One Thing After Another

For Log 3

Kazys Varnelis

Leaving the opening reception for the “Minimal Future” exhibition at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art this past March, I was struck by the way the evening light, glancing off the steel of the Disney Concert Hall across the street, called to mind the dark skies and blood-red sunsets that marked the week of the building’s dedication. Suddenly, I was overcome by memories of that surreal event, when the glitterati and the public stood transfixed by Frank Gehry’s architecture, even as downtown L.A. was enveloped by the smoke from homes burning in the surrounding hills.

In an unheimlich moment, these events seemed to merge, dissolving any temporal or logical distance between them and linking minimal art, contemporary suburbia, and avant-garde architecture, or more precisely, “the blob.” In tracing these links, the neo-avant-garde appears neither oppositional to suburbia nor complicit with it, but rather part of a broader social structure that not only embraces both but suggests a trajectory of disappearance that the blob, and architecture as a whole, must take.

For Los Angeles, Disney Hall is a monument to the new city rising from the ashes of a near apocalypse caused by the collapse of the defense industry in the late 1980s, the civil unrest of 1992, and the Northridge earthquake of 1994. The renewed Los Angeles is post-Fordist, transnational, and cultured, no longer a regional center for the American southwest but now a global city on the Pacific Rim. If Disney Hall symbolizes the new role of the city, it also ironically demonstrates the possibilities for the Bilbao-effect in architecture: using radical form as an urban revitalization strategy in the United States, a country traditionally resistant to (signature) architecture. Should Disney Hall succeed in reviving L.A.’s long-suffering downtown, surely more opportunities for the neo-avant-garde will follow.

suburbs on fire

Still, Disney Hall’s forms were settled upon prior to the design of the Guggenheim Bilbao. Its formal language may now be said to be a celebration – Gehry has likened it to a flower – but it also clearly registers anguish. Originally designed in the late 1980s, the hall’s fractured forms are the reflection of a disintegrating Los Angeles that somehow sensed the historical inevitability of the social and geologic fault lines that would soon open up, ripping the city apart. Moreover, the building’s completion underscores the peculiar hold of deconstructivist architecture some 15 years after the Museum of Modern Art show on the theme. If the architecture of the late 1980s and early 1990s registered the trauma of global post-Fordist restructuring, by the late 1990s trauma seemed to be utterly erased from the field.  Who had time for it in the heady days when theorists abandoned Deleuze for the magazine Fast Company and OMA could do no wrong? But after the dot.com crash and 9/11, the traumatic has returned to the monumental architecture of our day, if not to the schools of architecture and the neo-avant-garde. [1]

disney hall

Curiously, proponents of blob architecture have embraced Disney Hall precisely because it is not a blob. If Disney Hall is a product of the past, this outdated quality makes it nonthreatening – even promising – to the neo-avant-garde. With Disney Hall’s two successors, the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Seattle Music Experience, already built, further contenders will have to up the ante radically. For proponents of the blob this can only be good news. At the same time, Disney Hall, like blob architecture, employs advanced technology for both design and construction, is relentlessly figural, acts as a producer of affect, and has been earnestly received by the public. Perhaps, then, the ideal of Disney Hall is the same as that of the figurally oriented, formalist, high-technology neo-avant-garde blob.

When Disney Hall opened and smoke clouded the city, the fires that burned 5000 homes were neither visible nor did they destroy anything in the city itself.  The structures that burned were architecturally meritless products of developments on the city’s distant periphery, in the very sprawl that Disney Hall seems to reject in its celebration of the civic.

But these two events are more intimately connected. The individual credited with saving Disney Hall by directing its fundraising campaign is Eli Broad, the richest man in the city and the founder of Kaufman Broad, now called KB Homes. Once known as the “King of Sprawl,” between the 1950s and 1970s, Broad built more suburban homes in this country than anyone before or since. In its relentless drive to extract profit from the Southern California landscape, Kaufman Broad cared little about the siting of its developments and thereby set the precedent for the houses that would burn last fall. In 1986, however, finding life insurance more profitable than home construction, Broad spun off KB Homes to concentrate on running SunAmerica, the insurance corporation.

