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Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic. She is a columnist at Bloomberg CityLab, and a former contributing writer at Design Observer, opinion columnist at Dezeen, and architecture critic for Curbed. She has written for The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Metropolis, Architect, The Architect’s Newspaper, Dwell, Elle Decor, The Nation, and Places Journal. She is the author of multiple books including: The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities, and co-author of Design Research: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes. Her latest book, on the history and future of the American shopping mall, will be published by Bloomsbury USA in 2022. Below, LA Forum Board Member Jayna Zweiman interviews Lange about design criticism, playgrounds, teenage girls, and shopping malls.
I’ve read your work in The New Yorker, Curbed, and what seems a million other places over the years, but I didn’t put it together that it was always you. Looking at your body of work, it makes so much sense. I am interested in the arc of your work, how you choose what you research, and the power and importance of being a critic.
Somebody who wasn’t as familiar with my work asked me that a few days ago and we ended up talking about this word “magpie.” I see myself as kind of a magpie. I do think that there’s a through-line to everything I do. And it’s interesting that you see it because I’m not always understanding it when I’m doing it. The mall book is such a great example of that. I feel like it was a perfect topic for me because it’s a really capacious topic. There are so many different ways to look at a mall. That turns out to be a common ground of all the topics that I pick: that it’s not just about one building or one architect. It’s about the relationships between all the different people that make a building. It’s also about the relationship of that building to culture.
Different chapters of the book are more about urban planning or more about architecture, and there’s one that’s mostly about movies, photography, and fiction. All of those things are tied to the mall, the mall in our general imagination. I like topics that let me pretend to be a literary critic and let me be a movie critic, along with being an architecture critic. One of the things that’s really changed since the beginning of my career has been what architecture critics mostly write about. It’s shifted to be a much broader category of things — much more about landscapes, much more about social and political dynamics. Honestly, I think that was always there, but it’s been brought more to the forefront. And I feel like that goes along very well with my interest in buildings and the multi-part stories that I want to tell about them. I’ve had points at which I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to meet the new moment. But I feel like I have successfully surmounted those by doing more reading and more research and figuring out what’s my angle on this thing.
How did the mall book come about?
One of the ways I jokingly describe how I pick topics is “vibes.” Sometimes something keeps coming up on Twitter, in architecture, media, in my life. When it comes up that many times, and keeps coming up and I am interested in it every time, that tells me it’s a worthwhile topic. I mean, like it’s important to me that I grew up in North Carolina and I went to malls. So I have this personal grounding. I get it when people are like, “oh yeah, Spencer Gifts.” I loved the GAP. I have this gut level identification with the topic. But then on the other hand, it makes me mad when people always dismiss the César Pelli addition to MoMA as being too much like a mall, because what’s wrong with that? It had much better circulation than the Toniguchi addition because Pelli was willing to learn from the mall rather than rejecting these commercial ideas about how to move people around. So I get a little mad about that. And then I’m also like, “Wow, Jon Jerde, he was just a wild and crazy guy!” There isn’t anything more postmodern than Jon Jerde. Yet we’re kind of fixated on Michael Graves and this kind of intellectual postmodernism. What’s wrong with Jon Jerde? More people probably saw his buildings, experienced his buildings, etc. So it’s all those kinds of questions, the personal, my frustration with the way architecture history is written, and also always trying to talk about architecture in ways that the largest number of people can identify with that drive the work. I’ve always been interested in general interest journalism. I find topics that are about the spaces we’re all living in, that people will be drawn to, that don’t put architecture on a pedestal, but are about design that people experience all the time.
I had a really good experience with that approach in the Design of Childhood book. At a basic level, I realized playgrounds were this thing that people were using every day, where lots of parents are sitting basically zoned out and bored. Most people don’t think of them as having a history and don’t think of them as being designed. The same is true by and large for shopping malls. Once I started to dig into it, I found all of these amazing designers, many of them famous for other things. People had just never treated their playground work as being as important as their museum work. It’s the same thing with malls. Why not? Who’s in charge? Who’s the more important client? And which piece of design is going to be used and loved and abused by more people?
