August 1, 2001 - From the August, 2001 issue

KPFK Architecture Panel Deconstructs Region: An Adolescent Metropolis Comes Into Its Own

While Los Angeles' rich architectural history is often not spoken of in the same breath as London, Spain, Greece, or even New York, many believe that our built environment is no less significant. However while these other locales are cohesive environs, L.A. has historically been a mere collection of individual spaces, structures and images. As our city begins its next evolution, we are beginning to see a shift. TPR is pleased to excerpt a recent KPFK broadcast with renowned architects Brenda Levin and Kurt Meyer and architectural critic Leon Whiteson, who discuss our metropolis, its past and its future.

Is there something politically or economically about Los Angeles that makes historical consciousness and renovation different on the radar screen from the way it is in other cities?

Brenda Levin

Los Angeles is a horizontal city that grew, and continues to grow, on the notion of expansion. Because there was so much available land at a very reasonable price there was really no reason to think about urban infill or infrastructure, or the beginning of densification, which is what we're experiencing now.

For the first time those issues are being discussed and people are beginning to understand the value of Smart Growth and urban infill. And that increased consciousness supports the reuse of existing buildings.

Leon, you've lived in many wonderful places, including Toronto, Spain, Greece, and London. What did you think of Los Angeles?

Leon Whiteson

I loved it straight off. I thought it was a terrific place. It had a quality to it that was very interesting. It didn't have an established style. It didn't get in your face like other cities did. I liked the climate. I liked the openness of it.

There are two things you have to understand about architecture in L.A. First, this is a city of private spaces. L.A. was designed not to get in people's way as they went around making their fortunes. The city was not meant to intrude. That's why the public realm is mostly trashy. And why there are very few civic buildings that really mean anything.

What's happening now is that the city is getting in your way, mainly by traffic, pollution, etc. so people are being forced to think about the City in a way they never did before, as a "thing."

Those are the two qualities of the City. The challenge now is to somehow take it to the next stage where it remains a city of private spaces, yet take it to another level of trying to integrate those private spaces in a coherent fabric. That's the challenge. And the political or civic will is nowhere near that. It's like the famous saying about the Austrian-Hungarian Empire on its last days. They said the situation was desperate but not yet serious. That's exactly the situation in L.A. It's desperate, but no one's getting serious about it.

Is this because it's a younger city? Is it because of the automobile? Or is it simply not a traditional city influenced by Europe in terms of a recognizable downtown?

Leon Whiteson

Los Angeles became a metropolis by default. People came here to make individual destinies and individual lives in L.A. That is why there's so much innovative architecture here, most of it residential. All the noted architects, even Frank Gehry, came here to create those private realms, those private spaces. They never intended to make a city.

Kurt, how does that strike you?

Kurt Meyer

Leon is right. Cities have lifecycles. People came from the East to make money. They didn't come here to preserve buildings. In fact, the old buildings got in the way of making money, so they tore them down. It takes an affluent economy and, very often, a second generation of wealth to be concerned with preservation of cultural assets. We have gone through this cycle, and we are at the point where there is finally a public consciousness about the value of preserving these assets.

How does the Community Redevelopment Agency fit into this agenda? What kind of change did they envision? And what were the main goals?

Kurt Meyer

The CRA is an independent state organization that reports to the City Council. Bunker Hill was the first target. And as much as we now like to think back on these wonderful old houses, it was really a slum

The City, for a good 50 or 60 years, tried to find a solution to Bunker Hill. They had various architects make studies. For instance, I. M. Pei suggested major surgery on the mountain in 1964, recommending that the entire Bunker Hill be razed and replaced with a 7-story parking structure, on top of which there was a 50-story office building. He doesn't want to really remember that. But we as a City cannot forget it because it was the basis for many mistakes that happened on Bunker Hill, including bringing highways and freeways into Bunker Hill. That's why it is so difficult to create a good pedestrian environment, because it's all cut up.

In terms of what did happen, who was really calling the shots? Was it the L.A. Times, or was it a strong Mayor?

