Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

October 8, 2015


Mimi Zeiger ponders what happened to experimentation in Los Angeles.



“You can’t rehearse what you ain’t invented,” said Frank Gehry in an interview in this month’s issue, offering up his favorite quotation from jazz musician Wayne Shorter. For L.A.’s most famous architect, the line speaks to improvisation, invention, and the vast possibilities of art and architecture. Vernacular in its delivery, it recalls Gehry’s early experiments with everyday materials. But so much for unrehearsed; he’s quoted it before—most recently to critic Oliver Wainwright when speaking about the Foundation Louis Vuitton, a project as couture as its client.

For me, the reference seems historical in its belief in future creations, reminiscent of a time when experimentation was the height of culture. As a native Californian, I take pride in the fact that the West Coast’s history is interlocked with its identity being on the leading edge of architecture, technology, environment, politics, and entertainment. But right now the biggest architectural goings-on are backward looking: Gehry’s retrospective at LACMA, the consolidation of Eli and Edythe Broad’s collection, and the L.A. Olympic redux. Even this summer’s blockbuster Straight Outta Compton is about looking in the rear-view mirror.

Each of these examples suggests that a bolder, more radical, inventive period
has fleeted by. It is a #tbt, or “throwback Thursday,” away. Poised on the Pacific
Rim, have we become so comfortable to our edgy condition that we need to rummage in the attic to again stir things up? (To wit, postmodernism is in the air again in some schools of architecture.)

Or, perhaps looking behind is a nervous condition, a kind of conservative reflex brought on by the economic downturn from which the profession (knock on wood) is finally recovering. Architecture by its very nature is speculative. And experimentation, of course, comes with risk. Risk is not something politicians and investors particularly like. Take the L.A. River, for example: According to Gehry, the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office approached him to transform the channel into something akin to The High Line in New York, a project that opened in 2009.

While that successful linear park is a beloved example of infrastructural transformation and public-private partnership, it is a lazy precedent. Progressive six years ago, it’s an oft-repeated example suffering from the law of diminishing returns. In Seattle, the city council recently rejected a plan to transform the Alaskan Way Viaduct—a mile-long, six-acre elevated High Line style park near Pike Place Market. The project, a competing vision to James Corner Field Operations billion-dollar waterfront plan, will go to public vote in 2016.

On the flip side, Gehry Partners’ nascent studies on the L.A. River constituencies and hydrology skew toward a technofuturist narrative in which a 3-D model of the waterway and an interactive web platform aim to unify the whole of the L.A. River’s 51 miles. Perhaps activists and stakeholders would be pacified if they only donned a pair of Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles.

But maybe we keep looking backward because what is being passed off these days as innovation, invention, experimentation, or disruption is tepid. Not radical, but a warmed over approximation of something new. Over at my alma mater SCI-Arc, a place that’s pushed boundaries for more than four decades, a statement from new director Hernan Diaz Alonso reads dated, like leftovers from a Silicon Valley tech conference. “Where others drown in the complex flows of urban life, we thrive and choreograph its movements,” he wrote. “Alchemy is our craft—we turn things into gold.”

I’m all for change, and given my Berkeley upbringing, sympathetic to a little mysticism. However, I’m dubious of alchemist claims. Here and now in the Golden State, and throughout the West, ground conditions are at a critical juncture. There is more opportunity for built architectural and urban works than ever in the last decade. At the same time, rapid development is fueling inequity and displacement. While architecture may never be able to solve these issues per se, the discipline operates in this contemporary cultural milieu. Given this context, the built environment (as well as the market) is desperate for design that goes beyond simply an app, a hack, or a computational form. The time for thoughtful experimentation is neither behind us nor in some far off future—Blade Runner was set in 2019—it’s now.