In reading the Design of Childhood and learning more about child development, how pedagogical approaches change with age, and how types of designated spaces change towards the end of childhood, I was thinking, “What was I doing at ten years old when my world had gotten larger and I was aging out of childhood?” I was going to the mall as a new kind of leisure or play space. You recently wrote about teenage girls and it was amazing to look deeply at this group of people and how they use space. How do these stories come about? How did you pitch it? And how does that whole process of creation work?
Honestly, I’ve been thinking about teenagers for quite a while. Basically, the Design of Childhood book kind of ends with childhood. And childhood in the field of childhood studies ends around age 12. You get to teenagers and there’s this gap. Adolescent studies is a far less developed category. After I finished the childhood book, I had questions about what came next. I actually talked to a couple of people about the possibility of a “design of adolescence” book … It didn’t seem like something that would stand up on its own, but I did write two pieces for Curbed about design and teenagers: one on outdoor spaces that ended up being a lot about skateparks and one on young adult spaces in libraries, which is a phenomenon that began in the eighties. They’re kind of obvious parts of libraries today, but again, it was something I hadn’t thought about having a history. When did young adult literature become a separate category? And when did people start programming for them in separate spaces? Because anyone knows from experience, you can’t have toddlers and teenagers in the same space. It doesn’t go well.
There are things that I already have as a running thread in my mind that may or may not have been expressed. I now have three published stories about teenagers and design: the skate parks, the libraries and now the teen girls, which I hadn’t really considered as a separate category when I wrote the skate park story. I went back to some of the same organizations from that original story and asked them, “What about teen girls?” In terms of pitching that story the hook was this new charity in Britain called Make Space for Girls, which I think just floated across my Twitter timeline. They wrote a couple of posts that bounced up in a lot of places. I interviewed the founders of that organization and neither of them has a design background. So I thought, “OK, I can take their project and add what it is that I think I do well, which is to relate the social phenomenon to actual physical design work and find designers that I can talk about how you build for this population.”
Luckily, I’m now writing a monthly column for City Lab, and the editors there know my work so they’re willing to allow me to do things that aren’t newsy except in my mind, but are part of this ongoing narrative of my work. The piece did very well. It’s something that’s not been news in design this week; it’s something that’s interesting and relevant to our world in general. If you write it right and if you edit it right, it can still really pop on people’s radar. The benefit of having a reputation and having written the Design of Childhood book is now people are willing to let me do “Alexandra Things,” like write about kids. Each of the pieces offers something new, and is another piece of the puzzle. It all feels like an ongoing narrative.
When you talk about having a platform, the platform comes with a certain amount of power to do the work you’re interested in. How do you think about the power of being a cultural critic and the responsibility of what you choose to bring to light?
I do understand that I have power and I come from a lot of privilege, both in my economic and educational background, and in having built up a reputation over the years. Ultimately, I feel like I’m just myself writing in my house in Brooklyn. When I write about my actual experiences in public spaces, I really try to emphasize that it’s always just me, a small woman in the city. I come from a physical place of some amount of vulnerability. I want that vulnerability to appear in the work; like, it’s not from on high, I’m just a pedestrian in the city. That said, the power comes from being able to pick and choose topics and to choose topics that aren’t newsy, but that I feel, like in the case of childhood, I’ve made part of the conversation. And if I propose it, people will say, “OK, she knows what she’s talking about, she can do this thing and she has the skills to pull it off so that people will actually read it. It won’t seem like some weird, obscure side note.”
Especially in the last few years I’ve decided that it’s worth it to me to write less and write about the things that I think only I can do. I’m not fighting for blog space now and I’m not doing newsy coverage.
