February 1, 2003 - From the February, 2003 issue

L.A. River Is Lab For Harvard Design Studio Class

This Spring, an interdisciplinary team of graduate students at the Harvard Design School are participating in a unique studio class by studying the opportunities to transform Los Angeles through the redevelopment of its River. In addition to studying the L. A. River basin through the classic eyes and framework developed by Reyner Banham, the studio also brought the student team to Los Angeles to meet with public and civic stakeholders involved in transforming this unique asset. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Richard Sommer, professor of architecture and urban design at the Harvard Design School, in which he discusses the studio's goals and the take-aways from their most recent visit to our River.

Please share with our readers the purpose and goals of the graduate studio class on LA's River which you lead.

Well, the sponsored studio system at Harvard is a program that is part of the regular studio curriculum, where students or a group of students are given the opportunity to examine, usually, a complex urban based problem and where they can have contact with the agencies, communities, and professionals who are taking on that problem and model it in the context of the school. The advantage of that is they get to engage in a real world situation with the overlay of the studio leaders, the instructors, and the critics' academic agenda. The benefit for people who are sponsoring these studios is that Harvard, and I think other schools as well, is providing a kind of umbrella or a laboratory for exploring ideas in a way that either privately hired professionals or city agencies don't have the freedom to do. So we can give more objective advice, we can give more long-range advice, and, sometimes, even advice that people don't want to hear.

We can assume there were other options available to your students re studios. What do believe drew them to enroll in the LA River Studio? What was the declared focus of this study?

Yes, there were choices. There was a project looking at the development of a transit system in India. There was a studio working in Las Vegas on a strip of parcels between the Las Vegas Strip and downtown Las Vegas. There was a studio somewhere in Eastern Europe looking at a development landscape with Marsha Schwartz. There were about 12 or 13 options.

With respect to this studio option, we gave them a very broad picture which was under a number of categories. I went back to the characterization of Los Angeles made by the historian or theorist Reyner Banham in the '60s, where he picked out Los Angeles' four kinds of ecologies: the freeway-scape, the mountain-scape, the surface valleys, and the beach-scape. Wasn't it curious that when he defined these urban ecologies, the river was not part of them, although it was basically the paradise around which the city was originally settled. So I posed the issue that now, 25 years later, we're in a position where: A) we need to look more to integration between ecological systems, and B) something like the river needs to be revisited as a future amenity for the city.

The other issue we put on the table was that Los Angeles, as a laboratory is, in a way, the next American city. The Brookings Institute recently defined Los Angeles as the most densely occupied region in the United States. So, L.A. offers students the opportunity to understand the next level of density, or kind of density, that could happen in an American city in relation to something like the greening of the L.A. River, and what that would mean for adjacent areas that would have to densify over time.

Of course, then, the third issue, and these are not in any kind of order, is how you examine the ecological and hydrologic issues of the river in the context of urbanization. So, literally, how you would think about cleaning the water or making water part of the everyday life of the city.

The students just visited Los Angeles. What was the purpose of their trip?

Their field trip here was set up to have the students understand all of the different agencies and constituencies and professional groups that are invested in, and that are exploring the potential and problems of, the L.A. River-particularly some of the ones that relate to our study area.

What's the take-away for them?

One take-away message is that the problems can be incredibly complex. Another take-away is there is a lack of coordination or synthesis among the different parties that have an interest in and an investment in the future of the river. There's alwas the problem of not being able to see the forest through the trees because they each has only a certain part challenge within their mandated responsibility. . For example, the approach and the focus of the state park system is different than that of the county's park system, and we could even talk about the federal programs-all of which have some impact or some interests surrounding the River. Each of them has a different historical legacy-the federal or state parks still have a vision of the landscape which is about preservation and about the sanctity of nature. But we're looking at a site that's been highly violated. The students are venturing into a site that continues to be viewed as a clean slate, but it's not-it's sort of a "dirty slate."

So, the students are observing that even the agencies and people with an interest in the development of parks have different philosophical positions and consequently, very different institutional mandates. The battle between, let's say, federal and state attempts to create more park preserves and the more local interests of having active park use is a real and present conflict. So, the students are getting a sense for how that has played out in the past and how, without some larger vision, that could continue to play out going forward.

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Is what you're finding with this LA River case study at all different from what the students would find anyplace else-i.e. with the Big Dig in Boston, which is next door to Cambridge? Do we have a unique case study here or just a typical example ofa lack of coordination among well intentioned public agencies?

I think many problems are complex if you look at them closely enough. What is unique about this one is that has to do with the geography and a particular kind of urbanity that exists in Los Angeles. For example, there are other places with rivers, but here's a river which, most of the time, you don't see. But, at the times when it rains, you have a half-hour's notice before it's going to flood. So the extreme level of urbanization and the extreme hydrological condition are challenging in different ways from some other kinds of problems. In every city, when you're talking about large-scale development today, there are many different political interests and individuals and communities vying for a different future for those sites.

What's the promised goal of the work of this studio? What will be the public output of this LA River Studio?

That's a tough question. We're trying to begin with a series of analytical exercises that will first visualize what's going on there: what the different jurisdictions are, what constituencies are vying for on the site, what the system of parcels is, ownership, and what the hydrological parameters are. So, part of our work is to explicate those things, visualize them and to put them on the wall. Then, from there, we'll develop a couple of assumptions or actually alternate scenarios, and students will develop some designs, which look at possible futures for the site. That's the centerpiece of the studio.

What the studio promises, and what the students will be bringing at the end of this exercise to help Mayor Hahn, are a series of schemes that look not only at a particular design of the study area, which goes roughly from the Cornfields up to the end of Taylor Yards, but, again, a design of the process of transformation, and different alternatives for that.

Who, in your opinion, are the Los Angles stakeholders that ought to take seriously the work of your students?

One way of thinking about it is that there are going to be local groups that hold a lot of power-the ones that are directly affected by any changes that happen and that will have to live with whatever happens. Then, there also are the regional and statewide agencies that can help channel or fund these projects over time. Those are two groups that have to be educated and have to be convinced of alternate possibilities.

You're obviously seriously interested in fostering an interdisplinary approach to the practice of planning. Is there evidence that any boundary-crossing is actually taking place in the professional world of planning?

Well, part of our ambition at the school is to model modes of professional practice, and certainly I'm interested in that. Even if it's not always acknowledged, the teams are often made up that way. And, whether it's a planner or landscape architect or an architect leading the process, there are not many urban sites today that don't require all of those skills to be brought to bear.

Lastly, how does your studio class build upon the work of last year's Harvard LA River studio class?

It's the next site up, going north, so I think there's some discussion that there may be another studio after this and a book to follow linking the series of studios. So, certainly some of our findings will make links to the previous work. We have that work in the studio with us, so the two could literally just be connected geographically.

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