Today, after serving as founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art and as leader of the $135 million fundraising campaign that ensured the construction of Disney Hall, Broad is considered a major advocate of the redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles. It is tempting to see Disney Hall as Broad’s act of contrition, a penance for suburbia, or an indication that he has changed his mind about the importance of design, but this is not the case. On the contrary, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Broad suggests that the suburbs are the appropriate response to the outlying regions, while moribund city cores require the Bilbao-effect for growth. [2]

Broad and Gehry, the developer and the avant-garde architect, also share more than may initially appear, even if their recent relationship has been notoriously stormy. As the 1998 Monacelli Press monograph of his work amply documents, Gehry constructed nondescript apartment buildings in Santa Monica during that city’s period of revitalization in the 1970s. Gehry’s interest in development might be traced back to his internship with Victor Gruen, the inventor of the shopping mall. But Gruen was also a believer in Adolf Loos’s demand that buildings be silent and recede into the background texture of the city and, through Gruen, Loos influenced Gehry’s early work of the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Faith Plating Works and the Danziger House and Studio.

These works were also informed by the language of minimal art.  Although Gehry’s early work shares a superficial similarity to minimal art in its reticence, and Richard Serra’s influence on Gehry is much cited, Disney Hall and minimal art ultimately share more structural similarities of production and performance.

Drawing a relationship between Gehry’s current methods of production and those pursued by minimal artists might still initially seem contradictory. Gehry has stated his desire to be a master builder who controls the building process, a position at odds with that of minimal art, in which the artist stepped away from the work and toward more production-oriented or explicitly architectural processes of planning. But in both cases, artist and architect are managers, focusing on processes of organization, fabrication, and technologies of production. Intent remains the only difference. For the minimalists, the artist becomes a manager to gain distance. [3] For Gehry and the proponents of the blob, the architect becomes a manager to get closer. [4]

On the surface, Gehry would seem to differ with minimal art’s deployment of repetition, which, as Donald Judd writes, is a hallmark of minimal art: "The order is not rationalistic and underlying, but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another." [5] As the 2003 MOCA show of recent work from the Gehry office demonstrated, repetition is a hallmark of Gehry’s practice: Disney Hall’s shapes, subtly altered, are repeated over and over in building after building. This logic of repetition is inherent to Disney Hall for, like the blob and like minimal art, Disney Hall is a multiplicity, simultaneously one and many, containing many forms within itself and thereby anticipating the possibility of its repetition, which, in the Guggenheim Bilbao, has already taken place.

If minimal art, Disney Hall, and the blob are all aggregate assemblages or multiplicities, they share a similar attitude toward complexity. Judd explains that complexity no longer needs to be displayed but rather has become inherent in the making of the art: “It isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting.” [6] Compare this with Greg Lynn, who, in a foundational essay for the blob, “The Folded, the Pliant, and the Supple,” describes a “post-contradictory” architectural strategy that could go beyond a valorization of either homogeneity or heterogeneity. In “post-contradictory” architecture, he writes, “Smooth mixtures are made up of disparate elements which maintain their integrity while being blended within a continuous field of other free elements.” [7] Elsewhere, Lynn elaborates: the blob (like the concert hall and like minimal art) belongs to that class of geometric objects “that exhibit the qualities of multiplicity and singularity.” The blob is complex not because it solely manifests difference but also because it is one. Lynn writes, “Complexity is not only always present as potential in even the most simple or primitive of forms, moreso [sic], it is measured by the degree of both continuity and difference that are copresent at any moment. This measure of complexity (the index of which is continuity and differentiation) might best be described as the degree to which a system behaves as a blob.” [8]

In performance as in means of production, minimal art, Disney Hall and the blob are all similar. They act as not-sculpture, sharing sculptural qualities while occupying positions in an expanded field. While vastly bigger than a sculpture, Disney Hall and the blob are still unquestionably figural. Like works of minimal art, they are experienced bodily, in the round. If affect, theater, and the intention forq the object’s primary function to be experiential are central to both Disney Hall and the blob, are these qualities not pioneered by minimal art? The theatricality of minimal art – an engagement with real time and real space and a transformation of the object into its experience – caused critic Michael Fried to brook his famous argument in “Art and Objecthood.” For Fried, minimal art’s reliance on theatricality, on special effects, and its cheap appeal to the senses made it impossible for minimal art to “compel conviction,” and removed it from the realm of serious art. [9]

Already in 1966, Dan Graham was arguing for reading minimal art and suburbia together in his “Homes for America.” In this seminal essay, Graham identifies a similarity between the production methods of minimal art and the methods of the postwar housing industry. In post World War II Southern California, speculators – Kaufman Broad among them – “adapted mass production techniques to quickly build many houses for the defense workers over concentrated there. The ‘California Method’ consisted simply of determining in advance the exact amount and lengths of pieces of lumber and multiplying them by the number of standardized houses to be built.” [10]

suburbs on fire

For Graham, both the homes and minimal art react to the broader industrial order. [11] A logic of repetition underlies suburbia, the California method, and minimal art as well as the sameness of modern life. The home and the work of art no longer correspond to the individual and authenticity but rather are sites of endless replication, created on the assembly line.

