The recently appointed 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial artistic directors, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee—in contrast to their predecessors, Graham Foundation director Sarah Herda and international biennial curator Joseph Grima—are not professional curators, but practicing architects. In 1998, they cofounded the Los Angeles–based firm Johnston Marklee, whose current projects include the Menil Drawing Institute, a renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Green Line Arts Center, a project with the University of Chicago and Theaster Gates. Here, they discuss their interest in honing the next biennial’s focus on architecture’s intersections with art, world history, and urban design. – Janelle Zara
As two practicing architects, what was your interest in taking on a curatorial role?
Mark Lee: We’ve done guest-curation projects for galleries, as well as academic shows at UCLA and other universities, and for the last biennial, we presented photographs we had commissioned artists to take of our buildings; but we haven’t curated anything on this scale. The last biennial was a great success in the way that it not only drew the international architecture crowd, but it formed a dialogue with people who were not architects. We’ve been working in Chicago for the last couple of years on a couple of different projects, and that kind of engagement was important to us.
As you said, the inaugural biennial was a success as a public event, but the shortcoming most critics cited was its lack of cohesion, noting that it would have benefited from a centralized theme. Although planning is still in the early stages, have you decided on how to address such criticism?
Lee: Last year’s show was an ambitious, grand survey of what’s happening internationally and among different generations; an overview is important to establish. And then it takes a second iteration to make a biennial. The two general thematics we’re thinking about right now are in nascent stages, but we’re interested in the renewed role of history for younger architects, a generation that believes in continuity. They don’t have the stigma of postmodernism; they’re looking at different parts of history and its precedents and how they can build that on current design work. The boundaries of architecture are also becoming more fluid. We’d like to explore the convergence of art and architecture, with the changing nature of public spaces and the proliferation of multimedia art practices. We want artists to participate, and to collaborate with architects.
Sharon Johnston: We’re also in the middle of analyzing the 1897 Chicago Cultural Center and understanding the qualities of rooms, of circulation—and using the historic and contemporary spaces to help organize the design of the exhibition. We’re taking advantage of scale and attributes of the architecture to tell a story, as opposed to a free-for-all of things placed where they fit. We’d like our expertise as architects to be part of our approach to the organization of the show.
With the growing number of design and architectural biennials in the world, what do you hope will distinguish the Chicago biennial on an international scale?
Johnston: The history of architecture in Chicago is exciting to revisit and to resuscitate; for architects globally, it represents a major part of the American landscape. And our role is partly determining how the organization might partner with other institutions, buildings, and parts of the city to more deeply embed itself into the urban fabric.
Conversations about Chicago architecture often use the words “history” and “legacy,” and now “resuscitate,” as if much of it happened in the past. How do you describe what’s happening there today?
Lee: Through the schools and through the Graham Foundation, we’ve gotten to see a lot of work by the younger generation. We find it really refreshing to see that, for them, history is a treasure trove. They don’t feel shame or guilt to retrieve from it. That’s not just a way to resuscitate history but a source to push it much further, a part of the Chicago scene we want to keep present in this biennial.
Christ & Gantenbein, Kunstmuseum Basel addition, 2016, Basel. Photo: Julian Salinas.
IT HAS BECOME COMMONPLACE for architects to describe their work as “tailored” to the sites on which they are built, but in the case of Christ & Gantenbein’s new addition to the Kunstmuseum Basel, this is literally true: The geometry of the structure has been ingeniously derived from the different angles of the ancient city’s streets. At the north-east corner of the site, Saint Alban-Graben turns toward the Wettstein bridge. The museum’s entrance runs parallel to this gesture, creating a small plaza defined by the front facade. This concave space reads like an open book, with its left page facing the original museum, which was designed by Paul Bonatz and Rudolf Christ and completed in 1936.
As a result of this carefully contextual gesture, the new building does not feel tacked-on, like a traditional wing or extension. Indeed, the architects chose to connect the new museum to the old only through a lofty underground passage, which functions as an additional exhibition space, allowing the two buildings, which have the same height and possess a similar monumental presence, to engage in a thoughtful dialogue with each other and the city at large.
The building’s site also influences the organization of the interior: The floorplans of the spaces inside are organized from the outside in. All of the rectilinear galleries are placed along the angular exterior walls, which lay tangent to the property line. The somewhat eccentric geometry of the site itself is a result of the organic growth of Basel, a fact the architects chose to embrace and accentuate with the lobby’s grand staircase, a triple-height space that echoes the site’s unique contours, anchoring the building in the medieval city and at the same time creating a dramatic contemporary interior. This link to the surrounding urban environment is continued throughout the museum’s exhibition spaces, where carefully placed windows frame views of the city.
