Gehry, Isozaki, Schindler


Museum of Contemporary Art



R.M. Schindler, Long Beach Shop (Project), 1926







The Master Cylinder


The Schindler retrospective at MOCA provided an opportunity to consider the great architect’s œuvre, as well as recent developments in Los Angeles architecture, especially the advent of Frank O. Gehry and Arata Isozaki as figures to contend with Downtown and elsewhere.


It was the house Gehry built in Santa Monica that first brought him to wide attention. It’s remarkably similar to the one Goofy builds in Home Made Home (1951), a pastiche of odds and ends all misassembled that, in Jack Kinney’s Disney cartoon, collapses in a pile of dust. Gehry later said, on the occasion of his receiving the Walt Disney Concert Hall commission, that the great filmmaker is “a connection to creativity.”


Other remarkable works include the Santa Monica Museum of Art (a remodeling job for a non-existent museum1) and the totally undistinguished Santa Monica Place. The Bilbao Guggenheim is mere bric-à-brac, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall is to the genre what Michael Eisner’s films are to his predecessor’s. L.A.’s Chamber of Commerce looks at the Hall as a “signature building” like Sydney’s Opera House, of which it is a feeble imitation. But we have the Bradbury building, Capitol Records, Hollywood Bowl, City Hall—all buildings instantly recognizable as Los Angeles—to say nothing of the unique architecture along Wilshire Boulevard now rotting or remodeled. Similarly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce officially regards offshore corporations as patriotically avoiding taxes to enter the global economy.2 It’s just that simple. “Mankind cannot bear very much reality,” and in Los Angeles nowadays, the taste for ersatz is all-devouring. Witness the Miracle Mile, a priceless collection of modern buildings made over so as to look “retro”.


Gehry’s failure to realize Oldenburg’s Binoculars worthily is the cul-de-sac of his Loyola University Law School, which attempted to pass off Venturi divisions and Playskool forms as a tribute to the Roman Forum (represented by free-standing concrete cylinders), Renzo Piano pays mocking homage in his Resnick Pavilion at LACMA. Frank Gehry, Master Cylinder (see Richard Meier’s Getty Center), who started making furniture out of garbage and ended making garbage out of buildings.


The Schnabel House is an inchoate collection of vagaries he calls “a village of forms,” which only required the phlegm of Meier to sort out.


Comparisons to The Emperor’s New Clothes (and also his nightingale) will become the inevitable effigy of F.O.G.


Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is the most obvious failure of its kind this writer has ever seen. Its execution is gimcrack, the design is absurd, and its interior layout is a remarkably poor use of the site. But it appears to be a tacit rule in the profession nowadays that Los Angeles clients expect to be fobbed off with nonsense. Isozaki’s Okayama-Nishi Police Station (1993-95) is a notably clear and transparent design, as these things go.


Rudolph Schindler studied with Wagner and Loos, and knew the Jugendstil. He came to Los Angeles in 1920 to work with Wright, and stayed to become a central figure in Southern California architecture and the history of the art generally. You will be astonished to see a recent scale model of his and Neutra’s League of Nations Building, Geneva (1926), an absolutely perfect design in a style that only became prevalent forty or fifty years later (Le Corbusier repeated this feat, by designing Owens, Skidmore & Merrill skyscrapers decades in advance). During his thirty years here, you can see Schindler’s art comprehending design and engineering in totally new and successful ideas, and also experimenting with an evolving understanding of Los Angeles architecture in beach houses and developments and apartment houses. Schindler’s work, which must be ranked with Wright’s and Neutra’s, shows the history of architecture in the twentieth century as a history of acceptance.


R.M. Schindler, Westwood Residence, 1949-1955


The city has been spared Gehry’s monumentally incompetent RTD Headquarters, but he and Isozaki are set to construct an “urban park” around the Music Center. An honorable Japanese gentleman would have performed hara-kiri after MOCA, but standards are declining everywhere, and this is another country. Anyone who has seen Dick Riordan’s idea of an “urban park” has seen it all, and then some. The billion-dollar Grand Avenue project, financed through Abu Dhabi, is too absurd a mélange to contemplate.


