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Think Small, part 1.
Los Angeles and the problem of scale, revisited.
I have been thinking a little lately about small urban things, specifically little houses, smaller lots, reclaimed public spaces, and the promise they collectively hold to transform Los Angeles for the better.
Eight years ago, I wrote an opinion piece, ‘Think Small,’ about the value of micro-scale urban design for Los Angeles in the Architects Newspaper. As I wrote then, I believe that creating a more “nuanced grain” in LA will lead to a cityscape that promotes “new forms of collectivity, new aggregations of social and cultural variety, and experimental architectural innovation[s].”
In light of our current circumstances, perhaps some of my assertions then might seem too optimistic for now. However, I suspect that the gist of the piece still holds: if we can agree that smaller private buildings, maybe semi-tall, semi-attached structures to live and work in, are good for the city, then perhaps LA can reclaim some public space, get back some sunlight and greenery, making the city more available, more democratic and yes, more beautiful.
I will be posting a follow-up and update to this opinion piece here soon, focusing on the issues raised by homelessness, life post-COVID-19, and transformations to transportation technologies as part two of this column.
In the meantime, I thought I would share the original essay with some minor edits and some updated illustrations. Enjoy!
Originally published by the Architects Newspaper on February 18, 2013, in the Comment and News section.
Los Angeles sits at a fork in the road: a proverbial decision point that will determine whether it will replay the cycle of development, decline, and redevelopment that characterized it at the close of the 20th century or evolve into a more cultivated, connected, and egalitarian version of itself.
The city is poised to move beyond its misrepresentations and embrace its recent achievements. For many Angelenos, their day-to-day experiences are far removed from anyone’s memories of life in LA in the late ‘80s and mid-’90s. There is less smog, and it’s easier than ever to find a sophisticated meal and see a great play or attend a world-class opera.
And yet, it feels as if something is missing. Los Angeles remains a city subject to the diurnal rhythms of its traffic patterns. LA, especially downtown LA, remains disconnected, and its over-arching and under-addressed ethos of urban disengagement has yet to be adequately challenged.
Big buildings have recently visited LA by star architects, various proposals for megamalls, and mixed-use projects like L.A. Live and, perhaps, the Grand Avenue Development. It’s still proposing mega-stadiums, giant parks, and plans for big river and transit renewal programs. For this city, the abiding urban-redevelopment logic seems to be that if you build it big and make it iconic, then the private funds and presumably the public incentives will find their way to the table.
While it would be churlish to deny the value of ambitious public buildings in the urban context, LA’s Grands Projets (Proyectos Grandes?) only worked well… in the last economy.
And therein lies the rub. As long as our cities, like our states, and to a degree, the nation, remain mired in the current economic doldrums, our large-scale urban redevelopment plans for old but demographically expanding cities like Los Angeles seem ineffective and outmoded models.
The mega-project approach to remaking the city is capital- and labor-intensive while generating too few long-term job gains regionally. It’s a high-risk, single shot, and ultimately touristic and brand-driven. Indeed, the predominant, disconnected mega-project approach is hard to build, hard to finance, and likely to produce monolithic environments. And although we cannot refute the value of large-scale civic works, cities must develop organically, through incremental means but with raised expectations. Anything else is unsustainable.
There is another model of redevelopment that is native to LA and the region. It suggests both a better ethos for remaking the city center and a path forward for the reconnection and reconstruction of LA’s more dispersed neighborhoods. It takes advantage of the facts on the ground, not in a report, and it is organic and intuitive. And it’s likely to work.
Several successful examples of such an approach are already at work in LA: the Downtown Los Angeles Arts District, Culver City’s Arts District, and Hayden Tract (much of it by architect and SCI-Arc Director Eric Owen Moss) as well as other, more boutique commercial strip transformations (the Sunset Triangle in Los Feliz/Silverlake and Venice’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard).
There is the notable work Michael Maltzan has completed for the Skid Row Housing Trust and Inner-City Arts, an after-school program. Finally, there has been much to praise in the city’s successful small-lot subdivision ordinance, which has given teeth (and a protocol) to LA’s pressing need to move toward higher density on a manageable scale.
In an era of tightened financial opportunities, city governments need to stop relying on redevelopment plans that will inevitably fail. If they are to be developed at all and not sit stalled in financing agreements, sites for mired mega-projects should be parceled up and handed out competitively to smaller teams of architects and developers. Incentives should be provided to these teams to lower risk but demand greater responsibility and higher design values. Multiple players on multiple sites mean shared risk and diminished scale, and a realistic agenda for where we are now.
Will this approach lead to the micro-Balkanization of the city? Perhaps it will. Is this approach Pollyanna-ish? Hardly: it has worked elsewhere. Beijing’s smarter big-block redevelopments, Mexico City’s sophisticated Condesa District, Melbourne’s CBD, and Barcelona’s extensive work for its (1992) Olympics facilities are good examples of locales that have marshaled the political courage and financial means to try to grow intelligently.
A clear distinction to the top-down approach promulgated during the boom years in LA should be made: the current process should be cumulative, collective, and bottom-up. Redevelopment in LA on the micro-scale should be experimental, innovative, and attuned to community involvement and outreach. While it’s important to acknowledge that demographic pressures to add density to Los Angeles will require a continued commitment to large-scale transit improvements, and these transit projects may in turn spur or require the occasional mega-project, these projects will be connected and not isolated.
Imagine start-ups on an urban scale. Imagine temporary environments. Imagine strategies for incremental, not monumental, change. Imagine the next Los Angeles as an urban stage formed of multiple, tangentially-related set pieces, each uniquely shaped by inimitable means, yet still involved in a dialogue with other urban characters. This approach will re-introduce a nuanced grain to the city instead of its foundational and tract-oriented logic of uninspired repetition and customization. This approach to civic design envisions well-managed but radical shifts in scale across the city.
It marks the end of over-manicured districts and a challenge to the Byzantine rules that have built this city alongside capriciously arbitrary administrative fiat and the quest for short-term financial gain.
This approach imagines a process for rebuilding LA along the lines of the city’s best virtues: its informality, an enviable climate, and its convivial arrangements of social and private spaces. This approach imagines LA as a city of plurals, as a city of many Davids, not just Goliaths.
To build it and move it forward will take a communal effort led by unique voices.
There are two future city models for Los Angeles, and we must pick just one. On the one hand, there is the Los Angeles of the big, the privatized, and the spectacular (the rest remains ordinary and under-utilized). On the other hand, there an LA made of new forms of collectivity, new aggregations of social and cultural variety, and experimental architectural innovation(s)
The choice is ours to make.