If the museum’s massing and organization is consistently thoughtful and successful, the architects’ material choices are only sometimes convincing. The understated gray brick facade establishes a subtle urban presence, yet also contains a sophisticated signage system that allows curators to display the title of the current show over the upper part of the building. This blur of pixelated text adds a faint glow to the faceted monolith, seeming to bringing another dimension to its uniform grayness—yet the effect is playfully inconsistent, as the sun sometimes outshines the hidden LED light diodes. On the interior, the extensive use of gray Carrara marble and rough plaster in the circulation spaces can be seen as a provocative statement. Instead of receding into neutrality, the materials are bold and draw the eye to themselves, forcing visitors to consciously focus on the architectural elements.
It is difficult to understand why the gray plaster reappears at each passage between exhibition spaces. It distracts from the experience of the art, and accidentally touching it isn’t pleasant either. To use galvanized steel for the gates of the main entrance might make sense, but the excessive placement of a material generally praised for its weather resistance feels ostentatious inside the museum. The shiny, metal-clad walls behind the ticket counter, in the bookstore, and the bathrooms are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s silver factory. But unlike Billy Name’s intervention in Warhol’s first loft, the spacious museum is in no need for a boost of amphetamine stimulus, or the effects of visual enlargement. While the galvanized steel feels too cold and industrial, the yellowish oak floors throughout the exhibition spaces are too warm and domestic. Over time the floors might lose some of their coziness, but for now the wood and their grid created by grout joints is in conflict with the art placed directly above it, and the walls around them. The scale of some of the architectural elements too seems distractingly disjointed. Several of these elements are disproportionate in relationship to the human body. In particular, the wide marble balustrade of the staircase, which rises up to shoulder level, dwarfs visitors as they traverse the stairs.
Then again, these limitations are easily forgotten in the presence of some of the best art of the twentieth century. The collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel is in no way overpowered by the architecture that houses it, and many of the pieces look even better in this new setting. By rejecting the art world’s penchant for “versatile” or “flexible” spaces, the new building is bold in its permanence—undiluted by moving walls and structural indecision. This spirited building is a particularly welcome shakeup in Basel, where more established players have dominated the city’s development.
While climbing the new stairs to the lobby of the older half of the museum, I rediscovered Bruce Nauman’s seminal neon piece: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967. The last time I saw the work was in 2009 in Venice where Nauman installed an edition in a window of the US pavilion, a location quite similar to the one in which it was first displayed in his San Francisco studio the year it was created. If that setting was almost effortlessly natural, in Basel the piece seems slightly foreign, almost as if it is rubbing against the rough gray plaster behind it. In the glow of the neon, the wall appears newly cloudlike and soft, a fresh transformation suggesting that Christ & Gantenbein have successfully created a museum that reveals new truths for its collection, and for the city to which it belongs.
Daniel Libeskind, One Day in Life, 2016. Performance view, operating theater in Frankfurt, May 21, 2016. Photo: Tibor-Florestan Pluto.
IN OUR EVER MORE INTERCONNECTED CULTURE, architecture’s predilection for interdisciplinarity has become a popular topic both inside and outside of the field, whether among those seeking to expand architecture’s reach or to co-opt its methodologies. Most of these conversations focus on a relatively narrow range of interaction with the visual arts, despite the fact that, historically, music has often been architecture’s closest partner. For centuries, while painters and sculptors were preoccupied with various techniques of mimesis, architects and musicians focused on more abstract compositional problems. Indeed, within the classical tradition the deep connection between spatial and sonic structures can be traced back as far as Pythagoras, who expounded a system of musical harmony based on mathematical ratios equally applicable to geometric relationships. During the Renaissance, the Greek philosopher’s theories became a cornerstone of architect Leon Battista Alberti’s celebrated theory of proportion, and influenced the architectural writings of polymath Daniele Barbaro, who declared that the secret of beauty “in music as well as in architecture is called harmony, mother of grace and of delight.” And Andrea Palladio himself based the dimensions of many of his buildings on mathematical ratios derived from harmonic intervals in music.
While this belief in a single, shared order has faded, an essential connection between musical and architectural composition has survived well into the modern era. The most famous example of this ongoing relationship is probably provided by Iannis Xenakis, whose musical training informed both the visual rhythms of the façade he designed for Le Corbusier’s monastery of La Tourette and his design for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, which deployed topologically deformed surfaces that were adapted directly from his research into polyvalent musical composition. Indeed, Xenakis remains best known for his 1971 magnum opus Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition. Even if the mode of Xenakis’s composition is diametrically opposed to that of a classical figure such as Palladio—having evolved from the static expression of a universal principle into the pursuit of nonlinear progressions that celebrate complexity and simultaneity—both point to the perennial appeal of the idea that the composition of space is indissociable from the composition of sound.
