For the past 18 years, Frances Anderton has been the voice of design in Los Angeles. She hosts the DnA: Design and Architecture (DnA) podcast for KCRW, the Los Angeles NPR affiliate, and reports on design and architecture for the station’s news shows. She is an active public speaker, curator, and all around booster for good design and planning in L.A. In mid-September, the Los Angeles Times reported that 24 employees had accepted buyouts, including Anderton. She will leave in mid-December. Last week, I talked to her about the decision to step away from the station, her hopes for continuing the design dialogue, and the current state of things in Los Angeles.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
FA: Frances Anderton
Tell me about your decision to step away from the show.
I’ve been at the station for 22 years. I have DnA, but I’m also on staff at a radio station where I spent many years producing two current affairs shows, Which Way, LA? and To The Point. Which Way, LA? is how I got started at the station. That gave me a great commitment to the place. I have had a wonderful time at KCRW, and DnA was an unexpected evolution of being there. So fast-forward 22 years, the station is changing. It’s going through a cultural shift, management changes, economic changes. It’s bringing in a new generation with new values and new programming ideas, which is good for KCRW. So I just got to a point where it felt like it was time to step aside and make a change. Besides, I didn’t want to be that person who says, “Things were better in my day…”
You don’t want to be that person.
A new generation has to come in and do things their way. And that’s largely why I chose to take the buyout. Those reasons have nothing to do with DnA. I love DnA.
Could you do DnA as a freelancer?
Suffice it to say I am looking at options for taking the show, or a variation of it, independent.
DnA is important to the design world of Los Angeles. They haven’t replaced Chris Hawthorne at the Los Angeles Times, and Curbed is being folded into New York magazine. So where that puts the L.A.-specific reporting for that topic is an open question.
That’s exactly my own observation. All at once you’ve had several important platforms covering design and architecture disappear, even though we know there’s clearly a very engaged audience for it. I was certainly part of the outcry when Curbed L.A. closed. That was terrible. They said local L.A. news was going to be subsumed into the bigger Curbed, but that hasn’t really happened. So I’ve already been talking to my friends at Curbed and the L.A. Times and the LA Downtown News, saying: Look, there’s a void opening up for this kind of news.
You started DnA in 2002. You were really covering a seminal moment, when the city was figuring out that it had to become a different thing in the new century.
You’re right. But because I was in it, I didn’t necessarily fully articulate to myself that that’s what I was doing. I was just staying on top of the stories. My arrival in L.A. happened to coincide with the launch of the reconstruction of a mass-transit system and the region reinventing itself for the new century. And then we had the Rodney King civil unrest in 1992, which was a profound upheaval. That’s when Which Way, LA? started.
The city spent the 1990s examining itself. And I was so privileged to be part of that discussion, as a producer for Which Way, LA?, hosted by an amazing journalist, Warren Olney. For me, and for thousands of people, the unrest was a huge education. I think it changed the attitudes of a lot of architects in L.A,. who realized there was more to L.A. design than experimental houses and quirky restaurants.
The start of DnA coincided with a lot of high-profile projects.
Yes, around the late ’90s, city leaders decided to take on the civic project of Los Angeles; we saw the Getty Center start construction and get built. And then we saw the Disney Concert Hall start to take root. All of a sudden, L.A. was going civic. It was doing this at the same time that it was also grappling with economic inequity and how that’s shaped land use. All of that has become much more highly charged now, but it was pretty intense then.
Anyway, we come to the early aughts. We’re still working in traditional radio, which goes out in the car to a mainstream audience, and traditional radio rarely reported on design and architecture. I was at the station, and I would say to Ruth Seymour, the general manager, “Look, we have this huge audience of people in this town that are involved with design. We really should cater to them.”
What made her decide that it was the moment was when another civic project became a contested issue: LACMA. The museum decided that it too needed to have an architecturally impressive expansion. They had a limited competition, and Rem Koolhaas won it. He came in with this concept that broke with the brief: Forget about just adding on to what we’ve already got. Get rid of four early buildings and replace them with a monolithic structure. This approach caused some level of consternation among a lot of people. And at that point, Ruth said, “We’ve got to discuss it.” That’s when I was put on air, for a one-off, just to talk about LACMA and whether or not it should be torn down.
