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Todd Gannon; photo courtesy Ohio State University
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Behind the Podium: A few questions with guest speaker Todd Gannon

Oct 11, 2022

Todd Gannon (PhD '11) is professor of architecture at the Knowlton School at The Ohio State University. His latest book, Figments of the Architectural Imagination, explores the frontiers of speculative architectural design, theory, and pedagogy to offer clear-eyed and incisive treatments of some of the most important projects, practices, and polemics at work making contemporary architecture contemporary.

Gannon returns to AUD on Monday, October 17 to present Figments of the Architectural Imagination as part of AUD's public lecture series. Ahead of the event, Gannon spoke with AUD about the book, his previous and ongoing research, and his observations on Los Angeles and its architecture.

Los Angeles looms large in Figments, almost as a main character. You’ve of course spent a great deal of time in LA, both studying and practicing. Was there an explicit motivation, or an organic development, to foreground LA and LA-based work in Figments?

LA is a great city for an historian to work on, as it’s both infinitely interesting and remains largely unstudied–particularly if you, like me, are interested in LA architecture after about 1970.

As a graduate student at Ohio State in the mid-1990s, I had an amazing studio with [AUD Professor Emeritus] Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung. Working with them designing a project on Hollywood Boulevard, I got my first real taste of the city. At graduation, the question for me and many of my classmates seemed to be: New York or LA? But I stayed in Columbus, where I began practicing with a local firm and teaching at Ohio State. Soon after, I was working on my first book, Morphosis: Diamond Ranch High School (2001), which gave me the opportunity to get to know LA–and of course, [AUD Professor Emeritus] Thom Mayne’s office, Morphosis–firsthand.

I finally moved to LA in 2004, when I enrolled in AUD’s PhD program. Not long after, I joined the board of directors at the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design. Through the Forum, I became intimately familiar with Schindler’s famous house on Kings Road and the lively grunge of Hollywood Boulevard, where we hosted many of our events. At the same time, my PhD research, focused on the British group Archigram and the historian Reyner Banham, seemed to circle back to LA, too–both were famously enamored with Los Angeles and were among the first visiting faculty at the newly launched UCLA architecture program in the late 1960s.

That theme continued: By 2008, I was teaching at SCI-Arc and had developed a habit of writing about the architects of my generation, including Dwayne Oyler and Jenny Wu, Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich, Jason Payne, and others. In 2013, I was extremely lucky to be selected to curate, with my UCLA colleague Ewan Branda and Andrew Zago, one of the exhibitions in the Getty’s "Pacific Standard Time" exhibition series. With A Confederacy of Heretics, we focused on the early days of the so-called “LA School,” the loose circle of architects that included Frank Gehry, Mayne, Hodgetts, Eric Owen Moss, and others.

So, for whatever reason, my work seems to keep gravitating back to Los Angeles (and, it seems, to UCLA!), and that’s certainly reflected in the contents of Figments.

What do you find most intriguing or inspiring about Los Angeles and its relationship with architecture?

If you look at old maps of North America, you’ll find a lot of them that depict Southern California as an island. Los Angeles sits on the Pacific tectonic plate, not the North American plate, so the sense of separation from the rest of the country is not only part of the folklore–it’s part of the geography of the city. This, I think, has something to do with LA’s long history as a place where people from elsewhere go to reinvent themselves, unencumbered by the traditions of the world they left behind.

For much of LA’s architectural history, local architects tended to work variations on imported themes. Think of the Greene brothers with Arts & Crafts, the Davidsons with Art Deco, or Schindler and Neutra with modernism. But somewhere after World War II, starting with the Case Study architects and continuing through Gehry, Mayne, Moss, Israel, and countless others, LA architecture shifted to an export economy. The rest of the world, which prior to about 1970 paid little attention to the city’s architecture, started to look to LA for ideas.

