The new LA school is a band of digital revolutionaries. Obsessed with form and technique, this generation of young architects is milking the city’s resources – from Hollywood to the aerospace industry – to redefine how architecture is made.
In 1980, Domus magazine published a feature entitled “The young architects of California”. Aside from a 51-year-old Frank Gehry – pictured on the cover with black hair and an Inspector Clouseau moustache – the group included Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, Eric Owen Moss, Robert Mangurian and Coy Howard, most of whom were in their early thirties. Their edgy postmodernism, showing the first signs of later deconstructivist tendencies, was establishing LA as a place that was unafraid of new ideas. “Historicism and contextualism are empty words in a city that has no history, no tradition and no context,” said Gehry at the time.
A quarter of a century later, both that attitude and that spirit of adventure have been revived by a group for whom LA is a place where geometric, biological and pop culture fantasies can be made real. From the sci-fi baroque creations of Hernán Díaz Alonso to the bio-engineering of Tom Wiscombe and the hairy architecture of Jason Payne, the city is a breeding ground for experimentalists.
Most are not native to LA, but migrated here from the east coast or Argentina, many of them after studying at Columbia University in New York. They all came for the same reasons and in many respects they were all following a pattern set by Greg Lynn. Lynn saw the potential in the city to start prototyping the kind of work that he had been designing with computer animation software. The workshops that had grown up in LA around the automotive and aerospace industries, as well as the prop-making and set design needs of Hollywood, were the perfect resource for modelling his curved and folded surfaces.
Far more than any local architectural vernacular, this is the context that the city offers its young architecture pioneers – hence sci-fi and blockbuster movie references abound in the work.
Yet, a more specific factor links almost all of the architects gathered in this round-up, and that is the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where most of them teach. Invited there five years ago by architect Neil Denari and critic Michael Speaks, they have transformed the school into a hotbed of digital design practice, and the kind of place where students are almost as likely to leave for careers as 3D animators as they are as architects.
In the sense that the protagonists are all friends, all exactly the same age (except for Lynn), and all keeping a very keen and competitive eye on each other’s work, this is about as close-knit and coherent a group as you can expect to find in architecture today. However, there are clear ideological fault lines.
To various degrees they are all dealing with new forms, but the question is whether it is for form’s sake or in the interest of performance. At either extreme, you have the seamless curlicues of Díaz Alonso and the performance-focused experimental structures of Wiscombe. Then there are those such as Patterns and Jason Payne, who are playing with the translucent or tactile qualities of materials in search of holistic sensory experiences. Finally, on another fringe is the more alternative practice of Ball Nogues – a slight anomaly here – which uses digital modelling software only as a precursor to a more craft-based sensibility.
Unlike their predecessors, this generation is not honing its skills on extensions and houses. Instead, it creates exhibition architecture (pavilions and installations), it collaborates on motion graphics projects and produces concept pieces for mobile phone and car companies keen to keep tabs on the marketing potential of radical design. The difficulty that this generation faces is making buildings.
It is one of the cliches of both LA’s art and architecture scenes that they possess a Wild West, frontier mentality. And it is with a clear pride in that attitude that the architects leave themselves wide open to attack. Needless to say, a lot of this work turns stomachs in the sensitive and “civilised” circles of Europe, where it looks like aesthetic hysteria. By trading typologies for topographies, is it rejecting an essential human quality in the work? How desirable is an architecture that pushes formal boundaries but doesn’t care how it relates to the city? Is geometry content? And what will these buildings look like in the flesh?
These are important questions, but they don’t outweigh the feeling that one of architecture’s conceivable futures is germinating in LA. This group of architects, as the modernists did in the last century, is pushing industrial technology to its logical conclusions – it’s just that in this case the technology is not coming from within architecture but from industries that are advancing far more rapidly. Instead of relying on the standardisation of conventional construction, they are forging a world of genuinely customised architecture. There is no doubting the ambition of the agenda or the work, nor the fact that it is both exciting and scary.
Greg Lynn is the crucial character in this story, and the pivot around which most of the architects in it revolve. As one of them put it, “He’s the godfather… except he’s too young to be called that.” At 42, Lynn is only five years older than most of this group, and yet he might as well be another generation – for starters, he taught several of them and it was his example they were following in migrating from the east coast to LA. He essentially set the pattern for this generation, coming up with the theory and language they use, and the cross-disciplinary collaborations they engage in.
