Home / Architecture / The iUrbanisms of Los Angeles

The iUrbanisms of Los Angeles

Urban design and its discontents … Count me among the latter.

In the past decade and a half, at architecture schools in Los Angeles, “city talk” has gone deeply — and fruitfully — out of fashion. In advanced architecture studios at SCI-Arc, for instance, a resort to civics is often dismissed as an excuse or even a crutch — to borrow a term from Philip Johnson’s famous talk on modern architecture — to justify an underdeveloped project. Hernan Diaz-Alonso, the director-elect, has little time for the nitty-gritty tedium of what he pronounces as “the Herbanism,” and he isn’t alone; other faculty often wonder aloud whether urban analyses or arguments about city context can usefully inform the creation of new architecture. By now the question is largely rhetorical and the answer a rarely qualified “No.” Although some would grant that a focus on urbanism abetted architectural thinking decades ago — say, in the narrative of Delirious New York or even through the speculative and theoretical thickets of the early 1990s — most agree that the found geometries of the city have been exhausted as a source of design inspiration. And even less at issue are any civic or societal debts incurred by architecture-with-a-capital-A: it isn’t as though vanguard designers produce so many provocative works that they alter the city in aggregate. (Like their creators, when a few of these buildings play together, they usually get along fine.) The upshot is clear: For ambitious designers, “context” is a domain where all too often the roads — and bike paths — lead to mediocrity.

And yet … I spend most Saturday mornings in another Los Angeles, with friends whose faith in urban thinking has outlived my own. We meet at the Silver Lake farmers market, order coffee and something from the Siberian crepe-maker, grouse about local politics and professional prospects, and buy our week’s worth of artisanal produce, cash permitting. Often it is my only hour or two of direct civic engagement, though hardly a Parisian détournement . Still, I am outside and in the city, seated like Roland Barthes at a café table with a clear view up and down Sunset Boulevard. I am a happy Angeleno.

So is Victor Jones, another regular at the weekend market. Most Saturdays, Jones joins John Southern and Mimi Zeiger at Julie’s Night and Day Café for a round-up of the L.A. design scene, a klatch more informed by urban theorists Mike Davis and David Harvey than by architects Frank Gehry or Greg Lynn. Jones, Southern, and Zeiger are all design/theory hyphenates: Victor is an architect/educator, John a designer/pamphleteer, Mimi a writer/editor. Southern and Zeiger share a history in ’zines — John in his episodic archeologies, including my favorite Wilshire Star Maps , Mimi in her long-running loudpaper . So I’m inclined to read Jones’s new book through the lens of those fast, loose productions by his friends. A modest but sharply framed manifesto, (In)Formal L.A.: The Space of Politics brings together a range of insightful protagonists seeking a better future for Los Angeles architecture vis-à-vis urbanism.

For ambitious architects, urban context is a domain where all too often the roads — and bike paths — lead to mediocrity.

In a city whose pop-cultural dystopian representations have lately run to Shanghai (as in Her ) or Tijuana (as in Elysium ), that better future is by no means assured. As editor , Jones structured (In)Formal L.A. around a workshop/symposium he organized with Stefano de Martino at the USC School of Architecture in 2011, but did not limit the contributions to those presented at the event. In the broader scope of the publication, Jones assembles a formidable arsenal of approaches, bookended by Diane Ghirardo’s “Invisible Acropolis,” a prescient meditation on the ends and means of the Getty Center, and Warren Techentin’s recent riff on the double-entendre of “agency” in architecture and entertainment. In between the ideological spectrum runs from grass-roots urban recording to urban exploration à la Situationist derives to a counter-intuitive assessment of zoning rights by Roger Sherman.

As Jones underscores in his introduction, Diane Ghirardo’s essay leads the collection both chronologically and philosophically. Written in 1990, years before the Richard Meier-designed Getty Center would open to the public, “Invisible Acropolis” remains one of the most cogent critiques not only of that ambitious arts institution but also of the aggressive cultural capitalism that would come to exemplify the ’90s and ’00s. She notes that the Getty Center’s remove from the city to its spectacular hilltop redoubt echoed and amplified the oil magnate J.P. Getty’s earlier city-phobic retreat to a Pacific Palisades villa. Both Getty Museums promise “the fantasy of a world apart from the real world, but here one which is dedicated to the higher things of life — the arts — which remain uncontaminated by the mundane preoccupations of the city at its feet.” Twenty-five years later, the now completed Getty — whose lofty site is accessible via private tram— and assorted other personal museums have amply justified Ghirardo’s skepticism.

In fact, at the start of her essay, she poses two questions that still animate the debates around the high-stakes game of high-end architecture for art: “Is it possible for architecture to distinguish itself from [its] patron? More importantly, should it?” For Ghirardo and her more left-leaning contemporaries — influenced by the philosophy of Manfredo Tafuri — the answers would appear to be an emphatic No and No . Buildings inevitably embody the inequalities that enabled their creation; capital-A architecture often devolves into a distraction, even an opiate, for a misinformed public. But many architects, and especially those of L.A.’s signature variety, want to believe the answers can be Yes and Yes , and in support they offer two tidy, albeit bourgeois, lines of defense. Whatever the brief, architects think for themselves as much as for their clients , and, great buildings ultimately transcend their circumstances .