Today, Los Angeles is an undisputed locus of architectural innovation. It’s a big, complicated city with big, complicated problems. It’s also wonderfully diverse and tends to nurture–rather than stifle–idiosyncrasy. There are incredible, risk-friendly clients, a climate that’s forgiving to experimental construction, and some great architecture schools. All this creates ideal conditions for inventive, meaningful, and impactful architecture, which has a lot to do with why Los Angeles has been so important for so long and why so many architects choose to make it their home base today. What’s not to love?

You are an architect who has extensive experience in both practice and scholarship. This duality is evident in Figments: in part, a probing of the field’s pedagogical and conceptual preoccupations and how they manifest, or not, in the built environment. Is this an accurate reading of both your journey and the book?

I think so. I oscillated between practice and academia for much of my career, until I finished my PhD and began teaching full-time. My experience practicing architecture very much informs the way I teach and write about it.

I was extremely lucky to get to practice in Los Angeles while I was working on my PhD. Not only did I get to continue building, which I love, but I got to experience the challenges of making architecture in the city first-hand, which has informed my writing and teaching in important ways. Also, I wound up collaborating with some of the same engineers, builders, and photographers that worked with the subjects of my later research, which has come in very handy!

Relatedly, you have edited or authored monographs covering such a range of practice and pedagogy. What is the unique role or power of architectural writing–especially long-form–in today’s cultural environment?

At least since [Leon Battista] Alberti, architecture and writing have traveled hand in hand. Most architectural projects are instantiated in print, through drawings and written descriptions, long before they’re built, if they’re even built at all. Much of the culture of our field has been constructed through long-form texts; it turns out many architects work out their ideas in print before they get the opportunity to do so in glass and steel.

Just as literature cannot be reduced to books, architecture cannot be reduced to buildings. This refrain echoes in Figments and in much of my teaching and writing. Of course, we usually get to architecture through constructed buildings, and this remains my favorite way to get there. But we also get there through drawings, models, books, photographs, and other media, each of which inflects the architecture differently. With the written word, we can highlight architectural qualities and effects in very specific ways, ones that are unique from–and productively complement–constructed buildings.

At the same time, the significance of many constructed buildings has been teased out by critics and historians who use the written word to articulate what’s going on in the building. We’d be nowhere without architectural writing, which is why it’s crucial that we continue to find ways to encourage and support it today.

Figments is a huge achievement, and you should savor that–but I know you are already working on your next book, a survey of Frank Israel. What’s the inspiration behind taking on that project, especially today?

The Frank Israel project developed from my work on A Confederacy of Heretics, through which I got to know the folks at the Getty Research Institute. The Getty co-published, with SCI-Arc, our catalog for the exhibition, and they also published my book on Banham, Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech (2017), which grew out of my UCLA dissertation. Israel’s archives are held at the Getty, and not long after the Heretics show, they asked if I would be interested in working on them. I submitted a proposal, they accepted, and here we are.

Israel was an interesting character. He arrived in LA in 1977 to teach at UCLA. He worked in Hollywood for a while, then developed his experience in the film industry into a very distinctive approach to architecture that made him one of the most distinctive figures of the late ’80s and early ’90s. In addition, he was among the first queer architects to be open about his sexuality. Sadly, he was also among the first wave of queer men in LA to contract HIV, and he battled AIDS for more than a decade, ultimately losing his life to it in 1996, at the age of just fifty.

Twenty-five years later, Israel’s architecture has fallen out of the spotlight and much of it, unfortunately, has been demolished. A reappraisal of his life and work is long overdue, and I’m very excited to have had the opportunity to work with his archives and get to know so many of his former collaborators, clients, and contemporaries, who have helped me to tell his story. The manuscript is just about finished, so stay tuned!

What books are on your literal or metaphorical nightstand?

I’ve always liked big, complicated novels. Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolaño, Zadie Smith, that sort of thing. When I was at UCLA, I took a course with the literary critic Kate Hayles called “Big Books.” We read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Wallace’s Infinite Jest – a couple thousand pages – all in a ten-week quarter! Later, I got to know Mark Danielewski and invited him to co-teach a course with me at Ohio State. We had a blast. He’s got a new novel in the works, and I’m very much looking forward to it. In the meantime, a friend just gave me a copy of Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth, which should be a lot of fun.

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