It looks like Los Angeles, is going to get another architectural icon, in the hills west of the 405 freeway bordering Brentwood, as I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU and on select websites everywhere.
Proposed on an immodest 447 acres, adjoining the already prominent parade there of the Getty and Skirball museums and cultural centers, will be a relatively modest, but distinctively sited campus for the heretofore-indistinct Berggruen Institute.
It is being designed by the internationally renowned firm of Herzog & de Meuron, with an assist by the workaday Gensler Associates, and landscapers Michael Desvigne and Inessa Hansch, in what’s described as an archaic style of concrete and untreated wood. Most of the site will be left undeveloped,
Whatever, expect it to be pricey. Though relatively new-on-the scene, the Institute emerging out of the upper echelons of the multi national finance fraternity is well endowed, headed by a majority of suits from the board rooms of banks and out of the back doors of governments.
Details were sketchy, other that it will be a linear campus, consisting of administrative offices, meeting rooms and a lecture hall, complemented by a cluster of residences for visiting scholars. and a home for the Berggruen family
From the perspective of a user advocate, given its size and setting, I expect the campus, as a mountain top village of sorts will be a most pleasant and desirable environment.
But there are questions, including how public will the Institute be; how many visitors can it expect and how will they be accommodated? Also, how many people will be working there, and where they could afford to live? And what will be the impact on the adjoining Mountaingate and Brentwood neighbors, if any, and on the already crowded 405 Freeway?
And for me as an arts and entertainment critic, there are other thoughts. Yes, it will be art, if you consider as I do that architecture is a social art creating places and places for human endeavor. It also will be interesting how the institute complements the neighboring very public Getty and Skirball.
As for judging its entertainment value, that is more of a stretch, if you as I think of entertainment as a performance or production, generating enjoyment, interest and diversion.
I have my doubts about the Institute, dedicated, as it says it is, to the design and implementation of new ideas of good governance. That’s praiseworthy words.
But will it actually improve anyone’s life other that those associated with the Institute? Probably not, if it functions as so many non profit institutes do these days, as tax dodges, providing jobs for family and friends, gatherings of GQ grifters, networking for the not particularly needy, and select self anointed cerebral celebrities.
But certainly not all. A daughter happens to work as a staff attorney for institute dedicated to aiding the vulnerable, and marginalized, harmed by crime and violence; the institute’s resources going to real services and not for architecture or hosting indolent academics and pandering former politicians.
As for new ideas of good government, I’ll save that for another commentary.
Against my own advice not to get involved in personal zoning issues, I find I’m compelled to comment on the current city conundrum involving a proposed house on Portshead Road.
The issue has gone too public to ignore, especially since the Planning Commission, after a protracted hearing, declined to vote on the proposal for the 8.800 square foot project and instead kicked it to City Council.
Beyond the emotions it has generated –should the applicant be allowed to build two and a half times the size of his neighbors’ houses– there is a major planning issue involved, concerning the definition of neighborhood character., as I comment on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites.
Indeed, in a similar case recently, citing size, the city ruled against a property owner where all other conditions also had met, as they have on Portshead. This set an important precedent.
Nevertheless, the Portshead applicant went before the planning commission, obviously confident that his plans for what he described as his dream house would be acceptable.
However, there were objections, and a petition reportedly was circulated objecting to the size of the project. This prompted a lament by the applicant, which stirred a well-spring of sympathy and an antithetical petition to approve the project.
That sentiment was echoed at the commission hearing, no doubt a factor in it backing off from a decision. With a polite nod to the heart felt sentiments, I feel zoning is not an issue to be decided by petitions, circulated on behalf of whomever.
That should be the purview of the planning commission, and city council. And as often stated at hearings, zoning cases should not be based on how attractive the project or appealing the applicant, but on their compliance with city codes and applicable precedents.
In addition to the echoing of the phrase “neighborhood character” so were the terms “mansionization: and “mcmansion.” This struck a chord with me, for I am cited by Wikipedia as one of several authors that coined the phrases, specifically when I was the LA Times architecture critic in the 1980s. Having also written several books on planning immodestly made me an authority.
I first used the phrase in describing the practice in Santa Monica of building the largest size house possible on a site, which in turn led to a domino effect that ultimately compromises the character of neighborhoods and accelerates hyper gentrification. .
In Malibu, I recall too well a case years ago in which an over designed plan for a prime site on Cliffside Drive had been objected to by neighbors, but nonetheless was approved by the city after an emotional appeal by the owner.
