Where ‘beauty’ is a dirty word

A group of older ar­chi­tects ex­presses a lack of con­cern with vis­ual aes­thet­ics. But that at­ti­tude may be fad­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - Architecture - CHRISTO­PHER HAWTHORNE AR­CHI­TEC­TURE CRITIC christo­pher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Frank Gehry was on the panel. So was Thom Mayne. And fel­low ar­chi­tects Eric Owen Moss, Peter Cook, Her­nan Diaz Alonso and Greg Lynn. The sub­ject was the “trou­bled re­la­tion­ship” be­tween ar­chi­tec­ture and beauty. The set­ting, on a warm re­cent evening, was an out­door pavil­ion in the main park­ing lot at the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tec­ture, where Moss is di­rec­tor. The im­pre­sario, moder­a­tor and ego-wran­gler was ar­chi­tect Yael Reis­ner, Cook’s wife and the co-author of a new book of in­ter­views with ar­chi­tects on beauty.

In the end, if the pan­elists didn’t ex­actly em­brace the topic at hand — and if the un­even dis­cus­sion that re­sulted was, it­self, far from a thing of beauty — that could hardly be counted as a sur­prise. The group of ar­chi­tects Reis­ner asked to take part, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the larger group she fea­tures in the book, “Ar­chi­tec­ture and Beauty,” have al­ways eyed beauty with wari­ness, if not out­right hos­til­ity. There were times dur­ing the panel when it seemed the huge, stand­ing-roomonly crowd had gath­ered to lis­ten to a bunch of Hat­fields dis­cuss the McCoys.

Gehry, af­ter all, found his early break­throughs in the 1970s and ’80s by min­ing the less-than-gor­geous ur­ban land­scape of Los An­ge­les, in­cor­po­rat­ing chain link and cor­ru­gated metal into off-kil­ter, de­cep­tively ad-hoc build­ings. Mayne’s most pow­er­ful work is sim­i­larly in­ter­ested in sub­vert­ing and break­ing apart con­ven­tional ideas about sym­me­try and pret­ti­ness. Moss once told me that the worst in­sult one L.A. ar­chi­tect could give an­other, when he was start­ing out three decades ago, was to call his or her work “beau­ti­ful.” Some­thing closer to ug­li­ness or tough­ness was the goal, or at least ar­chi­tec­ture un­con­ven­tional enough to re­li­ably rat­tle bour­geois sen­si­bil­i­ties.

That at­ti­tude still holds some sway, de­spite the fact that the ar­chi­tec­ture world — not to men­tion the world at large — has changed rad­i­cally since the emer­gence of Mayne, Moss, Gehry and other mem­bers of the L.A. School in the 1970s and ’80s. Nearly two decades af­ter the art world went through a dif­fi­cult but cathar­tic de­bate on beauty, ar­chi­tects — or at least these ar­chi­tects — con­tinue to find the sub­ject re­mark­ably ner­vous-mak­ing.

The younger mem­bers of the panel, Lynn and Diaz Alonso, are in some ways the L.A. heirs of these decades-old no­tions about beauty, and how it’s best held at arm’s length, though they use it to dif­fer­ent aes­thetic and strate­gic ends. Diaz Alonso, known for re­mark­able and highly the­atri­cal dig­i­tal de­signs, de­scribes the ef­fect he is af­ter as “grotesque.”

Cook, a founder of the hugely in­flu­en­tial London group Archi­gram, was happy to stand apart a bit from the lo­cals, play­ing devil’s ad­vo­cate or court jester while the con­ver­sa­tion me­an­dered. Even­tu­ally, the group cir­cled around to the sub­ject at hand — at least in­di­rectly.

Moss, who lit­er­ally held his head in his hands for long por­tions of the dis­cus­sion, said he didn’t think a con­ver­sa­tion about beauty was “use­ful” any longer. Gehry, who struck a re­fresh­ingly prag­matic, if typ­i­cally self-flag­el­lat­ing, note through­out, said it was bet­ter not to con­sider out­side judg­ments of any kind, whether they had to do with which build­ings qual­ify as beau­ti­ful or which ar­chi­tects were im­por­tant.

“You do your work and you shut up and you take your lumps,” he said, as po­lice he­li­copters buzzed over­head. “And if you keep do­ing that, maybe you find your own sort of Zen self. And that’s prob­a­bly a great place to be as hu­man be­ings.”

