Inception, the PMCA Biennial and an Architecture of Restraint

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I recently saw the movie, Inception, which came highly recommended as the architecture-porn film of the summer. And stunning looking and conceptually inventive it surely is. But still, I left the theater thinking if that the movie-makers had spent millions LESS on car chases and explosions — ie. if they had exercised some restraint – the story would have been a whole lot more compelling.

Since Inception is a box office smash, I realize I hold a minority view. But I thought again about this notion of restraint when I read that LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne had referred to my choice of buildings in the Pasadena Museum of California Art 2010 Design Biennial as “restrained.”

I am not sure if this was meant as criticism or praise, and I would argue that there are some fairly unrestrained designs on show (by Lorcan O’Herlihy, Daly Genik, Michael Maltzan, Craig Hartman of SOM, for starters). But this choice of word made me think about the underlying themes of the buildings on show, which I will talk about on a panel at PMCA this coming Sunday.
1140 Formosa, a multifamily complex by Lorcan O'Herlihy (LOHA)
1140 Formosa, a multifamily complex by Lorcan O'Herlihy (LOHA) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The media has for a long time been drawn to unrestrained, highly sensational buildings. Many of these designs are fabulous (and we may not see the likes of them for a while, due to the downturn). But there can also be virtue in restraint.

Several of the buildings on show in the PMCA exhibit are designed by architects now in their 40s and 50s; that is, they are a generation or two behind the “unrestrained” architects like Rem Koolhaas, Morphosis and Zaha Hadid who have designed the major buildings of the last decade and who came of age during the “post-modern” phase of architecture, when there was a strong reaction against the strictures of  dogmatic Modernism.  In finding their own voice, it seems the younger practitioners have had the option of upping the ante on architectural sensation or dialing it down. They have tended to the latter, still playing with formal expressiveness and drawing from art and sculpture (a freedom endowed to all who follow Frank Gehry), but with more restraint, perhaps because after the excesses of Postmodernism, they were comfortable once again with Modernist clarity. If one were to look for a pop culture analogy, I’d say they exhibit less of the glam rock-era flamboyance of their 60-something predecessors, and more Obama-era calm, elegance and practicality.

Hollenbeck Replacement Police Station, by AC Martin
Hollenbeck Replacement Police Station, by AC Martin (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In addition, the buildings on show were selected not for their pure form alone. They were chosen because in my view they fulfilled a requirement by the museum for recently completed buildings that have had a transformative impact beyond their formal design – socially, environmentally, economically.  Included are fine examples of low- and high-income multi-family housing (Daly Genik, Stephen Kanner, Lorcan O’Herlihy), of an Inner City arts school (Michael Maltzan), a public swimming pool (Mark Cavagnero) and a public beach house (Frederick  Fisher), an EcoCenter (Toby Long) in an environmental black hole in San Francisco, a police station that upends people’s assumptions about the image of law enforcement (AC Martin).

Typically such projects, most of them publicly funded, have tight budgets and therefore demand restraint. The skill of the architect lies in achieving high-level design within such limitations and a goal of the show is to draw attention to this. Unfortunately, these kinds of projects tend not to get enough coverage in the press.

The buildings on show also have another trait in common: they incorporate the other arts – landscaping, public art, interior design — in ways that enrich these buildings and endow them with a strong sense of place, an attribute that I believe is essential to architecture that will resonate with its users. I firmly believe that at best design and architecture both solve problems and enhance life. That belief underscores every broadcast of DnA and it underscores the selection of the buildings at the PMCA show.

And speaking of users, I should just mention a couple installations that complement the buildings in the show. Firstly, there is a model of California, called Messy and Vital, created by James Rojas. James is an urban planner who works with communities on helping them envision change in their neighborhoods by making accessible and colorful “maps” with found objects that serve as building blocks. The model, intended for people to play with, is a reminder that architecture does not exist in a vacuum; buildings are part of an urban fabric – a “messy vitality” as Robert Venturi once termed it — that they help shape and are shaped by.

Another element of the architecture show is Fat Fringe. This is an undulating canopy of white, cut-paper, digitally designed forms created by the firm Layer, in collaboration a large team. The Biennial’s mandate for the architecture section was to find recently completed buildings, but Fat Fringe is included to acknowledge the very interesting experimentation in ephemeral structures and installation undertaken by young architects in recent years – among them Ball-Nogues Studio, Atelier Manferdini and the team at the Silverlake design lab and showcase, Materials & Applications.

The show is also reviewed by Mayer Rus and Cat Doran in the LA Times, by Brooke Hodge in the NYT, and by Martina Dolejsova in the Architects Newspaper.

The panel takes place Sunday, August 1, at 3pm. All the show’s curators will be there (yours truly, Alissa Walker, Rose Apodaca, Stewart Reed, Louise Sandhaus). The event is free (with museum admission of $7; $5 for seniors and students). Hope to see you there.