In Los Angeles, in the last decade of the old millennium, these were polarizing debates, especially for the swell of Baby Boomers trying to establish careers in practice and academia. Yet since then the vitriol has eased. Starting in the mid-’90s, as the public Internet began to organize the world, the focus on local “place” has been eclipsed by a fascination with global “space”; and leftish designers in Los Angeles — Boomers no less than Gen-Xer’s and Millennials — who’ve wanted to erect actual buildings have devised various ways to get past the impasse of the Double No. Today we can categorize these local workarounds under the useful rubrics of Everyday, Interdictory, Infrastructural, Interventionist, and now Informal Urbanism. (While beyond L.A., a welter of more insurrectionist urbanism-without-urbanists has arisen: Burning Man, Occupy, and the Tea Party, to name a few; and taken to a city-altering extreme, one might even include the horrifically anti-cosmopolitan war crimes of ISIS.)

But let’s stick close to home. Published in 1999 and edited by John Chase, Margaret Crawford, and John Kaliski, Everyday Urbanism argued that in order to challenge the structural inequities embodied in high design, architects need to redefine the client —to figure out what everyday people, not wealthy patrons, want from their buildings. Chase took the radical step of making the city his client when he took the job of planning director of West Hollywood, but for most architects Everyday Urbanism meant an aspiration to modesty: an emphasis on designing small, even piecemeal projects for less-affluent people. Some of the early works of Barbara Bestor, in Los Angeles, and Deborah Berke, in New York, were celebrated as winning examples of the Everyday for their embrace of the quotidian, and both architect have framed their practices and sensibility in terms of designing around the lives of their clients, rather than requiring their clients to conform to their design dictates.

‘Lifers,’ as the Everyday Urbanists were sometimes called, enjoyed the moral high ground in the ’90s. They constituted a lively opposition to an academic vanguard of deconstruction and deconstructivism, movements whose unabashed theoretical excesses made a renewed focus on the actual fodder of daily life feel salutary; just as welcome was the philosophical shift from Jacques Derrida to more quotidian cultural theorists like Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre. Everyday Urbanism was probably the last important architectural call to arms of the analog era. Yet the Everyday sensibility has been vulnerable to its very success. After all, can there really be an Everyday for Dr. Dre? The new, vast headquarters for Beats by Dre, designed by Bestor, sprawling through a few large industrial buildings in Culver City, raises this question in myriad ways; the building unfolds in a series of cross-axial sequences of escalating graphic intensity and spatial collage, with spaces that incorporate large-scale aerial photos of Los Angeles and standard residential finishes in various degrees of translucence and reflectivity. Bestor finds a winning decadence in the prosaic, but would the Everyday Urbanism authors approve the deployment of their ideas in the service of a client whose fortune, based on cultural rather than resource extraction, may now rival that of J. Paul Getty?

After the Everyday comes the host of iUrbanisms — Interdictory, Infrastructural, and Interventionist — to which Jones’s (In)Formal may prove the coda. Interdictory Urbanism, described by Steven Flusty in his 1994 Building Paranoia: The Proliferation of Interdictory Space and the Erosion of Spatial Justice, and Infrastructural Urbanism, delineated by Kazys Varnelis in The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, which appeared 2008, each owe specific debts to their Everyday precursors: Kaliski wrote the Foreword to Building Paranoia, and Crawford lured Varnelis from Cornell to teach at SCI-Arc in 1995. But the broader, proto-globalist ambitions of Flusty and Varnelis suggest an even stronger alignment with the ideas of Mike Davis and Edward Soja, and their revolutionary work in urban history and geography.

Flusty defines “interdictory spaces” as “spaces designed to intercept or repel or filter would-be users,” and his book is a critique of the increasing privatization of public space, exemplified by the rise of gated communities, the proliferation of militarized security systems, and the like. In his pithy Foreword, Kaliski positions Flusty’s thesis somewhere between Davis’s “noir vision of a totalizing ‘scanscape’” and Soja’s critique of a cynical city “scamscape.” 5 Akin to Davis in both his radical politics and biting prose, Flusty outflanks Everyday Urbanism to the left in his portrayal of the contemporary city’s corporatized, “prickly” and “jittery” zones of exclusion and surveillance. More cool at the wheel, and less overtly political, Varnelis is concerned more with the mega-scale, though often invisible-seeming, “networked ecologies” that support contemporary metropolitan life — “a series of codependent systems of environmental mitigation, land-use organization, communication and service delivery,” as Varnelis says in his introduction. And even more than the Everyday Urbanists, both Flusty and Varnelis seem pointedly indifferent, if not hostile, to high design. Though each author can be read for his aesthetic fixations — Flusty includes haunting images of high-tech security cameras and paramilitary street features; Varnelis clearly enjoys decoding the stealthscapes of advanced capital formation, among them the false office building that conceals an oil derrick on Pico and Doheny, and the telecom hub of 1 Wilshire Boulevard (“this nondescript thirty-nine story skyscraper functions as the prime communications hub between Asia and the Western world”). Both authors argue that the dehumanizing — or at least post-humanist — residue of hyper-urbanization constitutes the most “meaningful” of new architectures.