The forthcoming Pacific Standard Time exhibition, A CONFEDERACY OF HERETICS: THE ARCHITECTURE GALLERY, VENICE, 1979, which runs from March 29 – July 7, 2013 at SCI-Arc, would like us to believe that there are “pivotal moments” in the architectural zeitgeist—that there are zeitgeists at all might even be worth questioning.
Pivotal moments are constructed after the fact. Zeitgeists are consumed by invested audiences and forced upon the non-cognoscenti as evidence. What we are talking about are discourses. Los Angeles, 1979 is one of architecture’s minor discourses, a pulse that warped the major discourse into something else, the anti-. By saying it is minor does not undermine its cultural significance.
One thing that makes the show interesting is its own stated resistance to showiness or canonization and the fact that it is being exhibited in an institution that consciously resists codification or historical positions.
This is sort of like writing a book and then claiming, despite its bookiness, the book is in fact not a book. It is an impossible position that another esteemed Los Angeles institution, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, would attempt. But there we are enthralled at the sophistication of the rouse we pay to willingly step into.
The fact of the exhibition cannot be denied. It asks viewers to acknowledge that something unique and canonical happened; a “pivotal moment” as curator Todd Gannon calls it.
To understand the problem we need to look at “pivotal moment” in its full context: “This exhibition aims neither to canonize the participating architects nor to consecrate their unorthodox activities. Rather, these rarely seen artifacts will provide a unique lens through which to re-examine some of Los Angeles’ most well-known architects at a pivotal moment in the development of late 20th century architecture.”
What it seems to say is this: “This exhibition aims neither to canonize the participating architects nor to consecrate their unorthodox activities. Rather, this exhibition aims to canonize the participating architects and to consecrate their unorthodox activities.”
Well, first that whole canonizing bit happened long ago. And, second, the supposed “unorthodox activities” were long-ago consecrated and turned into curricula. There is nothing wrong with this because this narrative continues to motivate progress and infuse critical architecture with the spirit of the anti- that regenerates it from time to time.
There are in fact layers of contradictions like this implicit in the staging of HERETICS. However, assuming that such critical contradictions were unintentional, this is precisely what needs to be celebrated. Perhaps it is a question of how the exhibition is being codified and staged. It’s an issue of how it is being framed and positioned within the greater discourse.
Contradictions, while valorized as anxiety-producing in contemporary terms, were the positions that the guys in the lead photo were comfortable with AND uncomfortable with. Either way, they were with it. They were in it. Architectural history was like the sand under their feet on Venice Beach. They came out of the sixties, man. It was there and they were making footprints and new contours that would themselves change over time, with the wind and tide. Moreover, as the show documents, they were aware of the tracks they were making, maybe not their full implications, but at least that traces were being left behind that someone else might find.
Going forth with the spirit of self-narration, self-documentation, and self-promotion, with cameras and a Los Angeles Times critic in tow, they dominate the historical record of Los Angeles architecture from that period and propel themselves into the future. They’ve got the lock on historical material. What the “heretics” accomplished was no accident. It was willed and conjured from the air and all that is air does not melt back into air but lingers and makes its mark. It’s about as subtle as Andy Warhol. Architecture is not for the quiet, the modest, the bench-sitters. It’s about intention and attention. It’s about running on the dirty beaches of LA and kicking up sand.
As much as the drawings and models—the artifacts—signify that critical year, the “pivotal moment” of 1979, they carry along the memories of prior architectures. They are the hieroglyphs of the pre-pivotal moment. What we may have, then, is a very long sequencing of moments that oscillate and shift as they are remembered and memorialized in process up through the present. The moments of architecture are getting stretched and woven together rather than compressed and crystalized into points of specificity (1979). It’s like pulling fabric apart and then grafting threads into those spots where it’s thinning out. It’s like narrating the beginning of the Civil War as the shots fired upon Fort Sumter in 1861 rather than looking at the matrix of forces leading up to it. Beginnings and turning points are more like rolling thunder than shots. They are messy and they spread out. They continue.
Do they infuse the imagination with the future? Indeed, they do. But they can no more completely abandon the past any more than SCI-Arc can abolish history or its past and current tendencies to narrate by denying narration. The anti-thing is the thing as much as the thing itself. It is inescapable as a construct.