The Temporary Contemporary: Assembling a Public in Downtown Los Angeles

The contemporary is a moving ratio of modernity, moving through the recent past and near future in a nonlinear space that gauges modernity as an ethos already becoming historical.
                – Paul Rabinow, Marking Time

In a now well-known story, the decades since 1970 have seen a quiet “economization” of public space. Though diverse in its locational details and regional variables, in many cities the overall effect has been to render the concept of public space—historically an essential ingredient of democratic life—if not anachronistic, at least endangered. In a cruel irony, the “neo-liberalization” of urban space unfolds as a mostly unseen erasure of the spatial foundations of liberalism’s basic elements—enumerated by Wendy Brown as “vocabularies, principles of justice, political cultures, habits of citizenship, practices of rule, and above all, democratic imaginaries.”  

Today this condition raises basic questions: how can publics still be assembled? Where, if not in the old, familiar places—the city square, the free press, the candidate’s debate—can differences be publicly exercised?  

This studio argues that one possible site for contemporary political assembly is aesthetic life. This does not imply that the content of aesthetic work must become explicitly political, but rather that “art” (very broadly conceived) and the institutions where it is housed, can form spaces, arenas, and backgrounds for publics. These formations do not de facto result simply from the display of art, but depend upon commitments from directors, curators, etc., They also depend upon specific spatial and material conditions that can be called the architecture of art. In our work this semester, this phrase indicates more than (and is at times even critical of) “museum design.” It instead requires asking how an aesthetic institution can be made into a site for the reproduction of publics, which, by their very nature, are temporary and require constant revivification.

These theoretical concerns will be explored across two nearly adjacent sites in downtown Los Angeles. The first is the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Originally called “the Temporary Contemporary,” MOCA Geffen is housed in an existing building on the border between in LA’s Little Tokyo and Arts districts. We will work with MOCA’s curatorial staff to imagine possibilities for “The WAREHOUSE”—the only zone of the original building untouched by Frank Gehry’s 1982-83 adaptation of the building for use as galleries. Today, the WAREHOUSE serves as an empty space for staging events and public programs, but it has never benefitted from any cohesive architectural agenda.

A second site, less than a block away, will rework a lost opportunity: the recently completed Little Tokyo/Arts District Metro Station. Despite city incentives to densify housing at and near metro stations, however, only a single-story pavilion was constructed as an entry point to the underground station. We will reimagine this as the site of a new multistorey structure for housing MOCA’s new artists residency program, including live/work studios, administrative offices, and other functions.

Taken together, the two projects—one, an adaptive reuse design for MOCA’s public programming; the other a new home for the making of contemporary art—aim towards a single thesis: that formal, material, and programmatic speculation can result in the architectural production of an aesthetic site for public politics. The studio will travel to Los Angeles in February.