“A project to document the city’s vernacular architecture has been on our minds for a long time.” After completing their studies in architecture, Caroline and Cyril Desroche published their first academic book on housing in Los Angeles. Then they moved there a few years later to join Frank Gehry’s prestigious agency.
From 2008 to 2012, in their spare time, they took more than 1,300 photos of their adopted city. This visual testimony, an openly subjective documentary, is being released this month by Éditions Poursuite under the title Los Angeles Standards: a reference work with an afterword by Frank Gehry.
The portrait of a city in 15 categories
Los Angeles Standards presents the city through 15 categories that are characteristic of the City of Angels. Mini-Malls, Billboards, Micro-architectures, Parking lots, Freeways, Streets, Styles, Stilt Houses, and more. The photos are classified by chapter and referenced according to their address.
Once the categories were established (there were more than thirty initially), the architects began collecting images during their daily outings. “We had notebooks in both of our cars, so as soon as we saw something that could be a photo, we would write down the address and the best time to shoot, depending on the orientation of the subject. Each note was then pinned on a huge wall map of the city. We then organized photo shoots on weekends or whenever we had some free time,” they explained.
Hence why seemingly secondary and ordinary buildings are featured in the book. Such is the case with micro-architectures, those small commercial buildings erected in the residual areas of parking lots. There we see small houses transformed into drive-throughs selling cigarettes, religious sculptures, coffee, or even tacos.
An experimental laboratory for residential architecture
Los Angeles was a real experimental laboratory for 20th century residential architecture, which is very different than European trends. Naturally, Caroline and Cyril Desroches photographed the Stilt Houses, those houses on stilts from the 1940s to the 1960s that challenge the sloping topography of L.A., as well as the Stucco boxes, buildings reminiscent of Mexican adobe constructions.
They also document strange houses in their book that attempt to imitate medieval castles, Ancient Egypt, or the candy house from Hansel and Gretel, to varying degrees of success. Classified by the authors in the Styles category, they bear witness to the porosity between the sets of major film studios and residential architecture.
The significant formal diversity in residential architecture actually led the authors to put one house, which they photographed from two different angles, into two different categories. “One day we realized that two photos from two different categories, Styles and Stilt Houses, taken months apart, represented the same building from two different points of view. On the street side, on one level, we show a magnificent fortified castle with battlements and exposed stones. On the garden side, taken from another street below a hill, this same building is actually a house, built on vertiginous stilts, that seems to float in the void.”
Photography, the architect’s sketchbook
Beyond its documentary dimension, Los Angeles Standards examines the relationship between architecture and photography, or rather the architect’s relationship with photography. “Observation is part of our work; the architect looks at, analyzes and appropriates things. Therefore, photography is a catalyst for us, it functions like a sketchbook. We are not photographers, with all the technique that implies,” note the authors.
In the case of Billboards for example, those huge advertising panels suspended in the sky, it is the structure itself that particularly interested Caroline and Cyril Desroche, “the way it is anchored in the street, how it coexists with its environment, how you get up there, its architectural scale. ” These photographs of standards have built a visual heritage, which fuels their “architectural reflection.”
By Charlotte Jean