Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

When Robert L. McKay, the architect best known for designing and founding the first Taco Bell, died in early October, news of his passing spread nationwide on the AP Wire. The Los Angeles Times ran an obituary, as did Fox Business and news outlets in Kansas and Nebraska – places that were unlikely to have flocked en masse to hard shell tacos before McKay opened his doors in 1962.

In 2015, McKay’s original building was moved from the Los Angeles suburb of Downey to Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, California. Images from that migration reveal his early vision for a hacienda-type fast-food eatery: mission-style arches across the facade, red Spanish tile roof. Riding down the freeway – doublewide on the back of a flatbed truck – the lowly taco stand merged dogged American entrepreneurism and classic Mexican design. Taco Bell is not on the curatorial checklist of Found in Translation, an exhibition on view until January 2018 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) about the design influences between LA and Mexico, but it could be. Or, given how a fast-food restaurant best known for stoner Meximelt binges and questionable slogans – “Make a run for the border” – transmitted Mexican design imagery across the country, it should be. Read More …

It’s hard to believe that the Salk Institute is nearly a half-century old. Louis Kahn’s masterpiece, perched on Pacific bluffs in La Jolla, Calif., has always had a conflicted relationship with time. Critic Esther McCoy, in a 1967 issue of Architectural Forum, wrote that “Kahn has said that he builds for today, not the future, but Dr. [Jonas] Salk maintains that in the laboratory building the future was built into today.”

The Salk Institute might be enduring in its design. But even icons age. Today, the landmark needs significant work on its concrete and glass façade, as well a plan for maintaining the limestone courtyard. Kahn couldn’t have predicted that fungus spores would drift on marine air from nearby eucalyptus trees and take root on the building, discoloring and eroding the teak window screens.

Which is why the Salk teamed up with the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) to develop a long-term preservation strategy for the site. Based on a condition survey, historical research at the Kahn archives in Philadelphia, DNA testing, and surface treatment analysis on the building’s façade, CGI came up with a conservation methodology. The Salk Institute Conservation Project, as it’s called, is a model field study within the Getty’s Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative (CMAI). Read More …

When news of the demolition of sci-fi master Ray Bradbury’s former home by none other than Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne hit the internet last month, literary fans, preservationists, and even LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne mourned the loss of a piece of cultural history.

Bradbury, who passed away in 2012, lived in the house for fifty years and wrote from his basement office. His 1937 Old Yellow House located in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Cheviot Hills, bore no visual hint of the author’s dystopian fictions.

“I could make no connection between the extraordinary nature of the writer and the incredible un-extraordinariness of the house. It was not just unextraordinary, but unusually banal,” Mayne explained in an interview with design journalist and radio host Frances Anderton.

It would seem, then, that the basic ordinariness of this modest residential structure was the root of its own undoing. By his account Mayne’s new design is an eco-friendly update on the Case Study house programme — the mid-century experiments in modern living that would define Californian Modernism. A potential departure from his techno-futurist oeuvre, his scheme will no doubt wow the neighbourhood with its distinctive form. But perhaps in using ordinary versus extraordinary as the rationale, we miss the potential of the deadpan or the banal. Read More …