The “Urban Revisions” exhibit at the Los Angeles MoCA presents a broad overview of urban design during the last decade, primarily in North America. Without fitting the disparate schemes into a particular theme or position, the show provides an extremely useful survey of the slate of urban design in the late 1980s and 1990s. Many of the projects in this exhibit respond to or rethink the type of urban design that produced MoCA and the Bunker Hill development around the museum: the Master Plan, the standard Modernist form of urban design, MoCA stands in a setting that is an abject lesson in what can go wrong with good urbanistic intentions. The projects in the “Urban Revisions” show aspire to critique and evade the mistakes made in the “renewal” of downtown Los Angeles, and yet they are often permeated by the same elitist, distanced attitude toward urban life that generated the wastelands of America’s center cities.
The “Master Plan” is designed by a “master,” always a male in the canonical conception of the phrase, who single-handedly envisions a brave new urban world, conceived in largely formal terms that can be uniformly applied to all sectors of the city. The masculinist construction of urban design as the production of a solitary genius is embedded in this phrase. There are many problems with this conception of planning. First, the Master Plan presupposes that a city can be designed like a building; that is, that urban forms are equivalent to architectural form, on a larger scale. Secondly, the Master Plan presumes that a single person or group of people can produce forms that anticipate or allow for the city’s future and meet the needs of its inhabitants. And, last, the Master Plan is predicated on the idea that the city must be controlled in this overarching manner, that overall urban planning is necessary both to solve the city’s problems and to provide for its future.
Since the early 1960s, Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and other critics have attacked the Master Plan on the grounds that an entity as large and complex as a city cannot be the product of one “master’s” efforts. MoCA and its environs demonstrate the physical and social consequences of Modernist Master Planning in graphic detail. Bunker Hill and the rest of Downtown Los Angeles were planned in the 1960s by a Master Plan bureaucracy, not a visionary Master, that dictated the transformation of a residential neighborhood of Victorian houses into a culture and corporate office complex. Instead of the mix of uses, buildings, and people that exist just a few blocks to the south and east on Broadway and 7th Street, Bunker Hill is a sterile, empty megalith, separated from the rest of Downtown and accessed by freeways that carry office and culture workers to and from distant middle-class enclaves. Development in Los Angeles was also a tool for racial segregation and for colonizing and displacing ethnic communities, as Judith Baca points out, and the “renewal” of Chavez Ravine and Bunker Hill reinforce her point. As a result of these criticisms and of past experience with Master Plans, current urban designers have tried to find alternative ways of planning cities.
Two groups with projects n the “Urban Revisions” show–Moule/Polyzoides and ADOBE LA (Architects and Designers Opening the Border Edge of Los Angeles)–are emblematic of the two extremes of American urban design today. There are those who retain their faith to the architect’s ability to produce an overall design strategy for the city (i.e. the Master Plan) and those who concentrate on small-scale architectural or artistic intervention into the existing urban fabric. The” Urban Revisions” exhibit reenacts the standoff between these groups in the content of the exhibited projects and to the exhibition design itself: the architects, the ostensible “subject” of the show, fill the stands and most of the walls of the museum. The graffiti and “street art” commissioned by ADOBE LA occupy the margins and interstices of the exhibit as a commentary on, but not as an integral part of, contemporary urban design. The graffiti, the return of the repressed, is a cry for recognition, on the street and in the museum. This cry is an explicit challenge to the premises of the allegedly “new” urbanism presented by the architects and planners in this exhibit.
A comparison of these two attitudes towards urban design reveals much about their differences. Moule and Polyzoides’ Downtown Strategic Plan contains a series of “catalytic projects” inserted into existing districts in order to “revive” them, rather than a grand plan that makes sweeping changes in the whole Downtown district. This seems, at first examination, to be the antithesis of the Master Plan mentality. Moule and Polyzoides have recognized the segregation of Downtown into racial zones and have also perceived the physical causes of this separation. The beautifully rendered perspectives of the catalytic projects give, however, little sense of the areas surrounding their proposals and the richness of their urban life. The Plan leaves many critical questions unanswered: what impact will these projects have on the existing structures, ways of life, and people inhabiting the areas? Who will benefit from these projects? Who will build them? Grand Central Square Phase II, for example, colonizes a thriving Latino commercial district into a “revitalized” shopping mall and residential area for yuppies, under the guise of economic opportunities. This is still Master plan thinking: top down economic development and projects that do not tap into the existing culture and vitality of Downtown streets and neighborhoods.
ADOBE LA document and represent the largely marginalized Latino population of Los Angeles, the workers who as Janitors, mailroom workers and secretaries make corporate Los Angeles fun. As “Cultural Explainers,” they aim to create dialogue between the ethnic groups most affected by the April 1992 riots: Latinos, African Americans, and Korean Americans. Their interventions into the exhibit attempt to address the vexing issue of interracial conflict that rends neighborhoods in Los Angeles apart and makes enemies of people who are equally disadvantaged. The question has to be asked, however, what concrete change will come out of the dialogue once it has been initiated. Their proposal to create temporary community monuments could be either a healing act or an expression of the politics of identity that excludes others in favor of racial or ethnic cohesion. If each group makes their own monuments, will they reinforce the separation between communities by representing exclusionary attitudes? One wonders if this project is, in fact, more potent as critique than as a model for future urban design.
This exhibit contains other projects that attempt to evacuate the place of the “master” in favor of a receptive, multidimensional design approach, one that enhances local characteristics or produces an environment open to the creation of unplanned additions to the urban realm. The Conceptual Master Plan for Grand Center, St. Louis by Studio Works (Roben Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray) envisages the city as theater. It enhances existing elements and areas in the city through superimposed layers that do not remove surviving remnants of the districts urban identity. Through minimal means, Studio Works seeks to alter the urban environment at the level of the pedestrian and at the larger scale of overall perception. “Imperfect Utopia: A Park for the New World,” the site plan for the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh by Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, Barbara Kruger, and Quenell Rothschild, combines architecture, art, and landscape into a mutable, open-ended environment. This makes what they call an “aerosol of imaginary conversations and inclusionary tactics” that is opposed to the “univocality of a ‘Master Plan’.”
Many of the projects in this exhibition do not answer the challenge represented by ADOBE LA’s intervention: they do not address the existing context of their projects, the people who live there, the history of the site, the existing physical markers of history, difference, and local culture. Michael Sorkin, for example, asserts that his plan for the city of “Weed,” an imaginary urban conglomerate that he envisions for the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, is a utopian community based on the principles of propinquity (closeness), choices of ways to live, access, and distinctiveness. Yet the architectural vocabulary, a cross between Jetsons futurist and pseudo-industrial, is uniform throughout the plan and there are no perspectives, sections, or diagrams to demonstrate these principles at a tactile or perceptual level. Agrest/Gandelsonas’ Vision Plan for Des Moines reduces the plan of the city to a set of blankly simplistic diagrams and cartoon colored forms.
The ADOBE LA collective points out the available places of intervention, what is left in the city after the Master Plans have finished and where strategic change can enhance urban life. They challenge the architect/planner to be more than the helpless pawn of developers and government agencies and to take responsibility for seeing that the people and environments that do not fit into Master Plans are recognized for their innate worth and given an equal place in the cities of the future.
Pat Morton is an architect and leaches architectural history at the Art History Dept. of UC Riverside. She has received her doctorate from Princeton University. This article will also be appearing in an upcoming issue of Casabella.