Road Trip to Pacific Standard Time LA/LA in the desert

Pacific Standard Time LA/LA is still going on and now, as the weather is cooling, it’s a good moment to visit the shows in the desert. Architect Marisa Kurtzman heads to Palm Springs and Riverside to check out exhibitions about Albert Frey and Lina Bo Bardi, kinetic art and the birth of the Spanish Colonial style.

Frey House II, Designed by Albert Frey, Palm Springs (completed 1964)

As an architect interested Latin American art and design, I’ve been thrilled by PST’s LA/LA initiative- it’s exciting and rare to see so many good exhibitions about a subject I love right in my backyard. A few weekends ago, I headed to the desert to take in a few of them.

My first stop was the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center to see Albert Frey and Lina Bo Bardi: A Search for Living Architecture (with exhibition design by Barbara Bestor.) Albert Frey was a Swiss-born architect who immigrated to the US in the 1930s. He settled in Palm Springs, where his work became somewhat synonymous with the area’s mid-century modernism.

Lina Bo Bardi left Italy for Brazil in 1946, eventually settling and practicing in and around São Paolo. Although they likely never met, Frey and Bo Bardi were aware of each other’s work, and they have a lot in common. Stylistically, they both emerged out of the International Style. They also both designed houses, and used them to explore architecture’s response and connection to nature. What distinguishes Frey and Bo Bardi’s work is the landscapes of Palm Springs and Brazil- these had very different, but equally profound impacts on their architecture.

Barbara Bestor designed the installation for Search for Living Architecture (photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Bestor Architecture).

Walking around A Search for Living Architecture, I could see that for Frey, the desert inspired a sense of both awe and tranquility. Although he worked with industrial materials like metal, steel, concrete, and glass, their colors and textures mimic desert rocks and plants. And Frey’s work is small in scale, and delicate- his designs act more as frames for surrounding desert vistas than as standalone architectural objects. In contrast, Bo Bardi’s landscape was lush and immersive. Perhaps in response, her designs seem to have become more organic. As the steel and glass of Bo Bardi’s earlier work gave way to rock-embedded walls and thatched roofs, I felt like nature was closing in, and would eventually take over.

A 10-minute walk away, PSAM’s main building is currently home to another LA/LA exhibition—Kinesthesia. The show is about Latin American kinetic art, mostly from the 1950s and 60s. As the name suggests, kinetic art incorporates movement. I learned there are two kinds. One will move on its own- say, because it’s mechanized. The other involves the spectator moving in relation to the art, which creates the perceptual illusion of movement.

Marisa Kurtzman checks out an installation by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, in which light and color “have some amazing effects” on your sense of spatial perception (photo: Gideon Brower.)

It’s hard not to enjoy Kinesthesia– the show presents a range of whimsical and creative examples of how artists (and architects) can incorporate elements like light, color, and scale into their design palette. Some of my favorite pieces were by an Argentine artist named Julio Le Parc- simple, yet clever mechanisms involving light and reflection that create some amazing effects. I also liked “Hydrospatial Cities,” by Gyula Kosice. It’s an installation of plexiglass assemblages that are either suspended from the ceiling or mounted to the deep blue walls. By including scale figures playing on them, Kosice makes these sculptures feel like miniature planets, and you, like a giant walking through a tiny universe.

One of Kinesthesia’s most striking artworks is “Chromosaturation,” by Carlos Cruz-Diez. The piece consists of several all-white rooms, each illuminated by a neon array of one color- pink, green, blue.   Feeling my sense of visual perception shifting as I moved through the spaces, I was reminded of Southern California’s Light and Space artists. While it’s hard not to see similarities, it’s interesting to note that most of the art in Kinesthesia was created before people like James Turrell and Robert Irwin were experimenting with light and color’s impact on spatial environments. Moreover, it’s likely that the two groups of artists did not know of each other. In an intriguing accident of art history, they were exploring similar ideas in totally different contexts.

The next day I headed home by way of the Riverside Art Museum, where I saw Myth & Mirage: Inland Southern California, Birthplace of the Spanish Colonial Revival. Nominally, the exhibition is a survey of the Inland Empire’s Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, which peaked between the late 1800s and the mid-20th century. We Southern Californians all have some idea of what Spanish Colonial Revival architecture looks like—stucco walls, terracotta roof tiles, arches and towers, elaborate wrought ironwork, etc.   Downtown Riverside happens to be full of terrific historic examples. The most famous one is probably the Mission Inn, a palace-like hotel that’s fantastically ornate.

Myth & Mirage surprised me because I discovered that in reality, the Spanish Colonial Revival style was an invention. Inspired by the region’s missions, it combined Spanish, Moorish, Mediterranean, and Churrigueresque design elements to create an image of Southern California as a paradise with a history and culture rooted in romanticized notions of Spain’s colonial empire.

This image was used to attract rich merchants, and it worked- during the early 20th century, the Inland Empire was one of the wealthiest areas in California. But these Anglo settlers also brought their own biases against the indigenous and Latino populations already living there. The show shines a light on the challenges faced by those people- especially the manual laborers who worked so hard to build the region’s landmarks, but got no credit. Their contribution and culture were both literally whitewashed.

Myth & Mirage is on display at Riverside Art Museum which was itself a Spanish Colonial style building designed by Julia Morgan.

The weirdest part of the whole story? As Myth & Mirage demonstrates, the Spanish Colonial Revival style became so ubiquitous in Southern California that it created a new local architectural vernacular. Artist Douglas McCulloh captures this in his “street” style photography of historic Spanish Colonial Revival buildings in their more casual, modern-day urban contexts. He also photographs contemporary buildings that borrow from the style- McMansions, a Home Depot, and a Taco Bell are just a few.

Seeing Myth & Mirage, you realize that Spanish Colonial Revival architecture is everywhere here- it’s an architectural reality that has become part of our region’s identity, and yet it’s based on fantasy. For me as an architect, it also served as a reminder that beyond form, buildings can have complex layers of political and cultural meaning that we need to acknowledge.

In a very short time, my little LA/LA road trip to the desert showed me art that was both provocative and playful, and made me look at my surroundings with fresh eyes.   Not a bad way to spend a weekend.

Coming up this Sunday at 3pm: Barbara Bestor and curators discuss Albert Frey & Lina Bo Bardi: A Search for Living Architecture

Barbara Bestor, exhibit designer for Albert Frey & Lina Bo Bardi: A Search for Living Architecture, will join co-curators Daniell Cornell and Zeuler Lima for a discussion exploring the exhibit, its design, and the work of Albert Frey and Lina Bo Bardi.

Also, Riverside Art Museum will host several events relating to Myth and Mirage, including a Spanish Colonial Revival Photo Safari with featured exhibition artist Douglas McCulloh, a lecture and tour of notable downtown Riverside SCR buildings and a seminar for collectors of Spanish Colonial Revival Decorative Arts. Click here for information.

This piece was supported by KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.