Personal and Performance Narratives from
PST: LA/LA’s Condemned to be Modern
My hometown was built on top of a graveyard for horses—at least that’s what Megan Martin’s parents told her and she, in turn, told us. Even if it wasn’t true, it kept our imaginations alight at the prospect of what lay beneath the split-levels and strip malls. For awhile, the closest thing to majesty remained underground, and we weren’t even sure of its existence.
I was around ten or eleven when my mother first pointed out Beth Sholom Synagogue, Frank Lloyd Wright’s only synagogue and just one of three in our conservative Philadelphia suburb. We’d zip by Old York Road on our way into the city and, almost methodically, she’d point, “There’s Beth Sholom, there’s the Frank Lloyd Wright synagogue!” My mother has always had a way of unsubtly and repeatedly trying to get my sister and me to remember things of personal significance to her—the strongest example of this being her love of plants and birds. Similarly, she’d call out, “Look! A goldfinch!” or “Look! A rhododendron bush!” So, I at first thought Beth Sholom to be the same. It was nice, but I knew I’d see it again, just like the goldfinch.
Later in high school, we were given an interfaith experience assignment, in which groups were to attend different faith services. I was tasked with choosing between three synagogues for my group: Keneseth Israel, Beth Am, or Beth Sholom. I chose the latter.
A neighborhood anomaly, Wright cast Beth Sholom in his classic, organic style. A new sort of modernism that interacted with the elements—allowing natural light to pour through its fiberglass panels. But overall, it challenged its environment more than it harmonized with it. Tucked amid rows of dusty-bricked Quaker meeting houses and poorly-kept lawns, Beth Sholom looked as if a Mayan temple had been redesigned for extraterrestrial life forms—its famous tee-peed fiberglass roof a beacon of strangeness in an otherwise safe and non-eccentric suburb.
Before there was Beth Sholom, there was Fallingwater, Guggenheim, Hollyhock—those works which adhered to their environments, rather than simply absorbing them. Perhaps this one-way nature of Beth Sholom was because it was built in 1959—towards the end of Wright’s journey on earth. It was the suburbs. No one wanted to see their environment being reflected back at them. And Wright didn’t care to remind us of where we’d ended up.
It’s late in the day—even for August. The sun, despite it’s usual vastness, is more like a cloud-contained flicker, which hangs low over a sea of peasant dresses and Pendleton blankets. Discordantly, a group of hillside picnickers wraps up the last bit of the “Happy Birthday” song. Each appears to be more carefree than the last, and all are equally and objectively gorgeous. They are mostly tall with tousled hairs for the women and nice facial hair for the men. They have children with lightly dyed hair–some pink, some purple.
Their names: Elodie, Una and Collette. I know this because they’ve invited themselves to join me on my blanket (which is actually just my best towel), where they’ve regaled me with tales of the fifth grade. As they leave my side, they begin a game of tag, wherein each is assigned to be either the bunny, the puppy, or the kitty. Hopping, hissing and pawing at each other, the trio flail about, yelling, “Tag! You’re it!” as they scamper across the sandy-looking steps of Hollyhock House.
This is Barnsdall Park—a mass of serenity, perched slightly above Thai Town, just a few blocks from my apartment. I moved here in July from a heavily tattooed and smokestack borough of Philadelphia. The neighborhoods are not like those of my colonial-industrial city, wherein every district once maintained a very particular look. Instead, they are laden with asymmetry.
Barnsdall Park has been a place of refuge for me since I first landed here. It reminds me of home, of a place like Penn Treaty or Fairmount Park: a slab of green that doesn’t hide from the surrounding city, but embraces it; the smog is very much in view, the smell of the city still lingers in the tress—which act as windows to fallen trash cans and street lamps. Barnsdall is just this sort of place—not necessarily a separate oasis, but just another part of the city. An urbanite’s retreat, not from, but within the city walls.
Today is different. As I look around, Barnsdall feels more like a Kennedy-esque soiree, wherein the picnicking bohemians have kindly allowed for the rest of us to trespass the lawn of their indigenous- or is it—California-style temple. They feel at home here. I do not.
