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Exhibition Review: A Confederacy of Heretics: The Architecture Gallery, Venice, 1979

Running through July 7 at SCI-Arc's downtown Los Angeles space, the show—part of the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time series—highlights the pivotal role of the temporary gallery that Thom Mayne ran out of his home for a few weeks in the late 70s.

By Sarah Amelar
May 1, 2013
Photo © Joshua White
Zago Architecture, the exhibition designers, wrapped the entry zone in skewed, blown-up reproductions of Morphosis' mock postage stamps – a clever riff on Graphic Wrap, one of the six spatial strategies the curators identified in the featured work, most notably Eric Owen Moss' Fun House.

In the fall of 1979, Los Angeles’ first gallery for architecture came into being in Thom Mayne’s home in Venice, California. Here, in a loft that doubled as his design studio, the temporary “Architecture Gallery” lived out an intense, 10-week run, staging a different exhibition each week. Though makeshift, the series proved pivotal, limelighting a local cast of independent, mostly young and emerging practitioners (all men), some on the cusp of bigger things: Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi, of Morphosis; Craig Hodgetts and Robert Mangurian, of Studio Works; Eric Owen Moss; Peter de Bretteville; Frederick Fisher; Eugene Kupper; Frank Dimster; Coy Howard; and two slightly older, more established architects, Roland Coate, Jr. and Frank Gehry. In the spirit of improvisation and energetic experimentation that characterized architectural culture on the city’s Westside, each practice mounted its own five-day show, paired with a lecture at nearby SCI-Arc. (A scratchy video of the talk-of-the-week played on a TV monitor at every show.) Almost simultaneously, architecture critic John Dreyfuss reviewed each installation in the Los Angeles Times, providing a running commentary that amplified the bang of this grass-roots production. This compelling and little-known story is the subject of A Confederacy of Heretics, an exhibition at SCI-Arc’s current home in downtown Los Angeles.

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Curated by SCI-Arc faculty Todd Gannon and Andrew Zago, with Ewan Branda, the show is part of the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., 1940-1990, with exhibitions at 17 venues across the region this spring and summer. If a Los Angeles-specific architecture truly emerged from the city’s unique circumstances and culture (arguably in more than one incarnation between 1940 and 1990), then this moment in the late 1970s was a game-changer. But brewing here was not a Los Angeles, but a Venice, architecture, rising from what was then a gritty, edgy, God-forsaken neighborhood, where virtually every architect in the series had migrated.

“There was a palpable Venice-versus-Downtown tension,” says Gannon. While local corporate firms churned out bland office towers for the metropolis’ new nodes, these young Turks at the fringe, most of whom had built very little, “produced their own universe,” he points out, “and that evolved into what the rest of the world came to see as L.A. architecture.” By most accounts, the guerilla pack of 1979 was a casual alliance. Mayne, who was in charge of SCI-Arc’s lecture series that year, says he drew up the participant list “spontaneously, in about an hour… with a few odd choices in the mix” and curious omissions, like Frank Israel. Unlike the East Coast’s “Whites” and “Greys” or Southern California’s “Silvers” and “L.A. 12,” these architects, Hodgetts recalls, “never thought of ourselves as a group, never published a monograph or manifesto. But, in retrospect,” he adds, “I think we had far more coherency than anyone recognized at the time.”

Many experimented with a raw material sensibility, integrating corrugated metal, exposed plywood, and other echoes of Venice’s rough patchwork. Nearly all had local architecture school affiliations: USC, UCLA, or the scrappiest, most rebellious alternative, SCI-Arc, founded in 1972. These architects—beginning to rack up P/A Awards for unrealized work—seemed driven to rethink convention and experiment with what writer Michael Franklin Ross termed “indulgent complexity.” As SCI-Arc’s founding director, Ray Kappe, later observed, “the drawings almost became a thing in itself for these guys.” They were, he continued, “just drawing the hell out of these projects,” in ways “obviously not necessary for construction… or even to understand the building.”

Some of those remarkable drawings, models, and drawing-model hybrids (“Drawls,” as Howard called his) form the core of Confederacy of Heretics. The exhibition is by no means a re-enactment of the earlier shows. The curators sifted discerningly through huge quantities of miraculously surviving artifacts, sometimes uncovering items never before shown, such as an eloquent sketch by Eric Owen Moss on a dog-eared scrap of trace paper, or highlighting more mature, but closely related, projects by the same designers. The show also includes some architects omitted in 1979, like Howard, who, for unexplained reasons, contributed only the opening and closing lectures.
Most strikingly, the Confederacy curators never fall back on secondary and lifeless documentary photos of buildings, offering us, instead, only genuine artifacts: each a work of art, study, or reinterpretation in its own right.

Grant Mudford’s vintage black-and-white photographs of Frank Gehry’s home, for example, are interpretive and spectacular. Hidden away for decades, the prints bear thumbtack holes from the 1979 show. And Roland Coates’ 1974 Alexander House, in Montecito, stars (in construction) in a short by the filmmaker Jesse Alexander, who commissioned the house. The other items on display, many of them extraordinary, include original models presented bare, without plastic lids—retaining the almost tactile immediacy they must have had in the 1979 shows.

In a bold move, the curators also brought to light little-known sheets of mock postage stamps by Morphosis. Just as the renegade Gallery created its own universe, these playful and exquisitely designed stamps, featuring Morphosis’s own work, willfully deviate from the U.S. Postal Service’s officially endorsed, “great architecture” commemoratives. The Confederacy’s installation, designed by Zago Architecture, incorporates a jaunty, contemporary riff on that faux-postage. By wrapping the entry zone in skewed, 3D-folded blow-ups of these sheets, Zago cleverly recasts language from the featured architecture.

The main offering, however, is immersion in the works—a great gift in itself—but the show stops short of explicitly conveying a curatorial viewpoint. Six rather arcane diagrams with texts analyze various spatial strategies upfront, but it’s up to the viewer to connect them with the items on display. The curators guard the objects’ visual purity and shun didacticism to the point of excluding identifying wall labels. (Instead, you can consult the list provided in a brochure.) Beyond a brief synopsis about the Architecture Gallery, commentary is embodied primarily, and implicitly, in the selection itself. There are also subtle spatial clues, like the long dining table that runs diagonally through the galleries, alluding to the skewed “buffet” of architectural models in Moss’s original installation.

To view the objects within a cultural framework or retrospective interpretation, though, requires delving into SCI-Arc’s accompanying offerings: panel discussions, symposia, web links to the 1979 lectures, and the scholarly catalog due out in June. Like the short-lived, high-impact Architecture Gallery, so intertwined with activities surrounding it, A Confederacy of Heretics is, in many respects, a springboard for further conversation. If you’re inspired and willing to make that additional investment, the exhibition’s rich fare is a great entree. Otherwise, you may emerge visually well fed, conceptually intrigued, but still hungry for more direction or conclusions.

This history, with all the original players still around, is still in flux. When the Gallery closed in late 1979, Howard prophetically commented, “Things don’t bloom full grown. This group is developing. Some will sell out. Some will drop out. And three or four will be significant.” Propelled by the rapid-fire momentum of events and the power of the press, those 10 weeks set off a tectonic shift in the architectural culture of Los Angeles, and, 34 years later, the aftershocks, though no longer so shocking, are still being felt.

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