Glitter Stucco and Supermodernism

Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving, John Chase (Verso, 2000)

SUPERMODERNISM: Architecture in the Age of Globalization, Hans Ibelings (NAi, 1998)

Collecting essays written over fifteen years, John Chase’s Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving explores the obvious as well as the overlooked underbelly of western US cities. His findings reveal a fiercely democratic, if ad hoc, urbanism in which developers, homeowners, renters, retailers, pedestrians and the homeless all demarcate, and thereby create, civic place. Although writing is an avocation for Chase—by day, he is an architect and urban planner currently overseeing West Hollywood’s civic renewal—he spouts infectious prose and incendiary theories as easily as Dave Hickey or Mike Davis do to explain LA’s ever-proliferating landscape. These essays include few "big-name" architects, instead Chase applies penetrating art historical research to the un-sung. Convinced that buildings rarely outshine but often outlast their authors, Chase researches the origins of "ding-bat" stucco boxes as if they were archeological remnants. He illuminates the personalities and circumstances that gave rise to each, be they of Tiki, Colonial, Mod or mixed pedigree. Chase proposes an alternative canon against LA’s long line of high-modernists. Included is the godfather of the modern Mansart roof, John Woolf, a prolific and groundbreaking "exterior decorator" revamping Hollywood homes in the sixties. In "The Making of Mountaingate" Chase assesses the dingbats of our time. Built in the early seventies, Mountaingate is a planned community perched on a ridge of the Sepulveda Pass, the only development for miles in that stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains until the recent completion of the Getty and Skirball museums. It is the Ur-gated enclave, where many of the hallmarks of later privatized communities were either invented—he notes pioneering use of grossly over-stated security systems, abstracted Mediterranean cornice lines—or go eerily missing, as in the case of pedestrian amenities like sidewalks and communal swimming areas. In the most critically innovative section of Glitter Stucco, Chase channels his first-hand experiences of the city, shaped equally by his own circumstances and the desires of clients, neighbors, friends and lovers. "The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Urban Living"" offers a detailed account of the goings on in the alley behind Chase’s Venice home, complete with an ecology of local trash sorting, a street-fair’s worth of activity and gossip and a bum’s rush of an ending. As Chase comments, "Sometimes life is only redeemable through representation." Chase thesis crystallizes in his final chapter, "You Are What You Buy," arguing for a radical reassessment of consumerist architecture. He identifies five orders of building production, dividing design into three for-profit and two not-for-profit categories that include Vanguard, Corporate/Institutional, and Consumerist in the market-driven column, against Utilitarian and Personal Fantasy designs not intended for consumer use. Like Robert Venturi and Charles Moore before him, Chase cites high design’s indifference and, by extension, irrelevance in the construction of ninety-five percent of the built environment. More specifically, he chastises architects for not acknowledging their role, with both its possibilities and limitations, in the production of a late-capitalist landscape. He reads the art world ambitions of most contemporary architects, and their corresponding blindness to the tawdry environmental realities of most commissions, as either side of a self-deluding coin, one that acts as currency only within the fixed parameters of the academy. By contrast, Hans Ibelings argues that high-design currency is actually gaining purchase in the ‘real world.’ Succinct in both polemic and format, lavishly illustrated and brutally reductivist, Ibelings’ SUPERMODERNISM: Architecture in the Age of Globalization is a primer for all that John Chase laments in contemporary architecture. Icy images of monuments, strictly by architects of global stature, float in a sea of seductively neat observations celebrating the promise of a homogeneous worldview.

Published in 1998, many of the predictions in SUPERMODERNISM now ring prophetic. Ibelings’ dry dismissal of both Postmodernism and Deconstruction has the elegance of a geometric proof: allowing that we are all postmodern in our doubts and relativism, he points out that we need not be, and may not want to be, in our art. And his defense of placeless, context-free mega-urban gestures in subsequent chapters titled simply "Modernism" and "Supermodernism" leaves the reader feeling like the world could indeed be a cleaner, simpler space. (Perhaps even a non-place, to employ a term Ibelings borrows from sociologist Marc Auge to explain an emergent supermodern paradigm reflective of ever more global practices and exchange.)

Globalization is a tough term to pin-down. Ibelings is at some pains to both acknowledge its slipperiness and argue its increasingly pervasive authority. Though reliant on many of the guiding principles of the New Economy— instant communication, pre-9/11 open travel, free trade, etc.—Ibelings wisely conditions his enthusiasm with disclaimers. Noting that sociologists disagree vehemently about not only the nature but even the existence of globalization, Ibelings concedes that phenomena like ‘glocalization’—the global projection of specific subcultural values, as in the spread of Hip-Hop habits or surf/skate labels—run counter to new pancultural standards of design. But he concludes, "although it is possible, for example, to point to the multi-cultural, multi-form nature of urban regions around the world as a sign of growing heterogeneity, the strongest arguments seem to favor the homogenization viewpoint."

