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Exhibition review: The architecture of gumption

July 20, 2009 |  2:30 pm

Mix 008

It’s not the Hatfields and the McCoys, Yankees-Red Sox or even Palin-Letterman. Increasingly, though, emerging American architects are settling into two opposing camps. On one side are the digerati: the inventive, computer-savvy futurists creating on-screen worlds that may or may not succeed in built form. On the other are the communitarians: politically committed designers using their practices -- sometimes at the expense of formal invention and aesthetic appeal -- to repair torn neighborhoods, provide alternatives to sprawl or pare back manmade damage to the planet.

The seven firms featured in “Mix,” a lively if occasionally overstuffed show at the sublimely located La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, fall decidedly into the second group. Led by architects mostly in their 40s, the firms operate in and around San Diego, particularly in its increasingly crowded downtown core and, separately, along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The firms’ work isn’t perfectly homogeneous, by any means: The community activism that the most prominent member of the group, Teddy Cruz, is known for is quite different from the precise minimalism produced by Jennifer Luce; the smart, hyper-economical designs of Todd Rinehart and Catherine Herbst; or the architect-as-developer strategy pursued by Jonathan Segal.

But all seven are dedicated to the idea of engagement, in one form or another -- with social, political, ecological or economic forces. All finished architecture school before digital design became commonplace. All work in anticipation of the moment when abstract design inspirations meet the realities of building codes, material technology, developer formulas, client preconceptions, rigid pro-formas or community feedback.

For the most part, theirs is not the architecture of theory or novelty but, rather, of pragmatism, entrepreneurship and negotiation. Call it, for lack of a better catch-all term, the architecture of gumption.

Organized by Lucia Sanroman, assistant curator at the museum, and Hugh M. Davies, its director, the show is the most ambitious architecture exhibition MCASD has mounted since 1982’s “The California Condition,” which helped introduce the work of Frank Gehry, Frank Israel, Rob Wellington Quigley and others to a wide Southern California audience. In a sign of realism that well suits its overarching themes, the layout of “Mix” is determined by the shape of MCASD’s La Jolla campus: There are seven firms in the show because there are seven discrete gallery spaces in the museum. Each of the firms has been given a room of its own and then asked to produce and design a sort of self-portrait, suggesting the kind of architecture it is interested in and the process it follows to get that architecture built.

There are some inherent drawbacks to this approach, particularly the danger of self-indulgence, or at least unchecked self-regard. Luckily, Sanroman has been an active collaborator in helping the various firms fill their appointed spaces, and the show never strays into full-on eclecticism.

Still, as you might guess, the one-room-per-firm approach works best with architects who bring an already honed, disciplined aesthetic to the proceedings. Luce’s gallery is dominated by objects that have inspired the architect and her colleagues in her firm, Luce et Studio. The objects are laid out in careful rows on long tables and occasionally set delicately into trays. The result, pictured at top, is something like a yard sale organized by Joseph Cornell.

Mix 010

Also successful in this format are the firms that have worked to build sizable new spaces inside the museum. Sebastian Mariscal’s display is entered through a narrow tunnel, above, made of salvaged 2-by-4s; it is a model of economy and suggests the architect’s interest in materiality. (The display itself includes building permits and drained coffee cups, among other symbols of architecture as practiced in the real world.) Lloyd Russell has hung some of his models in a grid he compares to an architectural abacus. Others he displays atop pedestals made of rammed earth.

In some of the other rooms, though, you wind up wishing for a stronger curatorial hand, a clearer effort by Sanroman and Davies to frame the work in a more rigorous or legible context. The busy room filled by Public, a firm founded two decades ago by James Gates and James Brown, tries several competing visual strategies at once. Segal’s entry, a multimedia presentation complete with slick video component, is for all its diverse appeal more like a pitch to a potential client than a museum display.

That closeness between curator and subject – and the blurring of lines between salesmanship and scholarship -- is hardly unique to this exhibition, or even to architecture shows in general. In this case, though, it seems particularly out of step, because all the firms in "Mix," in one way or another, practice a kind of architecture that is actively and productively critical of the status quo.

Many of these architects have successfully questioned the wisdom of endless sprawl, pointing San Diego toward a post-suburban identity. Others have helped topple the notion that practicing ambitious architecture in the city means serving wealthy Anglo clients. A curatorial tone that was similarly skeptical -- in particular, about the idea of self-promotion -- might have better matched the spirit of the work on view.

Still, simply by the careful, timely selection of these seven firms, Sanroman and Davies give the show an unusual punch. “Mix” manages the neat trick of tapping into larger trends in architecture while maintaining a clear regional focus. It’s not often an architecture exhibition does both at once.

It’s impossible, at this point, to predict how the standoff between the digerati and the communitarians will play out. The sides may begin to move toward some kind of common ground, or the sniping between the two we’ve heard of late could serve to harden their respective positions. In the most pessimistic analysis, the dismal state of the economy could widen the gap between them. If both sides had a chance to build, they’d at least have some basis for shared conversation. If for several years neither does, at least on any significant scale, they may continue to drift apart.

Whatever the outcome, “Mix” is an effective introduction to the appeal of a clear-eyed, fully engaged approach to architectural practice. The firms in the show may not be operating near architecture’s formal frontier; at their least inventive, they suggest that architecture is a means to an end first and an art form second (or fifth) and remind us how important pure architectural speculation can be in pushing the field forward. But in nearly every case, these architects are making measurable headway against problems that desperately need solving.

-- Christopher Hawthorne, reporting from La Jolla

Photos of installations by Jennifer Luce, top, and Sebastian Mariscal by Pablo Mason. Credit: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

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