Unfinished Business: The LA Forum Grows Up

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In the previous blog post, architecture historian Maura Lucking considered the evolution of SCI-Arc on its 40th anniversary. This year another institution that’s been part of the dialogue about LA…

In the previous blog post, architecture historian Maura Lucking considered the evolution of SCI-Arc on its 40th anniversary. This year another institution that’s been part of the dialogue about LA architecture also hits a milestone: the LA Forum. Founded 25 years ago, the LA Forum started out as a loose group of architects, designers, critics, students who came together to discuss ideas about design and urbanism, and flourished into two and a half decades of shared salons, book publishing and site visits, now being revisited in a retrospective called Unfinished Business at WUHO in Hollywood.

Back at the founding of the Forum, 1987, Los Angeles was a place of immense difference and fascination — its sprawling, fragmented, low-rise form, and the experimental architecture it permitted, so different from that of other great cities. So while the original intent, recalled Aaron Betsky (see talking in photo below, right) at the show’s opening, was to talk about architecture generally, he explained that Forum members found they kept coming back to the topic of Los Angeles itself (coincidentally, this was the same year I was sent by London’s Architectural Review magazine to come explore the strange new buildings coming out of a strange place called LA).

Out of this fascination came books and shows that took LA as their theme — exploring such subjects as Dead Malls, Everyday Urbanism, The Infrastructural City and many other topics. The Forum’s members have included over the years many of LA’s leading designers and thinkers, including Everyday Urbanism authors John KaliskiMargaret Crawford and the late, great John Chase (see one of his many pithy thoughts, above), many of whom overlapped with SCI-Arc and other local design schools.

Now the Forum is revisiting past thinking in its current show, Unfinished Business: 25 Years of Discourse in Los Angeles, through a display — designed by Neil Donnelly — of selected  thoughts and images from its 25-year old archive of newsletters, books, pamphlets, photo-series, multi-media soundbites, video projections, and other memorabilia. In looking backward, says the Forum, “Unfinished Business seeks to find within the LA Forum’s history, the architectural questions, urban design conversation starters, and critical loose ends that are just as relevant now as they were over the past quarter century.”

Mimi Zeiger is a Forum board member who co-curated the show, with current board president Thurman Grant, vice president Siobhan Burke and the rest of the board. Fascinated by what Betsky had said about the Forum’s early preoccupation with LA itself, I asked her what drives the Forum now. Is LA less unique these days as it increasingly takes on the attributes of older cities — through denser communities, public transit, cycling, greater preservation and so forth? This is what she said:

When the Forum was founded 25 years ago, the idea of an almost futurist megalopolis as a site of architectural production and research was intoxicating. I don’t think any of the architects, designers, writers, educators, and planners who are on the Forum board right now are content to just look backwards.

Today, as cities in Asia and theMiddle East surpass any earlier sci-fi urban projections, the LA Forum can’t be nostalgic for its uniqueness. But it can delve into the factors that made LA the way it is and make propositions, such as the Dingbat 2.0 competition, which rethought housing in the city based on an older model. Or maybe we look into the kind of zoning regulations and historical factors that are driving density (such as transit corridors and small lots ordinances) for starting points for provoking new architectural ideas.”

Unfinished Business is on through August 26. All photos on this page by Monica Nouwens.