Review by Wayne Swanson •
Ahh, typologies. So often prosaic as individual images, yet so powerful when presented as a group. French architects Caroline and Cyril Desroche take the idea to an extreme in Los Angeles Standards, with 1300 photos broken down into 15 typologies to classify the elements that visually define the city.
Although a sprawling megalopolis like Los Angeles may seem unclassifiable, the Desroches have done a fascinating job of categorizing its vernacular architecture. This is not a book of notable building or familiar landmarks. No downtown skyscrapers or Hollywood sign or beaches or Rodeo Drive. Rather, it is a compendium of everyday building types. There are mini-malls and mini-mall signs, billboards, micro-architecture (think tiny businesses in unused portions of parking lots), freeways, streetscapes, parking lots and structures, and topiary-covered buildings. There are stucco boxes, dingbats, stilt and skirt houses. There are domestic structures in a range of styles from chateaus and castles to Hansel and Gretel houses, as well as capital A residential architecture by famous designers.
Within each typology, the Desroches present a dizzying collection of individual examples showing variations on the theme. As with all good typologies, there is something mesmerizing about the conglomeration of imagery within each typology. What emerges is subtle differences in composition, rhythm and formal solutions. Mini-mall signs may have the same basic frames and even typefaces, but the businesses they advertise and the languages in which they are printed testify to the diversity of Los Angeles. Mundane building types such as “dingbats” —multi-family dwellings built on single-family lots with parking on the ground floor and living space above — have the same lot-line-to-lot-line footprint, but the endless variations in exterior detailing make each one distinct.
A project of this type owes an obvious debt to the classic works of Hilla and Bernd Becher, and the Desroches acknowledge that the Bechers’ typologies of basic industrial forms were one of their inspirations. They also readily admit that they are primarily architects, not photographers. Their color photographs lack the formal rigor and classic power of the Bechers’ black and white images, and the photos are presented on rather thin matte paper that dulls the look. Yet the Desroches have taken pains to shoot the images within a typology with consistent angles, framing and light, giving each typology a cohesive look.
The 1300 photographs were taken between 2008 and 2012 during the years the two French architects lived in Los Angeles while working in the studio of renowned architect Frank Gehry. As outsiders, they were in a unique position to recognize what locals overlook. “Like astute researchers discovering a new land or species, they have been cataloging the environment with open eyes and minds that only someone seeing it afresh could have,” notes Gehry in the book’s Afterword.
Anyone who has ever spent time in Los Angeles will recognize the mini-malls and stucco boxes that at first glance all look the same. And the freeways, billboards, and palm-tree lined streets that locals quickly take for granted. Yet the Desroches’ typologies reveal the magnificent diversity that lurks within these “standards” of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Standards, Caroline and Cyril Desroche
Photographers: Caroline and Cyril Desroche, born France, reside in Paris, France
Publisher: Poursuite Editions (Paris, France, copyright 2020)
Afterword: Frank Gehry
Text: English and French
Stiffcover book, perfect binding, four-color lithography, 10 x 7 inches, 632 pages, 1300 images, index, printed in Lithuania
Photobook designer: Grégoire Pujade-Lauraine
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