May 30, 1990 - From the May, 1990 issue

About Urban Beauty: The Livable City

The fourth TPR installment of Design Review Board discussion (introduction, in opposition, and in support), Kurt Meyer elaborates on how to make Los Angeles a "beautiful city." Meyer, a Fellow with the American Institute of Architecture, opposes design review boards. Instead, he collects the necessary "ingredients" in this article as guide for designers to create "urban beauty" in Los Angeles. 


A headshot of Kurt W. Meyer

"Set the designers free and Los Angeles will develop an eclectic style which is truly reflective of its heterogenous multi-ethnic history and composition."

To have or not to have design review boards is an issue central to many discussions about control of development. If “yes,” who would be empowered to review Design? And as importantly, what yardstick is used to judge design? If “no,'” what should be the controls?

It is truly difficult for people to agree upon what is “beautiful” in context of contemporary creative efforts. If pressed for a definition of “beauty,” few people will reach a consensus. Who then is to be the judge? Is the elitist design profession to be judge and jury of beauty? Is it the masses who represent the average layman’s perception? Or is it the merchant who puts up a building in the shape of an orange and decorates it with flashing light bulbs and signs in order to sell more oranges? Is nature beautiful and are man-made things ugly?

How, then, do we define what’s “beautiful” (or meaningful) in a more rational way? Most people agree when they see a “beautiful” landscape, but few see eye-to-eye when judging man-made objects. They may, however, agree more readily when judging objects that were made in the past, because objects to which they have no direct emotional relationship merely become “landscape.” How, then, do we elevate the quality of our judgements above the level of a subjective “beauty contest?”

Historic perspective might bring us closer to a definition of “urban beauty.”

For starters, we can try to isolate the ingredients that are common to those cities which we now admire and accept as beautiful. When identified, these ingredients can give us direction in our quest to determine what is relevant to our discussion.

Some of these ingredients are:

The city and its structures are true to the people and philosophies, aspirations and values of their times—be they spiritual or commercial, political or cultural (zeitgeist).

The city is an act of will, responsible for its creation in the first place and the “design idea” that gives it form. This will may be personified in a monarch, a general, merchants guilds or the church, and results in decisions. Democratic societies express this will in more obscure and contorted ways than centralized powers. Some examples are Paris as shaped by Napoleon III and Hausmann or Swiss towns governed by a direct democracy.

A fertile field for the arts and architecture must exist at decision-making time, in order to not only shape the city, but to make it a noble and beautiful city, firmly rooted in the culture of its time.

In those cities which are strongly marked with a particular style, the “time” or phase of history during which its cultural identity was impressed upon it may have spanned many decades or even several centuries. The duration of this time element is short­ened as technological progress accelerates, so that the style of most modern cities is representative of rapid change rather than a single tradition. Short lived fashions become a way of architectural life.

Never is a particular “style” required to create urban beauty. They can be Mogul, Han Chinese, renaissance, gothic, Aztec, or—you pick your favorite. A democratic society expresses the likes of many diverse people and creates an eclectic city.

To make our city noble and beautiful we must:

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  • Identify those forces that shape the decisions in our time—be it by commission or omission of action.
  • Arrive at decisions that recognize the interaction of all those forces with each other, their dependency on each other and their impact on society as a whole.
  • Execute these decisions within the framework of our culture and technology.

How does our “LA/USA 1990” process work? Who makes what decisions? What are the forces? Here are some examples:

  • The design of a house in the Hollywood Hills is rejected by the review board because “it is out of scale with the neighborhood and its character.” The house design meets all legal, technical and code requirements. The council person of the district is asked to be final arbiter.
  • The much sought after new client of an architect opens the first meeting by walking to a chalk board in his office, draws a line at the bottom and says: That's the bottom line, that’s all I’m interested in.
  • Donald Trump announces that he’ll build a 125-story tower on Wilshire Boulevard rather than a school, and four architects jump out of their chairs and begin pro bono design work. Is the art in the “Deal Making” and not in Architecture?
  • A citizen committee proclaims that all architecture in its community should be “Spanish,” “Pseudo-Spanish” or “Mediterranean”
  • After a project and its EIR have been approved by all relevant approval agencies, legal action is taken by opponents who wish to stop the development declaring the EIR to be incomplete. Ultimately a judge or a jury decides the fate of the project.

If these actions represent of the forces shaping our city, is the resulting architecture true to our culture and technology?

I believe we are by paraphrasing, with due apologies, Elizabeth Browning: “How do I love me? Let me count the ways.”

In our democratic society, the results of these diverse forces and actions cannot be preordained nor mandated: thousands of little decisions by millions of individuals will eventually merge into a direction that can only be recognized in retrospection, but cannot safely be forecast.

Recent events around the world certainly reconfirm this firmly held belief of democratic philosophy based on the ultimate victory of the human spirit of individual free thought and expression.

We postulate that land use decisions must be governed by a set of Laws, to keep the “mean” people at bay, laws designed to protect society and the community at large.

But whatever these laws are, and even while protecting the public, these laws must never control the thinking and the product of the design community in the broadest sense, be they painters, sculptors, writers, composers, move directors, or yes, even architects. Set the designers free and Los Angeles will develop an eclectic style which is truly reflective of its heterogenous multi-ethnic history and composition.

Will this result in some “bad” building designs? You bet! (History may someday call them good examples of our era.) Will it produce some extraordinary building designs? You bet! Nobody will pull the designer down to the lowest common denominator.

But the all-important issue is that the total fabric which emerges will create urban beauty in terms of our era, our times, in step with our society and civilization!

And then future generations will travel to L.A. and enjoy it as a beautiful city.

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