Thomas Guide page 634 F-4
The Los Angeles H* Urban Bureau (LAH*UB), an L.A. based collaborative of artists and architects, actively experiments with modes of research in downtown Los Angeles. In the last year, we have focused almost all of our resources on the Civic Park Proposals project, which will culminate in an exhibition at Gallery 727 and ultimately a publication that investigates public space in downtown Los Angeles. Our broad research about urban space led us to the city’s plan to create a Civic Park just south of City Hall. This park would be a part of the city’s master plan to link all of the downtown civic buildings through the creation of green spaces – a plan dubbed the “ten minute diamond.” This diamond would allow city employees and visitors to navigate between City Hall and the other city buildings in the area through a network of footpaths. Both the ten minute diamond and the park itself are in very preliminary stages of development. Yet these plans suggest a desire on the part of the city to generate pedestrian activity and to link the city’s bureaucracy to the supposed revitalization of downtown. When LAHUB learned of this potential for the creation of a civic (public) space in the middle of downtown, it seemed the perfect opportunity to engage with the kind of narratives of conflict that we uncovered in our research. If a civic space were to be constructed as a park, how would this site be designed? How would diverse perspectives on the nature of public space play out in the process of this urban design scheme? And to what degree would the city make an effort to include ‘the public’ in thinking about the creation of a space that is, by definition, supposed to serve the needs of those who inhabit the city?
Downtown Los Angeles seems to be undergoing radical shifts, both visible and invisible. The blinding curves of the nearly complete Disney Hall seem like a vivid externalization of city’s palpable, nearly pathetic desire to be considered once and for all a cultured metropolis. The recently completed Cathedral’s grandeur reads, in part, like a shameful reminder of the endless, psychodrama that is the Catholic Church’s ongoing sex scandals. Councilmember Jan Perry’s moves to outlaw unpermitted meals for the homeless suggest a political and economic interest in paving the way for more upscale development. The heightened sense of security around City Hall resonates with the national trend towards an increased military presence in urban spaces. Construction is visible along Grand Avenue and at the site of the new Caltrans building between Spring and Main streets. But what is invisible in downtown? What exists in downtown that can’t be easily registered as cause or effect? A proposed park offers the opportunity to consider what is not visible: The fantastic. The absurd. The implausible. The speculative. The imagined. The excessive.
There seems to be some link between the mythology of the contemplative space of an urban park and the utopian dream of a liberating imagination. As if no matter what one encounters in the city, a park might lift us from the drudgery of daily existence and propel us into the lofty space of dreams. And often the park is a restful, slowed down space; one that Angelinos can experience outside of the automobile. It’s a kind of container for what does not fit into the parameters of home, work, or commute. But often the urban park becomes a container of excess of the unruly sort. Maybe it smells faintly like piss. Perhaps you’re afraid for your safety rather than daydreaming contentedly. Often you’re anxious rather than relaxed. Maybe the shade of green you hope to see looks more like a dull brown. A proposed park allows or perhaps encourages a re-investment in the utopian impulse behind the desire to create a park. LAHUB hopes to cultivate an investment in the potential for public space without losing the critical distance to see that a public site might easily become a dystopian reality rather than a utopian dream.
Without ‘permission’ from the city and with rather unstructured guidelines, LAHUB announced the Civic Park Competition in the fall of 2002. Participants were asked to create a 4 3/4″ x 4 3/4″ booklet of any length and a two-minute video in CD format. There was to be no winner and there were no prizes. All participants were offered was a chance to think critically or speculate playfully about the future of downtown by offering ideas for this site. We posted announcements on the web and spread the word among our peers, trying to generate as diverse a collection of proposals as possible. By January of 2003, we received almost fifty proposals from all over the world. In some ways, the proposals become a kind of index of contemporary artistic and architectural practice. Together the proposals form a disharmonious, almost unruly conversation about the future of downtown and public space in general. It is this very unstable collection of voices that we imagine in some imprecise way mirrors the dynamics of public space itself. (The very word ‘public’ is itself an unstable signifier, subject to contestation and multiple meanings.) Can we suggest then, that by offering a ‘space’ for individuals to consider this site and the potential for a Civic Park, we have created a kind of quasi-public space that wrestles somewhat uncomfortably with the dynamics of difference?