He and his tearful wife pleaded that though a “mcmansion,” the house nevertheless was the family’s dream, where they intended to live into the sunset.
Within a year after completion, they flipped the house for a huge profit, and flipped off Malibu. It therefore makes one wary, especially knowing that the larger the house in Malibu, the much larger the profit, say realtors who always seem ready to pump up properties to maximize their commissions.
.The size of the proposed Portshead project was defended by the applicant, who stated that it may be excessive, but he wanted to include such amenities as a gym and a screening room to make it a fun house for his family.
However ingenuous the remarks or not, the real issue persists whether the project is out of neighborhood character. It is a tough question, which calls for some common sense, and common courtesy, and frankly not crocodile tears.
Meanwhile, the applicant might want to consider a more modest house, which his respected architect said was possible, or build elsewhere where the project would be more in character. There are such streets in Malibu, though Portshead is not one of them.
To observe the city you must appreciate architecture, how it shapes and misshapes spaces and places for human endeavor, be it working, playing, whatever.
For me, architecture has been both an occupation and preoccupation, as a critic, author, urban designer, developer or simply a homeowner. It continues to absorb me.
Architects are another matter, as I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU, radiomalibu.net and select websites everywhere.
They are people, and like all people, good and bad, and many as designers with the skill, gifted or learned, to craft environments.
But I sadly observe architects as a profession is constantly being compromised by the cruel math dominating our society, of greed divided by fear, and megalomania by paranoia.
So, one might ask, in the world of development, populated by bureaucrats, bankers, builders and lawyers, whither architects? What value do they have, and how do they share it, if at all.
Those were the questions raised recently at a “think-in,” at UCLA, sponsored by the Architecture Lobby, a fledgling movement with chapters in select cities, including New York City, Chicago and now L.A.
Based incongruously in the historically preeminent white, male, elitist Yale School of Architecture, the lobby can be described as a clique of agent provocateurs.
The Lobby defines itself as an activist organization “trying to undo practical and conceptual constructs that both limit the relevance and financial rewards of the architectural profession.”
We’re talking here of an industry with a history of abusing rank-and-file architects, specifically by low pay, overtime demands and withholding creative credit.
The stories of gross inequities and unsavory behavior are legend, particularly by star architects and big firms, as if they had a license to be arrogant.
Led by Peggy Deamer of Yale, and joined by a panel of locals, the talk-in at UCLA focused on a number of controversial issues sure to raise the hackles of design firms, and, in general, the building industry.
These included what labor laws might apply to architecture, what could be new models for fees, and generally how living conditions for all can be improved.
Raised was the possibility of forming a guild or a union, however slim, given the romanticized notion that architecture is not a career but a calling, which is often used as a guise by management to shortchange staff.
Not much hope was expressed that the A.I.A. oligarchy might enter the fray on behalf architecture’s worker bees, beholden as it is to the profession’s principals.
There also was a panel on the media, and how it might overcome its obsession with star architects, and be more resistant to being compromised by the star firms. Noted was the increased blurring of the line between critic and publicist.
It was suggested if they would instead focus on design issues that affect people they perhaps would generate more public interest in architecture. Not present was the mainstream media.
Indeed, only about two dozen people attended the Talk-In at UCLA, which not incidentally is offering, as do other designs schools, a full slate of lectures featuring wannabe star architects talking about their projects.
Students might find those self-aggrandizing offerings engaging, but unquestionably the issues raised by the Architecture Lobby are more challenging and perhaps prescient. The profession should take note.
Having focused on parochial planning issues in my recent commentaries for public radio KBU, in print and on various websites,, I thought perhaps a more universal perspective was needed, if only for a break.
With this in mind, and in a gesture of hope over experience, I attended a symposium on the future of Los Angeles.
Through the years I have gone to many, particularly back in the days of print when I was a design critic for the L.A. Times and several other publications.
Perhaps now that I’m an octogenarian, I frankly feel focusing on the future is an indulgence; an excuse not to deal with the present.
Whether labeled symposiums, conferences, or workshops, the gatherings prompt the infamous quip among the free loading media of, “call it anything, but don’t call me late for your lunch.”
The light feedings aside, the gatherings of late usually have turned out to be a parade of self-promotions for the principal speakers and a pageant for their self-serving sponsors.
These include the academic urban institutes justifying their own existence and paying homage to their benefactors, and tenure. And then there are the self-satisfied foundations with their supercilious staff secure in their sinecures.
