Frank Gehry and the out of town architect

Gerhry (1 of 1)-3Your best work is your expression of yourself. Now, you may not be the greatest at it, but when you do it, you’re the only expert. Frank Gehry

Before I went, I thought that the whole purpose of my going to Los Angeles was to see the Frank Gehry show at LACMA – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – but, on the way home, I realized that the highlight of the trip was just being in Los Angeles for a day. Like many people – actually, most is probably more accurate –  raised in Northern California, I was raised to look down on Southern California in general and Los Angeles in particular. We were taught that L.A. was crass, even vulgar, completely lacking the refinement of us Northern Californians.

As an aside, one of my favorite Northern v. Southern California stories is from Herb Caen, “Mr. San Francisco”,  who quoted a well known bon vivant from Santa Barbara (which really is in Southern California even though we Northerners sometimes try to claim it). The Santa Barbaian, let’s call him Bon,  told of a time he was in San Francisco visiting a schoolmate who was now a lawyer on Montgomery Street; it was summer and Bon was wearing a tan linen suit with white shoes, feeling very spiffy. As Bon was walking down Montgomery Street, he spotted two guys wearing sandwich boards that advertised a health food store. They were walking towards him, the one on the right was wearing a tomato costume under his sandwich board and the guy on the left was dressed as a carrot. He giggled to himself, thinking Only in San Francisco.  As they passed him, the carrot leaned over to the tomato and said in a stage whisper, “I can’t believe that idiot is wearing white shoes on Montgomery Street.” End side.

I wouldn’t say that Los Angeles is totally unlike San Francisco, but they are atleast a third of a culture apart; the climate is very different, even the light is different, the standards are looser – and, if that sounds pejorative, it is because that’s how I learned it, maybe a better way to say it is that the culture is more open to innovation and change – and the chaos is amped way up.

The Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry (picture from Wikipedia)
The Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry (picture from Wikipedia)

This difference shows itself the most in L.A.’s streetscape and architecture. The chaotic grid  covers hundreds of square miles and there are times when the out-of-towner has no idea where the particular disorganized spot where he/she/or it is standing is in relation to some famous landmark, identifiable place, or where they want to be. Every part of Los Angeles seems to be screaming for attention. It is this landscape and this light that educated the architects who matured in it. Yet, when Los Angeles wanted a Museum Of Contemporary Art, they chose an outsider, Arata Isozaki. He is from Japan and about as far away as they could get.

MOCA, picture from Wikipedia.
MOCA, picture from Wikipedia.

I don’t want to say that Isozaki is not a good, or even great, architect but when Michele and I went to MOCA about twenty years ago, we were very disappointed, it seemed too formal, too contained. Then we walked down the street to The Temporary Contemporary – now relabeled as The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA – which was a warehouse lightly redone by Frank Gehry and were delighted.

Temporary Contemporary. (not my picture)
Temporary Contemporary (not my picture).

Somehow, as simple as it was, this museum was more L A and everybody liked it. Even the New York Times’ art critic, William Wilson, liked it, saying it was a prince among spaces that was all set to embrace whatever princess came round the corner.  The space prompted, the Guggenheim to talk to Gehry about a remodel in a factory space at Bilbao for their new museum. That lead to the totally new Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.Gehry (1 of 1)

(1 of 1)
Gehry Bilbao (not my picture, duh)

As an aside, Gehry must have as much of a distortion field as Steve Jobs once he gets close. Many, maybe most, of his jobs started out small or as remodels and became bigger and more expensive.  End aside.

With Gehry living and practicing in Los Angeles , the Museum still felt it had to go out of town to get a prestigious architect. And that is the rub, it seems finding or showing or using out of town architects is considered better – better as in more prestigious, in a we are a world-class-town way, I think –  than using local guys. And that is not just in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hired a guy from Switzerland who designed a building that not only doesn’t fit in but doesn’t work very well. Sadly, it is not just in signature museums that the out of town syndrome reigns, it is also the art in them. I have been going to museums all my life – dragged would have been a better term for the first dozen years – and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the first museum that really spun my beanie. It was on the top three floors of the The War Memorial Veterans Building – designed by Arthur Brown Jr, a local guy who also designed the City Hall – and it was full of art I had never seen before. Some of it was the permanent collection but much of it was small shows of local, emerging, artists. 

That is not the case now (with some exceptions). The shows have gotten bigger and the artists have become more famous and often that means the artists are from somewhere else. I think the purpose of travel is to see a different place and the homogenization of art in museums, like the standardization of stores and restaurants, makes places seem less different.

As an aside, the only museum that I know about that fights this trend is the Oakland Museum. It only has local – by that, they mean California, so not local, local – art so the visitor is treated to a great Robert Arneson Robert Arneson (1 of 1)or a  Michael McMillen,  McMillion (1 of 1)

rather than a mediocre Jasper Johns. And that is good, because you aren’t going to see any McMillion in New York, only great Jasper Johns. End aside.

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