October 1, 2001 - From the October, 2001 issue

Is New Urbanism Practiced? Are Regions Relevant? One German Architect's Perspective On L.A.

Planning organizations in the U.S., particularly in Southern California, have widely publicized the fact that development is evolving, new urbanist principles are finding their way into new developments and our Downtowns are experiencing a resurgence. But how do architects and planners outside of the U.S. view our so-called evolution? Wolfgang Christ, a professor of Architecture and Planning from Germany's Bauhaus University offers TPR a European perspective on L.A., how L.A. is influencing European development and planning, and answers: Is Los Angeles' development paradigm actually evolving?

Wolfgang, why don't we begin with the question: What brought you to Los Angeles and UCLA?

Much like Southern California, Germany is very dense. And as such we no longer have the strict delineation between the cities of Munich, Stuttgart, Hamburg and Berlin and the surrounding suburban communities. Those cities, and many others, have become parts of a regional network determined by infrastructure. The region is now the city. I work in one place. I eat in another place. I go to a theater in a third place. And I live in a fourth place. Space no longer matters, it's time. And that's a completely new perspective for Europe.

Why does this nexus between the suburbs and the urban core concern you? What's happening in Germany that drives your curiosity?

Until the 70s, Germany had a very successful tradition of state-run planning. The state cared about everything-city development, regional development, development of open space, etc.

What we are now seeing is that the Anglo-Saxon culture of urban development has impacted German cities. Big companies and developers are now designing a great part of the city on their own. That's in direct contrast to our historic planning and development paradigm of small developers creating new communities slowly with attention to detail. Now we are faced with one developer constructing a great part of the city in a very fast manner.

That came to a head some years ago when many European cities asked that shopping centers locate in already developed areas and not in the hinterlands. However, that had the unintended consequence of creating a conflict between the small-scale European city center and the larger-scale urban core.

That is one of the reasons that I have traveled to L.A. specifically, to see what's going on in Downtown, how the retail industry is impacting the urban core and the suburbs and how you have bridged that conflict.

At the heart of your mission seems to be a feeling that better linkages between urban areas and open space is needed to cope with the current, radical evolution of spatial patterns. Talk about some of the radical changes that are taking place in Germany. What are the challenges that you are working with? And are there parallels here in Los Angeles?

One of the parallels that I am finding is with students, our future leaders. The tradition of state run planning in Germany relies on smart, educated and visionary people. Thirty years ago architects and planners went to state agencies and city planning departments so that they could make the city and the region a better place to live.

But since the 80s, the best of the well-trained architecture students refuse to go to the city because they believe that they cannot reach their goals working for a public entity. That is one reason why the planning departments lack vision. The vision now rests in the private sector. That seems to be a similar shift to the one we see in the states.

Another similar movement is the strong green movement in Germany asking for clean air, clean water and sustainable development.

One project that may be directly applicable to some of the proposed development along the L.A. River is the "IBA Emscher Park", an International Building Exhibition founded by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to reshape and revitalize the Emscher river whichs runs through the oldest and densest urban region in Europe.

At the end of the 80s the decision was made that a beautiful sustainable landscape was needed for the post-industrial development of this urban region. The end result was an urban landscape made of steel and former coal mining instruments that mirrors the traditional landscape of the open space and city.

Another project that's typical for this kind of urban landscape in Germany is in the Leipzig Region where they once conducted open mining. It's an area about 60 square-kilometers where they had open mining. About 10 years ago, it was a totally abandoned, dirty landscape. Today, everything has been cleaned and the enormous coal mines holes are now flooded, creating a beautiful artificial lake landscape.

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Let's bring this new urbanist discussion back home. Describe what you found relevant to you work here in Los Angeles?

The 20th Century was the century of the car, of image and of recreation. And L.A. was its capitol. But, the 21st Century will be the century of the Internet. We will need cars, but they will no longer drive the shape of our culture the way they have historically.

Two things strike me. First, I see a city with a lot of trees and green-a garden city. But it's not a city where I found a landscaped core like Central Park in New York, or a green belt, or a river where I can go to and discover the city. The only landscapes I see are the beaches and the mountains.

The second is the idea of mobility. Mobility is at the center of American culture and society. I thought I would see rebuilt city centers similar to the way they are in Europe, with more housing inside of the urban core, a real sensitivity to the urban fabric so that one is not forced to sprawl. As I see it, sprawl is still going strong, but it is going on under the new expression of Smart Growth.

In Germany, we define a new urbanist movement as one that links transit opportunities, walkability, mixed-use-a community shaped by houses not cars. What I found here in L.A. was a revival of the main street, small-scale centers in the suburbs-basically the traditional American city. There's nothing new about that. Suburbia is as strong as it ever was, but it isn't the sustainable city I expected to see.

So you come to L.A. and you observe a 21st Century City, a city built around mobility and the automobile. Does it now give you a sense of what the future will hold in terms of German development?

Germany is in a different and perhaps more difficult situation. Part of our urban identity revolves around a culture and architecture that has developed over the past 700 years. However, we now have an increasing "Los Angeles" component. We live in a medieval city for some hours and live in Los Angeles-type city for some hours too. These two divergent interests have put us in a very critical situation.

In the brochure produced by the European Commission, it says that "the tendency to accept urbanization increasingly affects all functions and uses in the European landscape, a breakdown of the traditional center." It speaks about cities, urban regions becoming polycentric, a new urban landscape, the changes of use in downtowns and the new pattern of usage in the urban region. They call this the Americanization of the European townscape. The question now is, "Will the future of Europe be Los Angeles?"

We can see a lot of initiatives in the U.S. that are really European ideas, like the revival of downtowns, preservation of old buildings, conservation of urban space, greenbelt movements, even pedestrian-oriented development and mixed-use development is part of European city culture. In a situation where the Americans are striving to Europeanize their towns and regions, the European cities are Americanizing them.

In Europe, they use Americanization as a bad expression. They say, "We don't want to become Los Angeles. We don't want to have empty downtowns." However, we have to look at what's going on in Europe. There are strong forces that shape our cities, forces that are based in the culture of the economy and the society of the United States. I don't have a solution. The majority has a solution and they say, "We don't want the American way of life," but their actions don't match their words.

Let's close with this question. You've made UCLA your home for the past 3 months. A couple of years ago, UCLA disengaged its urban planning and architecture schools and recently, USC coupled its planning department with policy, not architecture. What do such decisions say about our higher learning insitution's interest and capacity to knit new urbanistic ideas into a coherent theory of action?

It's tragic really. Right now we have business people, infrastructure people and politicians making independent, rational decisions about their particular fields of expertise. And when one looks to those individual fields, there is probably no one better to deal with each particular function. However, to truly synthesize those aspects and create a society, one needs to employ an architect.

An architect's specialty lies in combining social society and infrastructure. It is the only profession, both in education and practice that synthesizes those two divergent aspects of culture. If America hopes to continue to revitalize its cities and suburbs, it must be reminded that while most professions specialize in particular aspects of society, architects bring all those facets together.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.