MOCA, Drama and “A New Sculpturalism”

Ball Nogues mesh

MOCA’s A New Sculpturalism show stalled and restarted amidst a dispute over its curatorial direction. But it may also offer an exciting taste of the architecture of tomorrow. On this show, LA architects discuss why they don’t want to be “sculpturalists,” even as they showcase work in an art museum; and they give us a taste of the latest manifestation of LA’s long tradition of architectural experimentation. With Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Neil Denari, Christopher Mount, Christopher Hawthorne, Georgina Huljich, Marcelo Spina, Elena Manferdini, Benjamin Ball, Tom Wiscombe and Michael Webb.

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Drama in the Making of A New Sculpturalism

Elena and model 2A couple years back, MOCA brought in a visiting curator, Christopher Mount, to create a show of LA architecture dating back 25 years. The Getty Foundation granted the museum almost 450,000 dollars and he developed a show that he called A New Sculpturalism.

He brought in over 30 architects, including three he considered to be fathers of this “sculptural” approach – Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and Eric Owen Moss. And in spring he published a catalogue, giving many participants a first-time look at what he had in mind.

At this point the framing of the show upset several of the architects, among them Frank Gehry, who did not like being categorized in what he called a “simplistic” way with many architects whose work he did not consider to be informed by the same concerns as his. “Sculpturalism,” he says, implies he designs from the outside-in, which is not true of his work, despite widespread perception that he is purely a “formalist” (see my article on Gehry’s “classicist” planning, here).

He pulled out of the exhibit in spring, and a flurry of press reports followed, declaring the show was in crisis. Preparations stalled for a while but after negotiations between the Getty, MOCA, Frank Gehry and some of the other architects, the exhibit got back on track, with revisions to the line-up of featured designers and to the installation design.

A Taste of the Future at A New Sculpturalism

Patterns 1Now a team is racing around the clock in readiness for a June 16th opening, and the exhibit has the potential to be an exciting, if not by any means comprehensive, look at LA output in the last couple decades.

The exhibit will feature show models, sketches and photographs of buildings constructed by more than 30 of LA’s leading and lesser-known architects.

Knowing, however, that architecture is best experienced at human scale, MOCA also commissioned walk-in pavilions designed by younger architects — Elena Manferdini (whose candy-colored tilted cube with decorative reflective interior is shown in model form, above right); Georgina Hujlich and Marcelo Spina of the firm P-a-t-t-e-r-n-s (shown above left, looking at their pavilion design Textile Room, a structure wrapped in carbon fiber tape); and Tom Wiscombe, designer of “Surface-to-Volume,” an exploration of fiberglass as a structural skin (he is shown peeking through his model, below right).

Tom Wiscombe looks through his pavilionIn addition they asked Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues of Ball-Nogues to create an entranceway to the show (a project made largely of a jute mesh coated in hardened paper pulp “goo,” shown in the image at top). Having stopped work on the project when the exhibit stalled, Ball-Nogues may not be able to realize their concept in readiness for the opening, because the “goo” needs longer time to dry.

Urs FIscherSo the project may change. (DnA’s dream scenario is that it will be as much a happening as a piece of architecture, being built on site, to dry in front of people’s eyes, like the clay sculptures in the marvelous show by Urs Fischer and 1500 friends, left, currently at the MOCA Geffen.)

DnA visited each of the designers in their studios to get a sense of what they are building, and got a taste of the digital design and materials research that is driving some contemporary architecture.

Listen to the show and let us know what you think about the debate. Absurdly arcane? Or an important discussion about what unites and differentiates art and architecture?

Postscript: A few weeks after this show aired, A New Sculpturalism, with the subtitle, Contemporary Architecture From Southern California, opened. Ben Ball’s pulp “goo” did not make it into the exhibit. Sam Lubell reviewed the show on this DnA.

Full disclosure: I was on an advisory committee that offered input on LA architecture at the start of the process of assembling the MOCA show. This committee, which included Paul Goldberger, Nicolai Ouroussoff, John Kaliski and Margaret Crawford, did not determine the curatorial direction nor the name of the show nor the line-up of architects to be exhibited.