“Case Study House No. 22, master bedroom.” Image courtesy of Cohen Gallery and David Weldzius.
“Architecture is not simply a platform that accommodates the viewing subject. It is a viewing mechanism that produces the subject. It precedes and frames its occupant.” – Beatriz Colomina, The Split Wall: Domestic Voyerism
“As powerful as this mapping of contemporary territoriality certainly is, the way in which it continues to think of borders as the ‘edge’ of an internally homogenous power is still rather misleading. This is because in our time – as the unprecedented immigration demonstrations (over one million in Los Angeles alone) make clear – the perimeter itself is being internalized, externalized and globalized, not so much in the actuality of space as such, but rather in the virtuality of time. This means that ‘borders’ now exist both inside and outside of the territory, as well as along the outer limits of its purported domain.” – Jason Adams, Redrawing the ‘Imaginary Lines’: Exceptional Space in an Exceptional Time
Through the complex issue of framing, David Weldzius’s first solo exhibition at the Stephen Cohen Gallery: “News from Nowhere” exposes the ambiguity of how we understand space as a narrative figure. As members of a culture that expresses itself through in built environments, we espouse idealized utopic spaces, narratives that distinguish what goes in and what stays out. Through the medium of photography and mixed media, Weldzius invokes architecture and housing as a figurative mediator to highlight the various narratives that formulate various dichotomies like inner and outer space, public and private space or culture and uncultured. Weldzius ultimately asks us, what do we do with these narratives? What place is there for us? And where do these utopic narratives (often hidden as news) ultimately come from?
Weldzius first introduces the Stahl house (Case Study House No 22) through a series of images, “Pedestrian Views of the Case Study House No. 22” as seen from the public spaces of Los Angeles, out on the street, as it were, from a variety of differentiated angles, times, between billboards, and through the branches of trees. The Stahl house was part of the case study houses, a series of houses built by architects to explore the concept of modern living for the middle class. Although the prime location (and history) of the Stahl house isn’t one that is simply “middle class” today, as the worth of the house is unaffordable for the majority of us, the Stahl house is a monument to the utopic (but paradoxical) vision of “making it” in Los Angeles, that one can have make it and at the same time, be one of the common people, yet apart, at a distance from the common people.
The tiny Stahl house in these photographs act as a marker of the distance of this iconic figure, marking a socioeconomic gap between the Stahl house and the rest of Los Angeles. Weldzius plays with this concept of the house as icon and house as a house in at the Stahl House Case in “Case Study House No. 22, master bedroom.” Here, Weldzius asks us, are we looking in from the outside or looking out from the inside? The intense closeness of the reclining angle of the bed with its rumpled intimacy in the foreground places us inside the bedroom while the ghostly spectre of Julius Shulman’s iconic photograph of the Stahl house locates us as being outside the Stahl house, creating an illicit tension. With this, Weldzius explodes us from inside the Stahl house to its outside. Indeed what makes the Stahl House so iconic with Shulman’s iconic image is the fact that house itself frames Los Angeles inasmuch as Los Angeles frames the house. Through this dialectic play Weldzius invites us to consider the Stahl house embedded within the narrative of suburban sprawl, a middle class dream the Stahl house was created for, and a dream still alive and well today.
This dream arose in the 20th century, when architecture saw a new plan for mass community, one which positions viewing subjects in a relationship with the outside world. As noted by Beatriz Colomina in “The Split Wall: Domestic Vision,” many architects sought to consider the urban landscape as a model against which internal domestic spaces were created. Within architectural homes, the occupant becomes displaced against architecture, as architecture:
defines modern subjectivity, with its own eye. The traditional subject can only be the visitor, and as such, a temporary part of the viewing mechanism. The humanist subject has been displaced (121).
Colomina notes that for modern architects like Le Corbusier, the window becomes a look out into the world but this look also reflexively dictates the position of the specter.
The split between the traditional humanist subject (the occupant or the architect) and the eye is the split between looking and seeing, between outside and inside, between landscape and site. In the drawings, the inhabitant or person in search of a site are represented as diminutive figures. Suddenly that figure sees. A picture is taken, a large eye, autonomous from the figure, represents that moment. This is precisely the moment of inhabitation. This inhabitation is independent from place (understood in the traditional sense); it turns the outside into an inside. (125)
This is what Weldzius expresses in “Case Study House No. 22, master bedroom” along with his series “Pedestrian Views of the Case Study House No. 22,” in which the figure of the Stahl house is the focal point of both outside and inside, synthesizing not only the utopic vision of the middle class lifestyle but also as a figure that establishes the utopic vision, a stand-in for what that utopic image should be. It’s no mistake that the time period of Stahl house’s construction saw not only the rise of the suburban middle class but also the rise of television, both of which delineate inside and outside space inasmuchas they confuse boundaries of that dichotomy.
