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Christopher Hawthorne on Los Angeles’ Urban Identity Crisis

In January, a week and a half before the inauguration, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne launched a new column. Building Type is a weekly exploration of this unique moment in L.A., when the forces of the past, present and future are involved in a sort wrestling match for the 21st century soul of the city. Hawthorne also engages these issues at Occidental College, where he teaches and directs the Third Los Angeles project, a series of public talks on architecture, urbanism and demographic change in Southern California. Earlier this week I traded emails with Hawthorne, one of our best architecture critics, about all things L.A. Here’s our dialogue:

 

MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
CH: Christopher Hawthorne

MCP:

In your first column, you wrote about the changes taking place in L.A. Tell us what’s happening. It seems to me that the city is transitioning into a fundamentally different place.

 

CH:

Los Angeles is moving into a distinctly new phase in terms of its architecture and urbanism, but also in terms of its self-image. And that means the shift, from certain angles, looks a lot like a full-blown identity crisis. A city famous for having re-organized itself during the 20th century around the car, the freeway and the single-family house—and the emphasis on private space that follows from that approach—is no longer building houses and freeways. Instead we’re investing heavily in new transit lines and parks and putting up denser and more vertical multifamily housing. There is also a significant backlash against these changes, particularly from homeowner groups worried about traffic and over-development, but also from artists and architects who feel that something singular about Los Angeles, its freewheeling sense of experimentation, its literal and psychological elbow room, is in danger of being lost.

Picture one of those David Hockney paintings of a house in the hills with a swimming pool, or Julius Shulman’s famous photographs of Case Study #22, and you can instantly understand the appeal of that city. The question is to what extent, in terms of zoning, infrastructure, etc., it makes sense to keep trying to protect it. The point is not only that the private hillside Los Angeles stopped being affordable a long time ago—it’s almost laughable to think that the Case Study program was launched to promote housing for the middle class when its houses now sell for millions of dollars—but also that it was exclusionary from the start, thanks to the discriminatory covenants and lending practices that helped segregate much of 20th-century Southern California.

 

case-study-house-22 via ultra swank

Case Study House, No. 22; Stahl house, designed by Pierre Koenig. Photo by Julius Shulman.

MCP:

Where do you see Los Angeles in five/ten/twenty years out? Is it a densified version of its present self or something else? New York is undergoing change, but I would argue that it’s less transformational than L.A, since its basic DNA isn’t changing. It’s just doing what it has done in the past: gone vertical. There’s something else happening in L.A.

 

CH:

I’d agree. This is anything but a smooth or predictable transition, precisely because so many of the qualities that had defined Los Angeles both for locals and the rest of the world are coming under scrutiny. This is no longer a city that’s growing in the headlong way it did for nearly all of the 20th century; nor are we attracting immigrants to the degree we once did. In a broader sense a city that was so dramatically defined by its support of private space and individual opportunity is struggling to advance a series of pressing collective goals: How to deal with homelessness and soaring housing costs, how to deal with a shrinking industrial base, how to remake the LA River, how to produce a truly effective regional transit network. One great thing about L.A. has always been the sense that nobody cares what anybody else is doing—it’s a thrillingly tolerant and open-minded city. The flip side of that is that we’ve had really anemic levels of civic engagement and many of our public institutions are correspondingly weak. I’d say we’re clearer about what we’re leaving behind or giving up than we are about what we’re becoming—what will define the 21st-century LA. But to answer your question directly, in 20 years I think L.A. will look nearly brand new in certain areas (the Arts District and other sections of of downtown, the Expo Line corridor stretching from USC to the beach) and much the same as it does now in others (single-family neighborhoods in Los Feliz or parts of the San Fernando Valley).

 

MCP:

There’s anti-growth referendum on the ballot called Measure S. Can you explain what it is and who’s backing it? And what does it say about the fears of long time Angelenos? Are these reasonable fears?

 

CH:

My short answer is that the fears are reasonable but the measure, as written, is not. Measure S calls for a two-year moratorium on developments that require general-plan amendments or other planning variances. To make a very long story short, the general plan and L.A.’s various community plans are badly out of date, in part because some developers and elected officials like the byzantine system the way it is, because they alone understand how to navigate it, which gives them power or money or both. And in part because anti-growth activists have sued to block new proposed plans and projects that they see as allowing too much density.

Measure S is backed by a coalition of slow-growth and anti-development groups and largely financed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a Hollywood-based nonprofit whose president, Michael Weinstein, has become a vocal opponent of growth and denser development. He has also opposed the expansion of public transit. It might seem odd to outsiders that a ballot measure about land use is being financed by a health-care group but for us, by now, Weinstein’s activism is a familiar story. In any case my take on the measure is that it’s so broadly written as to be better understood as a delay tactic—an attempt to protect the status quo, which makes large-scale development costly and inefficient—than a genuine reform effort. Certainly in the short term—and perhaps for longer—it would make our housing shortage worse, not better.

 

MCP:

Just last week, I saw a piece which ranked Los Angeles as the most expensive housing market in the U.S. What’s the L.A. response from a policy/design perspective to the issue of affordable housing?

 

CH:

We have under-built housing in the city and county of Los Angeles for more than thirty years, in large part because of slow-growth efforts at the ballot box and in the courts. For a city of its size, Los Angeles has an unusually large proportion of land reserved for single-family housing—and the owners of those houses are active in opposing any efforts to increase density, and not just in their own neighborhoods but across much of L.A. (On top of that those homeowners are wealthier and vote more regularly than the typical Angeleno, which helps explain why elected officials continue to make concessions to their point of view.) One recent state study concluded that L.A. County has built a million fewer units than it needed to keep pace with population growth over the last three decades. We need to build more housing of all types and at all scales. We also have a chronic homeless problem and need better specific strategies for producing permanent supportive housing.

