(Photos to follow)
Day two of Postopolis! LA. I now have a fingernail grip on the city, and the place is increasingly growing on me.
My friend Ben Cerveny took me for a drive around LA, not consciously trying to recreate Reyner Banham Loves LA but certainly not a million miles away. We did note that we were following Banham’s directive to “read it in the original” by driving, and in a convertible too.
Huge thanks to Ben for an amazing tour, with his DVD commentary turned on, of Downtown, along Wilshire Boulevard through a trace of Koreatown and Macarthur Park, La Brea, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, up into the hills and the Griffith Park Observatory, and down to Silverlake and Echo Park. While LA is clearly too vast and complex to comprehend in a few days, it is possible to begin to understand it through exploring, and in direct contrast to my usual and preferred way of exploring cities on foot, driving is the way to do it, at least initially.
Indeed Wilshire is essentially the first street in the world to be purposely designed to be understood from the car. The shift from Downtown through Wilshire Boulevard is particularly fascinating, as the ‘30s era deco shifts down the gears. Downtown is almost preserved - as LA had other centres to develop, its original downtown didn’t get turned over as most did - as are huge chunks of Wilshire, at least in form. The shift from Koreatown to Latino LA fascinating, particularly via the white enclaves of Beverly Hills.One thing is that the streets are bustling in the former, whereas no-one (save the odd housekeeper) is visible on the vast manicured streets of the latter.
There are too many reflections to write about here, and many that will fully form later. Equally I wouldn’t want this to become another wearisome tale of A European ‘discovers’ LA (akin to its contemporary companion, A Westerner ‘discovers’ China.) But let me jot down a few thoughts.
The constant reinvention is discernible in the architecture, at all scales and styles. In the richer parts of town - massive straight roads scored with giant palms, where each house is the size of a hotel - it’s a riot of architectural play. Taste has no place here. A crossroads with replica Tudorbethan on one corner, a replica French mansion on another, with a replica Spanish villa facing them. In a slightly lower-rent area before this (“Central LA”?) it’s denser, but equally odd. Apartment blocks with faux turrets etc. Some very odd buildings here, and yes, all perhaps a manifestation of the drive for reinvention. It’s complex. I remark to Ben that I feel like burning most of it down but having lovingly documented it first. Again, the contradictions. The irony is drenching everything at this point though, at least to the observer, and that’s not healthy. We can see why this side of LA appeals to architectural theorists and urbanists, but only as a preserved petri dish laced with irony. It’s fascinating and appalling.
I realise Australia is like America without the drive and ambition, perhaps. It doesn’t have this sense of invention, no matter how misplaced it is on occasion. The other difference is the obvious density of LA. Not in Beverly Hills perhaps, but everywhere else. Areas which would be quarter-acre blocks in Australia are apartment blocks here. There are few Sydney and Melbourne-style terraces, and obviously no European-style ones, but the pattern is dense nonetheless. Later districts in the tour, like Silverlake and Echo Park, are very tightly wound. In Brisbane, an obvious parallel given the same contours laden with small hoisted houses jutting out of tree-covered hills, these buildings would be on much larger plots of land, separated, and larger structures (a strange Australian quirk, as if inspired by the vastness of the island-continent, irrespective of the fact that the actual usable, liveable post-colonial Australian landscape is relatively small.) In Silverlake and Echo Park, say, they’re jostling next to each other, but quite beautifully. Jeffrey Inaba, in his talk the previous night, posited that LA is in fact the densest city in the country. LA, it turns out, is not only good urban form in terms of being poly-nodal, but also density. These are further contradictions in terms of LA, where its ‘traditional’ image has been of an irregular, uncontrollable sprawl, ill-suited to the future. It turns out it’s not that simple, and many medium to large cities are now trying to emulate this poly-nodal organisation, and attain density.