Lynn Spigel draws the architecture, community and television together in her essay “The Suburban Home Companion: Television and the Neighborhood Idea in Postwar America,” noting that both television and suburban sprawl express inasmuch as it also creates the narrative trends of utopic community. While the postwar urban sprawl of was at first alienating, as people left their friends and the family in familiar urban environments to settle in the built environments of suburbia to live among strangers, this alienation “served as an impetus for the arrival of a surrogate community on television” (202). Even today, families across America sit before the television to watch “people like us” struggle along with modern issues of community and oneness, at first, with the iconic shows of “I Love Lucy” or “Leave it to Beaver” or “Ozzie and Harriet” in the 50s to today with shows like “Arrested Development,” “Modern Family” or even in the recent past, “Seventh Heaven.” In much the same way, the Stahl house’s iconic image set far atop the hillside of the Hollywood hills serves as a nexus to highlight itself as the species that it is its own genis, a centralized image that organizes our understanding of how to place. (It’s no accident that the Stahl house has also been featured in movies and even in a video game like Grand Theft Auto, as a house one can buy.). Weldzius shows us the iconography of the Stahl house as one of our own, with ourselves in the Stahl house, yet still seeing it from afar, from the dusty roads parallelling Santa Monica Boulevard. Weldzius invites us to understand the Stahl house as an iconic figure that extends its borders beyond its physical walls to encompass Los Angeles in the same way that Shulman places Los Angeles as a frame for the Stahl house.
Moving deeper into the LA narrative of public and private, Weldzius then circumambulates around the utopic narrative of community life itself. Through a triptych and two series of newspapers, Weldzius views the figure of the house from points public and private. The triptych, “A View from the Window at El Alisal” is the only full color production, depicting three windows from Charles Lummis’s home El Alisal, looking out from his dining room to a tree with a bench. The douglas fir wood of the frame coupled with the douglas fir bench in the gallery invites us to contemplate the outside as we look from inside out, even as viewers of a photograph we are outside the photograph proper yet positioned by the triptych as being inside the house. While the subject of the triptych is the tree outside that is slowly propelled to the left by a sliding angle of view, the foreground is actually the window frame at El Alisal. The window frame frames the view of the window using photographs placed by Lummis’s own design. Like “Case Study House No. 22, master bedroom” which invites us to consider the internal spaces of the Stahl house informed by its cultural iconography, Weldzius invites us to consider the time period of Charles Lummis through his photographs of his travels in Mexico and South America as a view of culture that is transposed, expected even, when we peer through the windows at El Alisal out into the nature immediately outside. As a newspaper man and socialite, Lummis was ahead of his time, intensely aware of narrative framing as he fought for the preserving the richness of the southwestern cultural heritage. “A View from the Window at El Alisal” frames an actual view of the southwest with images of the heritage of the southwest. This reminds us today that the original identity of Los Angeles was a culture and community that was later overlaid with the postwar suburban sprawl that simultaneously informed and created the Stahl house.
The newspaper broadsheets collectively called “Chavez Ravine: Case Study” present the utopic vision of Los Angeles through the underbelly of what must be lost through the gain of utopia. While Stahl house was breaking ground, contemporaneously a local family was being evicted to make room for public works. Chavez Ravine was originally chosen as a site for the Federal Housing Administration to create public housing, housing that could only be made after demolishing the existing community of Latinos living there. Eventually that public housing plan was also scrapped, to make way for the future Dodger Stadium. As Spigel notes, the rise of the suburban community along with television both presented a zone of communal living that was meant to zone out undesirables. On the one hand, television expressed the proper view of community, (in the 50s and early 60s), a view that much of America’s minority were not privy to, as they were segregated from the symbolically pure world television presented in the living room:
Through telecommunications it was possible to make one’s family and neighborhood into the “stable center of the universe,” eliminating the need even to consider cultural differences in the outside world. (190)
and on the other hand, out in the street actual the elimination of cultural difference:
The construction and “red-lining” policies of the Federal Housing Administration gave an official stamp of approval to […] exclusionary practices that the “undesirables” would be “zoned” out of neighborhoods (189).
