January 6, 2000 - From the January, 2000 issue

Los Angeles In Then Next Millennium: Leon Whiteson Debunks The Visionaries

An ever growing number of pundits, authors, academics, architects, and planners are making a career out of predicting what the Information Age holds in store for tomorrow's city. However, it's difficult to take predictions seriously when few, if any, predicted the true impact of the car, computer, or other technological advances on society. TPR is pleased to reprint this piece by architectural critic Leon Whiteson, which attempts to sort out the known from the unknowable.

By: Leon Whiteson

By temperament, architects and urban planners are addicted to visionary ideas about the nature of cities, and nowadays they present a plethora of millennial predictions about the future of places like Greater Los Angeles. Reaching for catchy metaphors, they offer us MIT dean Bill Mitchell's electronic "E-topia," Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas's "staging of uncertainty," comprised of "enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form," and British architect Deyan Sudjic's concept of a metropolis such as Los Angeles as a "force field around a high tension power line, crackling with energy and ready to discharge at any point along its length."

What these airy abstractions have in common is a concern about the impact of the new digital age of electronic communication upon the character of cities. Will living in cyberspace further fragment our already frayed urban fabric? Will it dissolve the last shreds of urban community that have survived L.A.'s vast suburban sprawl and our ethnic and economic apartheid? Will the already rather vague notion of being an "Angeleno" have any meaning at all in the next millennium?

Unfortunately, there are few clear answers. To start with, no one really knows how a new technology will actually play out on the ground. For instance, in 1900 few observers understood that the overwhelming social impact of the automobile would be to utterly reshape the modern city, transforming it from a traditional, compact cluster into a landscape-devouring suburban region. No one at the time grasped that the modern consumer democracy is by nature fluid and shapeless, and that our cities would inevitably come to reflect that reality.

Similarly, we cannot easily predict how the digital revolution will actually affect the physical and psychological ambiance of the metropolis of the future, and Los Angeles in particular. Originally, Los Angeles was a collection of small communities; it was the mass popularity of the car in the 1920s and ‘30s, and then the construction of the freeways after World War II that transformed it into a sprawling suburban conglomeration of extraordinary vitality but little coherence. The digital age may increase L.A.'s dynamic incoherence, or it may lead people to react by clustering closer together in the search for a sense of place in an increasingly abstract world. Either way, no one really knows.

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However, we have to accept that fluidity and shapelessness are the nature of the modern global economy. Consequently, city-regions like ours will certainly become more and more amorphous, less and less easy to grasp as a physical entity. People want the freedom to move, live and buy as they please, and in the absence of an authoritarian government to curb their liberties, they will create an environment that mirrors these urges. True, there may arise, as some planners argue, certain concentrations of digital talent here and there; but they, too, will come and go, without any real connection to a fixed place.

The consequences for the human spirit are not pleasant. The profound personal and public alienation that haunts the modern world is bound to deepen. Communication in cyberspace cannot replace a true sense of community. "To accept this [future] image of the city is to accept uncomfortable things about ourselves, and our illusions about the way we want to live," Sudjic commented, adding that we have to accept that "the city is as much about selfishness and fear as it is about community and civic life."

It is also about an ingrained social schizophrenia, an attraction-revulsion for contemporary life. That this is so is obvious in the split between the architecture of work and the architecture of home. The style of the buildings that epitomize modernity-our glittering downtown commercial highrises-is utterly at odds with the traditional styles most people choose for their private houses. Modernism, like the modern world itself, gives no comfort. In fact, Modernism has never really caught on at any scale in residential architecture anywhere in the so-called "advanced" world, and this radical difference in character between the architecture of work and home is historically unprecedented.

However architects and planners conceive it, the awkward truth is that we live in a schizoid, vigorous, fearful, energetic urban environment. For those bold spirits who thrive in it, Los Angeles now and in the future offers exciting possibilities. The rest of us have to hope that, sometime soon in the next 1,000 years, the staging of uncertainty and its digital urgencies will level off, giving us a breathing space to reassert our humanity as urban dwellers in a place that makes some kind of down-to-earth sense. On that happy plateau, it might be possible that our huge "virtual" metropolis will have time to resolve itself back into that coherent and humane collection of small communities with which this city began.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.