Form follows floatsam

A simulacrum of nothing much
A simulacrum of nothing much

One of the many horrors of L.A. architecture is certainly its over-presentation in movies and television. It is comically clichéd to see stories set in other cities, whose framing shots are the same Los Angeles “skyline” that even non-Angelenos have come to recognize as framing shots of every non-L.A. city that makes it onto filmic representation.  What makes this SoCal-centrism so much the worse is the underlying vacuity of buildings in Los Angeles.  Fredric Jameson, following Jean-François Lyotard, famously advanced the notion of postmodernism as pastiche, and Angelena intellectuals often paint the unthinking, seedy eclecticism of Los Angeles as advancing such post-modern ideals (or its anti-idealism, perhaps).

On my recent flight to Chicago, I had the opportunity to read our own Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty. Hickey rails charmingly against an excess of formalism having overtaken art and architecture from the latter half of the 20th century.  He defends an underlying aesthetic of inherent beauty as the mode of effectivity in the political arguments made by important artworks.  I do not wholly buy Hickey’s argument—if nothing else I am something of a formalist.  Or more defensibly, I think that works have multiple modes of effectivity, though I do not deny that beauty is one.  Certainly not one of which anyone can accuse downtown Los Angeles, of course.

Some formalism, however, reaches complete parody of itself.  Notably, most of Frank Gehry’s work embarrassingly eschews either beauty or any other formal or functional aspect other than a garish proclamation of “look at me, I am a great architect.” I was struck by this after watching Sketches of Frank Gehry (on video, accompanied by our own Dr. Koplow and other friends enamored of or just rationalizing the kitsch that is LA).  While the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has an undeniable elegance, The Disney Hall just crosses that line into empty self-declaration of a parodic post-modernism.

Organic pastiche
Organic pastiche

Of course, the reversal in all this is that fact that everywhere else has become, at least a bit, like the reflection of a geographically bounded Hollywood location scout’s narrow imagination. Seeing the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, pictured at top, gave me an eery feeling I had never left home. Well, I had that feeling until I turned around to see the elegant heterogeneity of Chicago’s skyline, just 180 degrees away from Chicago’s monument to Los Angeles simulacra.

11 Replies to “Form follows floatsam”

  1. In what way is Dave Hickey “our own”? He’s been in Las Vegas for quite some time now, hasn’t he?

  2. True, Hickey is now in Las Vegas. Which perhaps continues the LA theme in its own way. I guess I really just mean that Hickey was very SoCal at the time of the original edition of The Invisible Dragon (published in 1993, written over the few years prior).

  3. It’s ironic that the 2 towers you picture at Michigan and Lake in Chicago are possibly the worst two buildings in Chicago.

  4. Very well written and provocative, Dr. Barr. But, allow me ‘to come to praise Gehry, not to bury him.’ Like you, I see myself as a bit of a formalist, although with gains in personal maturity, certainly a lover of “elegant heterogeneity.” Whatever, methinks Gehry deserves more kindness than you tolerate. First, he is a decided and brilliant formalist and then again, what is very wrong with a “look at me, I am great” image, if it is? Especially in this world of overwhelming and tedious sameness. Eschew the “therapeutic institution” and embrace beauty out-of-context. I don’t think Hickey rails against formalism as much as advocates “the pagan embrace of beauty.”

  5. Damn, I was going to publish a post about Gehry today. Guess I’ll wait until tomorrow.

  6. that is kind of funny watching tv or a movie and seeing LA all the time. BTW your “embed this post in your blog” tool works great! :)

  7. Internet Explorer breaks “Embed this post on your own site: – VERY BETA!” I love your idea tho – hope it can be fixed. IE is a royal pain – I think it requires “object” but not sure of the exact code req’d to embed a post. Am looking for a fix but most info I am finding is with regard to embedding Flash / YouTube, etc. I realize this probly isnt the best venue for this discussion would be happy to discuss further via email – look in my user profile – thx

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