Watching L.A.'s Young Architects

Once considered an architectural wasteland, this Southern California city is gaining increased attention due to the newest generation

The last few months have brought a flurry of honors and attention for the up-and-coming architects of Los Angeles. Of the six slots in this year's Emerging Voices program at the Architectural League of New York, two went to L.A. firms: George Yu Architects and the duo of Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has opened a show, running through September, on the work of Hernan Diaz Alonso, who is 36. And earlier this year the architecture collaborative servo designed an elaborate installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art for a show called Dark Places that wound up generating more buzz than the exhibition itself.

Meanwhile, as the press releases about those events were being sent out, the architects in question were busy building — well, not a whole lot that can be called architecture, really. The firm servo has nearly as many offices around the world (four) as completed projects, even if you count museum installations and a Nike showroom as completed projects. Another one of the young firms of the moment, Gnuform, has been feted in the press for very small-scale commissions — call them micromissions — that include a reception desk for a cable TV channel. Escher and GuneWardena, with a ground-up house in Pasadena already completed, look like battle-tested veterans by comparison.

There's nothing new, of course, about a young architect with giant ambition and a thin portfolio. Architecture remains a field where prominence and gray hair are thought to be synonymous, especially by clients. And there are plenty of still-young firms in Los Angeles doing steadily notable work, much of it residential, and winning fans among clients and critics alike. This group, mostly in their 40s, includes Lorcan O'Herlihy, Michael Maltzan, Barbara Bestor, Marmol Radziner, David Hertz, and Daly, Genik.

What's different about the generation rising right behind them — L.A. architects between, say, 28 and 38 — is the level of polish they bring not just to their fluid, digitally produced designs but also to their rhetoric about how they are remaking architectural practice. The group shares a combination of multitasking talent, media savvy, and a sometimes rankling sense of entitlement; instead of going to work right away for a large firm or establishing themselves the old-fashioned way — slowly building a list of contacts and clients — many have now been paying the bills for nearly a decade by teaching, writing, curating, or experimenting with fabrication or multimedia.

Most were drawn to Los Angeles by the presence here of an interconnected web of design talent that includes Hollywood set builders, architecture-school faculty, aerospace firms, and car studios. Their godfather is L.A.-based Greg Lynn, still pretty young himself at 42, who taught several of them at Columbia University.

It remains hard to say what kind of impact these young firms will ultimately have on Southern California. On some days, impressed by their talent, adaptability, and not least, chutzpah, I'm convinced that the connections they've forged with other parts of the design world will eventually make their architecture richer and more powerful — more relevant, in a word, to the mixed-up, high-low culture here. As Kara Bartelt, who runs a firm called Lettuce with Michael Chung, points out, the multidisciplinary designer with big plans and catholic interests is something of a tradition in Los Angeles, from the Eameses to contemporary figures like Mark Rios.

A generation of dilettantes?

When I'm in a less charitable mood, though, I tend to think that all the time these young architects have spent lecturing, fabricating, and building Web sites for bands they fell in love with at South-by-Southwest is not going to do them much good when they finally land a really significant architectural commission. The danger, to put it a little too bluntly, is that we're training a generation of dilettantes.

And I wonder, given their global frame of mind and how closely they track and respond to the work of their peers around the world, how deep a connection these young architects are making with Los Angeles — or even hope to make. Indeed, the loose, joyful, and inherently optimistic spirit of Southern California, which seemed to infuse every one of the Eameses' designs, from the short film Blacktop to their own house and studio in Pacific Palisades, is often lacking, it seems to me, in the work of the youngest L.A. architects.

In many ways, this group couldn't be more different from the architects who now rule the L.A. scene — Frank Gehry, FAIA, Thom Mayne, FAIA, Eric Owen Moss, and others. Those guys were combative rather than collaborative when they were younger, often flatly rejecting the notion that they learned from one another. "The first time I heard of Frank Gehry, I was 38 years old," Mayne once said. Just as important, that group spent their first decades as practicing architects working in relative obscurity. They had time to explore the city's neighborhoods and put down roots, personally and professionally — and their work, which could have come from nowhere else, reflected that. They were able to experiment, and falter, as they tried to find their voices.

Young architects these days don't have that luxury. They are often tagged as potential stars before they turn 30. Their early work, predictably uneven and overstuffed with ideas, is immediately dissected and analyzed by critics and bloggers. (The Internet has taken the idly mean-spirited cocktail-party chatter of 30 years ago and amplified it into quasi-public discourse.) Diaz Alonso's pavilion for PS1 in New York last summer got nearly as much attention among young architects here as Mayne's Caltrans building — much of it in the form of rather bitter criticism from local designers who'd seen the pavilion only on the Web.

In part, this is simply the by-product of an age where images of design work can be transmitted as easily across the globe as across the street, and where the celebrity culture that has made stars of Zaha, Frank, and Rem is infecting the younger part of the profession, too. (Graft, a firm of German-born architects who spend most of the year in Los Angeles, will probably be better known from here on out for taking on Brad Pitt as a client — and a sometime collaborator — than for any buildings they wind up producing.) Critics, editors, and curators alike are guilty of mining the young generation a little too aggressively, expecting young architects to perform with the same precocious dazzle we associate with young novelists or even young athletes.

Still, many of the emerging firms in L.A. don't mind that level of intense attention. Some court it; others rather blithely expect it. This is the generation, these architects will enthusiastically tell you, that is poised to turn the old, exploitative model of practice on its head, using technological savvy to support itself and proving it can do without time spent polishing the boots of more established architects.

In many ways, contemporary Los Angeles is the perfect place to test that experimental view of what architectural practice might become. If Gehry, Mayne, and their peers had more chances to build at a young age simply because there was more room and cheap land in Los Angeles back then, the rising generation has inherited a denser and more proudly multicultural place that is also as socially fractured as ever. That city is crying out for the sort of dynamic, creative infill that young architects with their skills would seem perfectly suited to provide.

A city comfortable with risk

On top of that, Los Angeles is a city that embraces and even relies upon precocious talent. "There is a pretty big group of clients here willing to take a significant risk and work with younger firms," Michael Maltzan says. "I think that has to do to a large extent with the culture of Hollywood. You can be a first-time director and win an Academy Award. There's an openness toward giving opportunities to someone who's enthusiastic and ambitious."

For whatever reason, the match between city and generation has yet to bear much fruit. The easy explanation is that it will only be a matter of time before these firms begin producing architecture that will actually change how life is lived in L.A. But perhaps there's more to it than that. Perhaps it's a matter of commitment — burrowing, head-down, long-term commitment — to place. Many of the young firms here have one foot in the local architecture scene and the other in a global discourse. It's therefore no surprise that their work hovers in a kind of digital no-man's-land.

And maybe these architects have missed something valuable by skipping substantial apprenticeships with bigger firms. After all, there are lessons to be learned from an older architect that have little to do with the particulars of design. Among the most important is a kind of realpolitik approach to practice that suggests how to preserve some sense of independence, artistry, and growth while also winning commissions and seeing projects through construction. Even if you grind your teeth through a job like that, counting the days until you can escape and begin working on your own, you still come out understanding something vitally useful about how cities are made — and how they might be made better.

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