At this Forum Fest 2011, I have been asked to speak about John Chase. So many have written wonderfully of his personality, his sartorial predilections, his loves and greatest love, and even his sometimes difficulties, both professional and personal. John clearly was a captivating presence in our lives and we miss him. But rather than dwell again on loss, I want to concentrate on his legacy - his cogent everyday design intelligences that will continue to influence.
Through his writings and through knowledge of how these writings translated into design practices, we learn specific methods of observation, criticality, and design technique that mark a specific moment in the history of architecture and urban design. But these writings, taken as a whole, are not just timepieces, they are a call to design today and in the future with an exacting sense of social and cultural smartness, awareness, fairness, and openness to the full spectrum of forces that shape the contemporary urban scene in a contemporary American democracy.
John had many well-known mentors and teachers, David Gebhard, Esther McCoy, Charles Moore, Charles Jencks; a compendium of UC and UCLA influences and ideation of a now bygone era. While his writings are reflective of these individuals, there was one ephemeral presence, the author and educator John Beach, who John comes back to time and time again. In an afterword to “The Stucco Box”, an essay he co-authored with Beach, he talks about Beach’s approach. In Chase's words:
- If high-art architecture supplies heroes; then John Beach, with his finding of equally cogent and complex products in the world of vernacular architecture, (such as the Drive-through Donut Hole in La Puente), supplied the other personae that any decent novel or movie requires: the fascinating villains and the memorable character actors. These Beachian universes made a compelling argument for considering high-art architecture as merely one part among others of a system of production and consumption of the built environment, rather than the top of a pyramidal value structure.
The drive through Donut Hole in La Puente, California memorialized by John Beach and John Chase.
In this fragment that celebrates Beach’s contribution to his education, John describes many of the themes that led him to an equanimous view of architecture in general and the Los Angeles urban landscape in particular; the importance of narrative, the capacity of Los Angeles movies to shape the actual landscape, suspicion of a singular avant-garde canon, fascination for the vernacular as well as the commercial and most important, and the potential for the commercial and the vernacular to be connected in the public mind and thereby realize a seamless and populist architectural and urban experience that is valued.
John Chase felt John Beach, more than any other individual, taught him to deliberately embrace parallel architectural story lines of both popular and elitist landscapes and see them as equals, a neat post-modern trick that exposes the full semiotic of the built environment, and that belies the cartoon image of this era, from the seventies through the nineties, and its architectural and urban works.
John took this Beachian approach as a starting point to observe the city and then related it to a deeper reading of the creation of the architecture and urbanism of Los Angeles (as well as Houston, San Jose, and finally Las Vegas). John Chase, utilizing simultaneous environmental and urban narratives, was able to see not only the narrowness and diminishment that results when an environment or a city is commercialized and consumed, but the possibilities for architects to engage these negative consumptive forces and turn them into something positive.
In another of his essays, “You are What You Buy”, he describes this process and the architect's role in ameliorating its negative impacts.
- The intensely meaningful imagery and the shared public values that consumerist architecture harnesses endows it with conflicting powers. It is capable of producing architecture with genuine civic and public characteristics, but its manipulative exploitation of forms for commercial purposes tends to contradict and undermine this potential. The task for architects and designers of consumerist architecture is not to avoid the task of addressing consumerism, but rather to invest consumerist architecture with both traditional populist and architectural values.”
In John’s world, the architect, as well as the conscious individual, would always discover a sense of place through not only observation but practices of architecture, sometimes but not always designed by architects. He imagined these observations as critical and the practices that resulted as potentially uplifting. In this world, architects and individuals could always design, create something of value, even if the circumstances at first glance appeared reduced.
Thus John brought to his work, particularly his work as the urban designer for the City of West Hollywood, a sense of design hope and generosity. He could place himself in the shoes of architects and when they did not know how to respond to public demands encourage them to attend to start with acutely observed local needs and desires, and to do so within their personal design languages. But, he also could steer developers and individual property owners who presented casual efforts the work of the broadest range of architectural masters, pushing them to realize higher orders of aspiration. For John, and for those influenced by John, the world, architecture, and city design was rich with possibility because he could truck in all design traditions all at once; whether Neutra and Schindler, or Woolf and Dolena. The goal was always to realize an urban landscape of heightened intensity and richness, whatever the tradition and whatever the means.
John Chase reveled in the intelligence of period-style architecture and was one of the first contemporary architects to notice and write about James Dolena, an advocate in the 1930's through the 1950's of the stripped down, almost severely modern Hollywood Regency style. The public loved this architecture which still lies outside the canon of architectural history as typically taught in architecture schools.
