By Michael Webb
Shelter is as basic a human need as food and sleep, so the A+D Museum could not have chosen a more important theme with which to launch its new space in downtown L.A. It’s a subject close to home, since this is its fourth move since Steve Kanner and others founded the institution 15 years ago in temporary space at the Bradbury Building. A+D is now located in a handsome, spacious loft midway between the Bradbury and SCI-Arc—an appropriate location to celebrate the art of architecture, and a conveniently accessible one at weekends when commuter traffic ebbs.
Six L.A. architects have contributed innovative proposals to “Shelter: Rethinking How We Live In Los Angeles,” an exemplary exhibition co-curated by Sam Lubell and Danielle Rago. They focus on two corridors: Wilshire Boulevard and the L.A. River.
The first has been the symbolic commercial axis linking downtown to the ocean for nearly a century, and once the Purple Metro line is in place, it can be densified. PAR proposes a slender 90-story tower above the station across from LACMA. MAD would use the same site for Cloud Corridor, a vertical village of nine towers linked by bridges. Both would contain a mix of apartments, but how can they be made affordable on such a costly site? And, which project would make better use of the site and be a good neighbor to Zumthor’s new museum, assuming that gets built? In principle, either scheme could be built over any of the new Metro stations and it would leaven the appalling mediocrity of other residential towers along Wilshire.
In contrast to these monumental interventions, the architects at wHY propose to retrofit what they call the “gray zone between regulation and disorder.” They employ a diversity of everyday objects on a revolving wheel to suggest the ad-hoc character of their additions—a benign version of Blade Runner.
The LA River has suddenly gone from a hopeless cause to a hot property as developers try to grab undervalued land along its banks in the hope that it will morph from concrete culvert to pastoral idyll. The residents of Frog Town are pushing back and the L.A. City Council (usually a pawn of moneyed interests) recently down-zoned the area to protect its character. LA-Más, a firm that is based there, has proposed that residents take the lead in developing linear clusters of studios and one-bedroom apartments on a cooperative basis, densifying without overwhelming the modest scale of existing houses. Flash back to the 1950s when the L.A. authorities demolished a Hispanic community in Chavez Canyon, and denounced Neutra’s housing proposal as a communist plot, preferring to put their money on Dodger Stadium and several acres of parking. Some things have changed for the better. Bureau Spectacular researched the riverine vernacular and designed five eccentric variations on what passes for “normal”—a tongue-in-cheek exercise that is more art installation than architecture.
The most ambitious contribution comes from Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOHA). WATERshed investigates the relationship between urbanization and water use, identifying potential building sites on topographical models, and proposing six machines for living (and water conservation). All this material is keyed to a wall of diagrams, panels of fine print, and 24 explanatory cards. It’s a visionary take on two pressing issues and worthy of a book. The problem here, and to a lesser degree with the other exhibits, is the absence of succinct labels, summarizing each proposal in a way that visitors can quickly assimilate. The same absence of effective communication dogged the last two Venice Architecture Biennales. Either there was an absence of useful information or a surfeit. Nobody wants to read a book while standing in a gallery; an exhibition needs to condense explanations into a few, large-type lines. If architects cannot do the job, curators must.
“Shelter” runs through November 6 at the A+D Museum, 900 East 4th St, LA. Information at aplusd.org.