I once saw a video of David Hockney discussing a Chinese landscape scroll. A provocative little art-geek film (or so it seemed at the time) entitled, ”A Day on the Grand Canal With the Emperor of China (or Surface Is Illusion but So Is Depth)”.
On the surface, the film’s subject is a 17th-century Chinese scroll painting. The depths, however, are personal and make the film more about the artist himself, a target for his projection. So, if surface is illusion but so is depth, then what we have is an interesting problem.
In this sense, he wasn’t trying to lay down any absolute truth or theory about Chinese landscape painting, or even himself. But merely his understanding at that moment in time—a moving target exploring another moving target. What would Hockney say about the scroll now?
When I first noticed Moby blogging about architecture, this film, long-buried in my art history memory, was one of the first reference points that came to mind. Like Hockney with the scroll, Moby is seemingly unrolling Los Angeles and winding his way through it’s weird little buildings and spatial complexities. The hills–and one does not always associate hills with Los Angeles–are uncannily similar to the hills in the Chinese scroll.
Here is another Los Angeles. Through unpretentious photographs, fragments, and prose, Moby (modestly calling himself a “dilettante”) is quietly weaving his own private ecology into Reyner Banham’s four. Moreover, Moby’s ecology at once validates and defies previous categorizations and descriptions. Dilettantes, liberated from constraints, expectations, and institutions, enable other “truths” to emerge.
Susan Sontag once wrote, “I write—and talk—in order to find out what I think.” David and Moby, via different media, are trying to find out what they think.
G: Most of what you see in LA are anonymous-looking buildings with no clear sense of design, more and more functioning as advertising. When I looked at your blog it made me think about some of the stuff Ed Ruscha’s done, or David Hockney, or Julius Shulman. The way they captured different qualities of the city, even its anonymous spaces. You photograph LA in a way that seems very LA.
M: I’m also sort of inspired by Rem Koolhaas. Like Delirious New York. Because Delirious New York, that sort of…not to sound too much like a grad student…but to my mind, it sort of legitimized an un-cohesive cohesion. It sort of said, like, it’s OK to appreciate this urban mess. It’s almost like a new criteria. You’re not looking at Florence. You’re not looking at parts of London that are all sixteenth-century buildings. You’re just looking at this strange urban mess.
M: And if you are an architect and you want to make your stamp on a city like New York, you’re talking about huge projects like Frank Gehry’s new residential tower he’s putting up in Wall Street, which is like a billion dollar project.
G: And you have to slot something into the grid….
M: Yeah, you have this tiny little footprint and it’s literally and figuratively in the shadow of all these other buildings. And so it’s like most of the architecture in New York is architecture that no one will ever see because it’s all interior. So unless you get invited to someone’s house you’re never going to see the interesting architecture. Whereas, here, a friend of mine just bought a lot in Eagle Rock for $12,000 and hired an architect friend of her’s and put up a house for $200,000. The most expensive thing was the pilings. Where else in the world can a whacky artist build a house in a city? Not New York, Not San Francisco. Not Berlin or Paris. The egalitarianism of architecture here is kind of unprecedented. It certainly doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world that I know of.
And what I think it also does is foster and enable two sorts of contradictory architectural approaches. One: because it doesn’t cost that much to build here, people build crap. Or, two: people experiment. They just throw up a huge beige stucco building because they’re like, you know what, we’re not going to be able to sell it for that much, don’t spend that much on it, don’t make it inspired, and it goes up and they rent it, they sell it, and no one cares about it. Or, it doesn’t cost much to build here so let’s build something weird.
And also, like, if you build in LA, and I apologize for rambling, but if you build like a bizarre, idiosyncratic building in London or New York and it doesn’t work out, your investors are out a billion dollars. You can’t say, well, let’s just tear it down and start again. Whereas, here, someone builds a whacky building and if it doesn’t work out, they live in it. You know? Or, worst case scenario, they tear it down, spend a few more hundred thousand dollars and build something else. There’s just a lack of pressure compared to like those monstrously huge projects in other cities.
