Two Recent Defeats, by Aaron Betsky – October/November 1990
           
           
   
 
 
 
 
       
         
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Two recent events have brought political realities home to us. The first was the recent forced resignation of Merry Norris from her position as President of the Cultural Affairs Commission. Norris has been instrumental in turning that body into an activist agency with a profound influence on the physical development of the city. City agencies and developers were no longer able to impose their structures on Los Angeles with no regard for their impact on the community, their appearance, or their humanity. For four years Norris fought with the powers-that-be to make them accountable to some standards of architectural merit – and to all the social and aesthetic standards that architectural judgements imply. Finally, she had just made too many enemies, and, as she herself admits, her politically useful life was over. Unfortunately, Bradley’s recent appointments to the Commission, which include Peter Ueberroth’s former assistant and the elevation of p.r. flack David Simon to the Presidency, do not bode well for any kind of architectural activism from the Commission.

The other event was more parochial in nature. The Forum had intended to hold a discussion on the future of the Ambassador Hotel site this fall. This site is owned by a consortium of investors led by the notorious Trump Organization in New York. This group would like to erect a giant office, retail and residential complex on the site, including the world’s tallest building. The Los Angeles Unified School Board has other plans. Because of the severe shortage of classroom space, they have convinced the state to let them acquire the site for a major new high school. Local property owners,  led by the Wilshire Stakeholders group and local developer  Wayne Ratkovitch, are uncomfortable with both plans: with the first, because it is so large, the second because the presence of an inner city high school is not exactly going to raise the value of their properties. The Forum felt that this situation was tailor-made for a discussion about the way in which physical issues – the size of the site, the density of the surrounding area, the appropriateness of certain building types – were intertwined with difficult social and economic choices. The various proposals have physical impacts, and a reading of the models and plans could allow us to understand the underlying issues in greater depth. We had hoped to put such an understanding to good use by sponsoring an ideas competition for the site after the event.

When we contacted Barbara Ress of the Trump Organization, however, she not only refused to cooperate, but told me in no uncertain terms that she did not want the event to occur. She forbade her partners and the architect for the site (Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain and Pereira) to participate and vowed to pressure all those involved to avoid our gathering. She effectively killed the event. The Trump Organization prefers to engage in back-room politics and heavy lobbying. Perhaps they are afraid that their plans will not stand up in the light of day.

In both cases, the root of the problem is clarity of architecture. When something is built, you can’t hide it. A building is intentions, values and economic power made flesh. A close scrutiny of an architectural object can reveal much about the hidden agendas and power relationships of the various players in the development of the city. In the case of Merry Norris, her aggressive campaign to scrutinize projects built on or above city land has caused much pain and aggravation to department heads and developers used to getting their way without public scrutiny. The changes proposed by the Commission with the help of the Mayor’s Design Advisory Board have often had the result of integrating city buildings better into the surrounding community and of making them more useful to neighbors –results that have nothing to do with the smooth functioning of a city bureaucracy of the maximization of the profits of development.

In the case of the Ambassador Hotel site event, our attempt to examine the various plans and ideas was labeled “premature,” though it was obvious from viewing some of the models commissioned by Trump that the physical issues were already crystal-clear: how could one integrate either of the two developments in the lift of the community, and how would such buildings transform the neighborhood? One does not need a final plan to figure out what the issues are, but one also doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Aaron Betsky

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