Daniel Libeskind might seem to be a natural candidate to extend this tradition, given that he was a child virtuoso who underwent years of musical training before he entered the field of architecture. Certainly the depth of his musical background was obvious in the concert series he organized in Frankfurt this past May. Yet this project, titled One Day in Life, actually suggests that, in a contemporary context, it may be less productive to celebrate the underlying mathematical structures that unite music and architecture formally, and more generative to interrogate the specific ways in which music, as a temporal art form, can change the ways in which we experience and inhabit architecture.
In response to an open-ended invitation from Stephan Pauly, the artistic director of the city’s Alte Oper, Libeskind conceived of a continuous twenty-four-hour concert series comprising seventy-five performances (many of them simultaneous) at eighteen venues scattered throughout Frankfurt. The architect’s goal was to move music from the rarefied space of the concert hall into the city at large, weaving music into the daily life of its residents. But by shifting the performances—which ranged from full orchestral concerts to solo violin recitals to electronic sound pieces—out of the opera house, Libeskind raised a series of puzzling questions. The space of a concert hall is tailored for musical performance in two senses: first in that it is calibrated for optimal acoustics, and second in that it is often designed to fade into the background so that audiences focus purely on listening. (In the latter sense, it is analogous to so-called minimalist museum spaces, where architecture’s material and spatial qualities are often suppressed in an effort to provide a space for pure looking.) But if not in one of these spaces, where should music be performed? And what should architecture’s role be in performance, if not simply one of neutrality? Perhaps most urgently, what criteria should be used to select specific venues from among the nearly infinite possibilities available in the city?
Because the problem was not one of design per se—or at least not one of creating a new architectural form—Libeskind could not base his choices on the kind of formal correspondences that guided figures like Palladio or Xenakis. Instead, the project became about more atmospheric, even affective, affinities and interactions between the qualities of a space and the music to be performed within it, often all the more powerful for being totally unexpected. A hardscrabble boxing club in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, for example, became the site for Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s rendition of Beethoven’s notoriously difficult Piano Sonata No. 31 Opus 110. The low ceilings and crowded space, with chairs packed in between punching bags, forced the audience into a direct confrontation with the sheer physicality of Aimard’s playing—his grimacing face, the sweat dripping off of his nose onto the keyboard—which, as he labored on a Steinway positioned in the center of a boxing ring, seemed breathtakingly natural. When Luigi Nono’s haunting sound piece, “Remember what they did to you at Auschwitz,” written in 1965 in response to the first Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, was played in a World War II bunker built on the site of a synagogue destroyed in 1938, it resonated powerfully not only because of the site’s historical significance, but because of the strange synesthesia produced as the sounds, bouncing off of the bunker’s super-thick reinforced concrete walls, seemed to become interchangeable with the dank-smelling notes of underground air.
But the significance of One Day in Life was not only in the specific qualities of its individual performances. The project also suggested new ways of experiencing the city, of understanding the architect’s role within it. Today, globalization is rapidly ironing out local idiosyncrasies, rendering cities uniform and most forms of urban experience overdetermined, none more so than cultural tourism. Ironically, while major cities increasingly turn to cultural institutions to establish their identity, the buildings that house these institutions are increasingly the same, as are the uses to which they’re put and the programming they contain. Just as one high-end shopping district is very like another, a visitor to a contemporary art museum or concert hall often has few clues about which country or even which continent he or she is inhabiting.
Daniel Libeskind, One Day in Life, 2016. Performance view, Frankfurt Central Station, May 22, 2016. Photo: Norbert Miguletz.
Libeskind’s programming disrupted—briefly but radically—the typical experience of the contemporary city. In part, this was simply a matter of drawing visitors into the normally invisible spaces that make up part of the hectic complexity of urban life: Works by Marin Marais played in an operating room of one of the city’s main hospitals, Mozart’s famous requiem mass performed by a full chorus in an empty train depot. But the most impressive performances were those that transformed the kinds of spaces city-dwellers traverse daily but never really notice or experience, as when students from the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts played a series of solo performances while moving back and forth along an unused subway line in Frankfurt Central Station, flooding the tracks with sound. Such performances not only suggested the latent possibilities of such spaces, they also served as a reminder that urban environments only achieve their potential when activated in time, that buildings and spaces are only one part of what makes up a living city.
Libeskind has long known this. Among his earliest works is a series of drawings titled “Micromegas,” which explicitly borrowed from techniques of musical notation to address architecture’s existence in time as well as space. The complex and eccentric geometries he derived from such early experiments have evolved into something like a signature style, proving highly susceptible to demands for symbolic gestures and formal metaphor. For better or for worse, he has in fact become known primarily as a form-maker, making his latest suggestion that an architect’s job may be as much about exploring what unfolds in a space as creating an envelope in which this space is packaged all the more powerful.
Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.
THE TWIN IMPERATIVES steering the flurry of recent museum transformations resemble a yoga technique: expand and relax. It has been a boom time for some while now, but growth tells only part of the story and increasingly, a smaller one. In their drive for more space and higher attendance figures, large art museums in America are being refashioned to strike a casual demeanor and achieve an integrated relationship to their urban surroundings. These are renovations of institutional philosophies as much as buildings.
The Whitney, relieved of its weighty uptown building—which the Met is leasing while replacing its own late-1980s modern wing—is diverting pedestrians from the High Line into its new downtown home, offering them art and even more elevated views from outdoor terraces. And MoMA is busy scrubbing hauteur off its chilly Yoshio Taniguchi–designed expansion, hiring Diller Scofidio + Renfro to expand galleries, improve circulation, and, in an effort to make more of the ground floor publically accessible, add unticketed exhibition space to a ballooning lobby.
As museums loosen up, they’re becoming more flexible about designers’ credentials. I would wager that Diller Scofidio + Renfro earned the MoMA job less on the merits of their museum work than on their successful revamps of the High Line and Lincoln Center—two New York has-beens made over as interactive open-air attractions. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which opened a $305-million expansion last month, commissioned architects Snøhetta in large part because of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Rising out of the Oslo harbor, the landform-like structure buries the performance functions under an inclined public plaza that, upon completion in 2008, burnished the firm’s reputation for making human-centric and photogenic places. Snøhetta did not have much experience designing spaces for art, but SF MoMA made other demands. “We really want the museum to be much more outward-looking, to open up the doors and bring the public in,” the museum’s director, Neal Benezra, told the New York Times in 2011, when plans were unveiled for a ten-story addition to its South of Market building, a sober brick-veneer edifice with a mouse-hole entrance designed by the Swiss postmodernist Mario Botta and completed in 1995. “We want it to be an embracing, luminous space where you can get good coffee, a place where people come and meet their friends.”
The existing five-story stepped building posed space problems. In 2009, attendance and collection already swelling, the museum secured a century-long loan of postwar blue chips from Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher (the Fisher collection now constitutes the bulk of the work on view). Botta’s imperious tone, too, was at odds with the institution’s softer message. If barely a decade or two ago the astringent rationalism of Botta (and, in a different way, Taniguchi) was to modern art museums the keeper of a high-middlebrow flame, the white-hot contemporary art market and the hordes of tourists flooding gentrified cities have them going casual, an effect that is especially pronounced in San Francisco, where the tech industry is reshaping the city around a mixture of innovation and inequality, and drawing international attention.
Snøhetta fits in comfortably here. More than a traditional architecture practice, the Oslo- and New York–based multinational resembles IDEO, the stalwart design and innovation consultant. In addition to architecture, it creates landscapes, interiors, brand design, and, soon, new banknotes for Norway. Part of Snøhetta’s success as a company lies in how well it mines the Scandinavia-meets–Silicon Valley ethos that undergirds large swathes of our present culture (a mostly affluent, white, American and European culture, granted). In its most caricatured instances, this is a culture of city dwellers who yearn for the outdoors; “disruptors” who work from Eames chairs and communal desks; digital craftspeople who spin bespoke wares. This is a culture that aspires to a lifestyle of purity and simplicity in every consumer choice, yet whose material expressions can be quite baroque (urban farms, rough-hewn farm tables in minimalist apartments).
On its website, Snøhetta describes its working methodology as the “simultaneous exploration of traditional handicraft and cutting edge digital technology.” On the facade of the SF MoMA addition, there is a similar kind of statement. If the view from the front of Botta’s brick structure is simply a cream-colored slab shaved off at slight angles along the top and side, the volume’s obverse is a bulbous form clad in over seven hundred unique fiberglass-reinforced polymer panels inspired, we are told, by the fog and waters of the San Francisco Bay. The ripples may have been generated by algorithms and carved by robots, but Snøhetta embedded the panels with a natural touch: silicate crystals from nearby Monterey Bay. The panels were fabricated by Kreysler & Associates, a Bay Area firm that grew out of the boat industry and has made numerous large-scale public sculptures for Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (Pop art confections such as twenty-foot ice-cream cones and banana peels). Here Snøhetta has selected a more serious subject, but earnestness can inspire a kind of kitsch. Whereas the Oslo opera conflates an architectural element (sloped roof) and natural formation (glacier) to produce a new relationship between the public and the landscape, the facade arrests the ephemeral coastal atmosphere in a frothy simulacra the pallor of steamed almond milk. As an image, however, it has currency—a cunning triangulation of the local terroir (coastal environment, technology, and capital) that is globally recognizable.
