Monday, February 25, 2008

Joni Mitchell and Rudolph Schindler: Who woulda thunk it?

Oh to be Everywhere, right here, right now.

So, I’ve been reading this, Barney Hoskins’ Hotel California. I read his book on the LA music scene Waiting for the Sun a year ago on a trip to LA and loved it so much I was even moved to listen to the Best of the Eagles on the flight home. Not a mistake I’ll make again but such is the allure that the book conjures up of denim-clad hippies in charming A frame houses dotted around Laurel Canyon that anything is momentarily possible. Hotel California delves a little deeper into that same world. It’s a great book. Dense and comprehensive but suffused with love for much of the good music and righteous disdain for the crap bits (the Best of The Eagles mainly). I must confess though to a fascination for both the era and the music which is definitively not MY music or era so perhaps it is it’s alien-ness that I find alluring. I missed punk by a few years too but inherited a lot of its hatred for the hippies and in particular the multi-millionaire hippies of LA but the sun dappled lazy utopia detailed in Hoskins’ book gets to me I have to admit.

Hoskins’ was a fan of this music at the time, began to see it as inherently ridiculous through the punk era and has now come out of the closet as a full on Jackson Brown fan. The book is both besotted and critical of this wide-eyed hankering for a utopian but elitist social utopia. It wants to be bare-chested and beflared, riding around the canyons on a moped and dropping acid with Joni Mitchell but acknowledges the decadent nihilism at its heart. For a more pained articulation of this Joan Didion's The White Album tells the story of the slide from The Beach Boys to the Manson murders from someone who experienced it first hand.

The utopian appeal of LA in the ‘70’s is of course highly illusory and best summed up in the guise of David Geffen, the books unofficial anti hero. Geffen starts a record label called Asylum and convinces all the folk troubadors and singer songwriters that he is on their side, looking after their interests, only in it for the music man, and then proceeds of course to rob everyone blind. He was able to do this because it was such a small community. Hence the title of the record label. This is the interesting thing about utopias. They want to be universal and yet they are more likely to be tiny worlds, microcosms by nature. They attempt to smooth out or dissolve the harsh bump between them and the rest of the world because they are so aware that it is there. Laurel Canyon was both a model for some sense of an alternative lifestyle and a cliquey nepotistic world that was bound to implode.

The successful LA architect Rudolf Schindler designed a house in the Hollywood hills in 1922. He built it himself, hand forming the thin concrete walls, as a house for him and his wife and another couple to live in together. The house is a beautiful and poignant spatial articulation of this arrangement and of a kind of proto-hippy social order. Two L shaped blocks pivot around a shared kitchen in a way that is simultaneously loose and highly suggestive. Each L is a mirror image of the other, as are the external spaces around them, and each drifts into the other in a way that suggests everything could very easily be swapped around and it wouldn’t matter. The external spaces are genuine continuations of the interior complete with external fireplaces and a room like sense of enclosure created by planting. The whole thing is an idyllic expression of a sense of loose connectivity and the dissolution of boundaries: social and physical. Of course it is also just one house, and one that did not last long in its initial communal couple format but it is a languorously beautiful model for how houses could be reflective of something other than the single family unit. All this designed by an Austrian, which just goes to show the power of the Californian sun. One can imagine the incestuous denizens of Laurel Canyon happily inhabiting this house: Joni Mitchell and David Crosby and Laura Rondstat and Mama Cass happily strumming away in its sun dappled spaces. In many ways it is a much more apposite and accommodating articulation of their lifestyle than the folksy traditionalism of Laurel Canyon. A genuine attempt to map out an alternative way to live through architecture.

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