Paper: Art for Culture – The Making of a Global City with MOCA

This paper was submitted for “Urban Planning C184: Looking at Los Angeles” with Professor Jackie Leavitt in Spring 2011.

What started as a worry about artists and collectors fleeing to New York transformed the contemporary art scene in Los Angeles and set the city on the path to become a global city. I use global city as opposed to world city, for its subtle nuances as Saskia Sassen has noted. Global cities incorporate more of a networked hub of activity than just an insular hub of activity, as a world city is understood to be.

The concept of a global city “brings a strong emphasis on the networked economy” and “where a multiplicity of globalization processes assume concrete, localized forms.” These processes include a range of operations: political, economic, and cultural. Global cities can be world cities, but don’t have to be—Miami has developed as a global city, one that assumes those globalization processes, but it is not a world city in the old sense of the term (e.g. New York, London). For the purpose of this paper, I will use the term global cities and will focus primarily on the cultural processes.

The idea of a museum dedicated to contemporary art came about in 1979 from efforts by artists, collectors, museum directors and curators who recognized the need for a world-class museum for contemporary art and an especial need for it in the West Coast. The fanfare was well recognized and reverberated across the country back to New York. Shortly after its plans were finalized 1983, art magazines were already dubbing it “the country’s best known unbuilt art museum,” “pinned on it the artistic/aesthetic hopes of so many people.” New York Times Art Critic John Russell wrote in 1984 that the greater Los Angeles area could become a new place for high art to be studied, similarly to New York or Washington, if all goes well.

Only a little over 30 years old, MOCA now has three different buildings throughout the city of Los Angeles devoted to contemporary art: MOCA on Grand Avenue, which is the main site, the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo, which hosts new artists and large-scale work, and MOCA at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. However, in the same 30 years, what was written in 1986, “the concept that Los Angeles has become a cultural mecca remains in question,” is still being debated, by some (New Yorkers mostly) more than others. MOCA was instituted because it addressed a need for contemporary art in the West Coast, but it also crafted a new cultural identity for Los Angeles as a global city.

Surreptitiously, while there was this need for a home for contemporary art, not just in Los Angeles, but the world, the Bunker Hill area in downtown Los Angeles was undergoing a multi-million dollar redevelopment project called California Plaza. With the support of then mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, the project was integrated as part of a city-brokered deal into the initial phase of the California Plaza project. The museum was part of an 11.2 acres, $1.2 billion development plan in Bunker Hill downtown, with the $23 million cost of the Grand Avenue building paid by the Californa Plaza Partnership, the developer of the California Plaza Bunker Hill project. Now, MOCA is leasing the facility from the City of Los Angeles for 50 years, until the year 2038.

With MOCA’s groundbreaking on Grand Avenue scheduled for mid-1983 with a projected completion date of late 1986, it was clear that excitement and interest around the museum would fade quickly. The solution was to create a temporary space to act as a “transitional home” — so became the Temporary Contemporary, which opened in November 1983. Frank Gehry was the architect chosen to renovate the original Albert Martin-designed 1947 Union Hardware industrial warehouses, which was an apt decision given his own industrial style. Gehry capitalized on the original warehouse’s resemblance to many artists’ studios and left most of the exterior and interior space intact, even leaving a steel crane rail to nod to the building’s original purpose as a warehouse. The gallery, totaling 55,000 square feet , is lit by wire-glass skylights, has south-facing clerestory windows. Exposed steel beams support the space’s many movable walls. A canopy of chain-link fencing spanning Central Avenue extending to the length of the building rests above the access point while simultaneously forms a plaza space. Overall, the existing structure had minimal intervention of fireproofing, exhibition walls, and access points. As the largest of the three buildings, this gallery is used to showcase larger works or works by new artists. It 1996, following a $5 million gift from The David Geffen Foundation, the Temporary Contemporary was renamed MOCA at The Geffen Contemporary.

