L.A. Car Conversation

with Neil Denari & Jimenez Lai


Content produced for the first Chicago Architecture Biennial 
at the request of editorial coordinator Andrea Bagnato



It was POOL’s good fortune to be in the downtown office of Jimenez Lai (Bureau Spectacular) early last summer when a request for a conversation between Lai and Neil Denari came in from Chicago Architecture Biennial Editorial Coordinator Andrea Bagnato.  Bagnato was seeking something in the Reyner Banham/Jerry Seinfeld tradition: an ambulatory conversation to take place in the back of a moving car.  Which car, exactly, was not totally clear.  And so we magnanimously offered ours—a white 1987 Volkswagen Cabriolet.


The following is a transcript of the conversation between Denari and Lai, presented, in part, in conjunction with the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial.  This year’s biennial, “The State of the Art of Architecture,” exhibited a broad range of work by more than 100 architects, organized around the theme of architecture as a dynamic cultural practice.  With all its guerrilla reportage bravado, complete with moments of lost audio—redacted by the wind breezing through the open convertible canopy of the Cabriolet—this document stands as testament not only to a certain type of journalistic naivete, but to both the pace of westside LA traffic on any given Saturday and the rate of conversational change between two minds such as these.  The gaps remind us, again, that you really had to be there.


PART I: You Had To Be There
(Lost in Translation)

ND: Neil Denari; JL: Jimenez Lai; JH: Jesse Hammer


(Discussing bringing his daughter’s t-shirt collection in line with her sunglass collection.)

ND: ...horizontally striped t-shirt and I’m going to go get one, immediately.  Maybe red could be a good idea.

POOL: I think that the best thing to do is just to put [the recorder] in between you guys.

JL: Ok.

ND: Ok.

JL: Is this thing on?

POOL: Yeah.  It’s not ideal but unfortunately in the absence of the Lav mics and... (inaudible)

(sound of keys)

ND: Wow so that actually, very specifically…

(engine starts)

POOL: Yeah, it’s directional.

ND: ...does the job of having a conversation.

JH: You might need to move forward for me to get the door shut...

ND: Maybe I’ll just hold [the recorder].

POOL: Really?

(regarding door)

JH: Yeah, I’m really sorry.

JL: Whoops.

(metal scraping, laughing, door closes)

JH: Yeah.

ND: Is it on?  Is it going?

POOL: Yeah, it’s going.

JL: Is this thing recording?

POOL: It’s recording.

JL: Oh.

ND: So, just go up to the first stop light and turn left.

JH:  Does this seat come up further?

POOL: Yeah.

(mumbles, engine noise)

ND: This is McLaughlin.

(wind noise on mic)

JL: Do you drive?

ND: I drive.  I drive as little as possible.

(inaudible, wind distortion_30s)

ND: You’re not a driver yet?

JL: I don’t have a car.

ND: You don’t have a car.

JL: No.

ND: Are you the new breed?

JL: I might be.  I mean we did the math and it seems like not driving is more economical than driving.

ND: But you’re not a bike rider either, right?

JL: I would if I had a bike.

ND: You would?

JL: I would.

ND: Uh huh.

JL: But I also don’t have a bike.

ND: Is that a fitness project?  Is it a sustainability project?  Or is it just an economy project?

JL: I mean, I think it’s a lack of responsibility project.


JL:  I don’t want to go to the DMV, (laughing) I don’t want to deal with insurance.

ND: See, that’s right, that’s right.  But also then you don’t have to worry about the problem of…

(inaudible, wind distortion_50s)

POOL: So, do you want to look for...

JL: What were some of the cars you’ve driven in the past?

ND: My first car actually was a convertible.  I had it in Texas.  It was a 1964 Buick Skylark.  It was black with a red interior and a white top.  And my brother owned it when he was in college and then he went into navy flight school and he sold me the car for very cheap and I had it for a few years.  You know, it was one of those classic 50’s, 60’s cars…

(inaudible, wind distortion_38s)

ND: ...transition, or movement, in terms of space.  Because this is what kind of city it is.  It’s the most famous city to discuss that dilemma in.

JL: Yeah.