The Roberts Family Gallery at SF MOMA. Right: Richard Serra, Sequence, 2006. Photo: Henrik Kam.
If SF MoMA has a recent precedent it is less Guggenheim Bilbao than Tate Modern Turbine Hall, which did not inspire the growth of museum lobbies but dissolved them altogether: You step off the street and directly into a gallery. Snøhetta’s extension stretches a full city block from Minna Street to Howard Street, where there are two new entrances and a double-height street-level gallery with floor-to-ceiling glass—literally the clearest expression of the museum’s refashioned identity. Here, visitors are greeted by Richard Serra’s Sequence, 2006, a sculpture resting in an expanded field of pricey concessions and 45,000 square feet of unticketed gallery space. This space, which starts at Sequence, extends up amphitheater steps to a second-floor level containing a satellite museum store, education space, and a large Sol LeWitt wall drawing; then it turns ninety degrees (on axis with the original Third Street entrance) and continues, following a flight of stairs, into Botta’s atrium, a tall, oculus-topped square ringed by a museum store, restaurant, and auditorium (by 2017, two enormous paintings by Julie Mehretu will flank the atrium). What is most generous about this free gallery space, though, is the way in which it effectively creates a new route through the city block, enabling new connections with Yerba Buena Gardens, a public park sited between the museum and the convention center.
Yet despite the effectiveness of this continuous passage on an urban scale, an odd dynamic emerges between the two buildings themselves. The natural light, bright white walls, and openness to the street of the new building have sapped energy from the existing one—particularly the atrium, which is no longer the heart of the museum, as it was designed to be. The strong centrality and unadulterated symmetry of the Botta building make it intolerant of change. Remove one part—such as the black-granite staircase that originally soared up the atrium toward the oculus—and the whole space gets off kilter. In its stead are cheery new maple steps connecting the first and second floors. They leave the atrium feeling even more solemn, reacting to Botta’s formal bombast without reckoning with it. And this is the paradox: The binary mantras that informed the redesign—old SF MoMA is a bunker; new SF MoMA is light filled and open—have been crystallized rather than overcome.
While Snøhetta’s relationship to the Botta building wavers between begrudging deference and bald indifference on the exterior and ground floor, it transitions to neutralization on the gallery levels. The existing galleries—well-proportioned enfilades around the atrium—have been maintained, beginning on the second floor (accessible from the new ticketing area) and then on levels three, four, and five, where they merge with the addition (new galleries continue on floors six and seven of the extension). Here, seamlessness is the strategy: The floor levels are contiguous, and Botta’s material palette, white sheetrock and blond-maple flooring, lines a record-breaking expanse of exhibition space. With a combined 146,000 square feet of galleries, SF MoMA has—for the moment—the most display area of any museum in the US devoted to modern and contemporary art (MoMA is set to add 50,000 square feet to its existing 125,000 ). Functionally, Snøhetta has managed an efficient plan—not an insignificant feat considering the museum expects 1.4 million annual visitors following the reopening.
Beyond a certain size, it seems that architects don’t design museums so much as manage symptoms. Snøhetta has threaded a stair route through all seven publicly accessible levels, along the length of the new, bulging north facade, and everywhere it attempts to stave off homogeneity. The straight flights of blond-maple steps vary in width and alternate directions on each level. (During a tour, Craig Dykers, the Snøhetta cofounder who led the SF MoMA project, told me that long stairs are “frightening.”) The stairs let out into what Snøhetta calls “city galleries,” loggia-like corridors between the new galleries and facade that are a prescription against “gallery fatigue.” (The bathrooms, keyed to a unique monochrome on each floor, provide another kind of relief). Although they are among the most novel of the new spaces, the city galleries can gnaw at someone who desires architecture that is capable of more complicated and profound pleasures, of less habituated types of experience. Snøhetta’s emphasis on atomized behavior not only draws from a well of bromides—“soft,” “inviting,” “friendly,” “unimposing”—but inches toward a kind of “retail science” of predictable consumer outcomes.
