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Los Angeles looking east, 1960. UCLA Department of Geography aerial photo archives, Spence Collection

Ignored for so long as aberrant, idiosyncratic, or bizarrely exceptional, Los Angeles, in another paradoxical twist, has more than any other place, become the paradigmatic window through which to see the last half of the twentieth century (Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies, pg. 221).

For a century and a half, exiles escaping the burdens of climate or of politics, or simply hoping for some impossible stroke of good luck, have been drawn to Los Angeles. Overlooking the immediate beauty of what lay before them, they planted elm trees.

Urbanists, who traveled here to study the place, too saw only the metaphoric desert. They turned their attentions elsewhere, promising to return once a city finally emerged.

A great many projects were proposed that attempted to give the sprawl of Los Angeles the clarity or legibility it was said to lack, but they have been continually thwarted by the reality that to live here meant to live without self-consciousness, without the burden of an urban identity.  Angelenos, as a whole, continually refused either nostalgia or a higher sense of civic duty in choosing where to live, to work, how to travel between them, or which parts of the city would be central to their lives. Other forces have formed this place, with an honesty and a cruelty that has left most students breathless.

In this light it is both highly ironic and absolutely predictable that Los Angeles would become the focal point for intense inquiry by a new generation of theorists and critics. It is a reflection of the maturation of both the metropolis and of urban theory, social criticism and their practitioners.

What has changed in the discussion of urbanity is the acceptance of simultaneity. That a multitude of forces coincide at any given moment in history to produce colliding and contradictory trends is now accepted as part of the post-modern experience. Multiple centers in the same metropolitan area, increasing fragmentation of social and economic life, and a simultaneous consolidation of wealth and power are all patterns that have been reproduced across the globe.

In Los Angeles, the middle and upper classes of this city continue to retreat behind electronic gates and lines of security patrols, demonstrating the kind of radical social polarization that was previously attributed to third world countries. Meanwhile waves of immigrants, with an uncanny astuteness for the way the space of this city has successively been occupied, have created elusive and nearly imperceptible focal points for their communities in the midst of previously undifferentiated suburban sprawl. And while few people are brave enough to predict the outcome of the massive building projects taking place downtown, the new and lingering residents of the neighborhoods immediately adjacent have just been presented with the cleanest and most expensive public transportation, the best library services and the slickest architectural monuments in the short history of this enormous basin. Suddenly Los Angeles, once thought underdeveloped and ill-defined, is understood as a highly-charged urban landscape.

This focus of intellectual attention on the nature of urban life in Los Angeles has coincided with a moment that finds Angelenos uncommonly interested in civic self-reflection. The smoke screen of decades of boosterism is beginning to clear – to reveal a crisis-ridden but strangely compelling place. It seems that, as this city developed, the intense individualization in the daily life of its people found spatial expression in a continuous suburbanization and expansion across the Southern California landscape. The incessant expansion found an economic analog in an almost constant rise in the value of real estate that somehow, it was assumed, would continue unabated. Our optimism had been given material form. Meanwhile, thirty years of sporadic deindustrialization have finally taken their toll, now that the dismantling of the military industrial complex can no longer be lobbied away. The city seems, somehow, to have grown to the extent of its tolerable limits. Areas with even fewer identifiable urban markers, such as the Inland Empire or Orange County have become metropolises in their own right, not simply a part of Greater Los Angeles. The collapse of the real estate market dealt a blow, both financial and symbolic, to the eternal optimists of Southern California, while the riots articulated the frustration caused by decades of economic and racial inequity with an urgency that made it difficult for even the most intransigent and entrenched power players to ignore. Our focus has contracted, along with our hopes and our economy, at a time when urban theory is finally speaking to us: as it is in fact lived, not in relation to an imported model to which we could only aspire. It is impossible for anyone who lived here during the ’60s and ’70s to imagine that a book such as Mike Davis’ City of Quartz would become a regional best seller, but it describes events and phenomena that suddenly the citizens of Los Angeles are struggling to understand.

The urgency of the discussion of urbanism and urban issues has not left architects unaffected. As for anyone else, it has become important to understand in a new sense, beyond the time-worn metaphors of liberation and sunshine, what it means to be a part of this place. Could there be an architecture that admits, or that is in fact genuinely susceptible to, the urban pressures of Los Angeles without either reducing this urgency to simplistic contextualism or indulging in images of instability that become little more than iconography? The answer is unclear, or perhaps untested, but is certainly part of a larger question: what impact can, and should, architecture ever have on people’s lives.

Chava Danielson practices architecture in Los Angeles and is the editor of the Forum Newsletter.

Back to February 1994 Newsletter