With “Chavez Ravine: Case Study,” Weldzius shows us how one utopic narrative vision can wipe out one community and place another in its stead with the same viewing apparatus, in this particular case, a newspaper. Weldzius contrasts how Charles Lummis used newspaper to highlight the preservation a culture, placing us in relation to them in one way (from a position in El Alisal looking out into “nature,” of a “natural people”) while, less than 50 years later, the same newspaper, Los Angeles Times, chronicles the demolition of a native community because they don’t fit the utopic vision of community. While this chronicle is presented as news, it sits alongside ads for suburban living, dresses, coupons and the latest in modern furniture. We may feel for the family, but we are also invited to partake in the utopic vision of modern living that sees them and their way of life out. This powerful juxtaposition then finds a more abstract aesthetic layer of expression in the last newspaper broadsheet series “El Alisal: Architectural Study.”
“El Alisal: Architectural Study” has dark geometric rectangular shapes that contort the text of newspapers that form the background. Do the aesthetic dark squares work against the narrative in the paper, or are such shapes expressive of the ideal form of narrative itself? Are the black squares a formalized aesthetic statement about idealized planned communities, their starkness against the background of these newspaper broadsheets demonstrating the movements of impersonal actors “behind the scenes” in city halls? Or is the foregrounding of the dark squares the impersonal aesthetics of utopic visions, rigid uniform figures against the organic flow of the “common people” in a seething mass of newsworthy events?
This interplay of the foreground-background relationship of the black rectangular grid against news speaks more about our position as reader than it does about newspaper narratives or about utopic communities or actual communities. This visual tension highlights the struggle many 20th century architects face when creating internal space. How is internal space internal when it is informed by external constraints, such as time and place, or in a more concrete fashion, how do I frame a cityscape using a house to inhabit a house by seeing a city? Perhaps a more mundane but apt utopic expression is: How should we place a television so it can dominate a room? And what if tv should express xenophobic content? How does that reflect on how we see our own lived commuity? How would we know it was xenophobic if it was only utopic? Understood in another way, news always comes from the null position of what should be, that news comes from utopia itself, a place that does not (yet) exist but is always becoming. This lack of place is ambiguous, contingent on actual positions that hinges on delineations between inside and outside, public and private, culture and uncultured. The supposed official nullified view of the news can never encompass totality as news itself can only form contingent narratives, narratives hinged on specific choice events read at a specific place and time. In extension narrative is always re-deployed as how we are positioned in the narrative (or on Santa Monica blvd, or in Dodger Stadium) changes what we are looking at. Should news be as Lummis deployed, as pure idealized historic content or should it be buffered by advertisements with Mitt Romney speeches and news of the constant ongoings of city hall? Our position is vastly changed if we are inside the Stahl house looking out onto the cityspace of Los Angeles, or if we are on the streets of Santa Monica Blvd looking up at the Stahl house, or if we are viewing the creation of utopic idealism from of City Hall judging the merits of a housing project vs the shared utopic American pastime of baseball (that presumably enjoyable by the anonymous masses at the stadium or watching through the tele), or if we are standing in Charles Lummis’s house looking at the landscape of Los Angeles and seeing the rich cultural heritage that presumably already exists as suggested by his narrating window frame. Weldzius presents all this to us, this continuum, this entire spectrum of narrative in its raw force, organized through the figure of the house and housing that manifests all the desired impulses to center us in the manicles of 20th century urbanism but also told about us to us from a privileged utopic position that can only be news at once, news from nowhere.
David Weldzius’s exhibition “News from Nowhere” can be seen at the Stephen Cohen Gallery
September 11 – October 25, 2014
Adams, Jason. Redrawing the ‘Imaginary Lines’: Exceptional Space in an Exceptional Time. Borderlands. Number 2, Volume 5, 2006. http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol5no2_2006/adams_imaginary.htm.
Colomina, Beatriz. The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism. Sexuality & Space.Princeton Architectural Press, 1992.
Spigel, Lynn. The Suburban Home Companion: Television an the Neighborhood Ideal in Postwar America. Sexuality & Space.Princeton Architectural Press, 1992.