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Xárene Eskandar
Los Angeles, US
Immortal since Apr 4, 2007
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    Los Angeles, Architecture, and the Human Condition
    Project: Epiphanies
    in-progress / comments welcome.

    1. Architecture as a metaphor for the body

    As a life-long student of Bauhaus architecture and Swiss design, my travels have always fulfilled related aesthetic fascinations and curiosities. In June 2013, however, I did not take a trip to Switzerland to experience architectural monuments, but was on a quest for an experience to sort out my mind and soul in the bourgie tradition of recovering at a spa in the Swiss Alps.

    The work of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor invokes experiences with deep meaning, and so as it happens for my sake in a last-minute escape to a spa, that I find myself at Therme Vals where Zumthor's philosophy of space exceeded my mental and physical needs. Therefore, a long-weekend trip was ensued by three weeks on an unplanned road trip through Switzerland where I find myself closer to an answer concerning the problem of being: How does Los Angeles affect the human condition? How can architecture respond to this problem?

    Zumthor’s architecture is an envelope for experience and perception—every space, surface and procession designed for a ritual towards drawing the maximum from all senses. The body is also an envelope and an interface for experience and perception. How do architecture and the body converge in the perceptual and natural landscapes to heighten our experience of the self? Can the body dissipate into the landscape of the experience?

    Having seen Zumthor in conversation with Michael Govan at LACMA only a couple days prior to my trip, his words were still fresh as I drove through the Canton of Graubünden. "I love big horizons." he had said. Zumthor was specifically referring to Los Angeles, where he has been invited by Govan to design the new LACMA campus. On a road trip through Death Valley, a Swiss friend struck with the awe of the vast landscape commented on the distance of the valleys, that they looked familiar but the scale was different: a Swiss valley can be traversed in quarter of an hour on foot, while an American valley can take hours to drive across. Space in Switzerland is constricted. California is roughly 10 times bigger than Switzerland; Los Angeles County can hold a few cantons; you can drive from Basel to Zurich in less time than it takes to get from West LA to East LA. The massive geographic horizon of Los Angeles, and its expansive urban horizon have no counter point in Switzerland. This is where Zumthor's fascination is rooted.

    2. Landscape as a metaphor for perception

    In deeper thought during my drive through Graubünden, I focused on Zumthor's enthusiastic comment and wondered how the geography of Los Angeles affects me. Are we a perfect match where my restlessness is fed by keeping me going until I calm down, or are we a mismatch where my restlessness is fed and never stops until I break down? When feeling melancholic, I drive to the nearby deserts. I also take advantage of living near the Pacific Ocean and use the drive up the coast and the endless horizon of the Pacific as a time to meditate, think clearly, and solve problems. This time, I felt the grounding draw of these landscapes were exhausted.

    But why am I so reliant on landscape? How does landscape affect us? Does the big horizon of Los Angeles, and Southern California in general, subconsciously lead one to seek answers outside of oneself, in others or other places? Does it make it easy to look elsewhere and use the curiosity of the far beyond to draw one out in search of answers? In contrast, do the horizonless valleys of Switzerland force one to become introspective and find the answer here in space and time, and within? If the gaze is not escaping, are we forced to focus the mind on the moment?

    3. Contextualizing perception

    Zumthor's works is regionally contextualized. It draws from the cultural and geological historic past of the location of his buildings. They are situated in the spatial and temporal moment, but ever-moving forward with the moment while carrying memory for that very reason of localized, historical contextualization.

