Designing Los Angeles
Mackey Apartments (R.M. Schindler, 1939). Home of the MAK Center’s Artists and Architects-in-Residence Program. Photograph by Joshua White
When Vienna-born architect Rudolph Schindler moved to L.A. in 1920, he brought with him a modernist aesthetic that would produce some of the city's most distinctive buildings. In 1994, his own home was rehabilitated into the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, which was recently awarded an FY 2012 Art Works grant from the NEA. A satellite of the MAK Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, the Los Angeles center was designed in part to celebrate Schindler by fostering the progressive thinking that he championed. Exhibitions, lectures, film screenings, and architectural tours are held regularly, and visitors may also simply explore the Schindler House and the nearby Fitzpatrick-Leland House and Mackey Apartments, both of which were also designed by Schindler. The MAK Center also offers six-month residencies twice a year for two artists and two architects, who live in the Mackey Apartments during their time in Los Angeles. I spoke with MAK Center Director Kimberli Meyer about the residency program, her favorite buildings in L.A., and the dual ugliness and beauty of the City of Angels.
NEA: How do you think L.A. is uniquely suited to host an organization dedicated to progressive architecture, such as the MAK Center?
KIMBERLI MEYER: The cultural climate here is extremely open-minded; it always has been. It has this history of being a place where you can come and take risks, and if you fail, no one really holds it against you. The clients of architecture are more willing to take risks with architects. For architects themselves, there are a lot less constraints in many ways. If I’m comparing it to New York or the East Coast, there’s more land here, and the climate is extremely mild. City planning has been kind of haphazard, for better or for worse, so there’s a lot more freedom here to do things.
In some ways, if you look back at L.A. history, the avant-garde in architecture came well before the avant-garde in art. I think that art has certainly caught up with architecture in that regard, but there remains a really strong atmosphere of experimentation here.
NEA: How do you think architecture can influence or define the character of a city?
MEYER: Architecture and planning and development all work very closely together to form the identity of a city. If design is a strong component to the built environment, it affects a certain consciousness on people; people understand why design is important. They learn to recognize what it’s doing in the landscape.
L.A. is both beautiful and ugly at the same time. The ugliness comes from a kind of completely haphazard and slapdash approach to planning and building. It’s a young city, so things are often not built to last, they’re built for the short-term. On the other hand, that’s also the exact same situation which allows people to try things. Modern architecture here really flourished. We have an enormous treasure trove of modern houses, for example. Los Angeles is odd that way, because so much of its great architecture is actually domestic and so it’s privatized. But I think that’s starting to change, and we’re getting some really good public buildings, like Disney Hall, and the Caltrans Building by Morphosis [led by Thom Mayne]. What it’s starting to do is give the city a certain kind of identity in terms of a commitment to civic aesthetics.
Ken Gonzales-Day, Untitled, Profile Series. Commissioned by the MAK Center for How Many Billboards? Art In Stead, 2010. Photograph by Gerard Smulevich
NEA: If someone was visiting Los Angeles, what five buildings would you say they should definitely check out?
MEYER: They should definitely come to the Schindler House of course. It’s a landmark worldwide. I would say they should also go and visit Disney Hall. It’s a really interesting building to look at, for various reasons. I think the Sheats-Goldstein residence may become more and more open to the public. That’s the house by John Lautner, and it’s pretty spectacular. It certainly talks about a certain kind of architectural gesture in L.A. I like the Caltrans Building, so that’s something I would put on the list. The Eames House out in the Pacific Palisades, definitely. Another one that’s open to the public that’s interesting to see is the VDL Research House by Richard Neutra. It was interesting at the time because it was Neutra doing some experimentation. Although I would never say that Neutra was as experimental as Schindler, that house is interesting to see and it’s owned by a university, so it’s open to the public on weekends.
NEA: The MAK Center website says that the mission of its Urban Future Initiative Fellowship program is “to cultivate visionary conceptions of the urban future.” What about the urban present do you wish to change?
MEYER: We did a project a couple of years ago where we replaced advertising on billboards with artworks. It was a show called How Many Billboards? and it was our first big public art exhibition. We commissioned 21 artists to do billboards for L.A. L.A. is a city with 4,000 billboards, and if you have your eyes open at all, you can’t help but look at them. So one thing that I’ve been really interested in for a number of years is the mandatory nature of that advertising. It’s not something that you can choose to look at or not look at. I feel that art should take up a portion of that; ten percent of those billboards, if we have to have them, should be artwork. Advertising is a really dominant form of communication in this city, and that if it’s going to be there, then art should have a significant portion of that real estate.
Interior of Mackey Apartments (R.M. Schindler, 1939). Photograph by Joshua White
NEA: Your residencies include two artists and two architects. How do you view the relationship between architecture and the creative arts?
MEYER: It’s a really interesting relationship. There’s a lot of overlap, and I think there’s more and more. At the same time, they’re two very distinct disciplines. One of the things that we do at the MAK Center in general, and very specifically with our residency program, is to kind of force the artists and the architects to talk to each other and influence one another in their thinking and in the way that they’re doing things. For example, a lot of the architects that come here are fairly young in their practice, so they’re not necessarily building a lot of buildings at this point otherwise they wouldn’t be able to come to L.A. for six months and take time out of their practice. So they’re doing a lot of research, they’re doing a lot of exploration. And the product of that exploration, in the end, often takes a form which looks like art, yet is not exactly art. It has different things at stake than visual art does. One of the things for me that’s always really interesting is to try and tease those things out, and try and think about the kinds of things that matter to architects versus the kinds of things that matter to art, and where those things are overlapping and where they can be in dialogue.
NEA: What do you hope your residents take away from their time at the MAK Center?
MEYER: I hope that they come away with a much stronger understanding of Los Angeles and what’s going on here. Because we do try and get them involved as much as we can with the city. Many times this is there first trip to L.A. We hope that they’ve had the time to really research something that they’re interested in and develop some idea that they came to Los Angeles with. We also very much hope that they’ve had the opportunity to be influenced by each other, and to understand what people from other disciplines are doing, and from other countries are doing. They may or not actually collaborate, but even if they don’t, we hope that being in the same building together, and being in the same program together, that their thinking is influenced by those who are thinking other than they are.
NEA: Do you agree with the common complaint that with globalization, cities around the world look more and more alike?
MEYER: I don’t think they do. I guess it depends on which cities we’re talking about, but if we’re thinking major cities, I don’t think they do look alike. L.A. and New York don’t look anything alike. Vienna and Berlin don’t look anything alike. Shanghai looks different than any other place I can think of. I understand that there’s a sense of universalism that modernism brought us, and that post-modernism didn’t really undo. It's this kind of universal style that can be anywhere in anything, and it’s all about building it cheaply and not caring about what it looks like. There is a certain amount of that that goes on everywhere, but I wouldn’t say that there’s enough of that to really control the whole image of a city.