enough to steal. And for that transgression — because New Babylon set out not just to serenade a broad public but also to seduce architects — Guy Debord excommunicated Constant from the Situationist International. That rather formal divorce within an early bastion of urban “informality” points to a fault line that still divides the practice of civic-minded urban design from the discipline of architecture. Urbanists are easygoing, to a point, but also quick to dismiss work produced without an explicit connection to a place and a public. But few groundbreaking architects believe anymore that these can be isolated. If their universalizing “elitism” is suspect, so too is the safety of minding — and repeatedly mining — one’s own garden. Contemporary cities need not just the optimism and idealism of Candide but also the wit and range of Voltaire.