What distinguishes Lynn from his protégés, for now, is that he is the complete article – everything from theorist, computer geek and network-maker to built architect and product designer. After working in Peter Eisenman’s office, he set up Greg Lynn FORM in Hoboken, New Jersey, but several factors attracted him to LA: the art scene, the entertainment industry, the fact that giant corporate practices are less dominant here than in New York or Chicago. The key motive, however, was the concentration of aerospace and automotive design studios in the city, and the potential they offered to prototype his digital designs.
“What better place to pursue architecture and its popular implications than Los Angeles? I believe the city is more dedicated to the popular imagination than to high culture. I mean, this sci-fi dedication belongs here.”
In his studio in Venice, Lynn shows off his CNC router and rapid-prototyping machines. Although it is grounded in complex geometry and the will to fashion buildings out of curves and continuous surfaces, everything Lynn does is defined by the tools he uses. Countering standard typologies with freestyle, pliable surfaces, Lynn’s forms have their own logic, stemming from forces and geometries generated in computer animation. In the late 1990s he coined the term “blob”, or at least applied it to architecture from computer modelling, where it was an acronym for Binary Large Object (the word also explicitly referenced B movie science fiction). Since then he has extrapolated a whole lexicon, from “blebs” to “shreds”, but they won’t necessarily help you understand why his design for the Ark of the World museum in Costa Rica looks like a man-eating plant hiding under a doily. “People call it biomorphic but I was never that interested in organic design. I’ve always been more interested in popular culture. The Costa Rica thing looks like a plant but that’s because it’s in a jungle.”
Endowed with a natural experimental streak, Lynn was the first to use aerospace fabrication techniques and to collaborate with motion graphics studios such as Imaginary Forces – both now regular collaborators with local architects. In one of his current projects, he is designing an online city for eight billion people to be rendered at cinema quality.
For Lynn, the big debate in architecture is between form designing and form finding – the latter being “parametric” design, based on feeding statistics into the computer. “I blame it all on Rem [Koolhaas]. The problem is that schools are teaching Rem – even though Rem doesn’t do what he says he does – and the teachers don’t really understand computers so they encourage students to just punch in data and design around the [building’s] programme. It’s really limited.” To Lynn, this is a wimpish cop-out, and he clearly finds some solace in the fact that the LA scene is made up of “designers” and not “form finders”. If he has any criticism of his younger colleagues it is that they are following too closely in his footsteps. “What I am critical of is that none of these guys has got their own Imaginary Forces. There are dozens of younger motion graphics companies who would love to be involved with them, but they’re going with what they know.”
Hernán Díaz Alonso
Hernán Díaz Alonso looks, talks and acts like a swaggering bandido but designs like a nerdy child prodigy with a science fiction fetish. His practice, Xefirotarch, represents the extreme end of the work coming out of LA in the sense that his designs are self-consciously, operatically visual – and he is totally unapologetic about it. “I’m only interested in form. For me, form follows form. That doesn’t mean that what we do doesn’t function, but function is never a driving force of the work, it’s just something that needs to be accommodated. I’m interested in how the form reorganises how you would use it.”
Díaz Alonso’s rhetoric is actually very clever, not least because it has made him perhaps the most high profile of LA’s younger generation, and has attracted a number of conceptual commissions from corporate marketing departments. Although his only built work is the 2005 installation at PS1 in New York, and most of his time is spent on exhibition architecture and teaching, he does actually have two clients: one for a house outside Paris and the other for an artists’ community in the Dominican Republic.
Born in Buenos Aires, Diaz Alonso wanted to be a film director but the film school had shut down so he studied architecture instead, and felt good about the choice when he saw the catalogue for the Deconstructivist Architecture show at MoMA in 1988. But he maintains that his work has a “cinematic logic” driven by computer animation software, and he frequently collaborates with motion graphics firm Imaginary Forces. “My influence is more blockbuster movies. Tim Burton is a gigantic influence on me – he blows my mind – but also Guillermo del Toro, the first Matrix, Bladerunner … I love vampire movies, especially the first Blade.”