G: So, we know you’re not from here. Where are you from?
M: I was born on 148th Street in New York. I mean, I grew up obsessed with New York. In the seventies, eighties, and nineties I loved it so much because it was so cheap and so grimy and anybody could do anything. Artists had cheap space. Writers, musicians. People opened little boutiques, galleries, little restaurants. And in the last fifteen years it’s become so expensive that a lot of the innovation that was enabled by cheap rent has just disappeared.
G: It went to Brooklyn, right?
M: But now Brooklyn is too expensive, New Jersey is too expensive. There are probably places in the Bronx that are not that expensive (laughs). But the rest of New York City? It’s prohibitive.
My ex-girlfriend just moved to a new apartment in East New York near Bed-Stuy and she pays $1600 a month for a one-bedroom. It’s 45 minutes on a really dangerous train from Manhattan and there are no grocery stores. She lives right next to a methadone clinic and it’s like really dangerous.
There’s an economic component and then I look at LA architecture and there’s the topographic component. I was going for a walk and I saw a lot for sale and it was at literally like a 75 degree incline and I thought, who in their right fucking mind thinks that this is a building lot. But it is.
G: A cliff with a little For Sale sign on it. You see some of this on the beach, too, where there are these little places just waiting to erode into the sea, just waiting for someone to put down pilings.
M: If it weren’t for concrete pilings parts of LA just wouldn’t exist.
And then there is the climate aspect. I remember years ago I would look at architecture magazines and books…. I had a home in upstate New York and it was like a bunker. We had these walls of glass, but it was like triple-paned, gas-filled glass because it was so cold. You always had to worry about this super cold air bursting your pipes and your heating bills were through the roof. And I would look at architecture in Australia and it was so relaxed, like, oh, this is the wall that opens up to the outside.
G: You seem to have really studied architecture.
M: In a dilettantish way.
G: Well, even though I do it and I’ve studied it I like to consider myself a dilettante in the sense that I’m always learning new things. We all grab as much as we can and look at as much as we can. Have you ever read the book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind?
M: The dilettante way! I have friends who just went through the licensing process in New York and now they are so burnt out they can’t even do architecture. So I guess I still have a love for it because it’s not my job.
And for the last hundred years LA has been the domain of crackpot artist and nerds and aerospace.
I think people forget about the aerospace side. Because aerospace is all about invention and dreaming. It’s not like the industry here is mufflers and whatever. Aerospace is about fantastic nerds figuring out how to go to other planets. And the entertainment business is all about invention. So you take cheap real estate in the desert or on the side of a hill and you give weirdoes a bunch of money to build something and you end up…. And for every great house in LA there’s the most soul-destroying, banal, awful house as well. But when I look at the crummy houses, the fall-down houses, to me what they stand for is this egalitarianism nature of LA. Because in New York, there is no entry. The pressure and the money don’t allow things to stay cheap. Whereas here I drive by a crummy apartment building and it’s depressing because it’s beige, it’s falling apart, and you think, in any other big city it would have been torn down ages ago and turned into something. So the fact that these crummy apartment buildings exist means that the next generation of artists and filmmakers and musicians have places to live.
G: Thanks for giving me a new way of looking at those. It’s interesting you say that because there might actually be more architectural history in LA than in a city like New York, in terms of quantity. Because, as you say, there is so much pressure on property to turn it into something new.
M: And what’s really interesting is that you can go through Greenwich Village and there are these walking tours where they’ll point to buildings and they’ll say, “Edith Wharton lived here” and “Jack Kerouac lived here” and you’ll notice that in the last couple decades New York has gotten so expensive that it isn’t producing artists anymore. It’s not producing writers or musicians because most of them have to leave. Maybe there are better walking tours of Brooklyn. But Manhattan? I still love it, but it’s not happening.