Freeways used to symbolize freedom. Not anymore. Freeways were originally conceived as part of a vision for a better tomorrow. The Futurama exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair “opened people's eyes in an unprecedented way to the possibilities of what was believed to be the future at the time,” said Alexandra Szerlip, author of a biography of Futurama’s designer, Norman Bel Geddes. “Traffic was a huge problem,” Szerlip said. “I think more people died on the roads in America from vehicular accidents than had than American soldiers had died during World War One.” Los Angeles went crazy for freeways. They enabled people to drive until they reached land where they could buy an affordable house and a large yard and they were embraced for several decades. Some people even found them beautiful, like the British architecture critic Reyner Banham, who wrote about the “autopia” of Los Angeles. Banham’s book “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” came out in 1971. A decade later a young man named David Brodsly published a book called “LA Freeway: An Appreciative Essay.” He wrote that the "L.A. freeway is the cathedral of its time and place" and driving along it offers an almost spiritual experience. But by the time “LA Freeway” was published in 1981, many Angelenos were losing patience with the system. Pollution and congestion were rising and in 1985 construction began on the region’s first subway. In 1994 photographer Catherine Opie exhibited a series of freeway photos, taken in early morning weekend hours. “And for me it's literally an iconic landscape, as much as Egypt is in relationship to the pyramids,” Opie said. But other artists made work to register their protest. UCLA urban historian Eric Avila teaches Chicana and Chicano studies and wrote the book “The Folklore of the Freeway.” He took us to Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, which was divided by the 5 freeway. David Botello, “Wedding Photos - Hollenbeck Park,” 1990. Avila described the painting “Wedding Photos-Hollenbeck Park” by David Botello, made in 1990 (see image above). It depicts a photographer setting up a wedding party in front of a willow tree in Hollenbeck Park. “But the photographer’s using that willow tree to block the image of the freeway. Because a wedding party does not want a freeway in its official wedding portrait. But the painter is making the freeway apparent, and its unsightliness in Hollenbeck Park, even though the photographer is not,” Avila said. As early as 1957, residents of Boyle Heights spoke out against the construction of the freeways, which now cover 10 percent of the neighborhood. “It was targeted for its racial and ethnic diversity. It was described by the federal government as hopelessly heterogeneous, and in this report by the Homeowners Loan Corporation, it said this would be an ideal location for a slum clearance project, and that slum clearance project was highway construction,” Avila said. Eric Avila has spent many years studying how communities deprived of political and economic resources and opportunities turn to culture -- visual art, performance, music -- to express resistance. And he says that’s why freeways started cropping up in Chicano art. “The inclusion of the freeway in Chicano art is a reflection of daily life. But it's also an effort to domesticate or to make oneself at home in this inhuman landscape, this toxic landscape of freeways, to imbue the freeways with color, the kind of color that that reflects traditional patterns of Mexican culture, which is a sharp contrast to the colorlessness of the concrete that the freeways are built of,” he said.
SOM’s glass cube courthouse wins a national award The American Institute of Architects caused a stir by giving no building its Twenty-five Year Award in 2018. But it did bestow an Honor Award for architecture on nine buildings, including the new Federal Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, on the south of 1st at Broadway. This building -- an elegant 10-story cube clad in pleated glass that appears to hover over a public plaza -- gained fame as the backdrop in a widely published picture from last year’s Women’s March. It was designed for the General Services Administration by the Los Angeles office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, or SOM, whose landmark buildings include the Willis Tower in Chicago, the Freedom Tower in New York and Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Jury chair Lee Becker tells DnA “the building fits its context extremely well, has a really sophisticated facade,” and jurors were especially impressed by “the quality of light in the building... oftentimes the courtrooms wind up in the middle of the building and don't have good light. And SOM did an amazing job at having light filtered down through the building.” DnA talks with SOM architects Michael Mann and José Palacios about how the courthouse represented a Rubik’s Cube of a design challenge (they put four courthouses on every floor, around an atrium, and arrived at a perfect cube) as well as their excitement at seeing “how this building became a part of the city” when crowds packed the plaza for the 2017 Women’s March. We also hear from Catherine Opie, creator of the public art in the atrium, about her cascade of photographs of Yosemite Falls that she hopes convey “the scales of justice,” so that all of a sudden in the middle of the piece you go from the hope and light of the atrium to the dark murky forest of Yosemite “in the same way that if you have to go before a federal judge your life might be in that same place.” The interior of the new federal courthouse in downtown LA. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
Catherine Opie's "The Modernist" sets fire to iconic LA homes You may have seen LA photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of the LA freeways empty of cars, or of Elizabeth Taylor’s belongings, or of her own naked body, carved and tattooed. Now she has made a 22-minute film called “ The Modernist .” It tells the story in 800 black and white still photographs of a transgender artist who loves mid-century-modern LA houses so much, he’s driven to destroy them. It may feel like a departure from Opie’s past work from her 30-year career, but in fact it connects some of her favorite themes. “It's about architecture, it's about portraiture, it's about people, it's about how this city functions in this specific way, from shooting Beverly Hills and Bel Air houses to freeways to mini-malls. I'm always interested in the mapping out of place,” Opie said. The film is showing at the Hollywood art gallery Regen Projects, in a screening room designed by LA architect Michael Maltzan. The film pays homage to Chris Marker’s experimental science fiction featurette “La Jetée,” as well as being a valentine of sorts to The Los Angeles Times, the late architectural photographer Julius Shulman, along with a utopian and dystopian LA. It manages to be both shocking and funny. It was also made in 2016 during a presidential election in which “Make America Great Again” was a campaign slogan and nostalgia and dystopia were major themes. “And so my quandary is, if modernism was the utopian dream, does it now have a relationship more to dystopia?,” Opie asked. “Like, how do we really begin to unpack this relationship of nostalgia that has come up as this 1950s racist, singular idea that is antiquated in where America has actually gone in my opinion?” The exhibition at Regen Projects opens just after Southern California has experienced massively destructive wildfires and mudslides. This isn’t the first time an Opie project has had such interesting timing. She made a whole body of work on Wall Street just before the 9/11 attacks. “I ended up showing the work in December after 9/11 and of course it became a memorial to Wall Street,” she said. She also photographed Elizabeth Taylor's home, and Taylor passed away in the middle of the project. “That's one of the things that I love about photography, is photography is able to create histories. But it also reflects on already known histories. We know that things cycle through life, people cycle through life, you're alive and then you pass. It's like the weather or tide or an eclipse. We're constantly challenged with just what life is and the matter of life. What has happened is devastating but it always happens... California has always burned,” Opie said. A still from Catherine Opie’s “The Modernist,” screening at Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
LA shapes artistic vision of photographer Catherine Opie Catherine Opie has photographed freeway overpasses, Beverly Hills homes, surfers, mini malls, and the lesbian subculture. Her work seems to always be one step ahead of the public discourse on gender, identity and body politics. Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
How LA shapes photographer Catherine Opie's artistic vision Last year, Catherine Opie’s photographs were shown at LACMA, MOCA, and the Hammer Museum. Her friends call her the “mayor of Los Angeles.” She has photographed freeway overpasses, Beverly Hills homes, surfers, mini malls, and the lesbian subculture. Her work seems to always be one step ahead of the public discourse on gender, identity and body politics.
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