This sci-fi aspect is more than an aesthetic, however. Díaz Alonso talks about his designs in terms of species, genetics and artificial mutation. But, evident in the way that his baroque forms deliberately skirt the grotesque, the painter Francis Bacon was also a profound influence. Like Bacon, he is comfortable with the uncomfortable, and has the provocateur’s knack of laying claim to the language you might use to criticise him before you do.
Interestingly, Díaz Alonso has lost competitions for not emphasising his process enough, but again he is unrepentant. “I don’t mind showing the process, but as an act of god,” he says. A veteran of Enric Miralles’ office, Díaz Alonso has adopted the Catalan architect’s practice of seeing the process as an “autopsy”. “You do it and then you try to understand exactly what happened to go to the next one. There’s a certain notion of surrealism that operates in the work. It’s more like the emotional state that you want it to produce.”
Some of Díaz Alonso’s talk is clearly posturing. Another Columbia graduate and Peter Eisenman apprentice, he is well versed in conceptual procedures. Furthermore, his designs are buildable (“they just cost five or six time more than clients are willing to spend”). All Díaz Alonso is missing is some pragmatism. Asked at what point he might compromise for the sake of actually building something, he replies: “Never! Zaha stuck to her guns, and six or seven years ago she’d only built a restaurant in Japan. Now she’s taking over the world.”
Tom Wiscombe makes architecture by combining the skills of the biologist and the engineer. His work is driven by a concern for structural performance, but he is not averse to some theatrical form-making. He wants a roof to soar, but in the lightest, most efficient way possible – and he is likely to find the solution in a dragonfly wing.
Wiscombe founded his practice, Emergent – which, incidentally, is a word that has often been applied to this kind of work because of its focus on emerging technologies – in 1999. However, his career has been largely shaped by his 12-year, ongoing collaboration with the Austrian practice Coop Himmelb(l)au, under the mentorship of its principal, Wolf D Prix.
The walls of his small studio on Wilshire Boulevard are pinned with pictures of bat wings, water lilies and even the art nouveau forms of Hector Guimard’s Paris Metro. But these are just pictures – what interests Wiscombe is not the forms but the underlying structures. In a recent installation at SCI-Arc, he created a giant aluminium cantilever that mimicked a dragonfly wing’s composition of long beams connected by a honeycomb membrane. “It’s not attempting to look like a dragonfly wing but operate like one,” he says. “Biology never has the perfect solution, but engineering plugged into biology does.”
Sometimes called “bioconstructivism”, Wiscombe’s work uses parametric software to find elegant structural solutions, and he sees the results as a form of natural selection or genetic mutation. “Engineering is no longer about the analogue problem solving, it’s generative. You can grow populations of solutions and breed them.”
In 2003 Emergent won the PS1 Urban Beach installation – a programme that has proved a launch pad for three of the practices gathered in this overview. The wing-like creation looked more like the result of aerospace engineering than the biological research he deals with today. Although this remains its only built work, the practice is increasingly finding itself on major international competition shortlists, and this year narrowly missed out on winning the Prague National Library.
Despite the Austrian connection, Wiscombe is an obvious product of the LA architectural climate. “My work is global but it couldn’t be anywhere; the community here has a huge impact on what you’re doing. Teaching together is really important, we all sit in on each others’ reviews, and by disagreeing with each other we move things forward.” While not critical of any of his LA contemporaries – the local scene is too mutually supportive for any real dissonance – Wiscombe hints that he finds some of the work meretricious. “We need to get away from digital work that’s just about surfaces,” he says. What’s more, he is not waiting for clients’ tastes to catch up with his talent. “I’m not interested in being a provocateur in the architecture community.
I like working in the world. We’re coming to the end of an age now where ego is a driver of the profession – we’re peaking now with Zaha and Gehry. There are new issues that are not about the hero, like sustainability, culture and process.”
Patterns is the practice of Argentinian-born Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich, whose office is on Hollywood Boulevard (above Marlene Dietrich’s star). The name is misleading at first, since of this group they are perhaps the most interested in the practical and traditional aspects of architecture as opposed to form-making. The patterns that concern them are the behavioural ones found, for instance, in repetitive structural systems. These result in weird prototypes that evoke both car chassis and close-ups of reptile skin. Although they are essentially sculptural – Spina reveals the influence of British sculptors Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg – a good deal of research goes into them and they have the potential to turn into monocoque structures.