A design that began to take shape after Wright lost both his home and his lover, Hollyhock House is, without question, affixed to the peak of Barnsdall Park in the same way an arm or a leg is affixed to the human body. It is not simply attached, but contains a whole life force running through it. In the case of a classic Frank Lloyd Wright, there are architectural and natural world-born arteries and blood cells that course through both land and structure. In Hollyhock House, Wright is totally embedded. It is in his details, like the repeated symbol of the hollyhock—a geometric interpretation which he invents himself—that we know he is here.
The house stands as a many-windowed, concrete column-lined revelation. Its interiorly integrated pools reach low into the ground; its glass ceilings peak telescopically high. Within Hollyhock, there is fire, water, air; the elements are present. And just as the ingredients of the outdoors seep into the architecture, so too do the inner motifs extend into the outside world, through the open physicality of its glass walls, and into our Southern California psyches. Through Hollyhock, we develop an understanding of exactly where we are. But, how does our location—be it Jenktintown, Pennsylvania or Hollywood, California—shape our understanding of the building?
Clarissa Tossin is an LA-based artist whose work investigates the promises, legacies and failures of modernism—especially within architecture. Using photographs, sculpture, video and ephemera, Tossin compares shared architectural and urban ideals—between the US and Latin America—of the modern era. She mostly deals with cultural and economic exchanges between the US and Brazil, her home country. But recently, she’s taken up exchanges between the U.S. (L.A., specifically) and Mexico with a new video performance piece, taking place within and around Hollyhock House.
In pairing the changing forms of performance artist Crystal Sepúlveda with the built form of Hollyhock House, Tossin positions the fluidity of the human body as a reflection of what she calls the house’s “ornamental narratives.” She also signals an almost century-long neglect on the part of Wright and the city of Los Angeles to call the modern structure for what it is: Mayan.
“I knew I was not interested in just reinforcing the discourse that puts the house on a pedestal,” says Tossin, “I was really interested in re-signifying the house as belonging to a pre-Columbian architectural lineage. What I ultimately hope to do with the work is break from the normal celebratory discourse around modernism and propose that Hollyhock House would not have even happened had Frank Lloyd Wright not been exposed to ancient Mayan architecture when he traveled to Mexico and Central America.”
In Ch’u Mayaa (Maya Blue) her short film on view currently at the PST LA/LA show Condemned to Be Modern at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Tossin places the female body against the house’s built form, reimagining Hollyhock as a temple for ritual dance set to a soundtrack of ancient sacred sounds. The dance, says Tossin, could only be constructed once she and Sepúlveda had decoded images of deities and dancers etched into ancient Mayan murals, pottery, and paintings.
“One big thing to watch out for is every so often you’ll have a figure with her heel up, even if the rest of the body is still. This signifies that the figure is dancing,” Tossin laughs. “What I’ve created is kind of this larger performed archive with all these images come to life.”
Tossin’s vision, while an adherence to resuscitating the Maya that is so buried within the house’s built form, also shows a performed struggle to conform to a structure that refuses to acknowledge its own history, as well as the origins of the body that moves before it. As the body—the living archive of Mayan history—conflicts with a backdrop that fails to acknowledge its inherent DNA, the sounds begin to shift from ambient and exterior, like chirping birds and blowing wind, to interior tremors, like the beating of a heart.
About three-quarters into the piece, a renewed sense of displacement sets in, as the dancer’s legs buckle into a fall and she tumbles down the sandy-colored steps. Disorientation sets in as she realizes that her temple does not embrace her in the way she embraces it.
“I’m curious to see if the city is interested in making these connections to Mayan culture, if we allow the building to be claimed as a part of these histories,” Tossin pauses, then continues, “Or are we just going to keep identifying it as a part of modern architecture, continuing on in a way that conceals its relationship with pre-Columbian and Mesoamerican art?”
We know California from built structures like Hollyhock House; but we also don’t know it. There’s a heritage that we can’t quite see. Like the horses of my hometown, there’s a song and a dance that’s buried—deep within the cool concrete walls and the Mondrian-patterned art glass corners of a dining room that almost looks like a temple altar. We blink and we see a dancing deity. She seems lost, though despite now knowing where she belongs, she continues to dance.