Last week Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times, announced that he was leaving the paper to become the city’s Chief Design Officer. This is great news for Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city. I’ve known Chris for almost twenty years. I edited his first feature article to appear in a national magazine, and then countless other pieces afterward. He’s a terrific writer, who also possesses an elegant set of social skills that will make him an effective advocate for design in the public realm. His work at City Hall starts on April 16th. Here’s our conversation about his new gig.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
CH: Christopher Hawthorne
Congratulations on the new job. For me it’s both exciting—we need smart design thinkers in government—and sad—I will miss reading you on a regular basis. How did this job happen? When did you first start talking about it with Mayor Garcetti?
Thanks. It wasn’t easy deciding to give up a job I’ve loved and felt remarkably lucky to have, especially at a moment when the L.A. Times, after years of turmoil, is newly unionized, under new ownership, and presumably poised to get a much-needed infusion of resources. The job came about over time; the mayor and I discussed in the abstract what it might mean for City Hall to have a position of this kind during an onstage conversation at Occidental College soon after he was elected to a second term. (Mayors are term-limited in L.A., but thanks to a change in the election calendar Mayor Garcetti’s final term will be unusually long—about 5 1/2 years, bringing his total time in office to nearly a decade.) At a certain point the mayor decided he wanted to create a new full time position of Chief Design Officer and asked if I’d consider taking it on. The job was attractive to me for three related reasons: 1) the mayor, as elected officials go, is unusually sophisticated about and interested in architecture and urban design; 2) Los Angeles is in the midst of a major urban transformation whose funding is largely in hand or already approved, having voted to tax itself to pay for more than $100 billion in transit and roadway improvements, as well as new parks and housing and other infrastructure in the coming decades, along with welcoming the Olympics in 2028; and 3) the mayor’s extended second term means there is time to really think about and work on some comprehensive plans for how that new architecture, open space and infrastructure will be designed. The mayor is keenly interested that these efforts be coordinated from a design point of view so that they’re as efficient as possible, as well as representative of Los Angeles and its history as a center of innovation in design and architecture.
What exactly will your role be? Explain the contours of the job?
As Chief Design Officer my position will look a bit like the other “Chief” roles in L.A. city government, which also include Chief Sustainability Officer, Chief Data Officer and the like. In other ways it will be an experiment, something that we create from scratch. In practical terms my job comes through the planning department but is located in the mayor’s office; I’ll be working directly for one of the deputy mayors, William Chun. I’ll be advising on some projects the city is designing directly and others that are the responsibility of agencies outside the city government proper (subway and light-rail stations, for example, that are built by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a county agency). But even some of those “outside” projects will be something I’m closely concerned with. Here’s one example: though Metro transit projects are operated at the county level, the ballot measure that provided that funding, Measure M, includes some not-insignificant money for streetscape and other urban-design improvements that are being carried out directly by the city.
How much of your job is bully pulpit and soft persuasion, and how much is related to actual policy?
The precise mixture will be something we figure out over time, but it will be some of each. Also, we’re kidding ourselves if we think it’s possible to make policy—especially on hot-button issues related to housing, density and complete streets—purely by fiat, separate from a larger public conversation. For me they’re closely, even inextricably linked.
How does your job intersect with the city council?
The city council holds a great deal of influence in planning and land-use decisions in Los Angeles; each council member has a planning deputy who often carries out this work directly, especially when it comes to the approval of large individual projects. That is not likely to change in the short term, and nobody in a position like mine will succeed without understanding that dynamic. Diffuse or even fragmented political authority, both within the city government and between the city and the rest of the region, is a fact of life here.
How will it intersect with the design community? Do you foresee working with the local AIA chapters, the planning groups?
Yes. We need to amplify the voices of everyone doing and supporting good work on these issues, inside and outside of government, especially as we prepare to make some crucial decisions on planning, land use, civic architecture and urban design over the next few years.
What are your top priorities entering City Hall, fully understanding that those might change and evolve over time?
As I imagine it going in, my portfolio is likely to include public outreach (events and perhaps even publications) and specific design proposals. Those proposals will themselves be diverse, with some related to preservation, others to the design of new public spaces, and still others connected to new architecture. In a nutshell, though, my priority will be the civic realm—how improve the design of public spaces and make sure they are accessible and reflect the character of contemporary Los Angeles. That’s a key effort given where L.A. stands in its civic evolution. After many decades of neglecting the public realm and instead building out an architecture and infrastructure of privatization (anchored by the freeway network) at massive regional scale, L.A. is now re-embracing and redefining its public realm. At the same we’re just beginning to understand the potential impact of autonomous vehicles and other new technology as well as climate change, which in our region means not only sea-level rise but the prospect of extreme heat and more intense storms and wildfires.
You’ve been reporting on and covering developments on and around the LA River for almost a decade and a half. As a member of the mayor’s administration, how do you envision your involvement now?
The river is not only a remarkable design challenge in its own right, but emblematic of nearly every possibility and potential pitfall in my new position. Along with the freeway network, the river is the major symbol of the privatizating impulse that took hold of Los Angeles during much of the 20th century. We didn’t merely wrap the river in concrete as a flood-protection measure. We also cut it off from public access. It became, like the freeway, a kind of infrastructural monoculture, a place with one purpose and one purpose only, and where the diverse, organic activities that make any urban space thrive were foreclosed— literally made illegal—from the very start. In a densifying, vital and growing region that is also facing a major housing crisis and confronting climate change, we no longer have the luxury of allowing giant pieces of the urban realm to operate that way. Reimagining the river is not just an exercise in rethinking our policy on stormwater, although it is surely that. It is also an opportunity to open up a 51-mile linear landscape—while always keeping flood control in mind, of course—to public use, walking and biking first and foremost. It’s a chance to ask that our major infrastructural spaces—these muscular remnants of mid-century planning doctrines—reinvent themselves to do more than one thing.
There’s been some speculation about your successor. Maybe the more pertinent question, given the state of local newspapers is, will there be an architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times?
I’m confident there will be, yes.
Promise me, you’ll keep a journal. Any parting thoughts?
I’ve been writing about planning and urban-design in Los Angeles long enough to know that I have some challenges ahead, but I’m genuinely excited to get started. Let’s do this again in a year or so—I’ll let you know how it’s going.
Featured image of downtown Los Angeles via Wikipedia Commons.