This is something that came from working with Kelsey Keith at Curbed. She always said, “We have other people that can do this thing, what are you interested in?” In fact, she let me do some completely bizarre things that I find myself linking back to and that really resonated with people. One of them was about making cities better for winter. It was a total “vibes” piece. I was thinking about parkas and how they could be fashionable and how I’d read about this Ice Pavilion competition in Canada, and why was New York so lame in the winter? People always complain about the weather and I don’t think it has to be that way. I reported it out to show that there were plenty of places where it didn’t have to be that way. That was completely created as a topic in my head. Nobody said, “Alexandra, please write about parkas.” I just know there’s something there. During the pandemic winter, I thought, “Oh, here we are again. Let’s check in with everybody.” Honestly, most cities did not do a good job, but there’s still a future to do a good job.
Sometimes you just have to keep bringing something up until the right combination of money and power and interest comes together. People always ask, “what good has your criticism ever done?” I hate that question and it sort of makes me want to cry, but I think the good may come from having something written in a concise and effective way that advocates can point to over the long term and say, “This explains why postmodernism should be saved, we have a piece of paper.” I feel like my role is to provide that piece of paper because I do skip around a lot. I’m not necessarily so embedded in one cause or one city, but I find these topics and go where my interests take me. Sometimes I ask “should I be more of an advocate?” I really admire Alissa Walker, who I think is more specific and more embedded. but I don’t know, that’s not the way my mind works.
She even has the correct last name for her work.
I know! And I believe in that work. Sometimes I’m like, “Is that a better way to do it?” Part of being a critic long-term is going with your own interests and acknowledging your own personality. I’m not a good person to go to a protest, so I’m trying to help in other ways.
It’s fascinating how a lot of people are using the word “activism.” I get a lot of the questions like, “are you an activist or are you this?” There are these titles and I’m like, “what does that really mean?” But using one’s skills to make the world a better place, if that’s the definition of activism, we should all be activists… and we all are.
I feel like it’s cheesy to say so, but I am actually trying to do that. I think that impulse comes from eight years in a Quaker school; the Quakers have been doing that all along, often in a very low-key way. There is an ethic to their work and an ethic to their ideas about society. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it had a much bigger impact on me than I realized at the time, because my family is not Quaker. I went to this school and I absorbed that idea of how to be in the world. So, yeah, it feels really grandiose to say you’re trying to change the world, you’re trying to make a difference, you’re trying to leave the world a better place. I’m not really comfortable with that. I was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard a few years back, which was an amazing year just to think and regroup and take classes. It’s a program that accepts 10 to 12 people every year. And they say to you on the first day “You’re here because we think you can change the world!”…. And my face when they said it…
Did it make you bristle a little bit?
Yes, it made me bristle. They have a long history of having critics in the program. Inga Saffron, an amazing activist and architecture critic in Philadelphia, was a Loeb Fellow. It made my shoulders so tight. I was just like, “OK, I’m just going to hide here in the corner” because I can’t think of myself like that. I’m not sure it’s healthy to think of yourself like that. On the other hand, it is healthy to have an ethic for your work and not be one hundred percent at the mercy of the market and other people’s ideas of what’s interesting.
Beyond talking about your own vulnerability, you often talk about other people’s vulnerability in spaces — like when you wrote about how people with disabilities might not be able to climb to different levels of the Stephen Holl library. And it comes up in the Design of Childhood; you discuss how many Black children actually had access to playgrounds, and the discriminatory practices of FHA loans. Every time you discuss a topic, you share something that’s personal to you, and you also share something that’s personal to a group beyond yourself as an individual. Is that a conscious choice that you make?
It is a conscious choice. I think that’s just the way that we have to do the work now. In the early part of my career, talking about architecture from a feminist perspective came naturally to me as a woman trying to make her way in the architecture world. And a side note, my mother, Martha Scotford, is a graphic designer and graphic design historian who wrote some foundational texts for feminism and graphic design, so it came very naturally to me to look for the women. The woman was always the landscape architect or the woman was the project architect and she wasn’t credited. I knew about Natalie de Blois long before most people knew about Natalie de Blois because I wrote my dissertation on post-war corporate modernism. And there she is. She wasn’t really hiding, it’s just nobody bothered to stick that in the story. I had an orientation towards feminism, feminism in architecture, women in architecture. But over the years I read things, I saw what was happening in the world, and I realized that white women’s feminism wasn’t enough. While writing Design of Childhood when I thought, “There aren’t a lot of sources on Black childhood, there aren’t a lot of sources on who is using these playgrounds.”
I have to acknowledge who is left out of the story. Even if I can’t tell as full and rich a story about, say, Chinese American kids in San Francisco or Black kids in New York City, I need to acknowledge the story that isn’t being told. And yeah, I kind of freaked out because I was like, “Oh no! What have I done? Have I written just another white post-war history? I don’t want to do that. That’s not what we need right now.” So I freaked out and then I figured out how to deal with it. I did some more research about certain aspects to make sure they were in there. Some of those stories, especially about the Rosenwald schools that were built in the South, resonated with people because they hadn’t heard that story before.
That’s great because it is a super fascinating story and it only benefited my book to have had that freak out. When I went into the mall book I already had that in mind. Many of the same issues came up again, like I was hoping that I would find more Black mall owners. But, in fact, most of the malls, even in majority Black urban areas, were designed and developed by white owners and architects. This is something that’s playing out in L.A. right now with the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall where the community that has grown up around a really important historic mall wants to buy it back so that there can be community ownership. One of the sad stories of malls in America is that even though they have at times catered to Black customers, Black communities haven’t benefited in a million billion dollar way. Sometimes you just have to say, “I wish this story was different, but this is the way it is” so that people understand that it’s not being brushed over.
And thank you for hearing that, too.
There may be other ways to do it. I think about this a lot because I want to be doing the work the right way so that people feel heard and reflected in it. I don’t think that always has to be the theme of everything I write but it’s more about who do you interview? What cities are they in? What’s the gender and ethnic mix of your sourcing? That’s a more subtle way of getting at some of these issues and making sure that people understand that they really are, especially in terms of children, often universal… It isn’t a story about underprivileged children, but the story includes that perspective.
Our cities are filled with people of all different ages, sizes, ethnicities, all shapes and abilities. It seems like writing about cities should be able to reflect the stories of all the different people who live there and experience it.
One irony of writing so much about children is that it’s really easy for me to have one hundred percent female sourcing in most of my stories. That’s something a lot of architectural writers struggle with, right? If you look at stories from five years ago, I’m sure there are plenty of architecture stories in which only men talk. Once you’re talking about children, schooling, and education, that’s not a problem. So it’s a problem that solved itself…
Because historically women have been pushed towards the direction of children…
Right. Right. Right. It’s gender essentialism. It’s a less lucrative field than, say, commercial architecture. Sadly I didn’t find, as I said, more Black-owned malls. I also thought I might find more women designers of malls, which I didn’t. One of the best-known women who worked for Gruen Associates in Los Angeles is Norma Merrick Sklarek who is a really important, early Black female architect. She was not as involved in the design of the mall. She was more involved in project management, which is very important. But that meant that she wasn’t as important to the narrative that I was trying to tell. So I wasn’t really able to highlight her contributions in a meaningful way because I was telling more of a design and trend story, not about how the Mall of America got made. I feel bad about it, though.
I have a feeling it may come up in a very long article of yours at a future date.
Yeah. I’m on the board of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation now. I’ve been very happy to support their “Pioneering Women in American Architecture” series, which is essentially a better-than-Wikipedia online biographies of all these women. I co-wrote one on Julia Morgan after I wrote her late-breaking obituary for The New York Times. There’s a really good one on Norma Sklarek. It’s all part of the same project.
Looking at work with a feminist lens, is that something that you talked about with your [mom] Martha Scotford? Has that always been part of the way that you look at work? Have you always been looking for where the women are?
I gave a talk earlier this year called “Looking for Role Models in All the Wrong Places” about my own history with Ada Louise Huxtable and Dolores Hayden and some other important female figures and how, in some ways, they tricked me into thinking that architecture and criticism were more accommodating space for women than they actually were or have turned out to be. I realized pretty early on that Ada Louise Huxtable was exceptional and an exception, but I still kind of used her as a model in my mind, like this kind of mentor about how a critic could be. I was happy to have that visual. It was important.
I think about how I structured my dissertation, which is about post-war corporate modernism. It was actually about architecture and landscape architecture and graphic design and a little bit of product design. So it was already seeing these corporate projects as collaborative. And once you started seeing them as collaborative rather than being led by like two important white men, as had been the dominant narrative, all of these women turned up as Noguchi turns up as a person of color, working in those environments. I don’t think I articulated it this way at the time, but once you start not privileging architecture over the other design fields and trying to look at these corporate projects as collaborative, lots of other people with maybe less fancy titles turn up and more of those people are not straight white men. I feel like that project established a parameter and a way of thinking about design that I’ve continued to use. If you start picking around the edges, even the most famous projects have a lot more going on than the first round of history necessarily told you about.
I’m interested in how you put ideas together and your general outlook on space, architecture, and the collaborative experiences of all those different disciplines coming together. In Design of Childhood, you talk about what cities can do to be more inviting for childhood. What can we do to help create a collective future that’s better for all children rather than focusing on individual band-aid solutions?
I’m friends with a lot of people on transit Twitter. In New York, they set up this organization called Streets PAC, which is like a political organization that gives money to candidates that support safer streets, non car-dominant transportation, et cetera. I keep thinking that you could have a Kids PAC. Maybe we need to start one in L.A. or New York, then expand to other cities, to bring together different city departments and make cities better for kids and families. There is a transportation part of it and there’s a parks part of it and there’s a schools part of it, and there are other things, too. Those aren’t necessarily under the same leadership, but you need all of them to work together to make a city better for children. Unless you have organizations that pull those things together and package them in a politics-friendly way, it’s hard to see how it could move forward.
Transportation Alternatives in New York came out with this 25×25 plan earlier this year, about better using the streets. I went through and picked out all the kid stuff in it, which was pretty prominently placed. It’s clear that they have the good of children across the city in mind, but they aren’t necessarily set up to talk about the children first. I think that an organization that can solidify some of these ideas and then get politicians to sign on to a kid’s platform could be really beneficial because it’s honestly very complicated…. The truth is that what makes cities better for children is a complex web of playgrounds for different ages, protected bike lanes, and wider sidewalks with benches and all of these things…. and courtyard housing! It’s not a neat package.
In the recent Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles competition that Christopher Hawthorne did for the city of L.A., I was looking for projects that I felt supported a kids’ agenda. There is one that converted alleyways into what looked like great mixed-use streets that kids would be able to play in and would only be open to local traffic. I thought, “OK, like this!” I look at all these things with my kid agenda and pick out the things that work for it. Maybe you need a permanent place that would bring together all these individual elements of the kid agenda. I think something like a Kid’s PAC could do it. A story idea I haven’t gotten around to yet is one about having a kid mayor, not a mayor who is a child, but somebody at a high level of government that is bringing together the kid-focused agenda across multiple urban departments.
That makes so much sense because you think ADA guidelines are written for people with mobility restrictions of a specific kind, but so many people don’t realize that at some point, they might become disabled, too. There are people who don’t have children or have grandchildren or nieces and nephews right now, but they may in the future. When we design for people who don’t necessarily have an average male body, we’re designing a more inclusive environment.
Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason I got into this is because I am very short, just over five feet tall. Children are rarely intimidated by me. When I was doing reporting for the Design of Childhood, it was really no problem for me to sit around in a playground, or when I was invited into classrooms, the teacher was like, “Here’s Alexandra. She’s going to watch today” everyone ignored me. All of that is beneficial. I’ve also been a mom in a city and I’ve written about how you have to collapse your stroller to get on a bus in New York and what a huge pain that is. I was talking before about my body and my own vulnerability. I can still viscerally feel how difficult it was to hold my two year old under one arm and collapse my stroller and then kneel down and pick it up. That’s just doing all sorts of things to your knees that you’re really not supposed to do.
I’ve also had two leg injuries while living in New York City. So, I get it. I know what it feels like and that could happen to anyone at any time. Also just apropos of the ADA laws, I wrote a piece a really long time ago that was a germ for Design of Childhood called “The Moms Aren’t Wrong.” I talked about how disabled people, people with luggage and bikes, people with strollers were actually often all on the same team. Again, the way we’ve siloed all of these discussions makes it harder to create a coalition, but all those people need the MTA to get on board with having more elevators in stations. It’s just maddening. There’s a great T-shirt that one advocacy group made that said “elevators are for everyone,” and I felt, “yes, that is the correct energy.”
That’s really, really great. And I know.
This idea that, “oh, I don’t need an elevator, I can work around it,” but people cannot work around it. Someday you’re not going to be able to work around it, your elderly relative can’t work around it.
Architectural criticism often doesn’t address ability and access. As a pedestrian who is also around five feet tall and whose city was not designed for them, I was amazed in Seattle, using public transportation. Buses kneel down to you and you can just move around easily.
Were they roll-on? With the stroller? I know! That’s how it is in Europe. I took my three-year-old to Stockholm and Copenhagen. I was like, oh, I can just push the stroller on the bus.
And that sense of ease of, “wait, you thought of this?” A lot of change has to happen for all the buses in a city to be able to do something like that, but if we think about those questions before we get a whole new set of buses, what a simple way to make moving through a city easier.
Well, the truth is, like in the case of the bus, it’s often a product that exists. I wrote something in the beginning of last year with Alissa [Walker] about dumb urban design competitions and one of the things we called out in that story was cities’ exceptionalism and how these products exist, any city could buy them, why are they not buying them. It is not actually a design problem that needs to be solved. It’s a purchasing problem. This is the level of nitty-gritty government I don’t entirely understand. Who decides what kind of bus to purchase? How do you change that? I don’t get into those details but some of these problems have been solved in plenty of places. It only requires the political and economic will to change things.
Your mall book is coming out soon.
Not as soon as I’d like, but in June 2022. I finished the manuscript in March; I’ll do the edits this summer, and that’s how long it takes to publish a book.
Especially a well-researched book. I imagine site visits were generally impossible.
Yeah. I had originally planned to do a lot more “Alexandra goes to this mall and that mall.” I think that was important to me as a journalist and as somebody who likes to set the scene, but book writing is a little different and I found I could use other people’s accounts of going to those malls. In a lot of cases to get at the original purpose of the malls, it was better to use a historical account than it would be to go there now because the original design and decor had been added onto and papered over. My account of Horton Plaza now would be way more depressing than people’s account of Horton Plaza in the mid-eighties, so I think it worked out. I feel like it’s still personable in that way. The last trip I took before quarantine was to the NorthPark Center in Dallas, which has been called, and I kind of agree, the most beautiful mall in the world. I was really glad that I got to do that trip. That’s chapter two in my book, focusing on the artistry of the mall. So that is more of an in-person experience. I still haven’t been to the Mall of America.
It’ll still be there for you!
Apparently it’s back. A friend of mine who lives in Minneapolis tweeted about how it freaked her out to be at the Mall of America last weekend. It was like the “before times” and I couldn’t believe it. I think people have all this pent up social and communitarian energy. If you live in certain places, the place to go to have that social encounter is the mall.
I was a teenager in the 90s, so I spent a lot of time at the mall. You’ve written about adaptive reuse ideas for malls. As we’re further and further into the 21st century, do you still think there is a place for the mall itself?
Oh, yes. Definitely. One of the fundamental insights that I had in doing my research on suburbs is that there’s the one FHA that subsidized the mortgages for all the little houses, there’s the other FHA that subsidized the highways to bring people out of the houses, but the government did not subsidize the space in between those things. Private developers had to make the space in between and that was the mall. What would people living in the suburbs have done if they didn’t have the mall? Just think about it. There is a fundamental human need to come together. There is a fundamental industrialised need to shop for food and everyday things. And the idea that women would have driven with their children back downtown to do their shopping makes no sense at all. So, you know, as often happens, commerce was brighter and faster on its feet than the government.