He sees recent architectural developments, both in their aesthetics and their circumstances, as symptoms, but not leading indicators, of a broader cultural shift toward more global, neutral and non-representational forms of art and exchange.

To illustrate this attitude and its spread, Ibelings links the catalog for MoMA’s 1995 show Light Constructions with simultaneous books in four languages devoted individually to the Monolithic, Minimal, Smooth and Transparent in new architecture. All are united in their aspiration to affect, to be "devoid of allusion," and their refusal of postmodern or deconstructive ambitions to make buildings "texts." Ibelings sees a shared wisdom in the work of a few European and Asian firms that recur in many of these publications, including Peter Zumthor, Herzog+Demeron, OMA/Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito and Tadao Ando. All, in Ibelings’ estimation, exhibit a well-justified disillusionment with the allegorical architecture of the seventies and eighties.

Ibelings returns repeatedly to the Postmodernist elevation of context, calling "sensitivity to context" as an all-purpose rationalization of mediocre in-fill building. Their historicism then converted into fodder for themed amusement parks, planned communities and shopping centers utterly cut off from their surroundings. But unlike Chase, who would opt for a renewed search for and creation of an authentic milieu, Ibelings accepts the spatial foreclosure of these new developments. He simply wishes they were better, and by better, he means less preoccupied with representation and symbolism.

Nowhere is this disagreement between Chase and Ibelings more clear than when both return to Venturi’s testing grounds, examining recent projects in Las Vegas. Surprisingly, Chase and Ibelings share a bete noir in Jon Jerde (and more surprisingly, an enthusiasm for Charles Jencks). Chase and Ibelings both see a threatening future in Jerde’s Fremont Street Experience, in which the older casinos along Vegas’ historical strip are united and encapsulated by a new arcade of translucent roofing and lighting. For Chase, Fremont Street represents a complete repudiation of the public domain. Reconstructing the civic politics of a contested city/county tax base that led to the Fremont redevelopment, Chase portrays Jerde’s scheme as a "malling" and live burial of old Vegas’ civic core. For Ibelings, Jerde’s work both hides and hides from its inner hypocrisy, the stale repackaging of unnecessary signifiers. But it’s clear from the visuals which author sees the greater crime in Jerde: Ibelings give Fremont Street full-color, full-bleed documentation, a center-fold spread of hue and light that in many ways meets the criteria of supermodernity; Chase includes a nostalgic pre-roof black and white. This split recurs. Chase and Ibelings are extreme manifestations of two often confused but in fact complimentary urban sensibilities: the Metropolitan

Metropolitan Chase argues that design culture must recognize and reward the actual participants in city-making; Ibelings contends that the primary role of designers is to project and define new modes of urbanity. The cosmopolitan seeks spectacles of experience that lure a migratory elite (and the labor to serve them) from one world-city to the next. This continuum polarizes Chase and Ibelings in cultural terms, but one can imagine both humble and ambitious architecture, perhaps at odds aesthetically, but in the service of paired, civic ideals. Chase and Ibelings are united in their enthusiasm for urban expansion—which is not the case with suburbanist Jerde (or, as Ibelings notes, a new urbanist like Leon Krier). To explore the more entrenched societal divide that separates Chase and Ibelings from more city-phobic or contrapolitan suburbanists and new urbanists, another axis is needed. Koolhaas’ famous celebration of density in Delirious New York is the foundation of the megalopolitan position. By contrast, contrapolitans celebrate the value(s), virtues, legitimacy and innovation occurring at the periphery of cities in suburban, exurban, and rural zones. Congestion is the watchword by which megalopolitans and contrapolitans distinguish one another. When contrapolitans consider inner or central cities, they see their unworkable gridlock and propose pedestrian overlays of family-friendly amenities to entice disaffected suburbanites preoccupied with security and parking. The above table isolates interests that cut across metro/cosmo divides: the metropolitan interest in semiotics and legibility pertains to both the new and everyday urbanists, while suburbanists and supermodernists both seek a unifying, cosmopolitan aura that might transcend, or at least overwhelm, local signifiers. Chase and Ibelings live in the same megalopolitan city. They may not frequent the same boutiques or bars, but they hate the same malls and avoid the same suburbs. It’s interesting that though both Glitter Stucco and SUPERMODERNISM are paeans to cities, Rotterdam and Los Angeles that are both slightly dubious locales, in age, density and depth when compared with the classic poles of London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Tokyo. Both are cities defined largely over the last 50 years: more the beneficiaries than victims of the proto-globalization played out in two world wars. For the last decade the Dutch, led by Koolhaas in Rotterdam, have been exporting a SUPER, guilt-free reassessment of modernist potential that has assumed its own commodity value. Meanwhile Los Angeles has produced an endless art-world procession of neo-noir, mid-century nostalgia. Both strains of criticism have an obvious allure for denizens of post-World War II cities, but they dodge more complicated questions of waning civic identification that have many affluent westerners abandoning urban centers, running for gated hamlets in the hills.