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Orchestrated Chaos I.
Part I: Night
This post is about an urban master plan that I led in 2015 when I was the Los Angeles Design Principal for AECOM, the multi-national engineering, and infrastructure giant.
Like the California Plaza design-development competition of 1980 that I wrote about earlier, this challenge pitted an internationally well-regarded design firm against a team of primarily local architects. In this case, AECOM teamed with 15 architects to face off against Pritzker prize winners Herzog and de Meuron.
Reflecting on this project also got me wondering about my experiences working in corporate architecture firms. Is there a viable way to connect opposing forms of architectural practice, small and large? Can ‘boutique’ studios and corporate offices even get along? Later this year, I will try to make sense of my experiences in commercial architecture by meditating about my stints at AECOM, Jerde, and Gensler.
In the meantime, this is the first of three posts about the 6AM project, the title coined by the developers for the project, based on its location at 6th and Alameda in the Los Angeles Arts District.
I've been thinking lately about various approaches to developing large-scale urban redevelopment sites in Los Angeles.
And I have been wondering whether or not it's better to take a fine-grain and more nuanced building-by-building approach or if it would be best to try to accept that the mega-scaled, extra-large urban plans that are swallowing up whole swaths of LA make better sense for a variety of good reasons, and not just because they fit into our local, arcane entitlement processes or satisfy the developer’s financial bottom line.
Part of my automatic bias towards the former attitude— which assumes that it is better to build out a city at a manageable and humane scale even as it gets denser— may have to do with my long-held belief that cities like ours should be made of competing and contrasting elements that give voice to different communities.
This perspective sees Los Angeles as a City of Davids (and not Goliaths), a city made up of specific urban moments and not just the more-of-same monotony that fits the cliched view of our region.
If we can even agree that Los Angeles is going have to grow to address massive housing shortfalls and that a dearth other urban necessities like more open space and better transit are also needed then perhaps we can start by throwing out the usual, NIMBY, knee-jerk anti-growth rhetoric to ask some important questions about how we got here and where we are going.
For instance, which growth models will best preserve or improve the region’s character and not obliterate it?
Who should direct growth, the private sector or a public agency?
What is the best way to master plan large urban sites?
Is a singular undifferentiated plan of attack better than a more pluralistic, adaptable one?
We are the 80s
Much of my recent writing has focused on architecture and urban design in Los Angeles during the 1980s. This is because, except for the post-war growth spurt, no decade since has so fundamentally redefined my city.1
During the eighties, key individuals and groups seeded several important planning decisions and redevelopment ideas about LA’s future. They continue to affect us in both good and bad ways, and that is why we should be curious about how that era can inform our own.
For instance, that period saw the first sparks of significant investment in the redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles and the adjacent Arts District. The Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles (CRALA) drove a move towards affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods. In 1980 voters passed Proposition A, which created a half-cent county sales tax to fund rail construction in the mid-1980s, so construction could start in earnest on the multiple heavy and light railway lines that now connect up the County.
Academically, there was a renewed interest in indigenous architectural traditions as historians like Thomas Hines looked back to figures like Greene and Greene, Irving Gill, and Rudolph Schindler. At UCLA, urbanists like Harvey Perloff and Charles Moore were committed to investigating “…urban vitality—cities as they actually grew, not as they were planned,” as Julie Eizenberg and Hank Koning put it in the interview I posted last Monday. And the 1980s, young Los Angeles architects attempted to invent a homegrown architectural language detached from the international and national trends that had influenced previous generations.
It was also a time when a pitched battle was fought over the future of Grand Avenue and Bunker Hill to determine if LA’s key cultural institutions would move to the Westside or Downtown, setting the stage for the realization of cultural institutions like the Walt Disney concert hall and the Broad Museum.
In another recent post, I looked back to the California Plaza design-development competition, a ‘face-off’ that saw Canadian architect Arthur Erickson face off against a hometown ‘supergroup’ led by planner Harvey S. Perloff and architect Charles Moore 1980.
Erickson’s winning scheme consisted of three towers connected by a plinth arranged around a water-filled courtyard. Essentially its ‘parti’ developed from established, homogeneous Modernist planning gestures.
However, the supergroup scheme abandoned the singular Modernist gesture in favor of what I termed a form of Post Modern orchestrated chaos: in the place of a unified nod to earlier modernist master plans for Bunker Hill, the supergroup scheme was collage; nine projects connected by a street-like necklace of public spaces.
