Who would have thought a story about an aqueduct could be so salacious? Riddled with corruption, intrigue and drama, the story of the first aqueduct in Los Angeles – completed in 1913 and led by William Mulholland – is well known, thanks to Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown. Now it has piqued the interest of architect/artist Oscar Tuazon, who is revisiting the 233 mile-long pipe for an exhibition at the Hammer Museum.
Comprising four elements spread across different areas of the museum, Tuazon has created concrete and aluminium sculptures inspired by a monument to Mullholland that Tuazon came across in the neighbourhood of Los Feliz.
‘Mulholland was a strange figure. His aqueduct is the infrastructure that created Los Angeles, a transformative piece of geo-engineering,' says Tuazon. 'It's a massive earth work; you can trace its path on Google Earth like a line drawing. But Mulholland was also responsible for the worst civic engineering disaster in California history: the collapse of the St Francis dam, which flooded the valley with 12 billion gallons of water and killed hundreds of people. The central feature of the Muholland memorial park is a large Art Deco fountain. Placed in front of the fountain is a piece of the aqueduct, an empty section of pipe. A portrait of Los Angeles.'
He continues: ‘I had started thinking of a pipe as a kind of space – not quite architecture because it doesn't have a flat floor – but at the scale of a room. I was building crude models of pipes in the studio, imagining them as apertures, viewing devices that could be placed in a landscape, ways of making connections between places. Plumbing is pure infrastructure. Water pipes, oil pipelines, plumbing – the Hammer is in the former Occidental Petroleum building (now owned by UCLA), so these are not metaphorical connections but they are usually invisible.’
In Southern California, water issues continue to be contentious, and those connections are quickly made with the opposite extremes being experienced on the East Coast and beyond, to the environmental crisis beyond that around the world. Tuazon’s work often dismantles – literally and conceptually – the idea of a stable, safe domestic space. (In a recent 2015 work, he crushed a whole freestanding building as a performance at Paradise Garage in Venice, California.)
His new site-specific work unavoidably articulates our troubled relationship with our surroundings and questions the impact of our industrial constructions on the environment. But it isn’t simply a cynical critique. His approach to architecture is somehow hopeful. He says, ‘An artwork can create spatial situations that don't exist anywhere else, things that would literally be illegal to build as architecture. There are very real practical benefits to this kind of privilege, I try to take advantage of that and build things that should not be built.’
Recently Tuazon, originally from Seattle, acquired some land near the Washington coast, where he is constructing an artwork that will also function as a home. Much like his work at the Hammer, water is a literal and conceptual source, and Tuazon’s approach is largely an attempt to reharmonise a relationship to the environment, practically and politically. ‘It's a house with one room, on the Hoh River in the Olympic rainforest. It is surrounded by water, it rains constantly, and that defines the house. One of the first things we did was a plumbing project – a rainwater collection tank and a filtration system. It was a good way to understand what water does. Water is the best material for making sculpture, it has a mind of its own, it's alive.’