Currently on view at the WUHO Gallery in Hollywood is a retrospective exhibit entitled Unfinished Business: 25 Years of Discourse in Los Angeles, held in honor of the first quarter century of The Los Angeles Forum for Urban Design and Architecture, known simply as “The Forum” to those in the L.A. design community. Curated by Siobhan Burke, Thurman Grant and Mimi Zeiger, in collaboration with the Forum’s board of directors, the show opened on July 13 and runs until August 26, 2012.
The exhibition is a text-based display of work culled from old Forum newsletters, publications and the occasional competition. The curators embraced the now retro newsprint aesthetic and reproduced the original layouts in large format to read at wall distance. The writings hang in precarious balance between playful chatter and established ideas and exist in the space between blog posts and scholarly writing. Former newsletter editor John Dutton says the Forum was conceived as “a way for people to get together… [talk] about architecture and examine L.A.,” and these conversations are in fact almost perversely captivated by a self-obsessed Los Angeles as subject and muse.
Many early Forum members (and current ones too for that matter) were from the East Coast, or educated in the East Coast establishment. And herein lies a contradiction; they view Los Angeles with the kind of vision that is not only strengthened by, but also born from comparison. This juxtaposition of other, of intrinsic duality, is not only inherent in the matter of East Coast and West Coast, but in the long-running recurrent themes — quite tangible in this show — of center and periphery, object and field, urban and suburban, and public and private. Los Angeles is the city of the latters, not the formers. What conclusions can be drawn about a city that is primarily a composite of the second part of each binary?
In this spirit, Los Angeles is refreshing – for here, freeways and strip malls are topics par excellence. The subject of this hodgepodge city matches the divergent and decentralized voices in these newsletters, books and competitions. The early Forum years reflect the freedom that characterizes the L.A. school. “It was just such an appealing prospect for people because it was unpretentious, because it was made of a newspaper, and we sort of had to encourage them to pull things out of the closet that weren’t quite ready for primetime, but this was a place where they could incubate,” says former newsletter editor Chava Danielson.
Perhaps Unfinished Business is an allusion to the 2004 record by the same title, released by R. Kelly and Jay-Z and comprised of unreleased tracks from their 2002 musical collaboration and recording sessions. Though that is likely no more than an entertaining extrapolation on my part, the Forum dialogue does play like unreleased background chatter to the mainstream codifying texts of Los Angeles. As former newsletter editor Joe Day says, the early ‘90s was a hinge point: “groundbreaking scholarship,” such as Douglas Suisman’s Los Angeles Boulevard (1989), Ed Soja’s Postmodern Geographies (1990), and Mike Davis’ City of Quartz (1991) were published, but Los Angeles had not yet become “discursively settled.” The power of rescuing the older newsletter pieces from, as Mimi Zeiger says, “filing cabinets, mini storage, or the occasional board member’s car trunk” and making them accessible to a new audience fills in the gaps of recent discourse in L.A. The work in this show captures a history in the making for Los Angeles.
The stereotype put forth by John Chase in a 1989 newsletter piece, of a city filled with boutique architecture firms working on semi-private spaces for semi-public clients, now seems quaint. And so too does the accompanying stereotype that Southern California has “no context and no history.” As some of the newer articles in this show indicate, Los Angeles is slowly moving out of its adolescence and growing into a city that may just be finding its center. With even more change on the horizon, it now seems timely to revisit the unformed years nostalgically while they are still close at hand. “The newsletters were never meant to be precious, even though we are treating them as such now,” says Mimi Zeiger. Now that they have been brought to light, it would be a tragedy if the remnants of this show again end up in storage rooms or car trunks.
The Forum was started, according to Joe Day, as “an ancillary group of architects talking to themselves.” The July 14 panel discussions in conjunction with this show display that though no longer ancillary, the group still occasionally suffers from being insular. Which is not to say no one is listening. Staging a visual show that is effectively about words presents curatorial challenges. In the physical space of this gallery show, the barrage of mixed media includes a (sparse) handful of photographs, diagrams, drawings and even audio, though it is dominated by a frustrating density of text. The visual and the verbal seem to live in two worlds tangential to each other. Thus, the cadence of the show doesn’t match the temporal cadence of a gallery visit. Interested visitors are left looking for a way to sit down and digest all this material. Personally, I’m hoping for a thorough follow-up catalog online and/or in print (not the so called “glimpses” of text in the current catalog) catering to those who are indeed listening and reading. The growth of the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s is unlikely to be repeated, though likely to still be examined in greater detail. This exhibition highlights the need to find a way to archive and make accessible this body of work so that the dialogue of our formation can be part of our written history. For better or for worse, Los Angeles is no longer that magical place with no context and no history.
Michelle Paul is a Los Angeles based designer, writer and educator.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.