November 10, 2004 - From the November, 2004 issue

Advice from Civic Leaders for New L.A. Times Architecture Critic

Christopher Hawthorne, the new architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times, published his first articles for the newspaper this month. In the second in a series of pieces welcoming Hawthorne to Los Angeles and his new beat, TPR spoke with L.A. City Councilmember Eric Garcetti; Robert Timme, Dean of the USC School of Architecture; and Martha Welborne, Managing Director of the Grand Avenue Committee.

Eric Garcetti

The Los Angeles Times has introduced and welcomed Christopher Hawthorne as its new architecture critic. As astute civic leaders who are currently thinking about the value of architecture, land use, and growth management, what are your hopes and expectations for the new critic? Councilman, let's begin with you.

Eric Garcetti: I hope that the new critic will begin a conversation here in Los Angeles that would help us get to know one another here in the city. I hope that he will help us to emphasize connections in our architecture, not clichés, and to remember the warmth that is Los Angeles.

Robert Timme: I think that everyone in the community is looking forward to having him here, because of his writing style and his attitude about architecture. He's very pluralistic, and he is very inclusive. I think Eric's point is an important one. We're likely going to see not just "signature" buildings being discussed, but also more of a concern about urban design, adaptive reuse, and school buildings. In other words, we're going to see the common fabric being discussed much more with the new critic than we've seen in the past.

Martha Welborne: I really hope that he takes a look at more than just architecture, that he looks at this city in the context of how its buildings make up the city. Buildings are not just sculpture. Many architecture critics look purely at form-making, the sculptural aspects of building. That is important, but it is not the only measure of a good building or a good city.

Councilmember Garcetti, you have been a strong advocate for urban planning. What issues should an architecture critic at the Times champion?

EG: Well, I think L.A. is very good at issuing platitudes about greatness, but we sometimes forget that greatness is achieved by a lot of small conversations. When you look at some of the things that Hawthorne has already written, such as his article about the new Caltrans building, I think he understands that we have an amazing opportunity right now in Los Angeles. This is a great moment of massive construction of infrastructure and civic and religious buildings, but we haven't yet brought that together with much coherence. Not that we need it to be centrally planned, but even at our most decentralized vision, which is a cluster of different downtowns and of villages, we still have not capitalized what we are going to look like in the post-mini-mall era.

MW: Los Angeles needs to be championed. The city needs to be championed, and an understanding of the past and the future potential of the city needs to be understood and supported.

Elaborate on that, Martha. What is needed to connect Los Angeles urban fabric together?

MW: I think that we need to understand our history, how old it is. People have been settling in the area since 1781, which was quite a while ago, but we are still filling out our boundaries. We have just now reached the era of infill. So, it's a very exciting time in terms of re-creating the form of the city and the way it works. As everybody knows, we still don't have a full-fledged rapid transit system, which could change the form of the city as we know it. There is a lot to be done in continuing to create Los Angeles, and I think we need a strong point of view, we need criticism, and we need a critic who understands the way other cities work.

Dean Timme, you converse with the city's architects. What are they yearning for in a critic?

RT: I hope that the linkages between Christopher Hawthorne and all of the various entities of architecture will be much stronger than we've seen in the past. This is a city which really has all of the schools of architecture – it has the AIA, it has the L.A. Forum for Architecture and Urban Design. I think that linking himself to what is happening in those organizations is important. You know, over the past five or six years I have rarely seen articles in the calendar section of the Times about significant architects who have shows in town or who might have been brought by one of our universities. You never saw one by the previous critic. I'm hoping that will change. I think that a broader view about what is happening in the architecture community would be excellent.

An architecture critic is in a difficult position. He is kind of like an art critic. Everyone wants to be discovered by that individual. But, I think from his previous work that Hawthorne understands that a simpler, quieter architecture might be in the making, even from the kind of prima-donna architects we have seen recently.

Councilmember Garcetti, you've been engaged in serious infrastructure and planning efforts in your district, which covers much of Hollywood. How can the newspaper help the community better understand the challenges that you face as a councilperson when asked to act on the plans of developers?

EG: The newspaper should really be a voice bringing together a citywide conversation about the large infrastructure growth that is happening: schools, housing, parks, and the revitalization of the Los Angeles River. I would like to see Christopher Hawthorne and the Los Angeles Times not only comment about a new building that goes up in Downtown, but also discuss what architecturally should be included in the master plan for the Los Angeles River and how landscape architecture can bring the pieces together.