    Context, whether for words, objects or buildings, builds a significant part of the meaning. Zumthor's work as seen in isolation through images is no doubt beautiful and thoughtful. What the image leaves out is the experience of the context of where Zumthor comes from and where the buildings are sited. Zumthor lives and works in Haldenstein and has a number of modest projects in the canton of Graubünden, and it wasn't until the end of my trip that I decided to go in search of Zumthor's work in the region. Having spent a good week up until this point zig-zagging through the mountains and valleys of Graubünden, Uri, Jura, Lucerne, Bern and many more cantons, I became familiar enough with the materiality and craftsmanship of Swiss vernacular architecture so that when I came upon the Saint Benedict Chapel in Sumtvig, it all made sense; not just Zumthor as an architect, but how to tackle the problem of architecture in Los Angeles. Keeping in mind the social, psychological and perceptual layers of Los Angeles as building material as opposed to solely its geological characteristics, what is the Los Angeles vernacular if we were to work in the manner of Zumthor’s sensibilities in relation to his context? How do we become grounded within Los Angeles through its perceptual landscapes manifested in architecture?

    4. Contextualizing memory

    Context builds memory and vice-versa. Los Angeles is a city with questionable memory: short term memory for native Angelenos, and no memory for transplanted Angelenos. In a city famed for fictitious narratives and characters, a city out-famed by its metonym, a city where one comes to build a new decontextualized narrative, memories come and go as liberally as the latest blockbuster or waiter-actor combo. Again, the technical image that captures the fiction also happens to have captured what would have become real memories if given the chance. We romanticize these alternate histories of Los Angeles through images from USC's archives and in a strange way in movies, where Thom Anderson has a captivating breakdown in Los Angeles Plays Itself. In a city where everyone belongs to elsewhere, a city that everyone loves to hate, what happens to the individual seeking a context for belonging and memory-making? How does this sense of place materialize? Is it this lack of context and belonging that forces me out and into the natural landscapes and vast deserts around Los Angeles? Is it a displacement of context and belonging that fueled my breakdown?

    5. The condition of Los Angeles

    The Swiss have a word for the deep-rooted sense of origin and belonging: Heimat. Socially and experientially, a sense of belonging is attributed to a place—the natural landscape one enjoys, the home one grew up in, the family who still live down the street, and so forth. Its rootedness comes from being able to share memories and common experiences across generations, as well as assigning durational significance to places.

    In many parts of the world we see new building additions built on top of or immediately adjacent to an existing old structure, for example Zumthor's Gugalun House in Versam, or generations living in the same home, while in the United States we see entire landscapes transformed, for example, through mountain top mining where in a couple of decades a mountain disappears, or we demolish older homes in favor of new, homogenized condos. What happens then, when a landscape changes or architecture is razed multiple times before the span of a generation, thus not allowing the formation of shared experiences say between parent and child, let alone grandparent and grandchild, or disappearances of places where one would tell stories of memories within their space? What do the denizens of a city without 'heimat' do to develop in a socially and architecturally healthy way? Do we suffer from a lack of care for a place, or do we learn to become fluid in accepting the whole over the particulars, the inverse of heimat?

    6. Anxious Landscapes

    In Anxious Landscapes, Antoine Picon asks, “How is it that, turning our back on several centuries of tradition that generally associated the contemplation of landscape with the idea of a certain peace of mind, we are so often disconcerted, indeed even anxiety-ridden, by landscapes of this type [referring to Manhattan]?” In response, he positions the technological landscape against the traditional landscape. The technological landscape of not just factories and machinery but cables and digital infrastructure, roads and continuous rest-stops, attached suburbs and over-grown towns, absorb the countryside, blurring the boundaries of where the city stops and where the natural landscape begins. This absence of a delineation of the limit of a city, and our movement in this new landscape being relative to these unclear boundaries are two main characteristics of anxiousness induced by the city.

    The dichotomy of the anxiety is curiously bizarre: it can be positive, in terms of discovering the edge of the boundaries and then their beyond; or be negative which again is the restlessness of constantly moving in and out of, and pushing beyond the boundaries. The psychological term of dissociation further explains this anxiety, where to reduce it one seeks to physically and emotionally detach from the situation, perhaps driving out and away from it. However at some point, does this therapy and meditation of driving away (self-expansion) become a form of temporary escapism (self-suppression)?

    Thu, Feb 12, 2015  Permanent link
    Categories: architecture, landscape
    Sent to project: Epiphanies
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