March 30, 1990 - From the March, 1990 issue

In Pursuit of Urban Beauty: Design Review Boards and Other Band-Aids

In light of recent events with the Westwood Design Review Board, The Planning Report solicited Kurt Meyer to discuss and analyze this latest component in the planning process. Kurt W. Meyer is a Fellow with the American Institute of Architecture and is former Chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency. Meyer opposes design review boards for fear of losing any artistic and community qualities that has been the norm in L.A.'s urban design so far. 


A headshot of Kurt W. Meyer

“Let the Council know that they have a superior duty: to direct the fate and growth of our City... This is truly important!"

Recently an amazing story was told in the Los Angeles Times: On Sunday, 1-7-90, the Times reported that a condominium building design by an internationally well-respected architect had been rejected. The Times quotes: “Commissioner Neiman said she presented the rendering to her guests at a New Year’s Eve party. The comments ranged from “ghastly” to “daring.” Consequently, Commissioner Neiman voted against the project.

Is this the process we wish to adopt, that while partying and toasting the New Year, the fate of a serious (and costly) design effort by capable artists is condemned to the trash pile? I think not.

The February 16 edition of the Times reports the sequel: “Amir's project is dead. (Councilman) Yaroslavsky said in defense of his Design Review Panel. ‘It's going to start from scratch.’”

But if cocktail parties are not the right forum for making decisions about the aesthetics of our City, is it the appointed panel? If not, what decision making process is?

Are the publicly appointed members of design review boards truly qualified judges of architectural excellence? Indeed, should any political body ever be in the position of dictating aesthetics?

I think not, not ever.

The last time it didn’t work so well: Mussolini-dictated architecture in Italy is now the subject of cartoons. Stalinist oppression of the free expression in all the arts has eroded and comes down crumbling: the free spirit of man will in the end prevail. Dictating the arts will always fail—even if it seems to succeed at times in lowering the quality of a civilization. Germany today produces some of the best architects, having survived the Third Reich’s efforts to establish their state controlled superior civilization with its “approved” and “proper” Aryan art.

“Too strong” you say: we are only carrying out the wishes of the '”people.” Think again: the self-anointed judges in no way represent the aesthetic sensitivities of “the people”; the subjective field of aesthetics and the arts is used as a shield to hide the real motives: slop any development at any price! Particularly in my backyard. And why can the Design Review Board members (appointed by the councilperson) use this tool? Because we haven’t done our job.

We must admit that some true travesties have been built; developments that should never have been allowed because of their impact on the neighborhoods. However, they should have been prevented because of their negative impact and not because of the subjective judgment of some people who dislike a particular design.

(Consultant on the Arts to President Kennedy) August Hecksher’s quote may haunt us in nightmares: “Where we find that men have built meanly, without common purpose or a sense of the ideal, we can be sure that they lived meanly also.”

But we have laws that are designed to keep mean people at bay: our City Council collectively and the Planning Department have failed miserably in keeping mean developments under control. They have failed to use the powers which the State has given to them to so do: planning and land use/zoning laws.

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The result is predictable: when people are violated, they rebel. Today, frantic circular movement and tons of land use band-aids are batted about to hopefully gain back the confidence of the electorate, before it disposes of the elected.

The makeshift tool “discovered” to correct all previous omissions and evils is the “Interim Control Ordinance” and the Design Review Boards (DRB). As it happens in all revolutions, thoughtful analysis and straight thinking are thrown overboard in favor of ACTION NOW. Equally predictable, chaos prevails.

Recent zoning and development decisions by DRBs and the Planning Commission have clearly illustrated this state of affairs. The chaos is exacerbated when self-serving citizen groups use design review boards to carry out their hidden agenda: to stop development at any cost—even if development entitlements are clearly in place: I submit that to act counter to the established laws is chaos and anarchy when carried to the extreme. We surely need a better philosophical base and justification for our decision making process.

Mean people need to be held at bay with clearly defined development parameters (we call them “laws”) which are designed to protect the interest of the public, society as a whole. This must be done by updating the Community Plans—not during the next 10 to 15 years, BUT NOW, by concentrating all available resources on these efforts. Imagine and weep: it takes us less than a decade to put people on the moon, it takes us three decades to not complete our plans for the people of Los Angeles!

And yet, if properly designed, these plans will safeguard the community against inappropriate intrusions and lay out the wishes of the community.

Once these boundaries of public interest are established, however, the architect and owner must be free to use their skills to create a useful and beautiful building without interference from self-styled architecture critics. Aesthetics is not the politician’s arena, be their names Yaroslavsky or Helms, be the arena federal or municipal.

What, then, is the status of the community planning process in the City of the Angels? Not Much! “Too much work”, “not enough people”; “too little money!” I submit that the above excuses try to obscure the real issue: people, effort and monies are applied to respond to the political crisis of the day, rather than appropriate long range planning. Ken Topping! step forward courageously and let the council know that the Planning Department is not a punching bag for 15 councilpersons who wish to make ad hoc decisions where the General Plan and their own ordinances fail.

Let the Council know that they have a superior duty: to direct the fate and growth of our City, to establish areas of growth and areas of protection regardless of the district boundaries and the income level of their respective electorates! This is truly important—the stucco color of the building in Westwood is not important.

Next month... What is “urban beauty” and how do we regulate it?


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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.