“The “average” house in LA is in a neighborhood of 10-15 homes/ha; 20% of houses fall in this category. The “average” housing unit in NY is in a neighborhood with more than 80 homes/ha; 27% of homes fall in this category. This kind of statistic becomes extremely important when considering the feasibility of mass transit, which (for light rail) works well above 40 homes/ha. Only 8% of houses are in such a neighborhood in LA, versus 32.6% of houses for NY. Even better, this way of measuring density is relatively insensitive to changes in the boundaries of the urban region. To return to the “myth” of LA being denser than NY, there is some truth to it. The newer (far) suburbs of New York are indeed less dense than those in LA. LA has fewer really low density suburbs, and fewer high density neighborhoods. NY has some really low density suburbs, and some really high density neighborhoods.”
Ben points out that the shift from Beverly Hills to Hollywood is palpable and abrupt, visible over one crossroads. The trees and houses of the former instantly replaced by shiny malls and large, crumbling ‘30s buildings of the latter. The mall in Hollywood actually features the re-used materials of Cecil B. Mille’s Babylon, somewhat incredibly. Equally remarkably, it is virtually ‘transit-oriented development’ in its incorporation of a good Metro line. Almost. It is surrounded by a fair bit of Scientology infrastructure too though. Moving on, we stop at a great row of shops on Franklin Avenue, and take coffee at the Bourgeois Pig. (Why do Americans say ‘booo-jwah’? Rhetorical.) It’s a great coffee shop, a dark enclave after the bright street (as Australian ones often are - a cave-like interior is often a valid strategy in places like California and Queensland.) And this is a great little strip of stores: independent book-shops, record-shops etc. The kind of diversity, character and quality that malls can never reproduce (not that they aspire to).
The Griffith Park Observatory is a simply wonderful space, as many of you will know, perched atop scrubby hills that now remind me of New South Wales. In fact the eucalypts - also early migrants to California - are doing very well, by all accounts. But the terrain and soil is subtly different, and the vegetation - minus the eucalypts - completely different of course. LA is spread out before us in all directions, though it’s a hazy day, a combination of fog and smog fading the city out beyond Downtown. The ocean isn’t visible today - the vast flat plains of LA fill the eyes, eventually dissolving in mountains and sky as if a Qing dynasty-era painting. While the LA River can be seen snaking in from the left of our view, the city’s asphalt arteries sweep into the distance in dead straight lines.
Down to Silverlake and Echo Park. These are particularly appealing, with thousands of the aforementioned houses clinging to the hills. There’s a few particularly insane hills in Echo Park, where they imposed the grid irrespective the contours, following San Francisco’s lead. (San Francisco was bigger first and briefly an influence on LA, Ben relates). But most of the streets round here give up that game quite rightly, and instead wind up and around the hills in delightfully organic fashion. While there no pavements - and I usually take pavements to be an important offer to the citizen - here the traffic is so slow-moving due to the curves and narrow roads that it’s possible to walk anyway. With a few soft infrastructure tweaks and some more evenly distributed amenities, it would be very walkable.
One particular image is etched on my mind: an elderly Korean or Chinese woman on the crest of a hill, moving very slowly and staring into the middle distance of the opposite hill, doing what looked like tai chi. This, just after we’d inched past the beginnings of a Latino barbecue, a complex affair spilling out onto the street. We then drive past a few Neutra and Schindler houses. To my subsequent eternal regret my memory card filled just as we got to these neighbourhoods. My actual memory of them will persist fondly though.
By the time we’re back in Downtown, the traffic is building up and Broadway is a chaotic, honking mess of slow-moving steel. By this time, though, the city has won me over. Its constant contradictions - the very contradiction of it being here in the first place - have little negative effect now, only continually beguiling. Despite everything, this city continues to grow. As the Carey McWilliams poem from 1946 says:
”Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano”
You still sense that, now as much as ever.
