For many weeks now we have been following Never Built, the exhibit about unrealized architectural visions for Los Angeles that almost became a “never built” itself. The show, curated by Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin for independent museum A + D, did not receive Getty funding (like the Pacific Standard Time Presents shows) and embarked on a campaign to raise funds via Kickstarter and private donations. So the effort to realize the exhibit — with installation designed by Clive Wilkinson — became a community project. KCRW also joined in the story as Matt Holzman went behind the images and got the human stories of why, for example, Richard Neutra’s housing for Elysian Park was never built or why Frank Lloyd Wright did not build more in Los Angeles. The result was that thousands of people got to know about the exhibit and many of them turned up for the opening this past Saturday. Guy Horton joined A+D’s biggest ever crowd and had this report.
When I arrived at the opening for “Never Built: Los Angeles”, the new show at the A+D Museum co-curated by Sam Lubell (pictured left) and Greg Goldin, I thought I had made a mistake. The A+D was supposed to be on Museum Row, not the Sunset Strip. What club was this and what band was playing (Painkiller was the band, featuring Bennett Stein and Reggie Bourdeau, shown below)? It was like a night at the Whisky A Go Go.
The line of black clothing wrapped around the corner and kept going, reaching all the way down to a stretch of houses where local residents nervously peeked out to see what was going on. Cars were pulling all sorts of questionable maneuvers on Wilshire and adjacent streets as distracted, anxious architects hustled for parking. People were walking in from blocks away as if drawn from some invisible force. At any moment I was expecting police helicopters to appear overhead. That would have made my night complete.
So what was this invisible force that could draw so many from the architecture community—estimates put the crowd at well over a thousand—out on a Saturday night?
The show chronicles, for the first time in the public’s eye, many of the unrealized architectural dreams that, had they been built, would have resulted in a different Los Angeles from the version we contend with today. This is the Los Angeles that never was and qualified with the asterisk: but might yet be. Of course this is more of a dare for the present and future city than a call to revisit the old. Imagine what LA could be like if some of the more challenging projects of the present and those yet to come got green-lighted and not remaindered like these ones on display.
This is the show’s provocation and it is a compelling one because I felt a sharp pain of embarrassment for my city’s lack of vision and seeming timidity in the non-residential realm. The opening text at the front of the show, where it cannot be avoided, lays it all out for the unsuspecting. How could we not want a monorail or Frank Gehry’s Rapid Transit District (now Metro) Headquarters? Shame on us.
Damn you, Sam. Damn you, Greg. And damn you, Clive Wilkinson for designing the sleek interior that forces one to confront that shame head-on and move deliriously from one might-have-been to the next.
But, I began to wonder, where does LA stack up compared to other US cities when it comes to unrealized adventurous architecture? Are we really at the top of some list, or could other cities have their own “Never Built” shows? “Never Built: (Your City Here)”. I suspect we are not alone. But when you look at the failed proposals and compare them to what was actually built, it’s easy to feel that somewhere along the line LA lost its way. Or did it?
Many projects held the potential to make the city a better place. The Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan of interlinking parks, Harlan Georgescu’s Sky Lots, Horace Dobbins’ elevated California Cycleway, to name a few. However, proposals like the seven-mile long artificial archipelago called Santa Monica Causeway (pictured left), Lloyd Wright’s dystopian Mayan fortress-like Civic Center (pictured above), and the indulgent Tower of Civilization (pictured below) may have ultimately done more harm than good.
What does it mean, then, that the “Never Built” projects were never built? And should they have been? This being architecture and politics being politics there are many reasons why such plans never came to be. The show raises interesting points of debate that are vital for the city and the city should pay attention as it moves forward with expanding public transit, the Cornfields, the revitalization of the LA River, buildings by OMA in Santa Monica, Peter Zumthor’s proposal for LACMA on Wilshire, and someday, maybe even a new courthouse.
And what is it about the un-built that could potentially make this show more popular than other shows that celebrate the built? Maybe it’s the allure and romance of grand failures. It touches a nostalgic nerve by highlighting the city that never was. In this sense “Never Built” is the flipside to MOCA’s “A New Sculpturalism”, currently showing at the Geffen Contemporary. Much of what is on view there has been built and the dreams have attained some resolution. With “Never Built” there are open questions. It’s like looking at the files of unsolved crimes.
The show also speaks to one of architecture’s painful truths: a great deal of it (whether good or bad) never gets built, or detours from the architect’s original vision. As I heard from many throughout the night—not to mention over the past several years of recession—architecture is, how shall I put it, “difficult”. “It’s a ******-up business,” said someone who shall remain nameless. But everybody in it already knows this, anyway. Maybe that’s why they were all here. Everybody working in this town could have their own never-built’s on display.
Pain. So much pain. Can I get a T-shirt, please?