And so I take two important ideas about this city’s urban future from the Los Angeles scene in the 1980s:
It is better to advocate for collective and diverse forms of architectural (and therefore urban) expression over singular monotony;
Even if those forms might be messy or illegible they are more authentic than an unyieldingly coherent (read: authoritarian) vision for our city.
2.5 Million Square Feet
Six years ago, in early 2015, SunCal, one of the largest private developers in the United States (and real estate group better known for suburban developments than its urban infill efforts), announced that it had purchased a massive site in LA with the backing of Michael Dell.
Their goal was to plan and entitle 2.5 million square feet of mixed-use development in the heart of LA’s Arts District. The prize was a $2 billion opportunity two miles south of Union Station and two miles east of Downtown. In addition, their architects Herzog and de Meuron had just completed four crucial projects in North America: the Parrish Art Museum, the 1111 Lincoln Road parking structure in Miami, and two excellent residential towers in Manhattan.
This wasn’t SunCal’s first attempt to bring capital “A” architecture to LA. In 2008, under the adventuresome leadership of Nicholas King, SunCal had explored developing a $400 million, lush green 177-unit tower designed by French architect Jean Nouvel at the edge of Century City and Beverly Hills. Although that project was ultimately shelved, his team returned to LA seven years later with a new ambition. They wanted to create an urban oasis on a site formerly occupied by two substantial cold storage buildings, just west of Michael Maltzan’s soon-to-be-completed 6th Street viaduct.
The challenge drew out very different responses from the AECOM team on the one hand and Herzog and de Meuron on the other. The AECOM master plan was a fine-grained, collaborative urban/architectural scheme led by a global engineering giant known for building bridges and Olympic stadiums. To the opposite effect, the Swiss firm unveiled a monolithic, modernist super-object. Theirs was a strange vision for LA, from a Basel-based firm first recognized for its nuanced residences, such as the Blue House in Oberwil, Switzerland (1980) and the Stone House in Tavole, Italy (1988).
Indeed the contrast could not have been odder or the competition more lop-sided: an oversized mega-project from a precious Swiss firm from a quaint “city” of 175,000 on the Rhine River versus an urban-fabric first, collaborative team effort led by a global engineering giant, now headquartered in Texas.
The Perloff/Moore collage-strategy for Bunker Hill and another group master plan led by Arata Isozaki, Nexus World in Kashii, near Fukuoka in the southwest of Japan, inspired my efforts to assemble a team of fifteen, mostly Los Angeles-based architects, for the 6AM project.
My goal was to invent a way for them to work in parallel—but not in direct conversation— applying the Surrealist parlor game, the exquisite corpse (from the original French term cadavre exquis) to an urban site. The game, played by André Breton and others (Henry Miller was a fan), allows multiple players to construct and add onto a collective drawing or image without knowing the complete result until the sheet is unfolded.2
Appropriating this form of blind collaboration for the 6AM urban master plan, I hoped to develop a playing field for the collective team of architects to work on together. The big idea was that they could work in parallel but without knowing what their immediate neighbors were developing “next-door” or, for that matter, what I had in mind for the entire site, at the scale of the Art District neighborhood or city as the whole.
That way, the individual game pieces, e.g., the buildings, would be resolved with a high degree of detail. But how the individual buildings communicated with each other would be left to chance. And that was an unusual way to start a master plan.
To be continued.
My interest in that period began in 2003 when I started teaching in the history theory program at SCI-Arc, which I coordinated from 2009 until 2011. In 2004 I wrote an essay for the LA Forum about the multi-decade-long effort to redevelop Bunker Hill and Grand Avenue. In 2003 later, I co-curated an exhibition that displayed “…archival material [of] the distinctive sensibilities of Southern California architects whose early works defined Los Angeles as a contemporary city during the last quarter of the 20th century.” Then in 2008, I took over SCI-Arc’s urban design program, giving me a lens through which to examine LA’s 1980s’ genesis with post-graduate students and as importantly a vehicle to stage two international competitions focused on the future of LA’s transit systems and green corridors
In 1978, OMA developed the cadavre exquis approach at an architectural scale for a competition entry for the Dutch Parliament Extension. According to Mariabruna Fabrizi, “ …the OMA solution reads and underlines … complexity, splitting the project into three different limbs developed independently by Rem Koolhaas, Elias Zenghelis, and Zaha Hadid, in an episode of her short collaboration with her previous teachers.”