More recently, Keller Easterling has made a similar point with regard to suburbia: “Banality is what makes suburbia powerful. Almost everything in America is suburbia; suburbia is a distributive protocol, a code of procedures that shapes exurban development into more uniform networks of organization.” [12] Easterling suggests that it is not the physical form of suburbia that makes it so effective but the operational processes that lead to it: “The design of a single house or platting plan does not convey critical information about the spatial character of the aggregate. Rather, the typical postwar suburb would be best described by a series of sequential operations performed on a repeatable dwelling.” [13]

Under post-Fordism, the assembly line is flexible, but it is still a form of mass production, and the logic of operational processes becomes ever more important as even industry is dominated by the logic of an information economy. Perhaps it is the increasing importance of logic over production that really prompted Broad to move from building homes to insuring them.

Like minimal art and suburbia, the blob is first and foremost an informational product, a surface artifact created by deeper organizational principles. As modernism moved from avant-garde to late modernism, it moved from apprehension and shock to boredom, banality, and inauthenticity, to becoming merely one thing after another. The suburban house, the late modernist tower, and the office park punctuate a disconnected field of objects.

disney hall

Minimal art, the concert hall, and the blob dwell in this territory as well. Texture matters not at all in this respect, existing only as a background condition against which singular objects, all alike, stand. This new condition, which we might term suburbanity, rewrites not only the form of contemporary urbanism but also what takes place within it: the city core is now billed not as productive or managerial but as a place of leisure or repose, a place to live in and consume. [14] The blob and the concert hall become, more than anything, harbingers of suburbanity’s spread into the city. To be sure, suburbs were marked by repetition, but so was the city core. What is a skyscraper except the vertical repetition of a floor plan? But two things do differentiate the repetition of the city from the repetition of the suburb: the displacement of verticality by horizontality and the turn from the formality of the city to the informality of the suburb. Both now increasingly permeate the (formerly) urban core. The skyscraper is all but history as horizontal structures increasingly seep into the urban realm. Both the concert hall and the blob also embody the informality of the suburbs as it has made its way into the city. Just as in offices the suit is disappearing in favor of the informal clothes of the suburb, the rigid forms of the skyscraper give way to more biomorphic shapes. [15]

But what of boredom?  The suburb, both Graham and Easterling suggest, is banal, and likewise minimal art could be said to engage the boringly ordinary. But Disney Hall is certainly not boring and the blob is still shocking. 

Like the blob, minimal art was intended to be perceived ambiently. It has only become possible to understand minimal art more fully now that, as the MOCA show demonstrates, it has become banal. Only now that minimal art has distanced itself from authenticity, aura, and originality can it become something to experience through the body and not the mind, through distraction and repetition. At this point, minimal art can now be truly understood as affect not as concept, in much the same way that Walter Benjamin suggested that architecture is experienced out of habit, absent-mindedly. [16]

So, too, this phenomenological experience of minimal art objects at MOCA this spring recalled the relentless production of buildings by Gehry that was exhibited in the same space last year. The impression of seeing one thing after the other at the Gehry show became so overwhelming that the experience of repetition caused the viewer’s attention to slip from an understanding of form to an ambient perception of it.

What does this finally suggest? That the blob’s time is not yet here. Only when the blob achieves success and spreads wildly will achieve its true role: the ambient. Out of step now, only because it has barely even been built, it will only be truly apprehended when it becomes as banal as the suburb, as ambient as modern architecture was by the 1960s. At that point the blob will cease to engage attention except as programming and ambience, as sheer performance. With the blob become banal, the last formal monument will come to an end, and architecture itself will be able to disappear. Nor will this merely be the blob that disappears into the ambient. In exploring the remaining geometries that architecture previously could not conceive or build, the blob marks the end of formal movements in architecture. With these having exhausted themselves, we reach the end of architectural form.