I suspect that John's gravitation towards this particular type of intensity was shaped by his recognition and personal interest in supporting the right of the individuals to construct their own specific place and identity in the world. John worked hard to construct an identity for himself, a gay man in Los Angeles, and he connected this personal struggle to a larger belief that architecture could liberate the soul of the individual as well as society. For John, Los Angeles, with its grab bag of ever emerging diverse populations each seeking to construct a place of purpose, was the perfect American urban canvass to realize in a public manner personal rights – yet another theme that John returned to again and again. In his essay, “Knocking off the Knock-offs”, John describes the modeling and remodeling of single family homes in West Los Angeles as having a human importance that exemplifies the Jeffersonian idea of the pursuit of happiness. He writes in this essay;
- The constant that has held for each era of miniature remodel has been the replacement of an outmoded or non-descript façade with a design that clearly conveyed that the occupant had made a conscious design choice to live life elegantly, by their own lights. Even if the results may not be to everyone’s tastes, surely the remodelers deserve credit for that all-American attempt to construct an identity by choosing among alternatives, to be self-made individuals by living behind a self-made façade.
Self-made identity, self-made façades, the construction of a free individual; these were ideas integral to John, both as an architect, an urban designer, and as person. This constant call for self-expression in the context of a polyglot urban environment was both an expression of how John lived his life, and an invitation to those he came in contact with to more closely observe cities, streets, and sidewalks, and thereby uncover the unexpected and discover through architecture and cityscapes the surprise of the urban. Indeed for John, life and architecture, with a small as well as a capital “A”, was a constant urban derive with positivist lessons.
A common complaint of those who reject what in essence is John Chase's post-modern approach to architectural diversity is that it somehow must eschews selectivity and thereby wallow in relativity. There is for them in this approach no ability to discriminate. For John Chase this could not, in both his ideas and practice, be further from the truth. In “How can I miss you when you won’t go away”, he points out that design discrimination is in the eye of the beholder, even as he describes how in American democracy, quality is derived from an open discussion that has to be based upon respect for all who participate. He writes here:
- Just because there is no universally accepted worldview doesn’t mean that there are not sets of cosmological beliefs accepted by subsets of the public. Many well-defined sub-groups within America have strongly held worldviews, from fundamentalist religious sects to Hells Angels and members of the Thousand Oaks PTA. And despite the apparent diversity of belief among subgroups within the American public, one seems to find a surprisingly great coherence around matters of architectural form and its symbolism – as proved by the success of consumerist architecture. Works of architecture may begin as private statements of taste, but they inevitably become, to some degree, public artifacts that are part of everyone’s daily life.
When architecture becomes public, it becomes subject to the public will. At least in the United States this means the crush of public meetings and consequent public design decisions that John Chase spent the last decade and a half of his life managing with great skill and aplomb. In John’s urban design cosmology, quality, excellence, and endurance resulted, most of the time, both the capacity of the individual creator to amaze and stun through individual talents, as well as concise public discourse that either reified these talents, or told the talented to try harder to meet a public interest. From an interest in a self-constructed house and a self-constructed facade, John found himself the design stager of a self-constructed city, West Hollywood.
John Chase's work clearly is an homage to and extension of the “both/and” philosophy of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, but his is a projection that eschews the latter’s sense of irony and elitism in favor of the former’s love for the right of all to have a say in the production of urban heterogeneity, whatever the starting point. John reveled in architectural history but he took on the everyday world as it was. He did not need to distance himself from it through strategies of abstraction or elitism. He encouraged all to contribute, but most of all he encouraged all things urban and architectural to be debated, believing that the ugly and the bad would then surely become the good.
The everyday in design is best described as an attitudinal acknowledgement of inside to outside, bottom to top, observation of the daily, honoring of routine, respect for diversity, delight in multiplicity, revelation of the polyglot, equation of low with high, sensitivity to cycles and rhythms of weeks, days, nights, and seasons, simultaneity of past, present, and future, recognition of struggle, the knowing of history, making do and mashing up, acceptance of the feminine, the masculine, the ethnic, the queer, color and otherness; the everyday relates always the stuff of the environment to a sense of openness, fairness, and justice.
The everyday that John practiced in his professional and personal life allows all to state that I - the particular me - is alive, here, present. Try writing or designing architecture and cities with this as crutch and collar; not an easy task. Yet John was able to do it. For him no formal discipline or fixed set of values to fall back on; just query and critical projection and sorting through the consequences and opportunities of chance, in paranoid moments conspiracy, always looking for glimmers and gleans and finding thereby moments of pure clarity, clarity of human intelligence, clarity in history and memory, clarity in dreams of the future and through all clarity in architecture and urban design.
Perhaps I just described one aspect of John Chases’ theory of the everyday. But more accurately, perhaps the theory of the everyday which resulted in Everyday Urbanism was in large part a result of the manner by which John, at first unknowingly, but later most deliberately, lived his life and lived his work. His was a consciously constructed life, a consciously constructed façade that resulted in a uniquely American identity. This John Chase endures in my heart and in my practice, and for these lessons - so richly taught with smiles, winks, half-whispered secrets, tours, walks, conferences, studios, breakfasts, lunch, and dinners, and enduring essays - I am most grateful.
John Chase's collective essays can be found in Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving: Reflections on Building Production in the Vernacular City (Verso, New York, 2000).