‘Defender’ car, Los Angeles Auto Show, 1994. Photo: Chava Danielson

It is increasingly common to hear Los Angeles invoked as the model city of the emerging post-industrial world. Although such a claim may have wide acceptance, there is little agreement as to whether it is an honor, dishonor, or merely an observation of the obvious and inevitable.

Undoubtedly, fundamental structural changes in the world economy have resulted in concurrent changes in the very structure of our cities. The transformation from an industrial society to one based on service and information is having urban ramifications as significant as those of the industrial revolution itself. A growing literature on the subject invariably cites LA as the ultimate example of this new type of city: the  “ex-urb,” “technoburb,” “100-mile city,” “geography of nowhere,” or conglomeration of peripheral “edge cities.”

The Forum lecture series this winter will address in particular the changing conceptions of the public realm of Los Angeles. In a city increasingly torn by the physical, economic, and racial fragmentation of space, whose downtown “public plazas” are owned, developed, and controlled by private corporations, and where successful urbanism is often taken to mean safe, entertaining places to shop, traditional notions of “public” and “private” may no longer apply. Each of the speakers will be addressing new conceptions of and prescriptions for the public realm. What is at stake is the very definition of city itself, as a place of civitas and common culture.

Transportation and its infrastructure have always dramatically affected and shaped LA, both at the larger regional scale of vast networks affording a new mobility, and at the local scale of, for example, specific road and sidewalk widths, freeway onramps, and Metro rail and its stations. While the fascination with freeways has always existed in L.A. and their role in shaping the city is undeniable, Doug Suisman, amongst others, has helped turn attention back to the original transportation and organizational arteries, the boulevards. Suisman’s monograph “Los Angeles Boulevard” was published as Forum Publication NO.5 in 1989. His research helped architects and planners rethink the importance of the boulevards. Presently, as the founder and principal of Public Works Design, he has gained recognition for his research and design of public spaces in American cities. His work in Los Angeles has primarily centered on design in relation to public transportation and its infrastructure, both future – the Electric trolley project, for example – as well as past – the abandoned railroad yards at Taylor yard.

Both Steven Flusty and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris will speak on topics related to the increasing desire to control public space. Loukaitou-Sideris studies the transformation of traditional public spaces, urban plazas and parks, and methodologically examines their development and maintenance as surrogate public spaces owned and controlled by private interests. Flusty, on the other hand, describes new “paranoid typologies” which have recently emerged through “strategies of spatial control.” He analyzes new types of building and planning, from the alarmed and secured private house to the LAPD surveillance grid painted on rooftops of the city, all aimed at assuaging the spectre of general urban fear.

The privatization of public space is best displayed through the evolution of the marketplace. Joanne Berelowitz will lecture on City Walk, the swan song of the private production of shopping centers as public space. It is designed to attract middle class consumers to a safe and entertaining environment on the brink of an era heralding the safest, most fantastic place of shopping: the home computer shopping and multimedia network.

If City Walk represents an elitist incarnation of city culture, George Lipsitz is interested in its mirror image, in “the way the city looks from the ground up.” His research and writings examine the relationship between urban form, street culture, and race in American cities. He sees culture as a battlefield for civic hegemony, and views much of the street culture that has emerged in Los Angeles, from popular music to graffiti art, in terms of its resistance to the urban institutionalization of capital.

The morphology of Los Angeles streets – the parking lots, mini-malls, undefined street edges, the lack of public spaces – that has emerged more or less incidentally from private, unplanned development is often cited by architects and urbanists as evidence of the need for more coherent planning and zoning. Yet for Marco de Michelis, there is a beauty and logic to LA’s city form and its evolution. Suspicious of calls for more European sensibilities for LA, de Michelis will explore LA’s own particular brand of urbanism and the state of the contemporary city through a discussion of the morphology of the street corner.

At a time of limited public resources, the question of who owns and controls public space is urgently relevant. The nature of such spaces – the uses ascribed to them as well as the people intended to use them – are essentially political issues, with ramifications for both urban form as well as social policy. As the critic Rosalyn Deutsche reminds us, it is no coincidence that homelessness and new public spaces are both results of urban renewal programs. Architects and planners need to reassess their roles in the production of urban spaces as the city evolves in the post-industrial era. It is the goal of the Forum lecture series to raise some of these questions.

John Dutton practices architecture in Los Angeles.

Back to February 1994 Newsletter