East Coast writers are particularly dazzled3 by Gehry, as West Coast writers are by Spielberg. With a hopeful squint, Gehry perhaps suggests Boccioni for a moment, if only to show such a work as Unique Forms of Continuity in Space as the great sculpture it is, shorn of journalistic accretions by the spastic torpor of Gehry’s designs, which are essentially feeble because his real talent is rather different. Santa Monica Place is a large enclosed shopping mall; the exterior is a failure, or rather simply non-existent, and the interior details are generally botched; but there is, or was, hanging about the ceiling an ambience of the art studio, known to the architect through various acquaintances.


R.M. Schindler, Schindler House, 1921-1922


1 But Dave Hickey gave a lecture there in 2003 in conjunction with an exhibition of Alfred Jensen’s paintings, which a number of local artists attended. In 2006, an exhibition of De Chirico and Guston was held.


2 Gehry’s 2001 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York was sponsored by Enron, and is of considerable interest. It may not be remembered that AT&T (just before its final breakup, in the course of which it sold off Bell Labs—now Lucent Technologies) had previously sponsored retrospectives of David Hockney and Robert Longo. This had, legitimately, run its course. Enron, as everyone knows now, didn’t know what that meant then.


The Hockney and Longo retrospectives took place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is shortly to be razed and rebuilt by the Dutch design firm of Rem Koolhaas, on the mere whim of Eli Broad, who had been displeased with it as the setting for his collection (featuring Charles Ray and Jeff Koons) acquired with the wealth of a homebuilder in a time of homelessness—but how it may be imagined that the Koolhaas design further improves upon Pereira’s, which was selected over Mies van der Rohe’s, is beyond speculation. Koolhaas plans to name a Central Court after Mies, which anyway shows he has a sense of humor.


And now (2005) Koolhaas is out, Renzo Piano is to place scrims on the buildings to “unify the campus”. That includes LACMA West (the former May Co. building), a masterpiece. In the space between LACMA and LACMA West, Piano plans a new building to house contemporary art, designed on the model of the new and mediocre cathedral downtown. Had architectural unity been the goal, an architect might have been engaged to create a new building that would establish it.


All in all, the millions would be far better spent staffing the museum with people who comprehend architecture. On the other hand, recently the building that houses UCLA’s Art Department—Dickson Art Center—was renamed in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Eli Broad (he’s quite the cuckoo), and Richard Meier was hired to completely gut the place for a “makeover”.


This observation has not been heeded, rather Peter Zumthor has prepared plans (2013) for yet another attempt at replacing the “East Campus”, Piano’s scrims having been abandoned (Zumthor’s design is merely Richard Meier’s pathetic Getty Center aped en noir). Groundbreaking is now set for 2018, though the plans are said to be undergoing revision (2015). In view of the disaster that has befallen France with its new Philharmonie de Paris, it seems that no artistic capital is to be spared. A million-dollar monument to John Frankenheimer’s The Train is in the works (railroad crane and locomotive), designed by Jeff Koons, somebody’s idea of a joke greatly favored by Michael Govan of LACMA.


3 Reproduced here as most poetic in its serene emulation of a joke, this bit from The New Republic, “in the late 1970s, when I was a young editor at Progressive Architecture magazine, my colleagues and I tried to predict who would become the heir to Louis Kahn, who had died not long before but was already acknowledged as the spiritual (if not the stylistic) successor to Frank Lloyd Wright. We knew it would not be Philip Johnson, Kahn's media-savvy near-contemporary: he certainly bridged the gap between the establishment and the art world, but he lacked the necessary gravitas to be taken seriously as our philosopher-king. Venturi and Gehry were our personal favorites at P/A.” (Martin Filler, “The Spirit of ‘76”, The New Republic, 07.09.01)