Arty, oddball, smart?It sure doesn't look like LaLa Land. Neville Wakefield reports on the generation that is redefining L.A. style.
Aldo Rossi

Get the Facts

"The thing about L.A. is that it really is all the clichés you imagine it to be," Sofia Coppola tells me. We're sitting poolside at the house she shares with her husband, fellow filmmaker Spike Jonze. The shimmering rectangle of water, bounded only by a few palms, blends with the cloudless sky. Designed in the 1950's by Modernist architect A. Quincy Jones, the house sits on a Los Feliz cliff-top, a perfect retreat in which to conjure up a successor to Coppola's acclaimed film debut, The Virgin Suicides. To the west you can see Griffith Observatory, with its Foucault pendulum and giant Tesla coil. To the south, the downtown towers break through the surface haze.

As clichés go, I can imagine worse than discussions around an infinity pool. For example, the pronouncement that L.A. is a lot more like New York than you think it is. Or the insistence that Hollywood isn't just about money, it's about art. Still, the landscape is changing. And Coppola herself is probably the best example of how. Hollywood royalty (father, Francis), indie filmmaker, designer's muse, glam icon—her success would seem to be a birthright, but it has been modest and earned. She is soft-spoken, diffident, and inimitably stylish, emblematic of a generation for whom the oft-fumbled fusions of art, architecture, fashion, and film are handled with an ease that befits a laid-back metropolis.

"I like downtown. It's a weird kind of ghost town now, but it's changing all the time," Coppola says. Once the province of office workers and low-rent businesses, this blighted district is now anything but. Bunker Hill, a neighborhood that Raymond Chandler described as composed of "little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy," will soon be known for a cleaner kind of fun: the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by none other than Frank Gehry. Just a few blocks away, Rafael Moneo's luminous Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels offers redemption in the form of poured concrete. Farther north, on Chung King Road, small art galleries, performance spaces, and design shops compete with dim sum counters and tchotchke emporiums. Los Angeles, synonymous with culture lite, suddenly has a gravitas that surprises even its fiercest defenders.

My own introduction to the city's aesthetic came via a small book by the artist Edward Ruscha, published in 1966, with the deadpan title Every Building on the Sunset Strip. The book's photographs unfold concertina-style to reveal the vacant lots, liquor stores, motels, and mansions of Hollywood's most famous artery. "I always thought of L.A. as one of the ugliest places I'd ever been," says one of Ruscha's longtime friends, the actor Dennis Hopper (as a photographer and director, Hopper has been a Renaissance man much longer than it's been in vogue). "Everything's just built for the next earthquake to take it down, but when I look at these strange, flat apartment buildings with the palm tree out front, I realize how much Ed did to give us an understanding of that aesthetic. He made L.A. almost palatable."

Coppola agrees: "I love the Guns n' Roses glamour of Sunset Strip. It's got that aging rock star vibe." As you cruise Hollywood Boulevard and the Strip—past the hallucinatory 99 Cent Stores, Grauman's Chinese Theater with its outlandish dragons, the ultra-lounge environments of hotel-land—the streetside attractions seem a surreal amalgam of the exotic and the banal. Some of the hotels and hangouts of the old Hollywood stars are still operating, but most have been updated: the Standard, remodeled by André Balazs into an Astro-shag haven for budget hipsters; the Mondrian, home of the famed Skybar, bearing the white-on-white touch of Philippe Starck. Only the Chateau Marmont retains its promise of elegant decadence. Which could be why it serves as a second home for itinerants of the film, literary, and music worlds; you're as likely to bump into Björk as Jay McInerney or Helmut Newton. "It's a really historical L.A. place," says Coppola, who has fond memories of breakfasting there with her father. "Before I moved into my house, I used to sneak in to hang out at the pool."

Developments in downtown and East L.A. may suggest that the vanguard is tilting eastward, but West Hollywood still has its strongholds. During the nineties boom, such New York blue-chip galleries as Pace and Gagosian established L.A. outposts—Gagosian's opened with a fanfare of sterile sexuality orchestrated by performance maven Vanessa Beecroft, in which models wearing nothing but wigs and Alessandro dell'Acqua heels stared down determinedly blasé viewers. (Pace, like a number of other high-profile ventures, recently closed.) Less dependent on fertile economic soil, galleries like the homegrown Regen Projects, run by Shaun Caley Regen, have a roster of L.A.'s best artists—Liz Larner, Toba Khedoori, Raymond Pettibon, Charles Ray. Step over Gordo, Regen's faithful Lab, and you might find yourself face-to-face with Ray's impeccably re-created car wreck or in the tragicomic mind-set of Pettibon's 'zine-like drawings. Eclecticism seems to be the hallmark of off-piste Hollywood.

From the street, there is little to indicate, for example, that Roth Horowitz Anderson, in the heart of Melrose Place, is not a beauty salon or a pooch groomer's but a rare-book store. "Thomas Schlesser, who designed the space, chose the material, and Andrew [Roth] and myself the color," says Simon Anderson proudly, pointing to the lime-green floor matting. The tiny space is divided in two: in front, photographs (of Sharon Tate, at one show) and ephemera; in back, rare books. The cocktail is irresistible. Depending on your budget and mood, you might walk away with a first edition of The Godfather, for a few hundred bucks, or the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant published and signed by Mark Twain, for a few hundred thousand.

