Michael Maltzan and Amy Murphy Design a Dreamscape for Expressionist Film at LACMA

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Michael Maltzan is a Los Angeles-based architect who is increasingly taking on the urban scale in architecture, most recently with his quarter-mile long One Santa Fe residential block in downtown’s arts district. Amy Murphy is an architect, professor at USC and film scholar, with an interest in “our post-apocalyptic imagination as evidenced in popular cinema.”

Amy and Michael are also partners in life, and recently joined forces on the design of the installation for LACMA’s exhibition Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s, featuring set designs, manuscripts, posters, film clips and other artifacts from films directed by Fritz Lang, Robert Weine and others, including Metropolis, M, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The commission is part of LACMA’s effort to engage talented local architects in its installation design (the museum’s ambitious expansion by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor got a big lift this week) and Murphy and Maltzan worked to create an abstract backdrop that would capture the anxiety and dreamscape-quality of expressionist film, without mimicry; their scheme’s main elements are a rolling wave structure, white on one side, black on the other, and overhead cones that transmit an eerie soundtrack. 

DnA spoke with the pair about their collaboration, the similarities and differences between German expressionist film and LA noir and the why Weimar-era films are so interesting to people concerned with the design of cities. 

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DnA: How come you chose to work together on this project? 

Amy Murphy: Well, we have occasionally worked together in the past. The short story here is that because I have a background in cinema as well as architecture I was contacted last summer sometime by LACMA to see if I’d be interested. They are reaching out to more architects to get involved in their exhibit design, and having worked with Michael before and knowing that this is something that we could work on together, I contacted Michael. Oh, that sounds so official.

DnA: Yes it does. You mean you asked him over the dinner table?

AM: Yes, exactly. Actually, over summer vacation. It just seemed like the perfect opportunity. I knew that the work had to have a very contemporary attitude towards it, and I just thought the fit both intellectually and formally would work out really well for the two of us.

DnA: And Michael, this project kind of coincided with you working on several large projects including the very large “One Santa Fe” that just opened. What was the attraction to you of doing this installation?

Michael Maltzan: Exhibitions happen in a very intense way, very quickly, while architecture, especially some of the larger projects, takes a different level of patience that you have to build up as an architect, because they can take years and years. In exhibition design you’re working in a very focused, intense way with a set of ideas and then it gets built very quickly. So, there’s a type of gratification that’s almost immediate in these projects, but I think in an even deeper way, it’s that you see ideas made very quickly, and that’s hard to beat.

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DnA: Let’s start with the ideas that the show is about which is Expressionism, specifically German Expressionism in film. Amy, you are the film expert here, can you just summarize expressionism for anyone not familiar with that moment in cinema?

AM: It’s a pretty diverse period in German film between the two World Wars, in which Germany had isolated itself both politically, but also artistically at that period of time, so in that incubator of separation in Europe, the collective of amazing filmmakers created a diverse body of work — all of which can begin to be thematically tied together with great deal of anxiety about not only Germany itself but about technology and about urban living and a whole number of conditions that were stewing at that moment.

MM: The films, both in their stories, but also obviously very much in their aesthetics, are so compelling I think because they give you window into that particular time, but even when you watch them now, they still strike some real level of anxiety for us in a contemporary way. That’s an interesting thing to as a designer begin to try to imagine how you both represent that particular historic moment but also what it might mean to us in culture right now to try to make it more contemporary.

DnA: So tell us about the installation.

AM: There is a real ambiguity between what’s vertical, what’s horizontal, what’s a floor, what’s a ceiling, what’s a wall, what’s a doorway, what’s a window. There’s a real ambiguity there, and in a sense we try to bring that to allow for continuity as you’re moving through. The sound element came in kind of midway through the design process. Films like M are thought of as silent films, but they really have again a kind of dreamlike psychology with a sound like the whistling in M that sort of floats through the exhibit at times on and off and that really charges me at least every time I walk through it.

MM: Talk about psychological, it’s spooky. Your expectation is that it’s all silent but you start to hear this whistling or footsteps and you realize that while the visual part of the films and the drawings play on you psychologically, the sound just has an extraordinary ability to reinforce it. You’re not quite sure where it’s coming from, you’re not quite sure if it’s attached to the things that you’re looking at; it really does get inside you.

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DnA: The German romantic sensibility is intense at any time, let alone in that period between the wars. And I must say stepping off of the plaza of sunny LACMA was quite extreme! Did you find yourself being sucked into that dark world?

AM: Well, Los Angeles has not only a really interesting relationship to the film directors, many of whom then came here after the war or during the war, but also, you know, in our own version of noir, which can make sun shine itself seem pretty ominous, I think there’s a real connection even if it’s kind of binary opposite of one to the other. There’s a dialogue there that’s pretty interesting and I think it works somehow.

DnA: There was a different character somehow to L.A.’s noir, L.A. hasn’t been through the psychological trauma that Germany were experiencing at that point, following the First World War.

MM: But it does seem that at least one of the through lines in much of the discussion about Los Angeles is that while it might not have gone through exactly that trauma; there does seem to often be this undercurrent of potential anxiety or trauma or devastation, whether it’s because of social upheaval or it’s because of natural upheaval. I think there has been that undercurrent to what is normally seen as a very optimistic, positive, sunny disposition for a city.

AM: And it’s almost like a pathology of place — whether it’s L.A.’s films about L.A. or German Expressionist films about that period. They really engage the city, and they really engage the architecture and the potential of that to really interact with people’s lives.

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DnA: So you both referred to the connections to the city and obviously there’s the great movie Metropolis which has been so influential on architects. To what extent do your explorations of films representing a kind of urban anxiety key into what you’re trying to do with your work, Michael. 

MM: That’s the thing about these films. They dreamed about what the city might look like. They invented images and ideas and aesthetics for city that was maybe going to happen, maybe not, but they were really speculating about it, and I think that’s a positive thing for not only film but architecture to do as well and that’s something I tried to do in my work in the city. It’s something we talk a great deal about here in the office — anticipating what the city is going to be like in 10 or 20 years and we try to design buildings that meet the city at that point as opposed to building buildings that necessarily only meet the city at where we are today. Buildings take a long time and if you try to do that they are almost outmoded by the time they’re finally built. So I think that anticipation of the way a city is continuing to evolve is not necessarily an aesthetic lesson to take from this period in film, but it’s a way of thinking and working and operating that I think is very valuable.

DnA: Probably the final question should be, did you enjoy working together?

MM: We’re still talking to each other.

DnA: And are there any prospects for future Murphy-Maltzan projects?

AM: Absolutely.

MM: I hope so. As Amy said, we hadn’t worked together in such an intense way in a while and I think we found a way of working again in this project that was really terrific. It brought together ideas and designs in a way that would not have happened in as strong a way without the collaboration. It’s really a part of the two of us, both of our thinking. You can’t look at it and necessarily pick out one person or the other in the final design, it is a real collaboration.

AM: And with LACMA itself I can’t say enough good things about everyone there from the lighting design to the construction team to the curation team to Michael Govan.  I mean it really was, you know, I wish every experience was, architecture was embraced as well.

All installation images by © Museum Associates/LACMA 

One Santa Fe
One Santa Fe nearing completion, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture