Like many Angelinos, I come from the Midwest. And in Midwestern cities like the Cleveland of my birth, when somebody says Downtown, everybody knows what is being talked about. Downtown is where the tall buildings are.
Los Angeles, of course, could never suffer such a simple definition. After decades of sub-, ex-, post-, hyper-, and even New urban legends, Downtown LA is less a specific geographical entity than a mythical conceptual specter. These ghost stories continue to provoke abject fear and perverse infatuation in roughly equal measure, enough to sustain a cottage industry of academic ghostbusters bent on capturing downtown’s elusive spirit or disproving its very existence.
No doubt you’ve ventured your own bold predictions for Downtown or participated in incessant comparisons to the West Side and the East Coast. But what exactly is it we love and loath, promote and dispel? Nobody seems quite sure, and definitions, if ventured at all, are uniformly tentative. As one colleague recently opined, “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think it’s just where the tall buildings are.”
Most sources will tell you that the term ‘Downtown’ was coined in New York City, a function of Manhattan’s river-bounded geography and upstream development. Through the 19th century, as American cities mushroomed across the continent, the term quickly dissipated to signify the urban core of any major metropolis. Sure, there are variations – in Chicago you’re in the Loop, in Philadelphia it’s Center City. But local inflection notwithstanding, Downtown, in pragmatic, unequivocal, American vernacular, signifies our version of the European centro storico.
Yet the term’s original usage, still prevalent in its place of birth, does not connote a place so much as a direction. As the original settlement of Manhattan Island expanded northward, Downtown proved an expedient geographical shorthand, distinguishing the old town from more valuable developments on higher, more northerly ground. As delivered to us, the term signifies the area of tall buildings at the tip of Manhattan only by implication. In New York, as every subway sign makes clear, downtown simply means ‘south of here.’
In each case, we begin to see the deep roots of the term’s phantasmal connotations. One variant implies an allegiance to an established, often imagined, typological model of urban density, aesthetics, and inhabitation. This is Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” that catchy jingle of promise and possibility that, when applied as urban strategy, tends to devolve into saccharine nostalgias for a past that never existed. The other notion pushes us further into the realm of the impossible. Downtown as Direction denotes a place where, by definition, one cannot be. Always a bit further south, this Downtown remains an elusive concept, one step ahead of even the most intrepid urban denizen.
To me, whether cast as sappy nostalgia or ghostly inaccessibility, impossibility seems unlikely to provide a viable foundation for an urban agenda. But a third, more positive inflection may prove more effective.
In 1979, the National Basketball Association adopted the three-point rule. By juridical decree, the professional court was divided into two distinct zones, with an extra point awarded for baskets scored from beyond the top of the key. The three-point rule forever altered the game, requiring new strategies for coaches and players and new terminology for sportscasters and fans. The slam dunk, muscled in at close range by brute force, gained a long-distance counterpart as players developed alternative techniques to provide high-value scoring “from downtown.”
This to me seems an apt metaphor for LA architecture as well as our slippery notion of Downtown. In basketball parlance, downtown is not that place in closest proximity to the goal (that’s “the paint”) but rather a much larger peripheral zone whose boundaries oscillate according to who has the ball. It’s the place difficult shots come from, a place that prizes technique over tenacity, marksmanship over muscle. To score from the inside, you need only be a bully; to shoot from downtown, you have to innovate with the game and master its techniques.
This is what LA architecture is all about. The East Coast may remain the seat of architectural power in the United States, but LA routinely draws the most daring innovators. From Neutra and Schindler to the current crop of cutting-edge digital fabricators, generations of architects have abandoned traditional city centers to hone unorthodox techniques in our unorthodox urban context. This innovative bent is what gives LA architecture its distinctive character and what makes us so easy to tell apart from our more traditional East Coast counterparts. While New Yorkers scrap it out in the paint, we fire three-pointers.
Take Frank Gehry’s Bilbao, still architecture’s most dramatic three-pointer to date. Though its effects emanate from Northern Spain, Gehry launched this potent attack on traditional European urbanism from Los Angeles, half a world away. And as its cool swish resonated around the globe, one could almost hear critics shouting in breathless disbelief, “Gehry delivers FROM DOWNTOWN!!”
Long before Gehry’s one-in-a-million shot, LA architects routinely delivered high impact, unconventional architecture, always finding dispersal and distance a crucial asset. Leaving behind time-honored and tightly bounded East Coast rules, LA architects relentlessly innovate and strike from the outside. So I prefer to leave the impossible downtown of ghost stories and urban legends to others. My Downtown is not a forgotten core to return to, but rather an unruly zone at the periphery – the best place to score from.
 Even Reyner Banham, always a dependable apologist for architectural misfits, would only begrudgingly acknowledge Downtown. Withholding a fifth ecology, Banham instead tossed off a dismissive “Note on Downtown…” toward the end of his book “…because that is all Downtown Los Angeles deserves.”