Kurt Meyer

To blame the Times for all of this isn't right. It's done all the time. But without the will of the City Council and without the will of the people, it wouldn't have happened. So the responsibility doesn't lie at the feet of one power structure.

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Brenda, what's your read on Downtown? As someone who's lived in New York and Boston, can you imagine it being shaped differently?

Brenda Levin

I've seen a lot of changes in Downtown over the past 20 years. First Wayne Ratkovich and then Ira Yellin, each one of those developers tried to do singular projects that would cause a cumulative effect on the revitalization of the core.

But what I see right now is a much more collective effort. Several developers are thinking about Downtown, seeing it as a viable community and looking at the adaptive reuse of some of the second-tier historic buildings

It's interesting to be Downtown, to be part of this revival and renewal because there finally seems to be a critical mass of people interested in living and working in Downtown. This effort is just emerging and over the next 10 years we will see a lot more activity and reinvestment. And in that, we may finally see a Downtown that is more similar to the Eastern cities than Los Angeles has ever been.

What about symbolic spaces? Will the L.A. River someday be that thing that unites the City? What other spaces have that potential?

Brenda Levin

City Hall has that potential. City Hall has been a symbol of Los Angeles since 1928. It was the tallest building in the City until the 60s. It was the first building to break the 13-story height limit when it was built in 1928. Certainly we know it as a cultural icon. We know it as a pop culture icon from movies. Quite frankly, the interior of the rotunda is a space that ought to at least stimulate discussion and dialogue about the role of government in the City.

Leon, are we beating a dead horse in looking for places where the cultural community and the political community can rub shoulders, exchange ideas and cross-pollinate? Is that possible in this town?

Leon Whiteson

I think the urge to cross-pollinate in L.A. has never been very vigorous. I don't think it's in the character of the City There's always been a struggle to try to make this city like other cities because a lot of people come here from other areas They have this idea that the City ought to become like Boston or New York.

Fortunately, it has resisted all those attempts because the overwhelming fact about L.A. is that it is the world's engine for American popular culture. It is individual, it is trashy, it is vigorous. Architects have always had an enormous ambivalence about how to deal with this in L.A. They've been excited by it and by its possibilities, but somehow never quite accepted it as it is.

I agree that City Hall is symbolic, but it's one of the ugliest buildings I've ever seen. It's also undemocratic in the sense that when you go there, you don't see any public servants. You have a damn hard time finding where they're doing the things that messed up your life. In that way, the entire architecture of the City is not open, it's not symbolic of open government.

I think the money was misspent. Brenda's efforts in restoring it are wonderful, but in context, the building itself stands for an old and dated idea of civic architecture

If City Hall is the past, where does the future lie? Is it in more dance spaces, concert spaces, art spaces? Give us a sense of what the City of Los Angeles needs?

Brenda Levin

The best public spaces in Los Angeles tend to be the natural ones: the beaches and the mountains. We had some success in the last month with the involvement of the Trust for Public Land and other environmental groups in saving the Cornfields from becoming an industrial development. Baldwin Hills is investing in a major regional park about a third of the size of Griffith Park. There are some major new investments happening in the region. And I think that will define, in a sense, our pubic space.

Leon Whiteson

L.A. is one of the most segregated, ghettoized cities I've lived in. There's still no common ground. There's no sense of whether L.A. will ever have that, or whether it will remain a conglomeration of different neighborhoods and groups who never really mingle.

Many people see this as a problem, it's just a fact. The reality of it has to be seen in the context of what has really become a regional metropolis of different communities and different ethnic groups. I don't think L.A. will ever have the coherence of a New York or a Boston. There will not be a landmark, except perhaps the Hollywood sign, that will say, "This is Los Angeles." But again, that's a strength.

I think that's simply the nature of modern cities. One architect recently described a modern city as a power line into which you connect different points. That is essentially what L.A. is. It's a flow of energy in which individuals plug in. More than anything, it is about energy, not place. And L.A. has the energy to do many great things.

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