the idea of
the idea of
Sylvia Lavin in conversation with C. Recorded on August 14th, 2013
C: I am going to start with a statement: where we live and work defines us, at least in some regards. And I think it is apparent in our constant need to ask, “where are you from?”, “what neighborhood do you live in?” as if this would give us some insight into their personality or the way they think according to their geographic location. So I guess this discussion is bigger than New York and LA, but I think those are two good cities to start with because they both have strong characters, if we can talk about cities as having characters, and that very much affects the architects working in them. The lecture that you moderated between Thom Mayne and Bernard Tschumi brought up recurring stereotypes that have been applied before; that perhaps people in New York are more concerned with the conceptual or theoretical aspect of an artwork , whereas people in Los Angeles are more focused on the making and feeling of a work. Would you agree with this generalization? I understand that as a generalization it can’t be applied to everyone, but I find it apparent in the way that architects from both cities speak about and emphasize aspects of their work.
SL: I agree that there are different habits: habits of mind, habits of practice, habits of production, habits of speech, just as there are different dialects from one region to another, even if the base language stays the same. But I think I don’t fundamentally agree with what you are saying, although I recognize the symptoms that you’re reading—mainly that there seem to be these different habits in New York and LA if we take those two as examples. But the discourses that emphasize those differences tend to in the end get down to geographical essentialism, which is really not a premise with which I would agree. So would I say that the kind of distinctions that you are making, say the conceptual versus the…
C: … the building, or fabrication. I think that there is more of an emphasis on material in Los Angeles than there is in New York.
SL: See, I think you’re actually talking about institutions and not about cities. I think if you look at Pratt or Parsons you’ll find plenty of fabrication going on there. If you look at the office of Jeff Koons you’ll see an unbelievable expertise in systems of fabrication that employ exactly the same tools that architects use: Catia, 3D modeling, etcetera. But other institutions choose to foreground other issues. I think it has nothing to do with New York. I think it has to do with the institutional practices and habits. I do think that an aspect of these institutions has to do with the way modernization unfolded. So, modernization came later to Los Angeles than it came to New York because LA is a newer place and rapid modernization has different kinds of effects. For example, in Los Angeles, the primary art and architectural institutions were in effect put in place in the 1960s. Which is not to say that they have no historical trajectory, but they came into being and were populated in a certain kind of way with certain kinds of ideas already in place.
There are few enough of them that they don’t produce as much power in their interrelations as the institutions in New York do – which have been there longer, and have built up longer term associations with certain stakeholders. So those institutional differences are very significant, and those differences absolutely have an effect on practice and the way things unfold. But do I think that has anything to do with New York and Los Angeles as places, in the way that that word is normally used in a phenomenological sense? No, I don’t. And I think that’s what you were driving at in the beginning, which is why I would say I recognize the symptoms, but my diagnosis of them would be very different.
C: And how about the way we move around the city? For example the car culture in Los Angeles, does that influence the way architects think about how to build there versus the importance of subway lines and high-rise buildings in New York?
SL: Gee, well, I don’t know. It’s ironic to point out to you a fact that you know perfectly well which is, at least in terms of architectural theory, the earliest people who most elaborately theorized on the impact of car culture on architecture, among them Reyner Banham, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, were not from Los Angeles. They have absolutely nothing to do with LA from any essential point of view. So no, I don’t think car culture is a prerogative of LA.C: So, you would say it is more about the moment in time when an institution emerges in the city rather than the physical attributes of the city itself? I still can’t help but feel that there are these marked distinctions, even if they are institutional. Will cities converge as Los Angeles becomes as old as New York and as New York becomes as old as London? There still seems to be this separation between different places of production.
SL: If you are going to use a conversation between Bernard and Thom as your point of departure, those two in their everyday being could almost be used to stereotype the East Coast and West Coast. In other words, if what you want to find are these stereotypical differences then those would be people to look towards. On the other hand, Thom now lives in New York and he was trained at Harvard. I don’t know what that makes him. One of Bernard’s first important conceptual statements, his theorizations on the relationship between urbanity and architecture, took place because of a trip to LA, and was written about LA. So really the differences are not etched in stone. Also, emphasizing the differences has precluded the opportunity to understand the complex dynamic relationship between not just those two cities, but across the differences in place. So I guess I’m responding very strongly to what I feel is a sense in your questions to want to preserve the sanctity of place and its local identity. And I would say that I don’t particularly see the value of that.
C: Right, I am not trying to draw hard lines and classify. I guess I am trying to use these distinctions as a way to get to something else. I really do feel that there are these ineffable differences between the East and West Coast that I have been thinking about since I moved from California to New York - and I guess I am just trying to wrap my head around it. Maybe these differences are just romantic, and as we streamline into a more globalized place the differences become smaller and smaller as you’re suggesting.
SL: I think I would put it in a different way. What does it mean that somebody like you remains attached to the idea of situated difference despite all of the evidence, the inescapable pressures that are tending towards the production of a homogeneous global culture? So what’s important is that you want there to be differences, despite the fact that all indications are diminishing. So difference holds some value. That is worth reflecting on because the value is real even if the differences are not. That is what I would say to you, in terms of your own speculation, why are you interested in this subject?
The second thing that I would say is, releasing the notion of place from this essentializing geographical phenomenology, makes available a different set of tools for analysis, and for analyzing a new set of objects. What happens to that question when you shift the object from the city of Los Angeles and the city of New York to lets say SCI-Arc and Columbia? What kind of new questions does that shift make available?
C: Ok, um...
SL: I would say they are pretty significant.
SL: If you shift from long-standing cities and their inalienable, geographic, infrastructural conditions that intrinsically make the city almost beyond critique, because it’s like a mountain—how the hell do you critique a mountain? It is what it is… whereas the minute you start putting it in institutional terms it becomes not only subject to analysis but also susceptible to transformation. And I think that’s very significant. I’m not sure that I satisfied what you wanted from me but I hope that the conversation was useful.