The bulk of the new exhibition space is composed of long, windowless, rectangular boxes interrupted only by one structural partition. They are chaste to the extreme and divided with a warren of temporary walls. Dykers wanted visitors to have “a moment of reality,” and walking me through the new galleries, he pointed out the lengths to which his firm has gone to “avoid distraction.” There are no visible electrical outlets on the walls (they’re in boxes in the floor); indirect lighting is drawn discreetly out of coved ceilings. But the space, devoid of supposed visual irritants, resembles something more virtual than material. Contributing to this is the decision by the museum to forgo cord barriers around paintings and sculptures and instead install low platforms that, painted the same color as the walls, dissolve the corner and disrupt the eye’s sense of ground. Instead of slowing us down, the galleries cultivate a frictionless experience. This isn’t contemplative space as much as hyperproductive space. Can one really afford to be distracted—by shadows or by art—in a museum this large? Indeed, an anomalous gallery on the third floor, separated from a narrow outdoor sculpture terrace by glass along the entire length of one wall, proves there are pleasures to be had in letting more reality in. Not only does this innovation allow art to be disposed continuously across a single interior and exterior space, as works by Alexander Calder are currently displayed, but the terrace, located in a slender gap between the new addition and an existing parking garage, achieves an effect both intensely urban and outdoors, without recourse to natural metaphors.
The Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace at SF MOMA. Alexander Calder, Maquette for Trois Disques (Three Disks), 1967. Photo: Henrik Kam.
In the 2011 Times article presenting the design, Dykers asked, “Is it a building filled with art with some people in it, or a building filled with people with some art in it? There needs to be enough social space to make people feel comfortable in what can be an austere environment, the white box.” The subtle oppositions—of comfort and austerity, social space and gallery space, people and art—reinforce the schisms presented to large contemporary art museums today. As ground floors of museums mutate into free entertainment, with galleries reserved as premium content—the former following the logic of hospitality management and the latter clinging to standardized models—it is more urgent than ever for architects to define the connections between these two realms. This interstitial zone might be the last place where architects can still gain a foothold, and where museums—operating within an ecology with art fairs and “museum-quality” gallery shows—can set themselves apart.
View from the BonaVista Lounge, 2015. Photo: Travis Diehl.
PERCHED PARTWAY DOWN Bunker Hill, as if sliding off toward the braid of freeways in the valley below, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel marks the ragged westernmost edge of downtown LA. Its quintet of one-hundred-plus-meter mirrored cylinders, which look something like an unassembled skyscraper, make it the city’s largest hotel by volume. It is also the most iconic; built in 1976 by John C. Portman Jr., the building still beams the same retro advanced capitalism that led Fredric Jameson to flag the structure, part upscale sleepery, part shopping mall, as an emblem of the postmodern mindset. Indeed. Shoot through the atrium and up the building’s side in the mildly Deco, glass-walled Red Circle elevator to the thirty-fifth floor where, spinning clockwise at the speed of progress, is the recently renovated BonaVista Lounge, one of the last rotating cocktail bars on Earth. It takes roughly three hours and as many stiff drinks to make one slow sweep across DTLA. And if the city you look down on hardly resembles the space-age glitz urged on by Portman, there’s still no better vista from which to contemplate the latest round of fitful growth in this teeming, uneven metropolis.
Arriving in early evening, you’d have to know what to look for to spot the buildings that may be the most dramatic symptom of all this change, the Rosslyn Million Dollar Fireproof Hotel and the Rosslyn Annex, because at this light hour their giant rooftop signs—the building names spelled out in big letters and framed by enormous hearts—aren’t yet lit. Bracketed by the goldish glass of the looming Wells Fargo and Chase headquarters, those wiry outlines are barely visible against the distant palimpsest of grayish HVAC on century-old, beige brick-and-iron offices. Built in 1913 and ’23, respectively, in the Beaux Arts style, the hotels date from the early-twentieth-century boom that gave Los Angeles its historic core. Drained, like much of downtown, by the centrifugal freeways, the Rosslyn made the long slide from hotels to “hostelries” to flophouses. Sometime during the last recession, developers snuck in another boom: A 2009 renovation turned what are still touted on painted signage as “fireproof rooms” into “micro-lofts,” and ushered in downtown’s present half-decade of Disneyfied Manhattanism.
“When Art Walk goes right past your door,” says the Rosslyn Lofts ad copy, “you know you’re close to the arts.” Never mind what Art Walk actually is. The official Arts District, dappled with murals like a cleaner, friendlier Bushwick, is another few blocks east on Fourth Street. Even then, you’re only on the fringe of the serious downtown galleries, which, with a couple notable exceptions, have staked out warehouses on the far side of the LA River. Meanwhile, on Main at the Rosslyn, though the gentrification front has shifted one block east, you’re technically on Skid Row. To the Rosslyn’s credit, one hundred units of the Annex’s 264 have been set aside for struggling veterans. This is barely a start. By 6 PM, the head shops and toy stores pull down their steel shutters, and the largest homeless population in the country puts up their tents. These are the all-too-real residents of streets blighted by the Reagan era; long out of sight and mind, they are now seen as squatters on greedily eyed acres. Trekking from Grand Avenue to the Arts District, what’s an urban pioneer to do? Take the long way, probably. Or take an Uber.