(inaudible, wind distortion_33s)

ND: ...but it’s got a good name.  Of all the dingbats…

(inaudible, wind distortion_43s)

POOL: By the 99 cent store?

ND: Ah...a mauve 99 cent store.  That I have been in a couple times but…  Um, you know the overcast weather, did that surprise you when you came to LA?  What were the mythologies that you came with?  That either still exist or have been just completely eliminated?

JL: Well some of the mythologies, I mean…  Well I have been out in LA several times before, and some of the feelings I had before were, well here’s an off-the-menu type city.  You don’t really know what’s going on, but there are some great things you could order, you just have to know ahead of time.


" Here’s an off-the-menu type city.  You don’t really know what’s going on, but there are some great things you could order, you just have to know ahead of time."


ND: Right.

JL: What you’re ordering. New York…

(inaudible, wind distortion_10s)

JL: ...for a visitor.

ND: Yeah, well New York…  It’s a good analogy.  I love that analogy, the menu…

(inaudible, wind distortion_18s)

ND: ...I suppose it’s free, you know, to get in, and then you decide after that what you’re going to do and how much it’s going to cost you to go out, have fun…

(inaudible, wind distortion_5s)

ND: Drive through the Gregory Ain utopia.  Have you been over to see it?

JL: No, I have not.

(wind distortion)

ND: There’s a little history to it.

(inaudible, wind distortion_5s)

ND: It was the lesser known…

(inaudible, wind distortion_10s)

ND: ...here in Mar Vista and of course by now many of them are completely disfigured and you can’t tell.  Wolf Prix used to own one, when he was out in the 90’s with his office and he would come and stay.  He finally sold it and it made him cry…

(inaudible, wind distortion_62s)

ND: ...a little more off-putting.

JL: Yeah.

ND: Not really selling a lot of records nowadays.  So these are the houses, over here.  And I can’t remember which one…  I think Wolf owned this one.  This green one right here.  Yeah.

JL: Oh, it’s on sale.

(motioning to another house)

ND: Yeah, turn right and we can…  Oh yeah, that one’s on sale.  That one looks pretty clean.  Right, so not to be a teacher or anything but so the -- you can turn right here, and we can go up and down a couple of these blocks.  They’re very tiny.  I think maybe a thousand square feet.  And they had the convertible partitions and the eucalyptus alleys are amazing and in many respects…  You know architects and designers are coming in and buying these things and trying to fix them up.

JL: Did you get into one?

ND: Yeah, I’ve been into Wolf’s a couple times, and a few others -- and then turn left -- but it’s a pretty stark contrast, to, you know, the little post-war stucco boxes.  But I live just up the street, so this is Mar Vista.  This is my neighborhood of 20 years and, ah...but I want to get back to the clouds.  

JL: Oh yeah.

ND: When I came for the first time it was May of ‘87 and...

(inaudible, wind distortion_12s)

ND: ...shocking.  And what I did was I went back -- and you’re going to go left actually -- I went back and I looked at reruns of like beach movies from the 60’s or...

(inaudible, wind distortion_10s)

ND: Yeah, it’s actually kind of cloudy a lot.  You know even back in the day.  Even when it was more smoggy.  I mean the air is so much clearer now.  But that was one of the big mythologies I had, you know, it never rains.  You know, completely naive, living in New York, and that was a big one.  But of course, you come to appreciate how sublime, in a way, the weather is.

(inaudible, wind distortion_50s)

ND: ...yeah.  Were you shocked at the density?     

JL: Downtown a little bit.  I chose to live downtown because....

(inaudible, wind distortion_44s)

ND: ...and that, especially when you have to consider driving most places you go, you get into claustrophobic areas, and then you drive out...      

(inaudible, wind distortion_78s)

ND: ...talking about LA, because once you get into the deep crevices of that painting part of the, I mean especially in the third triptych...

JL: The one...Hell?