At the other end of the art-commerce continuum, a block north of Hollywood's landmark Capitol Records building, Coppola's own store, Heaven 27, sells her Milk Fed clothing line—T-shirts, sweatshirts, lingerie, basic overcoats. Run by Leslie Hayman, who played one of Coppola's virgins, the shop carries many hip objects that bear the mark of graphic designer Geoff McFetridge, who created the dreamy, handwritten title sequences of The Virgin Suicides. Recently McFetridge teamed up with Marc Jacobs—a connection made through Coppola, who is the current face of the designer's perfume—to do fabric graphics for the ultra-cool line.

For young designers, L.A. is surprisingly hospitable. The current star, Rick Owens, started out as a patternmaker for Michele Lamy. Twelve years later they are still together, though their roles have changed. Lamy is now the proprietor of Les Deux Cafés, an intimate French restaurant popular with boho Hollywood. Owens, on the other hand, has launched his own line of deconstructed luxury wear, demonstrating a pitch-perfect sense of the difference between the worn and the worn-out.

More itinerant than Owens, but with firm roots in L.A., Tara Subkoff and Matt Damhave are the duo behind the label Imitation of Christ, whose riffs on the death of fashion famously led to a debut show in a funeral parlor. Subkoff has had a successful career as an indie film actor, starring recently in the HBO feature Teenage Caveman, directed by artist Larry Clark, who also did 1995's cult hit Kids. Damhave, an art school dropout, adds an anarchic energy to Subkoff's glamour. Self-described "social engineers," they rail against designers who "shop thrift" for ideas and then mass-produce them. Though they, too, find inspiration in castoffs—and L.A. is nothing if not the capital of thrift—their couture vintage is favored by such style icons as Chloë Sevigny.

Just below the surface of the new mainstream is a group of designers emerging with maverick sensibilities. One is Ina Celaya. When I visit Celaya, she's preparing for her first L.A. show, based on the passage of a single day. As we talk, she models a few of the garments: a baby-blue gown held together by white tulle clouds, a star-dusted mini kimono with a whirling nebula airbrushed on. "There's a kind of Galileo theme running through it," she says, laughing. "It gets insanely stupid when it's in silk taffeta, but we'll see if anybody likes it." Her first major show was in November, at the El Dorado Hotel in the heart of downtown, far from the Fred Segalites. "The interior is amazing—huge murals and all this history," she says of Charlie Chaplin's old haunt, "but upstairs it's still scary and derelict, like something out of a horror movie."

Artists and designers may be the ones galvanizing East L.A., but they've been helped along the way by far bigger developments. Though situated on a Mount Olympus of its own making, the Getty Center has done much to drive L.A.'s cultural transformation.

Critics were swift to dismiss the Getty as a citadel of High Modernism, adrift from prevailing cultural and civic needs. True, the museum's conception is old-school: isolated, serene, and mausolean. But its collateral effect cannot be underestimated. Institutions once content with backwater facilities suddenly no longer are. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is planning a major renovation by none other than Rem Koolhaas. And UCLA's Hammer Museum—founded by industrialist Armand Hammer—is getting a whole new building and giving its program a more contemporary focus.

"As everyone has heard a million times, Los Angeles now has this incredible art scene," says Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer. "We're responding to it by creating a very flexible series of project spaces where we can show artists who aren't necessarily ready for a major museum show. The idea is to transform the Hammer into a cultural center for West L.A."

And that's exactly what architect Michael Maltzan plans to do. "In a city that doesn't allow much in the way of impromptu public meeting, you have to find ways of using these public spaces as a kind of social condenser," he tells me when I visit his Silverlake office.

For Maltzan, "connectivity" is the issue. Graphic designer Bruce Mau, landscape architect Petra Blaisse, and lighting designer Paul Zaferiou have all been recruited in the remaking of the Hammer. Nothing is too lowly—not even the parking structure, which is five stories underground. One entrance to the museum is on the first—and deepest—floor. "That's actually the façade," says Maltzan. "It's equivalent to the columns, pediments, and staircase of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It's the arrival."

He has a point, on several levels. The development of downtown depends on getting people to park—a first for L.A. Within the 10-block area running from Figueroa to Alameda, a reformed cityscape is emerging. And of all the new "destination architecture," the Walt Disney Concert Hall is by far the most prominent. "I think it has a big advantage over the Getty; it's much more accessible," says Craig Webb, Gehry's partner of two decades. "I think a lot of people are going to come just to check it out." The design, which predates Bilbao, lends itself to just that. Though its gravity-defying, sail-like forms seem to levitate, much of the building is open to the street, in a very conscious attempt to get people to come inside. Even the plans for a pedestrian bridge linking the concert hall to L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) were scrapped in the name of "reactivating" the sidewalk.