Mayne said that in an age of glob­al­iza­tion, the In­ter­net and in­stantly shift­ing and remixed fashion, it was im­pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine a sin­gle stan­dard for beauty. “Whose beauty are we talk­ing about?” he asked.

At one point Lynn won­dered why the panel didn’t in­clude ar­chi­tects such as Richard Meier and John Paw­son, whose work is re­fined and pre­cise to the point of el­e­gance. But they were straw men whom Reis­ner was only too happy to knock down. “I didn’t in­clude them be­cause I find their work bor­ing,” she sniffed. She said she prefers the work of the pan­elists and oth­ers fea­tured in her book, a group that prac­tices what she calls “ex­u­ber­ant ar­chi­tec­ture.”

Fair enough, but what about the fact that there is a new gen­er­a­tion of ar­chi­tects, sev­eral decades younger than Meier or Paw­son, who don’t con­sider beauty and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion to be at odds? You never would have known, by lis­ten­ing to this star-stud­ded group, that for a large num­ber of tal­ented ar­chi­tects in their 30s and 40s, the anx­i­ety about beauty that was on dis­play on that night has faded away, re­placed by an en­tirely new group of con­cerns and pri­or­i­ties. The re­cently opened Ar­chi­tec­ture Bi­en­nale in Venice, cu­rated by Kazuyo Se­jima, brings beauty back front and cen­ter in a qui­etly polem­i­cal way. It fea­tures un­abashedly beau­ti­ful projects by Madrid’s An­dres Jaque; the In­dian firm Stu­dio Mum­bai; and the young Tokyo ar­chi­tect Junya Ishigami, among many oth­ers.

And the truth is that any ex­pla­na­tion for why Gehry and Mayne rock­eted to in­ter­na­tional fame over the last two decades has to at least touch on beauty. In the 1990s, Gehry took a mod­est but de­ci­sive step in the di­rec­tion of con­ven­tional beauty by wrap­ping his Guggen­heim Mu­seum in Bil­bao, among other projects, in a uni­fy­ing cover of metal pan­els. Where ear­lier he had com­bined a jumble of ar­chi­tec­tural forms with a match­ing jumble of ma­te­ri­als, pil­ing dis­so­nance on top of com­plex­ity, in Bil­bao, and then at Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall, he con­trolled at least one vari­able, pack­ing his swoop­ing forms in­side a sin­gle, rel­a­tively co­her­ent — and un­de­ni­ably, shim­mer­ingly beau­ti­ful — skin.

Mayne did some­thing sim­i­lar in his Cal­trans District 7 Head­quar­ters down the hill from Dis­ney Hall, a build­ing that pos­sesses all the un­ortho­dox, dis­jointed power of his ear­lier work but wraps its hard-edged forms in­side a uni­fied fa­cade of per­fo­rated alu­minum pan­els. There are lots of rea­sons why those build­ings be­came their ar­chi­tects’ great break­throughs. One of those rea­sons is the com­pli­cated, hard-won sen­su­ous­ness of their ex­te­ri­ors.

The panel wrapped up be­fore the group had a chance to ex­plore in any depth what ought to have been the fo­cus from the start: Why cer­tain ar­chi­tects con­tinue to see pur­su­ing, con­fronting or em­brac­ing beauty as some­thing to be em­bar­rassed or even ashamed about, or some­thing that di­min­ishes the se­ri­ous­ness of their work, all these years af­ter that no­tion emerged. When I spoke with Gehry by phone this week, though, he of­fered a pretty good ex­pla­na­tion.

“When you go di­rectly af­ter beauty, it’s like you’re com­pet­ing with God,” he told me. “If you go af­ter other things, you’re only com­pet­ing with Bor­ro­mini and Bernini. That’s still tough, but it’s not im­pos­si­ble.”


Rafael Sam­paio Rocha

Her­nan Diaz Alonso, from left, Frank Gehry, Greg Lynn, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss and Peter Cook talk at SCI-Arc.


Beth Dubber

The English ar­chi­tect, a founder of Archi­gram, is wed to ar­chi­tect and “Ar­chi­tec­ture and Beauty” co-author Yael Reis­ner.


Beth Dubber

“You do your work and you shut up and you take your lumps,” he said of his ap­proach to ar­chi­tec­ture and re­sponses.

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