The A+D Museum’s "Shelter" Disappoints by Reinforcing Market Fundamentalism

Architects need to channel their energies toward new housing solutions that are grounded in reality.

The curators asked architects to propose innovative housing typologies for two sites: Wilshire Boulevard and the L.A. River. Pictured: L.A.-based wHY architects’ project Un/Folding Wilshire imagines a gigantic infrastructural armature that supports a miniature city.

All images courtesy the architects/A+D Museum

Unlike artists, architects prefer responding to questions rather than asking them. With a few notable exceptions—Rem Koolhaas’s notorious scrutinizing of program briefs, or Cedric Price’s irreverence when asked to design a couple’s house, recommending a divorce instead—we are habitual brief responders. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the noble undertaking of professionally serving a client’s perceived needs. But should this release architects from the obligation to critically interrogate these requests? This apathy seems to have guided many of the responses to a curatorial prompt by the A+D Museum, which sought new housing solutions for a changing Los Angeles. Notwithstanding flourishes of elegant design, designerly intelligence, and earnest professional effort, the exhibition, Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles, doesn’t get very far in the rethinking.

Claiming that “for more than a century, Los Angeles has been the epicenter of innovative residential architecture in the United States, if not the world,” the curators ambitiously set the bar very high for the participating architects. The proposals would ostensibly uphold and extend the city’s legacy of experimental dwellings, which began with Irving Gill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra, was further developed by the case-study house program, and culminated in the work of Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne, among others. And, dauntingly, this would be done with full knowledge that in today’s L.A. the single-family home is no longer the locus of innovation.

Given the stakes, one scans the walls mostly in vain for smart and value-rich responses, articulations of ethical stewardship, or tectonic sophistication—in short, for a framing that celebrates the engineering of values instead of value engineering. Alas, Michael Maltzan’s Star Apartments, the striking downtown development for the formerly homeless and the most inventive of the handful of built examples depicted in the show, are lauded not for proposing a new typology for the socially deprived, but for merely being fast and cheap.

Where is a thoughtful discussion about ownership and occupant diversity, and the question of their effects on the city as a whole?

In places, the exhibition space feels not unlike the sales office of a generic condominium project, complete with glossy images of shining towers described in real estate agents’ jargon. Symptoms of irrational exuberance and conspicuous consumption are rife. Take PAR’s proposal for a glassy condo high-rise that towers over LACMA, or MAD’s plans for a vertical village with hanging gardens. Glancing at these, it occurs to the visitor that the curators themselves have lost the plot.

A slippery use of terms (“shelter,” “house,” “housing”) hints at a deeper malaise about the exhibition’s aims. Where is a thoughtful discussion about ownership and occupant diversity, and the question of their effects on the city as a whole? Although the show claims to have sought a “critical dialog about housing, and ultimately, set the stage for much-needed change,” one really wonders what kind of change and associated values the curators were satisfied in portraying. We’re left not with too many questions unanswered, but far too many unasked. That Shelter fails to present serious research into the current changes and anxieties about housing in the city, or examine the minimal critical notes from respondents, all points to the A+D being insufficiently concerned about the ongoing social crises in our cities.

Recently, I had the fortune of staying at Neutra’s VDL House for a few nights. The opposite of the immodest proposals and displays evident in much of the A+D show, this early-20th-century exploration of modern living seriously examined how, within a minimal budget and a tight site, desires and needs could be compactly coupled in a new vital framework. Through careful spatial choreographies offering diverse vistas while still ensuring a modicum of privacy, Neutra’s house formed a carefully crafted clue to the future, resolving often irreconcilable dynamics such as affordability and socioeconomic diversity, density and the enjoyment of open space. That is, the small house with big ideas reminds us that in order for architecture to be part of today’s conversation about cities, it should resist becoming a marketing product under one convenient brand or title. And especially one (i.e., shelter) that prompts fundamental questions only to disappoint by reinforcing market fundamentalism, which demands asking: What was the question again?

Peter Zumthor’s controversial design for LACMA foregrounds MAD’s Cloud Corridor, a kind of “vertical village” for housing that the architects intend as an urban gesture—the totem-like tower will redistribute the density of the area and act as a new conduit for the community.

Working with the same LACMA/Wilshire Boulevard site as MAD, PAR architects offered an alternative to the “vertical village” theme, with a 930-foot-tall stack that packs in individual housing units complete with terraces and other green spaces.

Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOHA) combines infrastructure and landscape in their WATERshed proposal for the L.A. River site.

Bureau Spectacular’s Five Normal Houses embraces the quintessential L.A. typology—the single-family house. Each of the dwellings, including the Pool House (pictured), address the different building cultures that have sprout up along the L.A. River.

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