Tag Archives: GROTESQUE

#160: THE BRAVERY OF HAYDEN TRACT

October 28, 2022

(W)rapper: Moss' most ambitious project to date, a highrise with a striking exterior frame which eliminates all columns on the inside, Los Angeles, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

Good architecture takes vision. Great architecture takes courage. Within Culver City lies Hayden Tract, a former industrial zone named after the main streets, Hayden Avenue and Hayden Place. For the past four decades, this neighborhood has served as the national stage for the audacious vision of architect Eric Owen Moss and developer/builders Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith.

Pterodactyl: a visually-bold composition of zinc-clad boxes set into a glass office building, Culver City, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

Recently, I got a behind-the-scenes tour of Hayden Tract, organized by the AIA with members of Eric Owen Moss’ studio. Regarding the architecture, the Baroque and Mannerist art movements of 17th and 18th century Europe came to mind: sensual excess, grandeur and daring, and an idiosyncratic sense of awe.

3535 Hayden: The existing wood trusses remain like historic artifacts, Culver City, California (photo by Anthony Poon)
Samitaur: Architecture as art and sculpture, Culver City, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

In the 80s, husband-wife, real estate developer team, Frederick and Laura, launched an agenda of city transformation unlike no other. Prior to that, the husband was Pablo Picasso’s assistant, and the wife, a Los Angeles dancer and performing artist. The couple founded their organization, Samitaur, and found their lifelong pet project in Hayden Tract. At the time of their property acquisitions decades ago, the area was not much more than a rag-tag collection of crumbling buildings and streets.

Pterodactyl: left-the expressiveness of the exterior continue throughout the interiors of this office space; right-offices cantilever over the parking ramps, Culver City, California (photos by Anthony Poon)
Pterodactyl: Complexities of the engineering express themselves unapologetically, Culver City, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

Eric Owen Moss, a Los Angeles native with degrees from UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Harvard, started his design studio in 1973. The three individuals met a decade later through an ordinary circumstance: Moss was a tenant paying rent to his landlord, Samitaur. Since then, Frederick and Laura have been an unwavering loyal client to Moss, commissioning project after project, year after year, decade after decade. This patronage mirrors one of the most fruitful benefactions in history. From the Renaissance, I call it the Medici Effect.

left: Dining table detail at Waffle (now Verspertine restaurant), right: Pterodactyl: Zinc-clad and glass forms collide with impressive results, Culver City, California (photos by Anthony Poon)
Waffle: Originally designed as a conferenece center, then later adapted into a restaurant, Culver City, California (photos by Anthony Poon)

These days, Hayden Tract has become a pilgrimage for architects seeking landmarks of renewal and artistry—a flexing of muscles on the other-side-of-the-tracks. The nearby predictable redevelopment of downtown Culver City brings the expected offerings of shops, bars, and restaurants (and traffic!).

Strait is the Gate: Announcing the entry with steel plates and tubes, Culver City, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

Herbert Muschamp, New York Times, pronounced, “Moss’s projects strike me as such a form of education. The knowing spontaneity of his forms, the hands-on approach implicit in their strong, sculptural contours, the relationship they describe between a city’s vitality and the creative potential of its individuals: these coalesce into tangible lessons about how a city should face its future.”

Slash and Backslash: Glass surfaces express the cut away forms, Culver City, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

Neither Modern, Post-Modern, Post-Structuralist, or Deconstructivist, the work of Moss side steps the labels. His architecture defies both lessons learned and the successes of history, paving an individualistic path. The designs also resist the standard definitions of the industry, being architecture and art, sculpture and theater. From the 18th century movement, the Grotesque, such adjectives may apply to Moss’ work: deformed, bizarre, and uncomfortable, yet strikingly beautiful.

The Umbrella: A virtuoso performance of steel and shaped glass, Culver City, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

The materials are raw and honest, elemental even—unassuming concrete, metal, wood, and glass. The details are extreme. Like a car crash, one cannot advert the gaze, as I wonder how such twisted and decadent details are imagined, engineered, drawn, city-approved, and built in the field. Not only do the personalities of each project— nearly all unique—resist categorization, the forms and shapes appear to disregard even gravity itself. For architects—fans or not of the quixotic collaboration between Moss and Samitaur—the result is an extraordinary city-size amusement park of architectural indulgences, a wonderland of spatial and visual treasures not to be overlooked or presumed arbitrary. I think of the axiom, “Love me or hate me, but don’t ignore me.”

#63: SOME KIND OF BEAUTIFUL

May 26, 2017

Storm King Wavefield, by Maya Lin, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (2009, photo from stormking.org)

What is beauty? How is it defined, described, discussed, deconstructed?

Looking at personal favorites, I ponder four themes of beauty: 1) man-made, 2) God-made, 3) the Grotesque, and 4) the ethereal.

1) BY MAN OR WOMAN

One category of beauty is that made by the hands of a person. And its beauty can be at any size and complexity—from a gourmet delicacy to twisted steel beams six stories high.

Sushi at Urasawa, Los Angeles (photo from tomostyle.wordpress.com)
Sushi at Urasawa, Los Angeles (photo from tomostyle.wordpress.com)

I love the artistry in making sushi. Not only is the result visually appealing, but sushi’s beauty is also temporal. The creations exist as beautiful for only a brief moment, as the juices soak for too long and discolor the creation, as the temperature changes how the food glistens.

South Field sculptures, by Mark Di Suvero, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1969 to 1998, photo from whattododigital.com)
South Field sculptures, by Mark Di Suvero, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1969 to 1998, photo from whattododigital.com)

One of my favorite places on the planet is the 500-acre art park known as Storm King in Upstate New York. With immense scale, the sculptural installations are profound. No longer inhibited by the walls of a gallery, the sky is literally the limit. Art’s beauty reaches up, out or down, and does so more ambitiously than ever before.