ND: Yeah.  Then you can’t help but look at it and go, wow.  I see the Rodney King Riots right there, and I see the Watts Riots right there and I see the Manson Murders right there and you know, all the ugly things, historically, about LA, but the…

(inaudible, wind distortion_5s)

ND: ...in the same way that we’re not ashamed of having too much sun.  I think…

(inaudible, wind distortion_12s)

ND: ...and there’s still politics, and there’s still hierarchy and all of that, right.  But one of the reasons I’m here and why I stay here is because you can, you know, kind of reinvent your position within that field every day, all the time.  And it’s interesting you being downtown…

(inaudible, wind distortion_10s)

ND:  ...it’s not necessarily the best psychological center.  There is no psychological center of LA.  It’s where you are, and who you’re with.  It’s in this car.


"It’s not necessarily the best psychological center.  There is no psychological center of LA.  It’s where you are, and who you’re with.  It’s in this car."



JL: One of the things I’m…

ND: Turn left up here.

JL: I think...

(inaudible, wind distortion_18s)

JL: …anecdotes -- ‘cause you know I’m a fan of a decentralized story arc -- and if the composition itself is made up of anecdotal parts and it demands the readers to find the parts and then project themselves into what they find.

ND: Yeah.

JL: I think that that’s the kind of composition I’m drawn to.  And so a city like this, where it is everything all over everywhere, yet at the same time with maybe multiple centers of gravity.  I guess, you know, I’m drawn to downtown.  Obviously Erin (Besler) and Andrew (Kovacs) were factors of me going to downtown, but I guess I’m also drawn to the filth of downtown.

ND: Mhm.

JL: Um, the physical, let’s say, um…

ND: Oh, you mean like what New York used to be.

JL: Yeah.

(quiet laughter)

ND: Yeah.  Not to get all old on you, but that’s when I lived in New York.  When you had to kick all the needles out of your way when you entered your lobby…

(inaudible, wind distortion_27s)

ND: … and also in terms of how things go on and how things work.  You know there’s mafias and overtones of dystopias and as much as you could rewrite it into any type of really euphoric utopian place, I would say LA's cracked utopia.  Like a plate that’s been dropped a lot of times and you keep gluing it back together.  It’s still whole and it reveals its places where it couldn’t quite hold together.  It’s….

(inaudible, wind distortion_85s)

JL: ...I think you know, to me, that was an image carved pretty deeply into my upbringing.

ND: Uh huh.  Yeah, I see.  Jeff Goldblum.

JL: Yes.

ND: Yeah, you can’t have some sort of west coast world without…

(inaudible, wind distortion_25s)

ND: ...well there’s a Starbucks but...  What do we do...what do we do?  ...There’s an Urth Caffé on Main Street?  The parking is a -- do you guys want coffee?

POOL: We...yes.  We would love to get a coffee.


ND: You would love to get a coffee?

JH: Yeah.

ND: And then maybe should we get coffees and stop...

JL: Yeah.

ND: ...for ten minutes.

JL: That sounds good.  Maybe we can find a diner.

ND: A diner…

JL: That would be super good.

JH: Ooh, a diner would be great.

ND: A diner...shit.  We passed Rae’s Diner already.  Maybe you can find a diner?  Something on...hm...oh, there’s probably a diner off Lincoln.

JL: Oh, this is Lincoln?

ND: Yeah.

POOL: Take a right?

ND: Yeah, try take a right.

JL: There’s a Denny’s...


ND: Oh, there’s Norm’s up in Santa Monica but...I think there must be a diner somewhere…

JL: (searching gps)  There’s Izzy’s Deli?  That’s a little ways.

POOL: Everything’s a little ways.

JL: I guess one of the things that I’m most noticing a lot these days are the typologies of architecture here in LA, especially the dingbats, but Queen Anne Revival seems to be very common.  At least techniques of Queen Anne Revival.  Um, when you look at, you know, a collection of several roof lines mashed together with a lack of symmetry…

ND: You mean houses that were done in the early part though.  You’re not talking about architects adopting that as a new style.

JL: No.

ND: Uh huh.

JL: And maybe by extension, you know I’m only learning about the Spanish style ever since...ever since I got here.

ND: Uh huh.

JL: ...Which makes no sense to me...I’m still trying to wrap my head around the Spanish style.

ND: The Spanish Style?

JL: Yeah.

ND: In terms of the formal language or…

JL: Well yes.  The formal language, why it’s called the Spanish Style, and also what constitutes it, you know.