There is also the assorted independent, non-profit think tanks, some admittedly I occasionally wrote for and whose largess I once enjoyed.
Most are staffed with articulate, earnest wonks, good government types, and indeed engaging. Though a few I must add sadly are simply well groomed, glad-handed grifters.
Whatever, in retrospect it is still mostly a mystery how they exactly affect policy as they purport to do, and improve anybody’s quality of life other than their own.
Nevertheless, I found myself at the recent Los Angeles Times Future Cities Summit, for, quoting the newspaper, “a discussion on urban development, resiliency, architecture and the design of the urban environment.” This is grist for my mill.
There also was the promise of the Times to “convene the world’s foremost thinkers, policymakers, developers, entrepreneurs and industry stars for a conversation on shaping the city of the future.”
My former employer frankly has not been doing well, and I was curious to witness its latest endeavor as an event planner and so-called summit sponsor, and perhaps see some former colleagues.
I did indeed saw a few, and that was pleasurable. But I have to report the Summit was not. It was a pretentious affair, and deserves to be criticized, indeed as if I would do if still writing as an unforgiving, if unloved, critic for the paper.
The estimated 250 or so curious, half filling that the 500 plus seat Broad auditorium in Santa Monica, regrettably heard very little about the future of Los Angeles, and a lot of what the guests were doing at present. That is when they could get a word in edgewise.
The moderators were Times staffers who arguably might be decent deadline writers, but not necessarily discerning futurists and discussion facilitators. This made the speakers and the audience skittish.
There was a second string FEMA official reviewing preparation for the next disaster: boring. And art curator and gallery operator Paul Schimmel talking about a vibrant downtown arts district. Nothing new here and how lucky he was to be there, not mentioning his ignominious departure from MOCA.
But he did adroitly avoid answering a question about the egregious plans for a new LACMA and how it might negatively affect the city’s future cultural scene, but not its director’s edifice complex.
Particularly discursive was a panel discussion on how L.A.’s housing shortage and homeless problem might be solved, weighed down by a wordy and distracted moderator.
The only nugget came from was Tanya Tull of Partnering for Change, who declared the answer to homelessness, is a house, but stopped there.
Their was no real reaction from the architects on the panels, Michael Maltzan and Brian Lane, who did not seem especially inspired to lend a design perspective. Good architects do not necessarily make for good visionaries.
A cautious architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, did not press the issue, other than to comment, as he has in the past, that Los Angeles would have to face up to the challenge of a growing and changing population. As my annoying Green Amazon parrot squawks. having perched for years in a newsroom, “Stop the presses!”
The depth of discussion was like the paper these days: thin.
And so it went, prompting of the audience in this new age of communications to turn their attention from the stage to their I phones, for whatever.
Though if indeed you are interested in the future of cities, I found some excellent informed presentations on a TED playlist. Check it out.
While the exhibits continue to engage, a dark cloud still hovers over the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as I comment on my weekly City Observed on 97.5 KBU and everywhere on radiomalibu.net and select websites.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art – LACMA for short – continues to be one of the city’s more iconic cultural institutions, for me always enlightening if not educational, a place where I return to regularly to find something of interest.
Most recently it was the very different and diverting Rain Room, a site specific installation melding science and technology to create an art work , that is if you can call a large darkened room where water falls constantly, except not on you, thanks to sensors. you walk over.
It’s a captivating and communal experience, the stuff of selfies and sharing with others a wonderous 15 minutes which is what each group of about two dozen are allowed to stand between the rain drops in a steady downfall. Everyone exits smiling, if a little damp..
No wonder the installation created by the artist collective Random International has sold out when first exhibited in the group’s base in London, then in New York Museum of Modern Art, and now in Los Angeles for an extended tour through the Summer.
It is such exhibits that lend attending a museum as LACMA a memorable moment. And this in turn is what lends institutions a sense of place and history, and need to be cherished and protected.
To enhance their stature, and better serve a wide a population as possible., I also think they should not charge admission, to their regular and special exhibits.
That is why I applaud such museums as the Hammer in Westwood, the Broad downtown and the Getty above Brentwood being free , and why I have urged LACMA to also be, especially since it is partially supported by county funds.
This is also why I am opposed to the audacious plans of director Michael Govan to replace the LA County Museum, yes, demolishing the existing core buildings, replacing them with a biomorphic blub sprawling over Wilshire Boulevard. Aside from the questionable design by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, is the price tag—now $600 million, but sure to rise to a billion when all costs are calculated –and there construction of at least five years.