I think that we need analysis not just praising the cerebral and technical advances that appear of Los Angeles architecture, but also thinking holistically about architecture across the entire city. It is very easy to get caught up in high-profile buildings that are very exciting, but as somebody who lives and works close to and in Downtown, I wonder how many of these buildings are really linking together a new civic vision for Los Angeles. I think our best architecture has been very reassured and has been confident without being domineering. We need something that will be accessible to the reader, and ultimately an architectural style for the city that will be just as accessible.

Martha, what are the characteristics of the best architectural critics?

MW: The person should have a vision as well as an understanding of the importance of good architecture, of good cities with good urban design. A good critic is someone who understands that we all live in physical places, and that architecture can make a better life for people. Our movement, our efficiency – or lack of it – in our daily lives, affects us in a very big way. Attention to our environment in a serious way is very important.

In one of Christopher Hawthorne's last pieces in Slate, he called the new Caltrans headquarters building in Downtown Los Angeles "the widest, most imposing wall you've ever seen." Dean Timme, is that what architects can expect from this Times critic in the future?

RT: Well, if you read the whole article, what he's talking about is the fact that that wall – and we all know this – is "scale-less." It lacks the human scale. I mean, I've heard it called the "Death Star." I think what Hawthorne is saying that, at an urban level, here is probably the biggest wall that's ever been created, because it's hard to relate to it in terms of scale. Now, that's what an architecture critic should be doing: talking about issues of the city and scale.

At the same time, we have some huge building programs in Los Angeles which are going to redefine the future of the city. I think a series of articles could describe how that is redefining urban growth and even residential densities within the city. All of the sudden, we have public transit which seems to be starting to work. A whole series of new libraries were constructed, really quite incredible buildings at the neighborhood scale. And the LAUSD has probably the largest construction project, in terms of new buildings, in the history of education. There are lots of issues related to that, such as what can happen when you haven't made any changes in your neighborhood districting based on schools, and then you plunk down these new schools. If you're not careful, you could begin to destroy communities by breaking them in half. Most community activism relates to the structure of the school system, because those are the meeting places and those are the parents who you get to know. There are a huge number of architectural and planning issues right now that are very important.

As Dean Timme said, there are a lot of public works projects going on. The city has built police stations, it has built libraries, transit systems are underway that are city and regional, and the school district is building 160 new schools in inner-city and inner-suburban neighborhoods. How could the paper help to create linkages that would aid the kind of communities and neighborhoods for which you advocate?

EG: One great way would be to do an architectural analysis of individual neighborhoods. For instance, look at Historic Filipinotown or Temple Beaudry, where they have few defining pieces of architecture, but there are some great old homes and there is new construction of everything from a new police station to a new high school. The architecture that put Los Angeles on the map was not our skyscrapers, it was not our churches or our civic buildings, besides perhaps City Hall. It has really been that neighborhood scale. Some of the most defining voices that we've heard come out of Los Angeles have been those that have been intensely local. The only way you can bite off coming into L.A. as a city is to take one neighborhood at a time.

MW: I don't know if it's the architecture critic's job, but there is there is barely any coverage of transit. There are a couple of writers at the Times who focus on transit, but they come and go a lot. I don't think that the L.A. Times pays enough attention to the real issues of balancing the need for cars and rapid transit. There are a lot of trade-offs that will have to be made if we are going to develop a good transit system. The Times has a leadership role to play there, and I don't think that they're playing it.

Dean Timme, right now Christopher Hawthorne lives in the Bay Area. What are the pros and cons of having an architecture critic who doesn't live in your city?

RT: Ultimately, he needs to spend a lot of time here and not be a tourist. But, reflection from people on the outside can be very good for our community. Reyner Banham was vilified for his book, but we look back now and realize that he was actually on the mark. I hope that Hawthorne will begin to be more involved with the city, because otherwise the kind of points we've been talking about may be lost. For instance, how do you do joint-use planning in our existing structure? You need a champion at that high level, because the only places that we see real mixed uses and joint use right now is in privatized spaces. How do you get the Recreation & Parks Department working with LAUSD and other city agencies to make a better environment? You really have to spend a lot of time in a city to see how the architecture connects at a fundamental level to those kinds of issues.

Any last thoughts that you want to share, Martha?

MW: I'd tell Christopher Hawthorne welcome, and that we really need him. We want to get to know him, and we want him to live here. There's a lot happening here, and it's a very exciting time to live in this city. I have read a few of his articles, and I liked them. I'm heartened to know that he's interested in sustainability, and in fact that he wrote a book about it. We need a broad perspective, and I really hope that he has it. This is a fabulous opportunity for him, and I'm glad that he took it.


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