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Architects for an `Ad Hoc Culture'

Frank Gehry leads a pack of 10 California innovators at the Santa Monica Museum of Art

THE marvel of architect Frank Gehry is that he loves impermanence, or rather the look of impermanence. Out the window goes a hundred-plus years of believing that most public architecture has to be big, solid, and formidable.

One of two current exhibits at the Santa Monica Museum of Art features the work of Mr. Gehry and 10 other California-based architects. The exhibit pays homage to a distinct California esthetic, sometimes described as having a characteristic of impermanence.

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With Gehry's work of the last 20 years, add California propinquity and a dash of cultured whimsy to impermanence. Gehry is the Pritzker Prize-winning architect who once designed paper furniture, sometimes includes chain-link fences in his work, and calls himself a "hybrid."

Titled, "Angels & Franciscans: Innovative Architecture from Los Angeles and San Francisco," the exhibit is something of a Gehry lovefest. The museum complex is designed by Gehry, has no permanent collection and is devoted to the works of living artists. The other architects acknowledge that Gehry created a climate of innovation and collaboration among artists and architects.

Gehry has stated, with a ring of manifesto to his words, "I am interested in the work's not appearing finished, with every hair in place, every piece of furniture in its spot ready for photographs. I prefer the sketch quality, the tentativeness, the messiness if you will, the appearance of `in progress' rather than the presumption of total resolution and finality...."

This loose clarity fits well in California where writer Leon Whiteson once observed that the Golden State is "an ad hoc culture in which people and institutions make themselves up as they go along."

The models, drawings, photographs, furniture, and prototypes in the exhibit are characterized by a wry, open, and easy intelligence. Even Gehry's winning plan in the competition for the renovation of the Madison Square Garden site in New York has a fresh style in look and materials contrasted to New York's higher and bigger brand of architecture. The project is on hold due to lack of public and private funding.

The elements of architect Konig Eizenberg's work reflect the best of California, and some of Gehry, the "light, air, view, color, and natural beauty" in architecture. He designed a 20-unit artist's loft building on a 50-by 330-foot abandoned streetcar easement in Venice, Calif.

The building is composed of five three-story-tall stucco blocks connected by recessed sections covered with sheet metal. The effect looks somewhat like a huge, inviting streetcar, permanently stalled. The roofs on the stucco blocks have no overhang. Windows are small and plentiful. The open space inside each unit can be rearranged: California all the way.

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Other architects represented in the exhibit are Frank Israel; Thom Mayne; Craig Hodgetts and Hsing Ming Fung; Eric Owen Moss; Lubowicki Lanier; Robert Mangurian and Mary-Anne Ray; Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones; Mark Mack and Stanley Saitowitz.

Gehry designed the Santa Monica museum complex in 1980 to be like an Italian piazza where art and commerce join. It was formerly an icehouse in the 1900s and an egg-processing plant in the '40s. Gehry changed the structure but saved the character of the building when he retained the wooden roof with weathered bow-trusses and beams. Then he raised it to 25 feet and added clerestory windows. The piazza emerged as Gehry connected newer structures to the museum. The complex now houses a bookstore, art shops,

retail stores, a restaurant, and offices. The second exhibit at the museum offers the art of Robert Tannen, a burly artist from New Orleans. Mr. Tannen preserves for later use just about anything other people throw away. He stacks old hunks of wood, cement blocks, plastic bottles filled with silk cloth and water, and galvanized steel. Why? "My work is meant to convey the inherent value and importance of things we take for granted, ignore, disparage, or destroy by neglect," he says.

For the last 30 years, as a professional urban planner, preservationist, and concerned environmental gadfly, Tannen has not been motivated to create art objects to be worshiped or shaped for market potential.

"A lot of what I do is approximate art," he says with a touch of delight on a video shown at the exhibit. "It looks like it might be art, but you're not sure."

For instance, his "Stereo Drawings" are quickly rendered drawings on big sheets of paper of two beds, two bicycles, two flutes, harps, etc., all side-by-side, and all done with a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor. As with most "nontraditional" art by artists delving into the unconventional, "Stereo Drawings" has marginal significance if viewed out of context. But in a roundabout way, this is illustrative of Tannen's point: gather elements from one strata of society - plastic bottles filled with water - and t hen place them in a new context to alter their value and meaning.Frank Gehry calls this everyday material the "unacknowledged" material of life.

Another Tannen work, "Bottled Water," consists of dozens of plastic and glass bottles on a shelf. The bottles are filled with water from lakes, rivers, oceans, and faucets. "Each bottle is inherently different," he says, "and each bottle of water preserves something we let run down the drain, flush, or pollute." Arranged in this way with a new intent, the result can be insightful.

In a utilitarian context, Tannen comments on what may be the ultimate liquid to make an environmental point of poignant interest to Californians. "Cars will become furniture when we run out of oil," he predicts.

* Both shows end March 28.

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