Spina studied at Columbia and then worked for Reiser and Umemoto in New York, while Huljich worked for Thom Mayne’s Morphosis. Moving to LA to teach at SCI-Arc, Spina was sceptical about the city’s architectural establishment. “Somehow I was always critical of the LA school,” he says. “As much as I respect the work of Frank [Gehry] and Thom [Mayne], I like work that is not in your eyes all the time. I’ve always been related more to European practices – Alvaro Siza was very influential to me.”
Patterns’ experimentation with materials expresses one of the practices main concerns. “We’re interested in the physicality of the object, how you would touch it and what kind of surface you would get – both at the level of proto-architecture and building. We see the prototypes as work – they carry their own formal message. We also see them as vehicles for exploration and research.” Resin-based variations of fibreglass, super-plastics and new forms of concrete are cast or vacuum-formed into prototypes that can serve as both skin and structure. Translucent and sometimes even gelatinous surfaces are exploited to create subtle variations in experience.
“I like work that is sensation making but not necessarily sensational,” says Spina. “I’m not interested in the new, but in inflections of things you already understand. Then there’s a deeper sense of effect that can be produced. We’re not interested in creating a blob, or something ‘other’.”
The practice is currently designing the SCI-Arc cafe, which the architects are merging in a fluid way with the adjacent library’s bookcases, so that shelves morph into tables and chairs. But more importantly, given the challenges their contemporaries are facing, the architects actually have a building underway on Sunset Boulevard. The shopfront, which doesn’t fight the fact that the building is just a box, is panelled in translucent resin-based polycarbonate that torques into a set of gill-like windows, introducing a voyeuristic aspect that Spina describes as “like looking up a girl’s skirt”.
“Site specificity and context are words that are old-fashioned these days,” he says, tellingly. “In LA you’re not supposed to care, and I totally disagree with that. This is not gratuitous.” Less rhetorically inclined than some of his friends, Spina sees the constraints of programme and context as invaluable. “The more close we are with that kind of conflict the better the project is in our view.”
Patterns is also hugely reliant on the local fabrication culture, collaborating with, for instance, Warner Brothers’ set design studio to vacuum-from the components of the SCI-Arc cafe. “In Los Angeles, especially at SCI-Arc, there is a tradition of fabrication that forces you to get even closer to materials and certain technicalities of built assembly. The tools are here and the advanced manufacture companies are here because of the movie industry, the car industry and the remains of the aerospace industry.”
David Clovers is another practice that combines the experimental nature of installations with the pragmatics of large-scale architecture projects. Only founded earlier this year, it is already building 30 houses in Beijing – a capacious job for a couple whose references would suggest a more arthouse output.
David Erdman was formerly of interactive and multimedia design group Servo, while Clover Lee joined him from LA firm Hodgetts and Fung. Similarly to Patterns and Jason Payne, their work is preoccupied with sensory effects, whether that involves light, fog or tactile materials. A proposal for a perimeter screen at the Schindler House in West Hollywood resembles a glowing sea anemone that spouts water and fog. “We work with this fullness to produce an effect of mysteriousness, adding other orders or matter into the architecture as a means of making it less legible and more full as an experience and an environment,” says Erdman.
While they have collaborated with the Warner Brothers workshop and custom car manufacturers, as others have, there is no sense that this is in any way glamorous. “I see it as very prosaic,” says Erdman. “To call it our interaction with ‘the film industry’ sounds a bit too heroic. It’s really the prop industry we’re working with. That’s why you see a moodiness and drama in the work, and why it errs on the side of the cosmetic – in a good way.”
The Beijing houses, part of a scheme to create an entire artists’ district, are all variations of one original typology in which most of the light is funnelled in through the roof. The designs are simple yet inscrutable, and their ambiguity is a quality that the practice strives for, in distinction to the complexity of some of their local counterparts.
“We don’t necessarily look to architects, because when it comes to integrating multimedia technology other disciplines are a lot further ahead, such as industrial designers or filmmakers or artists,” says Lee. In fact, the couple cite an unusual list of references, from Matthew Barney to The Talented Mr Ripley (“a character who is entirely translucent and murky”) and Jack Black from the Pirates of the Caribbean. Somehow these are references that could only be taken seriously in the relaxed intellectual climate of LA.