Before moving on to the more challenging approaches to architecture and urbanism that Postopolis! Is predicated on, it’s clear that even amongst this melange of vernacular architecture, beautiful Case Study Homes and professionalised eruptions of poor taste in the mansions of Beverly Hills, that experimentation and invention is at the heart of Los Angeles. But it’s a form of individual experimentation, in this case by householders. And even where I’ve discussed civic buildings like Walt Disney Concert Hall, Caltrans etc., you’ll note that they essentially stand alone, disconnected - atop a hill, or surrounded by parking lots or development sites. The only parts of Downtown that feel connected and coherent are Broadway and the Historic Core, unchanged in form since the ‘30s and unified through the accreation of shared history. But this individualism is at the heart of Los Angeles, as Hitoshi Abe, Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, noted in his preface to a recent edition of A+U on the city's design and architecture:
“In different ways from Tokyo or Shanghai, Los Anglees is a city receptive to and actively nourishing many architectural experiments. The pursuit of explorations is evident across a broad spectrum. It can be found in kitsch roadside buildings, efforts by Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra, the trials of Case Study Houses, John Lautner’s activities, and the work of contemporaries such as Frank O. Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss.”
“Experimentation emerges from the city as a site of extreme individualism. In this sense experimentation in Los Angeles is about self-reflection and independent individuals striving to extend their own capabilities and the limits of possibilities. Individual pursuits are subsequently tested within the larger context of society. Today, globalization and interconnectivity are transforming the meaning of individuals, and consequently change the meaning of experimentation in Los Angeles.” (A+U #455: ‘The New Ecologies in Los Angeles - Design and Technology’)
That’s discernible in many of the projects we see at Postopolis! - In fact, some of the participants feature in that edition of A+U, such as Ball-Nogues. Others, such as Ben Cerveny, are looking at information systems that interconnect individuals to form a kind of social substrate for civic experimentation, not quite as Abe imagined but certainly exploring this idea of a civic glue “transforming the meaning of individuals” in cities like LA nonetheless.
Later that (Wednesday) evening, Bryan Finoki, Ben and I go for quick drive around LA Live, whose floodlights have been polluting the sky behind us every night. It’s not good, this place. A massive development which feels entirely out of step with the times. It should’ve been out of step with the city at any time, to be honest, but right now it feels particularly bloated, brash and broken. The so-called public space is crudely articulated such that there are no places to sit down or hang out, and over-lit to the point of absurdity. The laughable attempt at a piazza in front of the Nokia Forum is entirely empty as a result. It’s not in these disconnected mega-developments that Los Angeles will continue to experiment and connect but elsewhere, diffused amidst the distributed metropolis.
To Postopolis day two.
There are fewer people here initially tonight, though it fills up later, and by 7.30 the rooftop is full, so thanks again. It’s a bit warmer tonight, though the wind gets up later. The wind is a function of the design of the buildings around us, as if to rub in the themes of Postopolis! We sit 15 storeys up in a wind tunnel generated by the skyscrapers, such that a conference on landscape, architecture and urbanism is being slowly frozen by the city’s landscape and architecture itself.
Tonight’s presentations are excellent. Geoff and I had noted that day one occasionally felt a bit tepid - great in parts, but a lack of energy in others - but day two really comes alive. A great variety to the talks, with stand-outs for me being the historian David Gissen, Robert Miles of Variate Labs and writer and photographer (and Morphosis architect) Ted Kane of Polar Inertia. Geoff runs a little interstitial interview with Jace and Joseph, during a break, which works quite well.
We now have lights, so the speakers are visible after dark, the Storefront crew improvising brilliantly as ever. Before that, early evening, the smell of dope drifts across from the hotel swimming pool behind us during Whitney Sander’s presentation, pausing proceedings temporarily. I’m not sure I’ve pointed out quite how spectacular the skypscapers around us look. Oddly, they’re not as present during the day, as your eyes instead drift to the hills in the background. Yet at night, with the lights on (rather too many lights on), they almost close in around the rooftop, creating a kind of canopy. There are more planes overhead tonight, for some reason, and a few helicopters later, the sound of their blades bouncing off the skyscrapers around us.
Notes to follow.