Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Joar Nango’s identity as Sámi, the Indigenous people of northern Europe, is central to his art and architecture practice. Yet in terms of discipline or medium, he actively defies categorization, choosing instead to mobilize the space in-between and across worlds. This is partly to find breathing room within his creative practice and partly political stance — strategic evasion as post-capitalist critique. Through site-specific installations, video, and zines, Nango actively investigates intersections between Indigenous and contemporary architectures, traditional Sámi construction, and new media. The results have a way of escaping the present; instead, they create a kind of feedback loop between past and future architectural narratives. 

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I can’t stop thinking about refugia. In the years, months, and days before the COVID-19 pandemic, the term was confined to the literature and philosophy of climate crisis, referring to pockets of life that through geographic isolation or species resilience manage to hang on in spite of the environmental forces against them. Think of clusters of Pacific Northwest barnacles nestled high on coastal outcroppings to avoid falling prey to sea snails. Or old-growth forests insulated from rising temperatures in cool mountain valleys.

As self-quarantine set in earlier this spring, the word refugia, at least for me, expanded in definition from specific ecological condition to conceptual touchstone—a necessary leap to metaphor when faced with planetary crisis. The magnitude of this pandemic falls outside human comprehension, but for the luckiest of us, refuge is manageable: a place of relative safety, of sourdough starters and online Jazzercise classes.

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“LACMA belongs to the people of Los Angeles County and it should reflect the tremendous diversity, creativity, and openness to change that can be found here,” reads a headline on the buildinglacma.org, a website ostensibly tracking the design and construction of the controversial, squiggle of a proposal by Swiss architect Zumthor.

Such marketing copy, written by the voice of Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) director Michael Govan, is meant to rally support (public and financial) under a banner of shared values. But that last phrase – openness to change that can be found here – is suspect on two accounts.

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Reading Countryside, A Report, a book of essays on rural areas by the Dutch architect and his research studio AMO, during the time of Covid-19 is like trying to learn to swim by watching a goldfish.

Produced as a catalogue to accompany the currently shuttered exhibition Countryside, The Future at New York’s Guggenheim museum, the small paperback has a silver foil cover designed by Irma Boom that glints appealingly as it catches the light. The words “Countryside in your pocket! $24.95” advertise an accessible price point.

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Envision an institution dedicated to making art. It is not a museum, nor is it a gallery. These are the spaces where art meets a public or, more crassly, where art meets its market and is given value. Instead, think of a studio environment. Can that same environment also foster in pupils the canny balance between creativity and pragmatism required to break into the art world today?

Artist Catherine Opie offers a hopeful yes, pointing to the new art center at UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, where she has taught since 1992. (She was named Lynda and Stewart Resnick Endowed Chair in Art this past December.) “Students are so incredibly vulnerable, and we live in a vulnerable time,” says Opie, whose work as a photographer often draws out the relationships between identity and place. They should feel that their studio building works for them, she adds.

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As a female writer who writes about female architects, I’m often asked to make lists of female writers and female architects. These requests mostly come from men. Well-meaning men, who want to do right by their differently gendered colleagues.

Although these asks raise the hackles on my back a little, I dutifully reply. However irritated, I’ve internalised my gendered role to be helpful. I want to promote my sisters-in-arms. I want to manifest an equitable field with my recommendations. And I fear that if I don’t answer another panel, lecture series, or exhibition will launch into the world with pitiful representation.

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Artist Lauren Halsey was born in Los Angeles, and her life and work are intertwined with the city — beauty shops in Watts, neon Colby posters, and the cheesy grin of Cheetos’s Chester Cheetah. Her recent solo exhibition at David Kordansky gallery was both a personal and urban archive. She filled the white-walled space to the roof beams with an installation that alternates between documenting brightly painted signs and black- and Latino-owned businesses in South Central, gone or facing demise due to gentrification, and modeling a speculative, Afrofuturist urbanism full of prismatic light. Halsey’s art world profile has steadily grown over the past few years, with awards and solo shows at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Young, queer, and black, she’s committed to making work that reflects and empowers not just her individual identity, but also her neighborhood, her community, and her friends, with whom she frequently collaborates. PIN–UP met Halsey before the closing of her installation to discuss, among other things, her plans to open a community center and dreams of becoming an architect.

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Ezra Stoller photographed postwar U.S. architecture with the rigor of a true believer. His images—published widely in numerous trade magazines as well as in House Beautiful and House & Garden—presented modernism not as an avant-garde or utopian vision, but as a movement in situ, one born fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s skull. Yet a global war and an ocean unequivocally separate early twentieth-century experiments undertaken at the Bauhaus and by Le Corbusier from the postwar embrace of modern architecture by corporate leaders and the cultural elite in the United States.

In Stoller’s crisp, black-and-white prints, boxy-shouldered skyscrapers like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (1958) or Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s building for Union Carbide (1960), both in New York, proudly rise above the city grid—steel and glass curtain walls towering over masonry edifices. These were depicted as the heroes of a new age. Stoller, always precise about natural light and time of day, photographed Mies’s structure at dusk; every floor is illuminated, and the building seems to glow with industry. His image of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1959), taken looking straight up into the cylindrical belly of the building, freezes Frank Lloyd Wright’s experiential design of spiraling ramps into an iconic composition—modernism’s dynamism temporarily tamed.

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A symbol of the Freemasons – the architecturally familiar square and compass – decorates the facade of the hastily shuttered Marciano Art Foundation, formerly the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, on Wilshire Boulevard. The tools, as part of the mysterious Masonic arcana, represent in some interpretations a belief system in which labour is held as an honest universal.

The irony is that foundation founders Maurice and Paul Marciano of Guess fame abruptly closed their museum-cum-tax-haven as visitor-services staff members voted to unionise. An act that left about 70 employees, on Los Angeles minimum wage of $14.25 (£10.83) an hour, out of work.

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In the eyes of the current administration, the U.S.-Mexico border is violent, in crisis, and must be redundantly fortified, concretized, and policed. But architect Teddy Cruz and political theorist Fonna Forman see that southern boundary as an ecological region—a shared territory of cross-border interdependence and exchange. To them, flow, not heated rhetoric, is the defining character of the San Diego–Tijuana crossing. Most obvious are streams of traffic, goods, and people through the point of entry. What goes unseen is the northward flow of waste and toxins, which disregards the jurisdictional boundaries of nationhood, traveling from the informal settlements in Tijuana’s Laurales Canyon via watersheds and tributaries to the Tijuana River estuary in San Diego and out into the Pacific Ocean. 

“The estuary is already a Federal protected zone—NOAA and the EPA are involved, but it has to be thought of as bioregional,” says Forman. “It is a circular system. Informal settlements recycle and repurpose urban waste, then the trash of the informal settlement ends up back in the estuary.” 

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