 

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Los Angles River. Photo courtesy of Friends of the L.A. River.

MCP:

I watched the flooding in Southern California last week and saw the normally channelized and concrete L.A. River raging with water. It’s certain that more storms like this are coming. And yet much of the talk about the river has been about real estate development, amenities, parks. What does the L.A. River also have to do in an era of climate change?

 

CH:

Beginning in earnest in the 1930s, the river was channelized—wrapped in concrete—by the Army Corps of Engineers in an effort to prevent the disastrous floods that we used to experience on a semi-regular basis. Though we don’t get a huge amount of rain here, the storms that do come can feature very intense rainfall, particularly in the foothills and mountains that ring the L.A. basin to the north and east. When you combine that with the remarkable steepness of the L.A. River as it comes down from those mountains into the city—in 52 miles it drops down by 750 feet or so, which is a bigger elevation change than the Mississippi River negotiates over its full 2350 miles—the result is that heavy rain at higher elevations used to mean a rampaging and dangerous L.A. River in the developed heart of the city. The concrete river (as part of a coordinated infrastructural network that also includes the debris basins high in the hills that John McPhee has written so memorably about) has been very effective at keeping that kind of flooding at bay. But on 99 days out of 100 the L.A. River has barely any water in at all, and certainly not enough to pose any danger.

One byproduct of the channelization was to turn what had been a public amenity and a linear green space into a private and forbidding landscape, much of it fenced off. (Until the recent resurgence of interest many Angelenos weren’t even aware we had a river.) So the challenge now is as straightforward to explain as it complicated to solve: How do we let the public use the riverbanks again, how do we redesign this incredible linear civic space and civic resource, while also keeping the important flood-control mechanisms in place? The other crucial question is whether we can re-engineer a system that was designed to sweep stormwater directly out to sea into a machine that captures and stores that water. Right now the channelized river is a highly efficient piece of infrastructure that does one thing and one thing only: During heavy rain it directs stormwater away from the city and out to sea. Of course during the recent drought and in an era of climate change we can no longer afford to waste that water. The same is true in terms of the public realm: in an increasingly crowded city we can no longer afford the luxury of the sort of infrastructural monoculture the channelized river represents, all that land cutting through the heart of the city without being usable.

 

MCP:

Can you give me a progress report on the river? What’s happening with Frank Gehry’s involvement?

CH:

Gehry and the landscape architect Laurie Olin, among a few other designers and consultants, have been enlisted by a non-profit group called River L.A. to produce a new master plan for the river. River L.A. (originally called the L.A. River Revitalization Corporation) was founded by the city of Los Angeles to help coordinate (and raise money for) efforts to reimagine the river as a flood control channel that also is more open and inviting as public space. River L.A.’s decision to hire Gehry (who has offered his own time pro bono) and the degree to which they kept that decision secret early on were both criticized by groups with longer histories of involvement with river policy, most notably the Friends of the Los Angeles River. Among their concerns is that in certain neighborhoods the efforts to revitalize the river will promote a land rush , leading to rampant real-estate speculation and displacement. And in fact this is already happening in certain areas (though there are other neighborhoods near the river, it’s important to say, that are desperate for new investment).

 So far—in part, in my view, to tamp down those concerns—River LA has released lots of really wonky analyses of data about the river, its water levels and its potential as an open-space corridor and virtually no designs. (Not even preliminary sketches from Gehry or Olin.) The most optimistic spin on Gehry’s participation is that he’ll help galvanize political cooperation and fundraising. And that’s not nothing, since remaking the river will require substantial coordination among city, county, state and federal agencies, not to mention a long list of private landowners who have claims along or even reaching into the river.

 

MCP:

How is the new subway line doing, in terms of ridership? There are very ambitious plans to expand the system. Can you envision in time when you could conveniently live in LA without a car? Are there neighborhoods where that’s possible, and even advisable, now?

 

CH:

Ridership on LA rail lines is up (mostly thanks to the new Expo Line light-rail extension to Santa Monica) but bus ridership is down. And since bus trips still make up the majority of transit trips in LA County, the overall transit numbers are down, worryingly. (Other cities are seeing similar declines.) But we are still in the early stages of a remarkably ambitious effort to create a mature rail system, in two or three decades, almost from scratch. L.A. County voters passed a sales-tax increase for transit in 2008 and last fall approved another half-cent hike; this second initiative, Measure M, will raise a staggering $100 billion to $120 billion over 30 years— arguably enough to remake the region and how we navigate it as ambitiously as our freeway-building binge did 50 years ago. All tax increases in California that go to the voters require a two-thirds majority, which is a very high bar to clear, but M passed with more than 71 percent of the vote, suggesting a clear mandate for transit investment. And though not all of that war chest will go to transit (some of it is earmarked for road improvements), the lion’s share of it will. In 15 years or so Los Angeles will finally have a comprehensive network of light-rail and subway lines. And many big improvements will arrive sooner, like the Wilshire Boulevard subway and light rail along Crenshaw Boulevard. Many people I know live here quite happily (though maybe not conveniently) without cars already. And their numbers will keep growing.

 

Featured image: downtown Los Angeles, via Wikipedia.

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