October 28, 2004 - From the October, 2004 issue

Local Luminaries Share Their Hopes for New L.A. Times Architecture Critic Chris Hawthorne

Editors at the Los Angeles Times have named a new architecture critic. Christopher Hawthorne, who has written for Slate, Metropolis Magazine, and the New York Times, will cover the Los Angeles region's places beginning in November. TPR convened John Dale, President of AIA-Los Angeles; Brenda Levin, Principal at Levin & Associates Architects; Bill Bogaard, Mayor of Pasadena; and Wayne Ratkovich, President of The Ratkovich Company, to welcome Mr. Hawthorne and discuss their hopes for his tenure.


John Dale

John, the L.A. Times has announced the selection of its new architectural critic, Christopher Hawthorne. Please share your thoughts, hopes, and expectations for the paper's new critic and the positive civic role he might play in the region.

John Dale: First of all, I think there are a huge amount of things going on in the Los Angeles region at many different scales, and it's always a problem knowing how to cover all that ground. But I think that in the past, we've sometimes been "society conscious" versus socially conscious, and I think we have to be very socially conscious as we look at urban issues. So I would hope that we're not just looking at the really high-profile issues, but at the kind of nitty-gritty, detailed stuff that helps to shape the city. That would be one of my biggest hopes for the new architectural critic.

Brenda, as a fellow of the AIA and an architect who has been involved in many of the most significant buildings in the region, what are your hopes and expectations?

Brenda Levin: Following up on what John said, we are a city that is growing by increasingly large numbers every year, we're densifying at a very rapid rate, and the notion of urban infill and density are relatively new concepts for Los Angeles. I think that educating the public about the role of good design in that effort, how to achieve it, and how to accurately critique it when it fails is an important role of the architecture critic. The other issue the architecture critic should address is the major investment of public dollars being made in school construction, libraries, police stations, fire stations, and animal shelters. These have significant impacts on our community but have basically gone unnoticed and uncommented on but for a few "star" pieces.

Mayor Bogaard, the City of Pasadena has invested in and is very conscious of design and place-making. What do you expect from our new LAT architecture critic?

Bill Bogaard: My comments are along the lines of those that have been made already. First, the idea of understanding the implications of architectural development in its context or setting, as opposed to consideration of the project in isolation, is important to me. It is important to Pasadena, I believe, and to the people that I talk with about these issues. Related to that is a point that has been made on several occasions: the issues of density versus design. We in Pasadena and in other communities in California are necessarily buying into the concepts of mixed-use, urban villages, multi-family use, and downtown residential living. But we must ask the question: Is density a problem, or can the new style of living be addressed, to some degree, by design?

Another thought that occurs to me is, how do we gain a better public acceptance of new projects? Pasadena has a history of increasing attention to design, and yet almost every new project that is created is met with significant negative comment, because of color, size, scale, and so on. I'm not saying that these buildings are perfect, but I haven't figured out just what the relationship is between input, in terms of the review process to establish high architectural standards, and the output of getting public acceptance.

Wayne, given 30 years in real estate development and as a leader in the Urban Land Institute, what are you hoping for from the new architecture critic of the Times?

Wayne Ratkovich: Well, I think this is going to sound a bit like a chorus. It seems to me that he's coming into this position at a time when this city, this region, has perhaps the most vibrant architectural community that it has had in its history. There seems to be a heightened public interest in the design of buildings, as well as a larger number of talented architects at work in this region than ever, many of them young in age. So, from an architectural point of view there's a lot to do and a lot to talk about.

But I think the bigger issue is the one that everybody else is talking about, and that is, in the broader sense, our physical environment: the issue of urban design, and how we channel the growth that's coming to Southern California in ways that improve the quality of life. I think that our test really is to figure out a way to grow and improve the quality of life, and I think it can be done. A critic could serve us well by not only doing the normal things that critics do, such as comment and criticism on individual buildings and design efforts, but it would be particularly interesting in Southern California for someone to identify cities that do things well, and to use them as examples for other cities.

Let's bring it back to you, John. Architects often feel starved for attention in this basin, and thus there is pressure on architectural critics from many professionals to cover their own projects. How do you, as a voice for the AIA, hope to channel that demand for personal attention into a call for Christopher Hawthorne to be a civic resource?

JD: Well, if I could use an overall word, it would probably be "collaboration," and it really goes back to the idea of urban design. Urban design, in a way, involves a conversation between architects and landscape architects and planners. It's really the interdisciplinary activity that starts to tie the disparate parts of the city together. So, I think we're all reinforcing the same ideas. We don't have an urban design task force, at the moment, operating at the city level. So, I think that our new critic can build discourse about the discipline, which touches all of us but is often left out of the discussion.

