For a city that is often characterized as lacking a historical memory, Los Angeles has a lot of love for its iconic architecture. Whether it’s modernist residences by Schindler, Neutra, or Lautner, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock and Ennis Houses, or scandal-tinged Greystone Mansion, Angelenos have a strong appreciation for these landmarks nestled among our strip malls and freeways. Pasadena’s Gamble House, an Arts and Crafts masterpiece designed by Greene & Greene, is one of the most beloved, and for two weeks non-profit arts space Machine Project is offering new ways to experience this century-old gem.
Completed in 1909, the house was built for the Gamble family (of pharmaceutical giant Proctor & Gamble). The Greenes meticulously oversaw every aspect of construction, from the sourcing of multiple kinds of wood, to the hand-rounded edges on every beam, to the use of the family’s crest, a rose and crane, in detailing throughout the three-storey home. These labor-intensive, old world methods were paired with then-modern technologies, including electricity, central heating, and hygienic, tile-lined bathrooms and kitchen.
Anyone who has been on a tour of the building knows that it is an impeccably preserved period museum, which makes Machine Project’s house-wide contemporary intervention all the more striking. As part of the Pasadena Arts Council’s AxS Festival, Machine Project’s Field Guide to the Gamble House aims to “reveal the history and visual ideas behind the Gamble House in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.” In addition to visual art, there will be performances, workshops and even a secret restaurant. We spoke with Machine Project’s Mark Allen to get the low-down on the project.
“I really think we do our best shows when we have the most context, that’s what I really liked about the Gamble House.” Allen says. “You’ve got all this history, it’s a weird space, it’s like this futuristic house of 1909. I’m always interested in technology that’s like old tech or weird tech or things like that. It’s also something you couldn’t make now so it’s almost like a time machine in terms of what kind of wood is available and the economy of it and the craftsmanship. All that stuff becomes really rich to kind of dig into and make the show about.”
What started as an idea to commission ten artists to create work quickly expanded to include 57 artists. “My process was to go over there for tours. I went on 14 tours, and every time I would go I would think of another artist I wanted to invite and to be honest I’m still thinking of people I wish I had put in the show. With more time it would have been 70 artists instead of 57.” Some of those visual artists whose work will be on display in and around the house include Cayetano Ferrer, Katie Herzog, Emily Joyce, Laura Owens, Jessica Cowley (full disclosure, she’s my girlfriend), Anna Sew Hoy, and Ricky Swallow.
As an historic landmark, the Gamble House presented challenges for how to install work. The most challenging was Patrick Ballard’s The Swirling Mess Below the Sleeping Porch Soon Solidified into A Crest of Phantasmagoric Weight that Creaks Between the Doors, the Floors, and a Form that Could Never Be a House Again, a 300lb, 2-storey rose cone from which a crane emerges. “How do you hang a 300lb sculpture on a house where you can’t touch anything?” Allen asks. “We built an entire platform that covers the whole surface of the front porch to keep it safe, and then attached to that are these aluminum trusses, and it’s basically a deck, and the weight of the deck provides a counterweight to cantilever these aluminum trusses with the cone attached to it. So we did have to come up with some creative solutions to a lot of these issues.”
The Field Guide runs through October 5, but this Saturday from 12pm-10pm is the first of two days when the house will be free and open to the public, with performances and activities throughout the day. Some of these include a puppet show in Ballard’s piece, Annie Danis’ archaeological dig, Bob Dornberger’s secret restaurant, a lightshow by Animal Charm, dance performances by Nick Duran and Milka Djordjevich, closet poem readings, bed conversations and more. For a complete list of activities, click here.
What about the projects that didn’t make it? “Ballard’s original ideas was a 2 story blond puppet head that we were gonna order 400 wigs from china for and weave them together,” says Allen. “His idea was ‘oh this house is such a brunette it should have a blonde on it,’ but when we really got down to getting 400 wigs from China, it was prohibitively expensive. A lot of the projects evolve, that’s kind of a normal process for us.”