That atmosphere has also applied to the sharing of technology – an ethos established early on by Frank Gehry’s use of CATIA modelling software. “What’s nice about LA is that everybody feels comfortable sharing information,” says Lee. “The East coast is obsessed with the technology and it’s treated as almost proprietary secrets. ‘I have a fabricator who does this but I’m not going to tell you about it because then you could do the same thing I can.’ There’s a different attitude about it here, which is: I can still do something innovative as long as I have a unique idea.”
Jason Payne is operating on the extreme fringe of the digital LA scene. Although he has a similar intellectual provenance to Hernán Díaz Alonso or Marcelo Spina (he is a former Columbia University graduate who worked at digital architects Reiser Umemoto and now teaches at UCLA), he has pushed his work away from concerns with the image towards the tactile and sensual properties of materials.
He says his move from New York to LA was prompted less by the desire to see his designs prototyped than to see how they would be changed by becoming material. The result is that his interest in curved and complex forms has been overtaken by an obsession with… hairiness. It all began with computer-generated particle animations that looked like tangled masses of hair. “So then I thought, wouldn’t it be amusing if I could somehow theorise hair in architecture… We started doing stuff that was in the beginning organisationally hairy and then ultimately literally sticking hair on projects. What I found was that people were taking it more and more seriously.”
Payne recently split with former partner Heather Roberge, with whom he ran a practice comically titled Gnuform (the gnu is a hairy yak-like animal), and set up on his own under the similarly apt rubric Hirsuta. His current projects include a Taurus-shaped house in Malibu and a house in Utah.
Payne’s most complete expression to date (one of Gnuform’s projects) is a bar and reception area for cable television channel No Good TV. A total sensual experience, the bar is a curved and folded form in plastic with black rubber mounds for squeezing and crevices lined with red fur. Beyond sexual allusions to some of the channel’s erotic material, the bar embodies Payne’s interest in the tactile potential of architecture. “[Professor] Jeff Kipnis called it a new phenomenology but I’m still a bit troubled by the term phenomenology so I call it sensate work because it’s meant to appeal very directly and overtly to the senses, and especially the non visual – mostly the tactile but also in some cases smell.”
Ball Nogues is in some ways the exception on this architectural tour. Although partners Benjamin Ball and Gastón Nogues are digital practitioners, the two former SCI-Arc students belong to the school’s earlier tradition of making things by hand. Theirs is a craft sensibility in which the forms happen to be generated by parametric modelling. However, what they have in common with a number of the practices here is the desire to create a rich sensory experience.
Working out of a graffiti-covered garage in Echo Park, the pair may play the part of the alternative-scene hipsters but this year they built the annual Urban Beach installation at PS1 in New York, really the only significant platform for young architects in the US. And while Ball’s background is in set design for the film industry, Argentinian-born Nogues spent ten years working for Frank Gehry. “What I took away from Gehry was a sense of exploration and discovery through playing – it was pretty amazing watching him work,” says Nogues. Ironically, Ball does most of the computer modelling.
Ball Nogues’ work draws on an interesting range of references, from the super-light structures of engineer Frei Otto to, naturally, Hollywood movies. An early work, Maximilian’s Schell (named after the actor), simulated a black hole-like structure out of translucent golden mylar petals. Like the tent-shaped accretions at PS1 this summer, every piece was unique, calculated on the computer before being numbered and assembled. The petals sit somewhere between Gehry’s beloved fish scales and village fete bunting. “Part of that is a reaction against the minimalist surface, that real tiny thin surface of just material, and to create an effect by the way that the light comes through and filters and reflects,” says Nogues.
Nogues says the language is based on nature but the practice clearly has none of the theoretical pretensions of its local counterparts. A cardboard installation at Rice University in Houston earlier this year (icon 043) alluded to images from American landscape painting but was essentially a beautiful climbing frame. “We wanted people to have a very child-like attitude of exploration, letting them climb all over it.”
Regardless of the computer modelling, it is the collaborative act of building, which they invest with an almost performative quality, that seems most important. Though still operating at the level of installation architecture, they aim higher. “We both have an ambition to make buildings,” Nogues says. “We just have to have somebody that wants to make a building the way that we want to make a building.”
images Monica Nouwens