City in a City

“City in a City”, an exhibition that concentrates on Steven Holl's large-scale urban projects and answers to problems of overpopulation, finds itself at ease sitting in the Schindler House, an environment that would seem its antithesis.

I’m judging a book by its cover, here, but this seemed like a particularly popular exhibition at The Schindler House in Los Angeles, by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture.
Opening night of “City in a City: a Decade of Urban Thinking by Steven Holl Architects”, kicked off with a panel discussion about Holl’s architecture and its relevance, drawing a notably sizable crowd. The following evening – a lecture by Holl himself – drew an even bigger one. Standing room only! Every room of the famous ‘mixed-use’ Schindler House was now dedicated solely to straining to hear Holl speak, while lucky first-comers got front-row seats in the outdoor living area.
Top: Steven Holl Architects, Vanke Center, Shenzhen, China, 2006-2009. Photo Iwan Baan. Above: Steven Holl Architects, Sliced Porosity Block Capitaland Raffles City, Chengdu, China 2007–2012. Photo © Shu He
Did I mention it was drizzling? And, yes, I’ll reiterate the stereotype of Angelinos reacting to drizzle as if it were a civil defense drill (duck, cover, and don’t leave the house). So Steven Holl was surely a major draw. But it’s not really the MAK Center’s modus operandi to put on exhibitions that will be “sure draws” – that is, featuring widely recognized names – and that’s not a bad thing. One goes to the Schindler House to (re)discover a significant figure from the past (Otto Neurath, Esther McCoy), learn about an overlooked period of work or an underrated idea, or to reconsider movements in architecture in a new light. Armchair observation holds that an exhibition exclusively dedicated to one contemporary architect and his recent body of work is unusual for the MAK Center. “City in a City” is therefore a noteworthy show, not only for the work that is on display, but also for the decisions that went into displaying them.
Steven Holl Architects, Dongguan masterplan, China, 2012
Okay, so exactly what is on display? Well, surprisingly, the walls of The Schindler House are dedicated entirely to hanging watercolors – ones that Holl works on every morning, in contemplation of existing and possible projects. In one room, a film montage of some of Holl’s finished projects in China demonstrates how these paintings pan out in real life. Appropriately, the film features no interviews or, for that matter, words. Like the watercolors, the film reinforces the presence, atmospheres, shades and movements of buildings, rather than any chiseled, articulated concept. 
Architectural models stand modestly on tables in the center of the Schindler House rooms, and tucked beneath those tables are work descriptions of the urban projects on display, which develop chronologically from room to room, beginning with Holl’s Linked Hybrid project in Bejing (2003 – 2009), and taking the viewer toward current works in the design stage. Of course, this being a discussion about architecture, chronology becomes an iffy term, with projects intersecting in years.
Steven Holl Architects, Culture and Art Center of Qingdao City
In addition to Linked Hybrid, Horizontal Skyscraper / Vanke Center in Shenzhen (2006-2009) and Sliced Porosity Block in Chengdu (2007-2012) are the two other built projects investigated in the show. Three recent projects – Porosity Plan for Dongguan (2013), Tianjin EcoCity Ecology and Planning Museums competition winner (2012), and the Qingdao Culture and Art Center (2013) – compose the (yet) unbuilt component.
Ideas inform projects, and projects inform ideas, which is a staple of architecture (or art or anything at all) as well as of this show in particular. Greater weight isn’t necessarily given to realized projects in “City in a City”. Neither does the show stack one year of work on top of previous years with too much punctiliousness. Much more interesting is the unusual hierarchy it builds by placing great importance on architecture’s ‘poetry’ (Holl’s expressionistic watercolors on prominent display) as compared to architecture’s concrete facts (Holl’s project descriptions, while available to all, are positioned outside the limelight).
Steven Holl Architects, Ecology and Planning Museums, Tianjin, China, September 2012
Even if the ‘art’ that makes up Holl’s architecture is an elusive material, it can relate to the viewer in a much more physical, perhaps even emotional way than can words, facts or ‘expository’ architectural models. In that way, “City in a City” is more of a physical show than a cerebral one, demonstrating the ways in which we use, observe, and even ignore space. After the opening, when I spoke with Kimberli Meyer, Director of the MAK Center, she put it this way: “Of course, Holl thinks in much bigger terms than watercolors, but instead of thinking through the drafting table or computer, he’s using a very material, very direct medium to relate to space and architecture.” This sensitivity to space as having a kind of personality, an artistic malleability, is perhaps what makes Holl’s projects so compelling.
Steven Holl Architects, Ecology and Planning Museums, Tianjin, China, September 2012
“One question I hope people take away from the show is, How can an architect work at the scale of a city?” says Meyer. “This goes beyond city planning or an intervention here and there, it’s about how we live together in a very dense situation, how we incorporate different kinds of space and different ways that people want to live. I was struck by Holl’s work because, in an overarching and detailed way, he takes into account the very different methods that people use to navigate their daily lives.”
Steven Holl Architects, Linked Hybrid, Beijing, China, 2003-2009. Photo © Shu He
“City in a City”, an exhibition that concentrates on large-scale urban projects and answers to problems of overpopulation, finds itself at ease sitting in an environment that would seem its antithesis: a single-storey home with a big back yard, in a city where space is still most often discussed in terms of “how much?” as opposed to “not enough.” Los Angeles is all about different methods of navigating life – remarkably different methods, according to person and neighborhood. But it is exactly because of these many incongruities that the popularity, and title, of this show make so much sense.
What if the title was posed as a question: “City in a City?” How do we make dense, urban spaces seem intimate, inviting, comfortable and even compact, within otherwise vast, hectic environments? This isn’t a new question, but the answers in this exhibition address a new time with its own demands and aesthetics.
Steven Holl Architects, Vanke Center, Shenzhen, China, 2006-2009. Photo Iwan Baan
Los Angeles has had both unique luxuries and problems in relation to space; it is a city that has to consider a future that won’t fit into solutions built in the past. The Schindler House, which was designed for two couples in search of a new way to live, work, retreat and engage, is itself a city in a city, further underscoring the elasticity of the question, and the necessity of posing it time and again. This is a show about how expectations and experiments meet with reality. Steven Holl drew a crowd to The Schindler House, even on a rainy day, but those who came saw more than just his lecture or a body of his work – they saw some of the changing world to which his projects are responding.
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Steven Holl Architects, Culture and Art Center of Qingdao City

Until 9 March 2014
City in a City: a Decade of Urban Thinking by Steven Holl Architects
MAK Center, Schindler House
835 North Kings Road, West Hollywood

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