Of course, invoking the death of art, in this case architectural form, is Hegelian and perilously close to totalization, but as Giorgio Agamben points out in The Man Without Content, the artist’s very goal is to self-destruct, to reduce the world to pure form beyond which stands nothing, thereby annihilating both art and artist. [17] Is it this annihilation that was reflected in the steel of Disney Hall last October? Is today’s architecture most free when it is disappearing?

Increasingly, invisible processes of organization determine architecture. If the objects of suburbanity’s field condition appear to be not only spaced apart but separate, that is mere illusion. The disconnected city exists only as a manifestation of a deeper network created by multinational flows of capital and information. [18]

Kazys Varnelis teaches in the History and Theory Program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. He is also president of the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design and a founding member of AUDC, a conceptual architecture practice that maintains its home on the web at http://www.audc.org

[1] Anthony Vidler observes the late boom in deconstructivist architecture in “Deconstruction Boom: Anthony Vidler On Deconstructivist Architecture In 2003,” ARTFORUM, December 2003, 33.

[2] Mark Arax, “Convention is Just an Introduction to Eli Broad’s vision of Downtown; Once the King of Sprawl, Billionaire Turns his Sights to Reviving the City’s Heart,” The Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2000.

[3] On Judd’s role as a manager and his relation to commodity production in general, see James Sampson Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 250-251.

[4] Bruce Lindsey, Digital Gehry: Material Resistance/Digital Construction, The IT Revolution in Architecture (Basel: Birkhauser, 2001), 12. See also Charles Jencks, Robert Maxwell, and Jeffrey Kipnis, Frank O. Gehry: Individual Imagination and Cultural Conservatism, (London, New York, NY: Academy Editions, 1995).

[5] Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” Complete Writings, 1959-1975: Gallery Reviews, Book Reviews, Articles, Letters to the Editor, Reports, Statements, Complaints, (Halifax, N. S.: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975), 181-189.

[6] Judd, “Specific Objects,” 187. Compare with Greg Lynn, “Blobs,” Greg Lynn, Folds, Bodies & blobs: Collected Essays (Bruxelles: La Lettre vol?ɬ¢ee, 1998), 157-167.

[7] Greg Lynn, “The Folded, the Pliant, and the Supple,” in Folds, Bodies & blobs: Collected Essays, Books-by-Architects ( [Bruxelles]: La Lettre vol?ɬ¢ee, 1998), 110.

[8] Greg Lynn, “blobs” in Manuel Gausa and Instituto Met?ɬ°polis de Arquitectura Avanzada. The Metapolis Dictionary of Advanced Architecture: City, Technology and Society in the Information Age, (Barcelona: Actar, 2003), 84-85.

[9] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Gregory Battcock, Minimal
Art: A Critical Anthology
, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 116-147.

[10] Dan Graham, “Homes for America” in Thomas E. Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 186-187.

[11] Crow, 185. Elsewhere, Graham states “The early ‘Homes for America’ was both artwork/art criticism and architecture criticism. … My suburban house photos were part of the layout of an art magazine. Other works were placed as advertisements. Newly emerging ‘Minimal Art’ was reduced to mass-disposable forms. Whereas ‘pop art’ took popular imagery from advertisements and placed them on canvas, to give them new value, I wanted to place clichés directly as ‘valueless’ readymade disposables. ‘Homes for America’ reduced Minimal Art to suburban ‘landscape’: art and architecture to urban plan. It stated in 1966 that ‘suburbia was the new city.’” Dan Graham, Dan Graham: Architecture, (London: Architectural Association, 1997), 7.

[12] Keller Easterling, “Siting Protocols,” Peter Lang and Tam Miller, Suburban Discipline, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), 21.

[13] Easterling, 129.

[14] “Suburbanity” was introduced as a critical term in a series of lectures in spring 2003 at the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design curated by Pat Morton, Paulette Singley, and myself. Of course this is anticipated by Graham nearly forty years ago.

[15] I would like to thank Michael Maltzan for this observation about informality.

[16] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations. Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt. (New York: Schocken Books, 1969, first published in German in Zeitschrift f?ɬºr Sozialforschung, 5, 1, 1936) 217-252.

[17] Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[18] The literature on this network city is vast, but the most seminal texts are Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, second edition, (New York: Blackwell, 2001) and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

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