GSD Gets ‘Lift’ From Young

The architecture students at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) spend their time thinking about buildings—their form and their function. Only rarely do they turn their minds to the ground those buildings rest on, as “Lift,” the current exhibition at the GSD’s Gund Hall gallery, has set out to do.

“Lift” is a presentation of four current architectural commissions by GSD Visiting Design Critic Michael Maltzan, a young Los Angeles-based architect. Maltzan will also deliver this year’s Eliot Noyes Lecture in Piper Auditorium, Gund Hall, on Wednesday, Dec. 10 at 6:30 p.m to 8:30 p.m.

As the exhibition’s title implicitly suggests, Maltzan’s current work responds to this issue of “groundedness.” He is creating an architecture that is trying to exist somewhere in between the effects of gravity and spatial aeronautics.

Dimly lit, the exhibit’s installation of four of Maltzan’s buildings turns a busy hallway into a sort of monotone runway, with architectural models queued up to take off. The exhibition presents four current Maltzan projects, all of them located in California: two expensive residences (Leona Drive in Beverly Hills and a residence along the beach in Malibu) and the expansion of two small regional museums (the Fresno Metropolitan Museum in the agricultural town of Fresno and the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa).

Maltzan, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and the GSD, has returned to the GSD this semester as a visiting design critic. Before beginning his own firm, he worked for architect Frank Gehry as an designer for the winning competition entry for the Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall (although the Hall, which opened in Los Angeles last month, bears little resemblance to the original design). Looking at Maltzan’s work, it is clear that Gehry has had a strong influence on his formal and professional maturation as a designer.

It is a shame that Maltzan’s earlier work is not included in “Lift,” as it would have provided valuable context for his work thus far. His art center projects in Los Angeles (one for the non-profit Inner-City Arts program and the other for the afflient Harvard-Westlake School) show Maltzan trying to find his own voice. Only in his early 40s, Maltzan is charting a career of Gehry-like proportions; it is hard to dismiss the suspicion that “Lift” is something of a resume-builder for him, especially because it is a somewhat conservative exhibition.

Maltzan has moved from an early focus on Gehry-influenced sculptural forms—full of undulating but still massive geometry—to a current engagement with the contemporary architectural project of systems and folds; “Lift” shows this transition, presenting a story of an architect developing his own vocabulary and involvement in a larger architectural discourse.

The four projects in “Lift” depend heavily upon circulation patterns—the scripted movement of people through architecture. From his California experience, Maltzan seems to have picked up on one of the ubiquitous forms of movement through space: the sinuous ramps of freeway overpasses. Beyond this formal analogue, Maltzan’s geometry of bands and tubes follows after the work of Iraq-born and London-based architect Zaha Hadid. Its tubular forms recall Diller and Scofidio’s proposal for a new Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston.

One of the most formally inventive of the projects in “Lift” is the Sonoma County Museum addition. Maltzan’s proposed design hugs the museum’s existing Neo-Classical building, located in the center of a long city block. The ends of Maltzan’s design—a small theater on one end and a gallery at the other—are visually untethered and threaten to take flight like a bird. While the form is striking, the actual spaces seem less than ideal. Reminiscent of Dutch architect-celebrity Rem Koolhaas’ Second Stage Theatre in Manhattan, the stage’s proscenium is replaced by a giant window that overlooks the street below and doubles as a film screen. Similarly, it becomes clear that Maltzan’s museums are not places that are ideally suited to housing art exhibits—they emphasize horizontal rather than vertical planes and their curved walls present a curator’s nightmare. Rather, Maltzan creates social spaces or civic arcades, suggesting the derive or “drifting” approach to movement developed by theorist Guy Dubord in the late 1960s. Maltzan’s architecture is about observation, not stasis.

“Lift” does not seem particularly interested in speaking to a broad audience. To the layperson, the exhibition might seem short on interpretation and heavy on architectural representation. For instance, the most compelling design—an expensive house along a much-politicized strip of beachside property, over which a battle is being fought regarding public access to the coastline—becomes an almost fetishized sculptural object. Other portions of the exhibit are left similarly unclear: the study models that Maltzan produced during his design process are left to speak for themselves and the oversize architectural cross-sections that dominate the walls of the gallery lack any label or scale. In all, the presentation of “Lift” is a bit too formal, given that social subtext to Malzan’s work would make it more relevant and widely accessible.