If there are any consistent themes among the proposals, however difficult to tease out, it seems that notions of difference, flexibility, and transformation surface and re-surface across many of the projects. Almost by default, many of the proposals function as critique. That is, in the proposals what doesn’t work in the urban spaces of Los Angeles is made evident by the alternative strategies that are employed. Many of the proposals recognize that the park is a social space and aim to address questions of sociality in complex and abstract ways. If social space is the location where fantasies get acted out, then within Civic Park Proposals fantasy becomes a way to engage a potential social and political space. Some of the proposals encourage active interaction on the part of those who will use the park. Are participants wary of the master plan and perhaps looking for ways to allow the site to evolve after the park has been designed?
A Sampling of Civic Park Proposals
Level Design submitted a proposal entitled Strategies for the Vacuum: re-examining the notion of civic space in los angeles. One of surprisingly few proposals from Los Angeles, Level Design begins with the assumption that “Bucolic parks that attempt to bring nature to the city are not of Los Angeles.” And further that the “only civic space that is appropriate for Los Angeles is one of solid, not void.” The solid is proposed as the topography for the Civic Park is a series of zones; each relating to a particular issue or material. These zones, although distinct, form an entity that in the words of Level Design is “intended to be read as a holistic event.”
T. Robin Hennecke proposes Revolution. Structuring a proposal around the notions of adaptation and expenditure, Hennecke subverts common associations by literalizing the term revolution and proposes the Civic Park take the form of a cylinder that rotates one degree per day, thus completing a turn over the course of a calendar year. In a hand-drawn, elaborately constructed foldout book, Hennecke plays out a fanciful narrative that moves through technical considerations, philosophical musings, and cultural analysis.
Achim Wollscheid takes up the question of user interaction within the context of Civic Space in his proposal called Interface. Essentially a suspended grid of panels that responds to movement below, Interface is thus constantly constructing and reconstructing the park environment depending on its use. Responding to the formal plan of the city, Wollscheid creates a centerless grid that “might learn not only to accompany individual movements, but also create patterns or changes that react to ‘duos,’ ‘trios’ or groups, and include considerations about the relative stability of gatherings or movements.”
The three proposals discussed here are not representative of the project as a whole nor are they indicative of specific agenda on the part of LAH*UB. Rather they form a small collection of diverse images and ideas within the much larger matrix of the project. Civic Park Proposals proposes a kind of reflection that acknowledges the permeability between the world “out there” and interior, imaginary ruminations. If for a moment we believe that the city is constructed through an accumulation of psychic projections and the residue of conflicting desires, the charged dynamic of the proposals confronts that (inevitably) partial fantasy that we might otherwise begin to cultivate as truth. Likewise, when we see the city as a material stage that precedes social dynamics, we are confronted by an onslaught of playful suggestions that jar our stale investments in static notions of public space. To investigate our own observations, idealizations, preconceptions, even our own utopian solutions for the city is meant to open up space for movement.
Results of the Civic Park Proposals competition will be exhibited at Gallery 727, 727 South Spring Street, Downtown Los Angeles from May 31 to June 28, 2003.
Ken Ehrlich is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. His installations have been featured at Side Street Projects, Beyond Baroque, and California Institute of Technology. He is the co-editor (with Brandon LaBelle) of Surface Tension: problematics of site (Errant Bodies Press, 2003). He received an MFA in Writing and Integrated Media from CalArts, where he co-founded and edited the journal Trepan. He teaches writing and art, most recently at U.C. Irvine.
LAH*UB [www.lahub.net] is Ken Ehrlich, Avi Laiser, and Liz Falletta