To be sure, there are problems with the existing museum: it is a fractured clutter of galleries. It needs better maintenance, better connections and graphics. And patched together as it is, it is not pretty. But it can and does work viewing for the art. And that ultimately is what a museum is about.
I raise these arguments again because it seems Govan is becoming even more persistent in satisfying his edifice complex, and continues to spare no expense promoting his vision. At present the black model is on display in Italy, at the Venice Architecture Biennale , which this year I thought was to focus on “social housing.”
Commenting on this might be discursive, but for me it is urgent, for I consider the Zumthor and Govan conceit a dark cloud over LACMA. I am very much concerned over its threatened future, and you should be, too.
Good news for architecture buffs and Southern California’s rich tradition of singular residential designs.
In a first for the LA County Museum of Art, it announced the acquisition of the iconic Sheats-Goldstein House designed by John Lautner, a very much original and, I think, an under-appreciated architect.
The striking house high in the hills of the isolated Beverly Crest community is distinguished by a triangular concrete exterior that appear to be pried apart by walls of glass, approached by a stone walkway past a pool.
The spectacular setting of the house with sweeping views of Los Angeles is further distinguished by lush landscaping that contain a prominent structure crafted by the sculptor James Turrell. It also is being donated by the current owner, James Goldstein, along with several singular art works.
The house is probably best known as the setting for various movies, including the Coen brother’s classic The Big Lebowski. It was built in 1963 for UCLA professor Paul and artist Helen Sheats, and sold to the eccentric Goldstein in 1972, which in the succeeding years retained Lautner to update it, until 1994 when the architect died.
A student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Launder’s loved to talk about his buildings, each a unique marriage between architecture and engineering. And I loved to listen as the architecture critic of the LA Times 30 years ago as he held court dressed always in a fashionable white suit in his studio atop the Roosevelt Hotel.
He had time, for his practice sadly was limited, which he explained to me,“ I’m afraid I am just not into the superficial facades with all its phony rationales that seem to preoccupy architecture these days. ”
And then I recall quite vividly he turned to me as a critic to snap, ’You people have let them get away with it; you and those sheep-like clients who want to be trendy, even if it doesn’t wear well or work.”
You had to love the guy, and I proudly wrote in support of his nomination for the coveted AIA’s Gold Medal 30 years. He didn’t get it. He was just not popular then.
But now one of his iconic designs will be a museum piece, which actually I believe is much more impressive than a title being tacked onto his name.
This report was aired on my arts and entertainment commentary on 97.5 KBU and radiomalibu, net everywhere.
Today, on 97.5 KBU FM, and everywhere on radiomalibu.net and select websites, a departure from the usual touting of cultural attractions in and around Los Angeles, to comment on the recent awarding of the 2016 Pritzker Prize, the highest honor in architecture, to Alejandro Aravena.
Not only is the award noteworthy this year for tapping a relatively unknown designer in Chile, –most previous honorees have been from mainstream United States and western Europe – but for its focus on social housing.
This really sets Aravena apart, declared the Pritzker jury. which this year included the British Richard Rogers and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Beyer. The prize comes with a $100,000 award but perhaps more importantly is usually followed with a swarm of international commissions.
If so, it will hopefully lend additional attention to the groundswell here and broad for affordable, well designed, user-friendly housing, that also serves and involves the communities where located.
The 48 year old Aravena – that is relatively young for an accomplished architect,– is best know for his modestly inexpensive residential projects, and his commitment to create sustainable, affordable and resilent cities.
In the past, with a few exceptions, the focus of the designs of the architects honored have been on flashy forms and iconic buidings, stand out projects that generated media attention for its sponsors and celebrity status for its architects.
This increasingly high end bent in the profession was duly noted by this year’s intrepid Pritzker jury, which in a statement prefacing the award declared –quote:
The role of the architect is now being challenged to serve greater social and humanitarian needs, and Alejandro Aravena has clearly, generously and fully responded to this challenge. Unquote.
The statement and award frankly warms my heart, for in the years past as an urban affairs reporter for the New York Times ,and later as the architecture and urban design critic for the L.A. Times, I immodestly spotlighted social housing .
The definition I cited in my writings and teaching over the years was that first and foremost, architecture is a social art, used to create spaces and places for human endeavor.
I still believe that. Thank you, Pritzker jury , for remind me of that
I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and is the arts and entertainment observed, heard locally on 97.5 KBU, everywhere on radiomalibu.net, and read on cityobserved.com and discerning websites.