Storm King Wall by Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1998, photo from stormking.org)
Storm King Wall by Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1998, photo from stormking.org)

2) BY NATURE

Mother Nature has delivered some of the most beautiful things in the world.

left: Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes, California (photo by Wally Pacholka); right: Hexagonal tops of the postpile columns (photo by Jerrye and Roy Klotz)
left: Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes, California (photo by Wally Pacholka); right: Hexagonal tops of the postpile columns (photo by Jerrye and Roy Klotz)

I favor the natural stone formation known as Devils Postpile. Basalt formations create hexagonal columns that start deep in the Earth and reveal their natural engineering at the surface. The beauty and structural logic of the hexagon is prevalent throughout nature.

Natural hexagonal structural logic (photo from aetherforce.com)
Natural hexagonal structural logic (photo from aetherforce.com)

3) THE GROTESQUE

left: Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry (1984); right: Untitled #359, by Cindy Sherman (2000)
left: Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry (1984); right: Untitled #359, by Cindy Sherman (2000)

Beauty can be obviously beautiful or not so obvious. Perhaps beauty does not have to be pretty and attractive, but rather, sublime.

The Steve McCurry portrait is universally considered to be one of the definitive portraits in history, akin to the Mona Lisa. Yes, McCurry’s work is exquisite. But I argue that photographer/artist Cindy Sherman has also captured beauty, but in her signature bizarre and deformed visions.

left: Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly, by Annie Leibovitz (2006); Greer and Robert on the Bed, by Nan Goldin (1982)
left: Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly, by Annie Leibovitz (2006); Greer and Robert on the Bed, by Nan Goldin (1982)

Countering the classical beauty of portraits by Annie Leibovitz, Nan Goldin’s work presents hypnotic, even frightening images of her friends. Starting as a raw, stark and intimate look into the life of the gay subculture of the 70’s and 80’s in New York City, Goldin’s “look” is later commercialized, nearly made trite. Even called beautiful, “Heroic Chic” arrives to the world of fashion photography.

See more on the Grotesque and architecture.

left: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Opus 57, the “Appassionata,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1805); Bud Powell (photo from thejazzlabels.com)
left: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Opus 57, the “Appassionata,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1805); Bud Powell (photo from thejazzlabels.com)
Lily (photo by Anthony Poon)
Lily (photo by Anthony Poon)

4) THE ETHEREAL

How do we defined the aural beauty in music and its ethereal qualities? Both the music of Beethoven and Bud Powell have been described as beautiful and Grotesque, with its poetic lyricism alongside jarring rhythms and discordant harmonies.

Lastly, this portrait too is beautiful. Ethereally.

#24: PETERSEN AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM: ARCHITECTURE OF THE GROTESQUE

December 18, 2015

Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California (photo by BP Miller on Unsplash)

I don’t mean ugly or gross. The Grotesque, an art movement, originated in 16th century Italy, and by the 18th century, the philosophy traveled to France, Germany and England. The Grotesque exists today in many forms of painting, sculpture, music, literature, architecture, and other arts.

Originally, the decorative style combined and distorted human, animal, and plant parts. Whether in its basic historical form or in contemporary explorations, adjectives for the Grotesque include the following: bizarre, uncomfortable, disgusting, weird, comical, twisted, and deformed.

(photo by Cottonbro Studio from Pexels)

Take the 1963 recording of Thelonious Monk’s Tea for Two. This territorializing rendition is often thought of as melodically disturbed, unharmonious, and rhythmic off balance. Some have even called Monk’s music perverse and violent. But the irony is this: the so called ugliness of his music is often considered pleasurable. In fact, Monk’s music is considered one of the most important and most enjoyed jazz of our time, by experts and mainstream

Three Studies of George Dyer, 1967, by Francis Bacon
Three Studies of George Dyer, by Francis Bacon, 1967

In Francis Bacon’s paintings, note how often viewers comment on the artwork’s beauty, even when Bacon represents tortured and deformed faces.

Dining scene from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, 1989
Dining scene from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, 1989

Consider Peter Greenaway’s 1989 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. The vivid and lush interiors with the decadent and abundant dishes of food open the film beautifully and hypnotically. Eventually the interiors and food transform into something else.

Towards the end of the movie, the excesses of the cinematic beauty become repulsive. It is not simply that beauty is overtaken by the perverse, but all the same properties that made the films’ beauty actually beautiful, reaches the limit to represent the expected qualities of beauty. The overwhelming proportion of beauty becomes horrific but still attractive: the Grotesque.

Whether with Monk, Bacon or Greenaway, the evolution from beauty to something undesirable to something pleasurable, supports Immanuel Kant’s belief that beauty is restful and that the sublime is movement. Kant argues that, “this movement may be compared to a vibration, i.e. to a quickly alternating attraction toward, and repulsion from, the same object.”

And so it is with the Petersen Automotive Museum, recently opened to the public in Los Angeles. Previously, I critiqued the Broad vs. the Petersen, two local museums under construction at that time. As I started to write an article about the now complete museums, I chose to not compare and contrast. Instead, I sought an academic framework to discuss the Petersen.

I have no idea if the architects of the Petersen, KPF from New York, were testing the philosophy of the Grotesque. Somehow, I doubt it. But I think contemplating the enormous racing red and chrome building in an intellectual context gives the design prowess and gravitas. If not for such an academic narrative, then all I can hear from every passerby is, “This Petersen is ugly.”

Upon arriving at the museum, do not avert your gaze. Do not simply call it unattractive. Perhaps you will be taken by Kant’s movement, where this new sculptural building will repulse you and eventually attract you. Hopefully.

Facade detail, Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California (photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash)
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