Brenda, elaborate on the nature of the conversations would you like to have in Los Angeles about urban design and architecture?

BL: We're all struggling with how to knit together the communities that have been separated by the freeway culture of Los Angeles. I think that the responsibility of the architecture critic is to lift the dialogue, to participate in and to affect the conversation on the political level, the community level, and in the profession itself. The view must be cross-disciplinary, and not operate in a vacuum where reality doesn't touch the edges of the criticism. Getting to know Los Angeles and engaging in dialogue before he takes on major stories would serve him well, expanding his reach and talking to people involved in the profession at all different levels. He should get to know the intersection between those practicing, those trying to build, communities trying to retain their lifestyle, and the political forces as projects go through the process.

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Bill, back to you. Pasadena spends an awful lot of time, as you suggested, on process and on design. How is it covered? And what would you like the press, whether it's your local press or the L.A. Times, to do to cover it in a better way? What is essential for the dialogue to be productive?

BB: Reporting can be helpful if it relates the proposal to the planning policies and the design guidelines that the city has adopted for the area in question, and it helps the community to understand why there can be controversies about ideas which, taken in the abstract, seem so wonderful. For example, someone proposes a very high-quality residential development in our downtown that would really be different from anything that we had before. Why doesn't the City automatically accept the project? Here's a good developer, a good development team, a well-financed project, a quality concept. From my point of view, those are all positive factors, but in the end, the community and its leadership spend years developing design guidelines and other zoning constraints that are intended to take into account the long-range future of the community. No set of guidelines should be strictly enforced without any adaptation, but they should be given strong deference.

Wayne, obviously the development community has an interest in how architecture and urban design is covered. Give voice to the concerns of developers re the press and architectural criticism. What coverage in the L.A. Times is most needed?

WR: First of all, from a developer's point of view the perfect world – which doesn't exist at the moment and probably never will – includes a city that has a set of rules to live by that are clear and set. Then a developer can come into the picture and say, "Okay, I accept those rules, and here is a project that lives within them." To the extent that we can get anything close to clear rules, we will be better off.

I would love for Mr. Hawthorne to succeed in engaging the entire Los Angeles region in the issues that he writes about. One gauge of his success would be if someday we all could go to a local reception where the principal topic would be the quality of life in our region and in our respective cities. Today, such conversation is the exception. Until the community is engaged and concerned with these issues, I'm not sure that we will see things getting any better. So, I would hope a a much larger community dialogue about urban design would be one of the consequences of his commentary.

John and Brenda, as voices for the architectural community in the LA Basin, what are architects desperate to read in the L.A. Times?

JD: I would like to pick up on something that Brenda mentioned earlier. There are a lot of urban issues associated with the huge reconstruction in the LAUSD. I think that we need someone who, first of all, can celebrate the successes of that district, because it certainly has its problems, and the profession has had its challenges working with the LAUSD. I think we have to be engaging these topics more extensively and talking about the work that's being done in the trenches by emerging architects.

I also hope that Christopher acts as an editor and brings in guests. There are a lot of amazing writers who occasionally show up in this city, often unnoticed – people like Richard Sennett who have a profound body of writing attached to urban issues and who can bring a fresh perspective.

BL: I would encourage him not to focus solely on reactive reporting – in other words, on things that are already built and already in place – but to try to anticipate issues of concern for communities that will affect the public realm and the physical form. Bring them to the floor for discussion prior to their translation into physical form so that we can actually impact the outcome, as opposed to react to it.

Mayor, how important is press coverage of urban design and architecture to the political conversation that you oversee when projects come before your council?

BB: Well, it is very significant. The major effects is on public understanding and acceptance of the factors of the debate and its outcome. So, I would say that reporting is very important for the long-term understanding on the part of the public about what is involved. Why are architecture and urban design important, and how do we build treasures today like those we value from 75 and 100 years ago?

Wayne, you've been very active in the Urban Land Institute, and ULI often brings expert panels from around the country into a community to critic a particular development or design opportunity. In your opinion, how does the press contribute to a public dialogue that is as instructive as well as provocative?

WR: I think a lot of it, of course, is going to depend on the quality of the work that a journalist produces. I do think that, in every community in which I'm at work, events are often strongly influenced by vocal minorities. Certainly we've encountered this problem in cities where we request an approval, but a relatively small percentage of the citizenry raises strenuous objections, so that becomes the end of the project. So, I think that to the extent that there is enlightenment, encouragement, and involvement of a greater portion of the population in our communities, it will help to bring clarity and hopefully will result in improvement of the quality of life in our cities.

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