Bordering Vernon and minutes from Downtown LA, Bell, California is a landscape of unexceptional 80’s era industrial complexes — banal, repetitive, and anonymous. En route to visit a federal courtroom mock-up built within one of these non-descript facilities I came across the Cheli Distribution Center. Consisting of eleven warehouse buildings located on a stretch of Bandini Boulevard I remembered this particular complex for the pointed moments in which the buildings strive to be something other than typical. Side by side each warehouse has the exact same plan and lay-out but everyone exhibits a different corner condition — a sampler platter of formal techniques as if selected at random from an architectural primer on styles of the previous decades. There are corners with dis-attached gridded scaffolds, prismatic projected volumes, punched arches on an extruded plane, faceted glass voids and more. This collision of strategies and styles may only reinforce the typicality of Cheli, suggesting a lack of sophistication by the author who threw everything in the toolbox its way without understanding the implications of the formal juxtapositions to result. Regardless, I find delight, humor and transparency in the process; albeit a quick-fix attempt to differentiate and distinguish, it’s an ongoing and worthy challenge for designers to consider – can intelligent formal ambition be found within the confines of the efficiency demanded by developer driven projects?
Beyond the whimsical corners and intriguingly named businesses of the Cheli — Bare Fox, Dreamgirl, to name a few — the city of Bell has a rather sordid history of hastily cut corners in other arenas as well. It is a small town, population 38,000 and one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County. In 2010 a series of investigative reports in the Los Angeles Times, revealed a web of scandal and corruption in the highest echelon of Bell’s city officials — excessively high salaries, voter fraud, falsified real estate deals, embezzlement from non-profit fund raisers, and tax corruption. The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story and the members of the “Bell Eight” city mayors, administrators and councilmen were fired, resigned, recalled or sent to jail.
These images pay homage to my favorite photographers of the New Topographics movement of the late 1970s. Consisting of eight photographers including Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and Bernd and Hilla Becher, their work depicted the emergence of suburbs and office parks and presented then new definitions of a man-altered landscape through a lens that attempted to be purposefully blank and objective. Cutting Corners represents an on-going interest in architecture, photography, and narrative – particularly finding tension between unusual and familiar conditions both in the image itself and the underlying back story of its content. It is not objective but the images are presented as an opportunity to see connection between disciplinary concerns we may have as designers and the everyday landscape evolving around us.
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