ND: Uh huh.  Yeah, well, if you think about Spanish architecture like in Granada, like Moorish architecture and the hypostyle hall and in some ways, even all of that architecture back there was already pretty mutated I think, and you know everything was imported.  A very dirty gene pool of forms, materials, and styles.  Not to say that Spanish architecture doesn’t have its own intensity or something.  But by the time that you get to LA I mean...it’s legitimate enough to say that Spanish Style emanated from something called the Mission Style because there were missions built by the Jesuit priests all up and down the coast and that’s a big part of, you know, California history.  I know there’s something...is that a…

(inaudible, wind distortion_10s)

ND: Some people know every coffee place in LA, but that’s a special knowledge I don’t have.

JL: Yeah.

ND: Yeah.

JL: But I like the mention of gene pools, and the mutation of gene pools. You know, as far as thinking about styles and languages and things like that.

ND: Uh huh.  Are you one of the few in your generation who’s willing to talk about architectural style?  Especially in American terms.  Which of course is, um, (jackhammering) a term that, you know real architects...we don’t practice in styles.  We leave that to journalists, or you know people who might try to invoke things…(distortion)...If not a style, what are your interests and instincts in them, from your point of view, as a designer?

(inaudible, wind distortion_20s)

JL: ...you know if you walked into a room that has, let’s say, floor to ceiling windows and, you know, a kind of repetitious column grid with, let’s say, flexible set ups of tables...

ND: Yeah.

JL: ...an office environment.  Maybe we can even pinpoint a time when this is kind of considered stylish.  Meaning you know, style is such a moving target.  And maybe that’s what’s interesting for me, to talk about style.  And why I also talk about the constitution of style is because I believe that there are rule sets to learn from, and techniques, you know, you use, once you understand…

(inaudible, wind distortion_20s)

ND: ...and Shapiro, in a nutshell, describes style as a coherent set of formal elements, you know, within a language, but...

(inaudible, wind distortion_20s)

ND: ...you know we can take an architect, any architect that works iteratively, let’s say Frank Gehry perhaps, or Wolf, or somebody like that.  On the one hand, their work exists in architecture culture, right?

(inaudible, wind distortion_10s)

ND: ...free jazz…

(inaudible, wind distortion_10s)

ND: ...an architect would say, you know, “I don’t practice in style.”  Then what’s interesting is you could have formulated a type of architectural language that has, as you said, rules and coherences…

(inaudible, wind distortion_20s)

ND: ...and I share that, that sense of wanting to understand how beyond the word -- which of course makes everyone nervous -- what it means and how it operates, how it functions.  

(inaudible, wind distortion_44s)

ND: ...architecture as a commodity, you know houses and...is that something that…?

JL: Definitely the dilettante.  

ND: But in LA, you see everything as a Boschian Hell…

(inaudible, wind distortion_15s)

ND: ...that’s what we’re selling to the market.  It’s the very thing that of course makes practicing architecture outside of convention so difficult, because if you can’t describe it then you don’t want it.    

JL: Just going back maybe to gene pools, or dirty pools.  And here we are in a car pool, a dirty car pool.



"Just going back maybe to gene pools, or dirty pools. And here we are in a car pool, a dirty car pool."


ND: That’s the good one.

JL: You know one of the things, maybe why I’m drawn both to, you know, Ed Ruscha’s study of the Sunset Strip and also maybe Becher & Becher’s study of the typology, is because if we were to say redundancy makes truth.  Or I mean, if there’s enough precedence of it, it’s probably right. And so if rumor has it…

(inaudible, wind distortion_50s)

ND: Oh, we made it to Izzy’s Deli.

POOL: This is apparently our destination.

ND: Oh yeah, totally fine.  We’ve just got to park.  Ah...right next to that red Cadillac?  Is that a spot?

JL: Oh yeah.

ND: You know what that spot is called in LA?  

JL: No.

ND: It’s called TV parking.

JL: This is TV parking.  Flanked between…

ND: Kojak.  Just ‘boom!’  Goes right in.  I mean that’s New York.  Any show, right.


ND: First spot’s always open.  That’s TV parking.  I’ll give you [the recorder]...ok.

(exit car)

ND: I’d say this car fits you pretty well.


POOL: It gets the job done.


END 37:01