Paris and L.A. Under a Glass Floor

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Paris and L.A. under a Glass Floor

March 1, Late morning: I leave Los Angeles for Paris.

March 2, 7:30am: Land at Charles de Gaulle airport. It's sunny, but boy, it's cold. A chatty Vietnamese taxi driver practices his English on me. We're heading toward Ile Saint-Louis, a tiny island in the heart of Paris. The small apartment I've rented there is a five-minute walk to Notre Dame. The important thing now is to fool the body into forgetting that it's already midnight in L.A. So, down three flights of the ancient staircase and out to the narrow streets below. And there it is---just a few steps away---the exhilarating, mighty and very muddy river Seine. I want to linger but it's windy and very cold. The only way to survive is to keep moving. The Musee d'Orsay on Thursdays is open late, 'till 10pm, and I intend to spend the whole day there. The combustive energy of hundreds of Impressionist paintings and the operatic grandeur of Gare d'Orsay will sure keep me awake. Huge banners at the entrance announce the opening -- it can't be true -- of the Cezanne-Pissarro exhibition -- it just closed in L.A.! What sad irony---the same paintings that I enjoyed seeing in the attractive presentation at LACMA, here in Paris appear unhappy---the result of a crowded and indifferent installation. I climb up and down the staircases of the cavernous museum, trying not to miss any nooks and crannies---one never knows what small treasures might be hidden there. Voila! I step into a room with a glass floor, and under my feet is a 19th century three-dimensional model of the City of Paris. Feels as if I'm flying over the rooftops. It's almost 10pm. My first day in Paris comes to a close: I beat the jet lag but my eyes keep closing.

The next few days are blurred into a never-ending stream of the events arranged for us, the members of the large L.A. Cultural Delegation, who traveled to Paris for the opening of the art exhibition at the Pompidou Center, celebrating the City of Angels. The exhibition is a thorough exploration of our city's cultural history between 1955 and 1985, but this huge survey comes with a price: It exhausts you. Thank God for the brilliant curatorial idea to balance this academic exercise with a small but sparkling one-gallery exhibition, devoted to the L.A.-based architectural firm Morphosis. In 2005, its founder Thom Mayne, was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. He was asked to design his own installation to display models, drawings, and photographs of the firm's projects completed over the last ten years. Instead of playing it safe he turned things upside down, almost literally. In a dark room, you step onto a glass floor that steeply ascends toward the back wall. The aluminum construction that supports this ramp conveys a mixture of elegance and aggression, like a runaway train. Under the glass panels are dozens of models and drawings and, surprisingly, a number of large flat TV screens with ongoing footage of the interview that Thom Mayne gave recently on PBS to Charlie Rose. How many architects, with their famously big egos, would allow visitors to literally walk all over them? It's notoriously difficult to make an architectural exhibition that conveys the energy and excitement of the original structures and ideas behind them. Thom Mayne not only succeeded in informing, seducing and inspiring the visitors to his small exhibition, but he saved the day by reminding everyone about the crushing, unsettling beauty and the daunting energy of our city, that the other, much larger exhibition was unable to grasp.

Morphosis: Continuties of the Incomplete
Through July 17
Centre Pompidou
Paris, France