November 7, 2014 - From the November, 2014 issue

Why LA Looks the Way It Does, with No Steward of the Built Environment

In light of Downtown's recent boom, Sam Hall Kaplan critiques the City of Los Angeles' approach to design and development. Noting the importance of buildings' usage over their look, he calls for a city architect to act as arbiter. A planner, writer, and academic, Kaplan has worked as both a design critic for the Los Angeles Times and an urban affairs reporter for the New York Times—along with teaching at Art Center College of Design, Yale, and Princeton. This exclusive article for TPR reflects his own opinions and research.


Sam Hall Kaplan

"Critics and pundits—concerned both about the image of the city and the inattention of city planners whose bosses prioritize expediting projects over contextual planning—unfortunately focus on how things 'look' rather than how they work." -Sam Hall Kaplan

Los Angeles is unquestionably in one of its capricious growth spurts. To witness this, one has only to try to traverse Downtown—one of several grid-locked LA centers—in a car; or, please cautiously, on a bicycle; or contemplatively, as I have, slowly on foot.

When wandering Downtown, I’ve found it more crowded, more interesting, more alive day and night than just a decade ago. It’s apparently a place now where the younger generations want to be and be seen. Still, Downtown remains frankly fractured and, for many blocks, tawdry.

After years of anxiety over spurring growth generating jobs, taxes, and not incidentally, political contributions, there has been a flurry of comments bluntly raising the question of why Downtown looks the way it does.

The resulting denouement of critics and pundits—concerned both about the image of the city and the inattention of city planners whose bosses prioritize expediting projects over contextual planning—unfortunately focus on how things “look” rather than how they work. Once again, the pandering politicians, presumptuous academics, and undiscerning journalists ignore the users to pursue their often-elitist agendas. They’re failing, as a result, as stewards of the built environment on behalf of the public. With no real arbiters with standing, it is lawyers, facilitators, and former government officials that are free to tweak the design of proposed projects to the pleasure and profit of their developer clients—remaining deaf to pledges of public transparency.

The increasing interest in Downtown Los Angeles by the local legion of real estate developers, foreign investors, and their courtiers and contrarians, as well as the local American Institute of Architects, has prompted a welcome, analogous interest in architecture with a capital “A.” However, it is design as a noun, not a verb, that is generating the comments. Many of those who profess design sensibilities are, in my view, people who have ignored architecture as a social art: space serving places where people live, work, and play.

Take, for instance, Downtown’s Arts District. Cited in particular as a welcomed harbinger of what’s to come is One Santa Fe, touting 483 housing units, and a smattering of commercial and community space. The project was designed by Michael Maltzan in his now-signature practical minimalist neo-modernist style, satisfying both the cost-conscious developers and critics in search of something—anything—new. Anchored like a titanic bleached cargo container ship, and yet to be finished and fully rented, it is encouraging similar, dense projects. These include a strained 472-apartment project a block away on East Third. LA loves caricatures.

Other designs are being dusted off to the muted cheers of city and private plotters and planners, but also to the concern of long-term denizens who worry about rampant gentrification, the conflicted loved-and-feared city idiom.

If built as projected, they will unquestionably add to the density and dollar delights long sought by the powers-that-be for Downtown and preached at the endless academic symposiums. But I fear they will not necessarily generate the urbanity that distinguishes aspiring world cities.

Contrary to the common view of critics, pundits, and design professionals enthralled by high-rises and the skyline, it’s been my observation as an urban designer and mobility maven that most people experience a city at the street level. That aspect of design unfortunately remains an afterthought.

Instead, architects and developers blatantly pursue the self-interest of careers—the desire to somehow get a piece of the action and get on the infamous “A lists” of LA, dominated by the entertainment industry. Perhaps they feel it is a way to indeed make architecture more entertaining, as Frank Gehry and his mimics have attempted with success.

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Several buildings of architectural note crafted by world-renown architects have risen and are rising Downtown, such as the striking Disney Concert Hall that often serves as a set piece for advertising the city or select products parked on its vacant staircase. It is a singular sculpture, but how it works as architecture is another matter.

Beyond serving as a photo op and a backdrop for the selfies of straggling tourists, the grand Grand Avenue array of institutional icons do little to energize their settings. No welcoming, open lobbies taking advantage of the city’s benign climate, no sidewalk café, no shaded sitting areas, no real places to congregate, creating a rare and needed sense of place. (A possible exception might be the Broad Museum with its adjacent park plaza.)

The import of celebrity architects to the outlander LA have tended to generate vain attempts to fashion iconic structures, such as the current black blob proposal by a Pritzker-prize winner from a Swiss wilderness championed by yet another publicity-hungry, vain museum director for a billion-dollar remake of the Los Angeles Museum of Art. The design trashes their landmark setting and history while emptying local cultural coffers.

If the architectural aficionados criticize Downtown, they usually cite the fauxtalian Tuscan fortresses fashioned by developer Geoff Palmer. But excoriate the exterior design as you will, the sitting of the complexes adjacent to central city offices and their interior of several thousand apartments are embraced by the residents, according to the usually hyper-critical Marc Haefele in a forthcoming article in Los Angeles Magazine.  It makes one pause and raise the question: For whom do we design our cities?

The well-meaning Urban Land Institute, the Central City Association, and the cloistered academic agglomerations bearing the name of their guilty benefactors are in a perpetual and personally profitable search for the key to the city. Still, after their statements, studies, and slideshows, no challenging vision of Downtown Los Angeles has emerged. Part to blame is the city’s cult of amiability. People really don’t want to criticize, especially someone of influence. We tend to be a city of smiling glad-handers—while a city like New York, from my experience, thrives on critical commentary. Its streets are paved with hard-boiled eggs. In LA, it is fragile eggshells. 

The media also have the potential to generate and promote a specter of an engaging, evolving, thriving Downtown. I mourn the Downtown NewsLA Weekly, and in particular, my alma mater—the sadly fading LA Times. It coincidentally could better serve itself and its shrinking, skulking readers by providing a sharper, more critical focus on the shaping and misshaping of the city. I am not suggesting expanding the lame, trivial “hot properties” column or the egregious, wordy, safe split spreads—such as one recently focused on the design and construction of a questionable skylight in a tourist hotel with little comment on how the megaproject interacts with the street and sidewalk. Pure inside, undiscerning baseball.

If a finger must be pointed to the guilty for the architectural confusion and drift of Los Angeles, it is a trio of self-inflated amalgamates, who in turn are influenced by the city’s dubious Mandarins, the true stewards of LA’s built environment. They are the lawyers, the facilitators, and former government officials who, deaf to the public pledges of transparency, tweak the design of proposed projects to the pleasure and profit of their developer clients. Taking a back seat usually are the mayor’s and local councilpersons’ inexperienced, acquiescent staff members.

How design will affect the user public, and generally the look and feel of Downtown, tend to be a tangential concern and responsibility of the city’s Planning Department, in concert with the otherwise-disposed local councilperson and a discomposed City Hall. Meanwhile, our enigmatic Mayor Eric smiles, Planning Director Michael LoGrande buries himself in marginal studies, and downtown Councilmember José Huizar worries, as he should, about his sinecure and photo ops. 

Perhaps, given the current growth of Los Angeles, it is time for the appointment by the Mayor of a few experienced and courageous planning commissioners—as well as a fervid, informed city architect with the succor of the media to let some sun shine in on the process, and with the gumption and grit to rough-ride design and development.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.