Douglas MacLeod – May 1990

The conventional definition of contextualism suggests that new construction should be compatible with existing buildings. To belabor the obvious, this compatibility translates into a similarity of scale, color, proportion, material and other architectural elements. Yet from Hollywood to Hancock Park, there is such a multitude of different scales, colors, proportions and materials as to ridicule any attempt at compatibility. Nor are these variations arranged in separate blocks or distinct districts. In Los Angeles, clapboard exists cheek by jowl with clay tile. Organizing a coherent urban fabric from this melange is difficult if not impossible. And this difficulty raises important questions about the future of urban design in the City of Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, the aspects of the city that lend it coherence are the same ones which are mostly endangered by further development. Along much of Hollywood Boulevard, the low density and the correspondingly low building heights create a unity despite the disparate nature of the architectural treatments. Economics dictate, however, that if the area is to be revitalized, its density must be increased.

Other tenets of compatibility seem self-evident, but even the strictest rules need to be broken occasionally. Buildings must define a uniform street edge, but in Hollywood the forecourts of the Chinese and Egyptian Theaters, and even the parking lot next to the Scientology Building, are essential ingredients of the boulevard. The car is an environmental gangster and should be kept off the streets as much as possible, but every Friday and Saturday night it is celebrated in processions up and down Hollywood and Sunset boulevards.

Program and usage offer another arena for compatibility. While ground floor retail has now become a motherhood issue, the application of this rule leads to interesting discussions. A liquor store, for example, is generally considered to be an undesirable or non-permitted use, but shouldn’t retail use be driven by the market rather than design guidelines? To carry this to the ridiculous, if there is an existing liquor store in a district, doesn’t that make another liquor store a compatible use?

Finding convoluted exceptions to hackneyed urban guidelines, however, obscures the real architectural argument. Issues such as program, use, density and street edge could be (and should be) controlled, thus preserving the urban fabric, but this can be accomplished without any recourse to a similarity of materials, colors, and the rest. In fact, the unique nature of Los Angeles (in other words, what new construction should be compatible with) is predicated upon the non-regulation of those things and this is the real context of Los Angeles.

But such a definition emasculates the notion of context.  If every aesthetic is present then every aesthetic is part of the context therefore every aesthetic is acceptable, yet context and compatibility demand an exclusivity that focuses architecture on a relatively narrow set of options in order to ensure traditional and desirable ideas of coherence and order. Without this coherence and order our cities would become … well … like … uh … Los Angeles. The problem remains that even the best intentioned guidelines for Los Angeles, as witnessed by those for Hollywood or Westwood, seem determined to make it conform with traditional and desirable European models of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To suggest, however, that the twentieth century has its own morphology was the great sin of modernism. By ignoring our shared civic history, the modern movement created urban environments that proved far worse than the cities they sought to replace.

In this sense, being architecturally compatible is a safe way out. Sharing the architectural treatment of adjacent buildings is a means of validating new construction. But why should it be? Should the mere continued existence of a building be sufficient for it to inflict its materials and proportions on contemporary architecture? A contextual environment also favors quantifiable judgments and decisions over the shakier ground of value judgments. Stucco is only better than brick to the extent that it predominates in a certain area.

It is easy to view contextualism as a holding pattern that allows us to avoid making decisions until something better comes along. The failure of modernism brought with it a crisis of confidence which has precluded any real experimentation in development of new urban models and paradigms. But the primacy of context seems a poor substitute for such investigations. These are the investigations which have fueled architectural discourse in every city in every century, and unlike modern architecture, they need not be carried out at the expense of historic structures or the existing urban fabric. Pushing architecture to add a new layer to the city that is expressive of our own contemporary context, while still respectful of the past, seems both more vital and more rewarding than copying buildings which were not meant to be imitated.

Douglas MacLeod

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