Revolving now toward the southeast: A neon landmark spells “JESUS SAVES” in story-high red letters, a relic of the decade when the United Artists Building and Theater was a working cathedral. In 2014, the building became a flagship of what LA’s boosters call a renaissance, when it was restored by the world’s preeminent chain of art hotels: the Ace. If Rosslyn is someone’s idea of how artists live, the Ace is an aspirational symbol of how itinerant “creatives” see the world. But if this still-seedy stretch of South Broadway has gained (with the Ace’s help) an Acne Jeans and an Aesop, complete with fedora-sporting clientele, the unforgiving spikes of the sidewalk decor and the many muttering beggars show how jarring this renaissance truly is—as if Los Angeles skipped the interim phase, and priced out struggling artists who were never there.
Meanwhile, the BonaVista Lounge adjusts its aching panorama. Due south is the thin neon streak of the rooftop bar at the Standard—long the district’s preeminent boutique hotel. And behind, sitting on the Downtown Sheraton like an unearthly brake drum, is the shell of LA’s one other rotating restaurant, long since stopped. On the right of the frame, slightly west, the obsidian facade of the Merchants Bank HQ reflects a slithering interchange. And wedged between the PWC and Paul Hastings towers, their dark shapes now punctured by office lights, is the newest addition to our skyline: the Wilshire Grand Hotel. Rising from street level in a gradient, from finished to un-: a foundation on the largest continuous concrete pour in history; then a few glassed and illuminated floors; then shadowed scaffolding; then a few stories of exposed elevator core, capped by the uncommon silhouette of a construction crane. The Grand replaces another famous 1952 hotel of the same name, at the same site. When completed, in 2017, it will be the tallest—though not the largest—American building west of the Mississippi—and the first with a spire. Make no mistake: This, more than any warehouse renovated by architects and hung with art by New Yorkers, is the business end of LA’s boom.
From here the view breaks apart into a low scene of freeways, hills, and houses. But soon, like a block of light, the Water and Power Building enters the frame; at the far end of the Grand Avenue corridor appears the Music Center, followed quickly by the dully wavering sails of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in 2003. Around the corner of the Bank of America building, one can just make out the parking deck of the brand-new Broad Museum, and beyond that, out of sight, one knows, is MoCA. Nearly every institution on the clear-cut acropolis of Bunker Hill—not just the box that bears his name—owes its existence to decades of strong-arm philanthropy by one Eli Broad, a Detroit native and LA transplant who, it bears repeating, made his first millions in real estate. Meanwhile, sunk into the back corner of Frank Gehry’s magnum opus, decked with a ribbon of red neon, is the entrance to Redcat —a theater, bar, and gallery run as the urban venue of CalArts. A crowd, tiny, gathers on the sidewalk, smoking, leaving, going in; they’re there for the opening of a show called “Hotel Theory.”
For a while the B of A blots out the sky. Then there’s the Rosslyn again. With any luck, the hearts are now aglow. It’s rare, though, that they leave the lights on. LA’s boosters have always put on a good show. But that kind of power doesn’t come cheap.
Travis Diehl is a writer based in Los Angeles.
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S 1921 Hollyhock House, a temple-like home on top of Los Angeles’s Olive Hill, marks not only a sharp divergence from the architect’s previous Prairie School period but the starting point of all that came after it. Wright’s first foray onto the sun-soaked LA landscape and the radical leanings of the client, Aline Barnsdall—oil heiress, anarchist sympathizer, single mother by choice—synthesized into an experimental architectural program. Wherever possible glass doors, rooftop terraces, and outdoor counterparts to indoor spaces join the building to the open air of the site itself, introducing Japanese concepts of uniting interior and exterior, which were to become a future hallmark of airy California modernism. Early inklings of Mayan Revival show in references to Pre-Columbian architecture, including the ornamented clay tile façade; canted walls and flat mansard roofs; and forebodingly tomb-like entrance. Hollyhock house curator Jeffrey Herr describes the multilevel floorplan as a series of “deviations from normal domestic needs” that implicitly made way for the California Ranch-Style house.
In its beguiling idiosyncrasy, the Hollyhock House was meant to indulge Barnsdall’s flair for the dramatic. She had envisioned it as her on-site residence within a thirty-six-acre theater complex devoted to the avant-garde, which she pictured as having dormitories for traveling actors, studios, a theater, and a cinema. None of that was ever realized. She fired Wright mid-construction in 1921, due to disputes over cost and his infamous ego. Eventually, she abandoned the project herself, gifting her home (ultimately completed by a young Rudolf Schindler) and its surrounding eleven acres to the city in 1927. In the decades to follow, the house changed hands between local art societies, was left vacant for several years in the 1940s, went through not one, but two haphazard renovations, and was then converted to a house-museum in the 1970s, a shell of its former self. In 2012, realizing the folly of its ways, the city shut Hollyhock house down with the intentions of starting anew.
