Reading L.A.: Charles Jencks on Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and the rest of the L.A. School
If Mike Davis' seminal "City of Quartz," which we encountered last month in Reading L.A., is a bleak study of Los Angeles on the brink of the Rodney King riots, our next title is a surprisingly sunny take on the city in their immediate aftermath. It also ranks as one of the most pleasant surprises in this reading marathon for me, a thoughtful, sharp-minded book that includes some of the best descriptions I've yet encountered of the work of Frank Gehry, Eric Owen Moss, Frank Israel, Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi — the core of the so-called L.A. School, whose members burst into prominence in the 1980s.
Published in 1993, Charles Jencks' "Heteropolis: Los Angeles, the Riots and Strange Beauty of Hetero-architecture," is in short a far more elegant and concise book than its awful mouthful of a title suggests. Jencks, an American-born critic who now lives in London and is often credited for coining the term "postmodern architecture," is a longtime admirer of Gehry and the rest of the L.A. School. In "Heteropolis" he lays out a careful, detailed series of arguments about how their work evolved.
"If the city, any city over a million, represents the idea of liberation from small-town conformism," he writes, "from the constraints of fitting into one or two well-worn grooves, then Los Angeles seems to be the city of endless possible selves, the place where frictionless personal transformation can occur, the arena of ultimate do-it-yourself construction. Ben Franklin was obviously from Los Angeles; so too Horatio Alger ... and Madonna."
And so too the leaders of the L.A. School, self-made creative rebels whose quixotic, anti-establishment approach to architecture had begun to solidify, by the end of the 1980s, into "a self-conscious style, as ubiquitous in Los Angeles as the palm tree."
Jencks goes back in time early in the book to identify the diverse forebears of the L.A. School architects. He cites the 19th-century architect-builders Samuel and Joseph Cather Newsom, the architects Henry and Charles Greene (who "made an architecture from plumbing fixtures, rain-pipes and exaggerated tie joints"), Rudolph Schindler and Charles and Ray Eames as "precursors to an informal approach which would soon turn into an L.A., and even world, style." But it's another architect whom Jencks identifies as directly setting the stage for Gehry et al.: Charles Moore, whose work of the 1960s and 1970s he calls "carefully careless" and "at once relaxed, authentically vernacular and spatially dymanic."
Oddly enough, because Moore's most influential early work was built at the Sea Ranch, a residential development on the Northern California coast, near Mendocino, Jencks claims that the L.A. School style was actually "born 500 miles north of the city."
Here, meanwhile, are a few of Jencks' more memorable lines on the L.A. School's best-known figures.
On Mayne and Rotondi: They have "developed heterogeneity towards a new style of craftsmanship; it is approximate rather than refined, raw and brutal rather than delicate, industrial rather than natural, complex not simple, and botched, not perfected."
On Gehry: He "likes the banal site, the dumb requirement, the low budget — or is often inspired by these restrictions to wiggle his building in inventive ways."
On Eric Owen Moss: "A sometime weight-lifter who looks like Barry Manilow crossed with an intellectual.... His buildings ... positively exult in the conjunction of opposed systems of thought and reality.... Forms wrestle with each other and shout each other down — the drama is that of a fierce argument between opposed sides who both know they are right."
On Israel: "His sensibility is more understated [and] refined than the others.... 'Disharmonious harmony' is here rendered classical and eternal, as if the L.A. School were born under a Mediterranean sky."
In the end, Jencks makes clear that he understands how tough it is to make these deeply ambitious buildings appear unfussy and tossed off: "The L.A. School of architects has to work hard cultivating the careful accident, the deft collision, as hard as the classicist works at getting things straight."
I have elsewhere found Jencks' comments on Los Angeles architecture to be off-key, even lightly condescending. (His performance in Sydney Pollack's documentary on Gehry was especially cringe-worthy.) And a recent conversation between Jencks and architect Michael Maltzan, published in Maltzan's book "No More Play," suggests that the critic is no longer paying even superficial attention to Los Angeles.
Jencks tells Maltzan that he hasn't set foot in L.A. in more than 15 years, then asks, "Who is the current mayor?"
How different Jencks seems in "Heteropolis," this dense, thoughtful, curious and patient examination of Los Angeles — and of how a small group of architects found an escape hatch from the sugary, Disneyfied post-modernism of the 1980s and created a group of buildings as closely connected to place and regional character as any before or since.
Though he spends a full chapter looking at the roots and details of the riots, Jencks ends the book with notes of optimism. He sees Gehry's work, for example, moving by the early 1990s in the direction of real cohesion and analyzes the architect's design for Disney Hall, at that point still unbuilt, as a possible model for a fragile post-riot civic unity.
"The hetero-architecture of Los Angeles," he writes, "reminds us of a truth that has been obscured by all the ethnic strife which dominates the news today, that difference can be transformed from a pretext for conflict into an opportunity for pleasurable creativity — the invention of something beautiful or striking not known before."
— Christopher Hawthorne
Photo: Frank Gehry's offices for Chiat/Day, produced in collaboration with artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen and completed in 1991. The building is featured on the cover of "Heteropolis." Credit: Flickr user ken mccown.