And then she decided, after that, to make DnA a regular series; just monthly, because she still didn’t think there was a big audience. That’s how DnA got started—with, I should add, the continuing support of current General Manager Jennifer Ferro. LACMA is like the story that never goes away.
The whole span of the show is bookended by LACMA controversies.
And they’re more or less the same controversy! The new regime is using exactly the same strategy. But now Michael Govan is so full of energy and tenacity that he’s managed to pull it off. The four early buildings (three by William Pereira and one by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates) are almost completely gone, and Zumthor’s project is on the way to becoming real, despite huge efforts to try and derail it. So it is ironic that my life with DnA has been bookended by LACMA.
In that time, we’ve seen mass transit develop. To borrow from Joan Didion, L.A. has sort of slouched towards becoming a denser, mass transit-based city, taking on some of the characteristics of older cities. Not without a struggle, because the garden city in L.A. is still the dream, even for people who believe in density. Most people in L.A. who are ardent advocates for going up, for density, almost to a person, if given a choice, will live in a single-family house. That’s the L.A. dream. But right now, pandemic aside, the big issues are housing, a terrible homelessness problem, and the Olympics coming down the pike.
How do the Olympics play into this right now?
These are meant to be the kind of no-imprint Olympics, because they’re reusing and recycling buildings that we’ve already got. On the other hand, it’s being used to galvanize the construction of certain elements of the transit system, more housing, and improvements to the L.A. River that might otherwise have taken longer. So it’s definitely being used as a catalyst for development. Now, of course, the pandemic has thrown everything into question. The mass-transit system was expanding, and people were gradually changing their behavior, myself included. We had two cars. The second car died, and we didn’t replace it. I am more attuned to public transit, having come from a public transit culture. But still, the fact that we relinquished a car was significant. There were more and more people starting to make those lifestyle changes and use mass transit more. Then COVID hit, and people who could fled the buses and trains. If you’re an optimist, you’ll believe that within a year, we will have emerged from this fix and we will be so desperate to be with other people that we’ll race to mass transit.
Other people are far more pessimistic. And then the drop in revenues obviously is catastrophic. So things aren’t good right now in terms of the budget. But I’m definitely of the view that the pendulum swings. We see it in politics, we see it in cycles of life. I would be really surprised if L.A. remained in the doldrums for years and years. The city doesn’t do that. It’s constantly being regenerated in ways that can cause anxiety, because neighborhoods get transformed, new waves of people arrive, there’s gentrification, which is very stressful. But it also brings with it exciting change.
The pandemic is such an unprecedented event. It’s hard to process what it’s going to mean for the future. I have heard so many declarations about the “death of cities,” the “end of density.” I don’t buy that. I’m from the school of thought that believes, following the Spanish Flu, there was the Roaring Twenties. It didn’t happen immediately. There were years of disruption. But at some point a new era did dawn. I think I’m going to go with that one.
New eras have to dawn. I’ve just been reading this book The Overstory, by Richard Powers. It won a Pulitzer prize. It’s about trees. And the theme of the book is the infinite fertility of life, how nature, whether its human beings or animals or flora and fauna, have this irrepressible urge to keep on reproducing. The book deals with what’s happening inside a forest. Even a dead tree is still producing life.
It’s never dead.
Exactly. I’m so captivated by this book. I bring it up in relation to what comes next. Yes, people are in the doldrums right now, but even while in this what one might call a kind of dying tree state, there are these shoots of new life. And as they relate to the pandemic, it’s a tremendously alive discussion about what does come next for architecture and what comes next for the city.
Which is why I think spinning DnA off as an independent podcast is extremely viable. That’s my two cents.
Well, good. Ideally I would love to work with some of the younger talents around town, who’ve been contributing to places like Curbed, and would love to co-venture in some way. There are really talented younger journalists here, who’ve got different beats around L.A., doing great storytelling. I would love to figure out a way to just keep everybody’s voices heard. In the meantime, I am still at KCRW, working through mid-December on DnA as normal and a series that will air in 2021 on the topic of waste and ingenious ways in which Californians are figuring out how to deal with it. It’s called Wasted.
Featured image of Anderton via the Annenberg Foundation.