Before the house reopened as a public museum in February, it underwent the third major intervention of its ninety-four-year history, a multiyear renovation at a cost of over four million dollars, intended to revive Wright’s original architecture. There were leaks to fix, drains to unclog, and water damage to repair. (“Water has always been the enemy of this house,” Herr says; Hollyhock, like many of Wright’s innovative structures, suffered from the practical limitation of a leaky roof.) But ironically much of the restoration process was undoing the well-intentioned renovation work of Wright’s son Lloyd Wright, executed before the advent of any proper architectural preservationist standards. In 1946, the younger Wright “fixed” the leaks in the roof over the porch by simply removing it. During another restoration in 1974, he reinstated the roof, but followed the unfortunate stylistic standards of the decade: He installed recessed square lights in the ceiling, replaced the accordion doors with sliding ones, and stripped the moldings from the walls. The color palate was even worse. “Everything was beige,” Herr laments.
Painstaking is the mot juste to describe the efforts to revive Wright’s original and meticulously choreographed details, the attention to minutiae necessary to achieve, in Herr’s words, “authenticity to the highest degree.” He and his team studied a collection of Barnsdall’s own photographs as points of reference to undo Lloyd Wright’s alterations. They removed his additions to the porch, recreating the look of the original floor, plaster walls, doors, and installing authentic 1920s hardware. As work progressed, new clues would emerge. Ancient construction detritus that workmen from the ’40s had tossed into a planter revealed the original colors of the walls, which were summarily unbeiged. They were repainted the original warm, forest green overlaid with a sheer layer of shimmery mica, resulting in an heiress-grade lushness that plays with the light as it travels through the spaces. In the dining room, the discovery that the clerestory art-glass windows were actually longer than their frames revealed that Lloyd Wright had raised the ceiling by a few inches; the team then lowered it to its original height.
At the heart of the Hollyhock House, the living room has returned to its past sumptuousness, furnished with reproductions based on Barnsdall’s ’20s photographs. Those in turn relay Wright’s preoccupation with Japanese culture; at that moment his dealing of Japanese art was more profitable than his architecture, and he had spent much of this period overseeing his only other concurrent project, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. (His frequent absence, in addition to his inflated ego, built up to his dismissal.) The Japanese influence is apparent in the décor’s seventeenth-century paper screens and pagoda-like lamps, and a dissolution of barriers to nature. Generous amounts of light permeate the space, thanks to the procession of French doors that run through the central axis, allowing one to actually stand at the fountain in the backyard and look through the house onto the Hollywood Hills.
The mood in the room is palpably Wrightian in its reverence to nature and recurring geometric motifs. The latter, too, were borrowed from a Japanese tradition, which the architect admired for its elimination of the extraneous. Wright took Barnsdall’s favorite flower, the namesake Hollyhock, and reduced its stems and bulbs to geometric abstraction. The motif repeats in many forms, from the reliefs of the facade to the patterns on the plush reproduction of the rug to the spines running up the seatbacks of the dining room chairs. The original Wright sofas were reproduced and resituated according to early photos, not facing each other as to facilitate conversation, but angled to face the same direction as in a theater. Rather than a stage, guests would focus their gaze on Wright’s artwork: a bas-relief of cast-concrete geometric shapes mortared together in a modernist landscape, where the four elements would converge. Above, Wright installed a skylight, below was the fireplace, and before it, a now-empty pool of water.
There are, of course, limitations in resurrecting the past. To protect the house from the havoc wreaked by humidity, the pool will always be empty. And amid the house’s return to its former self, there were rooms that had to go without. Lacking the necessary visual references to the original, the team restored the kitchen from its ’70s Lloyd Wright incarnation back to that of his intervention in the ’40s, which the earliest available photographs depict. (The process mainly involved replacing the formica counters with mahogany.) Elsewhere on the ground floor, two similarly forgotten bedrooms now provide gallery space for wooden maquettes of Barnsdall’s dream complex. The second floor, largely Schindler’s work, is closed off to the public for inaccessibility to the disabled.
The rooms that have been restored, however, are accurate to the minutest detail. In tandem with the grandiose gestures of the building as a whole, the sum of these small parts embody the profound exchange between Wright’s architecture and the urban landscape of California, an encounter that transformed the future trajectory of both. While there are material, physical markers of authenticity that have been lost to time and wear and will never be recovered, they are of less consequence than fidelity to Wright’s vision and ideas, the legacy of which will outlive and out-influence a leaking roof.
Janelle Zara is a design and architecture writer based in Los Angeles.