As scheduled, in December 1986 MOCA on Grand Avenue was completed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki with MOCA being his first piece in the United States. The museum was built by the California Plaza Partnership and funding for the building, which cost $23 million, was provided by an initiative of the Community Redevelopment Agency, which stipulated that 1.5% of the total budget of any development within CRA be set aside for public art. The site area is 40,000 square feet but the building itself is only 28,500 square feet. It is unique in that the gallery is not created on the upper ground level but underground. The upper ground displays geometric pyramids, cubes and cylinders that contrast with the mix of Indian red sandstone and red granite. Inside, the pyramids work as skylights to naturally fill the room with natural night. The galleries are quiet and spacious, which allow the viewer to deeply engage with the pieces.

The last building, a 4,000 square foot free standing gallery at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, was completed in December 2000 by Cesar Pelli. This two-story structure was established for international architecture, design, and art exhibitions. The building itself is located in the two-acre outdoor plaza of the Pacific Design Center and it is a 12-inch thick architectural concrete structure with gypsum board interior surfaces. There is exposed concrete floors on the first level, and wooden floors on the second.

Sharon Zukin, a sociologist at the City University of New York, has done research on the impact of culture on cities. Throughout her work, I found three themes that she argues that could be applied to MOCA’s implementation in downtown Los Angeles. The first is that (1) culture and cultural capital is the new economic driver behind cities and urban culture, sometimes intersecting both artistic and business interests. Secondly, (2) there is an increasingly privatization of public spaces which may be reactionary to the first point in that it is an accommodation for the new urban dwellers. Finally and most importantly, Zukin notes that (3) the soul of a city is its people and its roots, and that cities will survive because of the diversity of its people, not in spite of it. These three arguments can be applied to not just to the California Plaza project as a whole, but also to the influx of new cultural and commercial development projects in city centers. Zukin mostly refers to New York and London as global and world cities, but using this framework, we can analyze the makings of Los Angeles as a global city through its cultural and art emphasis in development projects.

Gentrification began in 1950s and early 1960s in cities like New York and London and slowly attracted people, but really gained momentum in the 1980s. By then, it was being marketed to middle-class families as a safe place. The height of gentrification represented cities as a period of decline as people and business fled to the suburbs. Eventually, the new consumer’s taste displaced a lot of the original tenants. That said, it’s important to recognize the social and cultural capital of people.

When the California Plaza project was first introduced, it was called “the most ambitious mixed-used urban development in the West” and with reason. It attempted to fuse urban spaces with people’s needs, but let the goal of evening the playing field fall by the way side. The soul of the city, Zukin says, is not in its buildings, but in its people and their roots. However, when financial elites (say those in charge of the California Plaza project) and elected officials change the rules to favor deregulation and create more facilities for cultural consumption (MOCA), the physical landscape of global cities did not separate creativity from consumption, which ultimately leads to more homogenization and standardization as more cities compete with one another to provide the same cultural services. In The Los Angeles Plaza, David William Estrada stressed the importance of public spaces as a way to understand cultural and political meaning in contemporary Los Angeles. The new business district, which the California Plaza project continued, was “designed to ensure a seamless continuum of middle-class work, consumption, and recreation that was insulated from the city’s immigrant poor. ” The creation of this “quasi-public” space (renovated Pershing Square, LA Live, etc.) “reflects a national movement toward defensible urban centers and the corresponding loss of public space.”

Cities will survive because of the diversity of its people, but there is no diversity when everyone is a college-educated gentrified, or the “creative class,” a term that has been coined by Richard Florida. There is a tremendous cultural value in diversity, and if a contemporary art museum is able to bring that diversity together in a common place, then I believe Los Angeles has succeeded. Otherwise, Zukin may be correct in that cultural gentrification’s dark side of aggressive private-sector bidding for control of public spaces, as well as an increasing redesign of the built environment for the purpose of social control.

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