The mall is this architecture in between the highway and the home. All these decades haven’t obviated that need at all. There are lots of places where the mall is still the town center, as Victor Gruen originally intended. Those are the malls that are going to be successful, that have kept up with the times. There are going to be a lot of dead malls, but I think there are a lot of interesting ways to reuse them. In imagining their reuse we have to honor the central place they once had in those neighborhoods and their usefulness. We’re going to get better ideas if we don’t think of them as dead stupid sculptures, but as places that were centers, that had all these affordances that made life easier. So, what would make life easier now?
Definitely! I’m originally from the Boston area also, and my parents are a little bit older and in the wintertime, they walk around them. They have these places.
I have this crazy anecdote. I have a chapter in the book that’s mostly about teenagers, but it also includes a section on older people and the mall and the phenomenon of mall walkers, because the reasons those two groups use the mall are related. When I was talking about mall walkers on Twitter somebody told me that their parents had been mall walkers. In the pandemic, they couldn’t get into the mall to walk, but they had started walking around the parking lot of the mall because they needed an open space, and they were just attached to that place. They knew how to go there to do their daily steps. It gets to the emotional content that we now attach to them.
It makes sense for the suburbs, but does the idea of an urban mall in the future make sense to you as this temple to consumerism in one spot that’s more controlled?
I don’t think closed urban malls make a whole lot of sense. But I wrote a piece for Curbed two years ago now called “Who’s Afraid of the Pedestrian Mall?” In it I talk about the vogue in the seventies and eighties for pedestrian malls in cities and why so many of them failed. But they’re not necessarily a bad idea. A lot of urbanist ideas about center cities and removing cars and making those spaces better for bikes and pedestrians are the pedestrian mall. They’re just calling it something different. I mean, people were always arguing with me about terminology.
Because nobody wants to call it a mall?
Nobody wants to be called a mall. Nobody likes to have you associate their idea with a failed idea from the nineteen seventies. But I’m a historian, so I’m always like, “well OK, it is the same thing and I get to call it whatever I want.” There are people that are developing what they are now calling “retail centers” or whatever. They don’t like to call it the mall. And I’m like, look, if I put the word mall in big letters on my book, people will buy it. If I put the retail center on my book, people are going to be like, what is this weird thing? So you’re fighting a losing battle.
Oh, my goodness. That goes back to what we were talking about before, about the power of a writer and being able to put these ideas out there. What are you thinking about potentially coming out of these threads of the mall or out of the thread of Designing Childhood? I saw you were writing the forward to Designing Motherhood.
It turns out I am still thinking about teenagers. I’ll probably never write a teenager book, but there’s a lot going on with teenagers and I’m sure it’s something I’m going to end up talking about in the publicity for the book. And I really, really like my chapter on teenagers in the book. I just feel like teenagers are this betwixt and between thing. Now I have teenagers, so I have these test subjects right in my home and I get a lot of ideas from my kids. We talk a lot about technology and using the city. That is really helpful.
So yeah, I think about teenagers. I also really enjoyed, in the mall book process, writing about movies, books and TV…. I see my future as potentially moving more into cultural criticism, more broadly focused. I would like to have the opportunity to write more about design and architecture in other media. Kind of like the playground and like the mall, that’s a place where people are encountering design without really knowing what they’re seeing. I’ve done a lot of that over the years, but I don’t feel like people have necessarily put that together. If I were ever to produce a set of collected works I think I would have ten or more pieces on design in film and design in TV. I have a collection of work on those topics and I really enjoyed writing every one of those pieces.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Dr. Dana Cuff is a widely awarded professor, author, and architectural practitioner whose work focuses on affordable housing and the politics of place, among other topics. In 2006, she founded cityLAB, an architecture and urban research think tank situated within UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design concentrating on issues of spatial justice in the emerging metropolis. Dr. Cuff co-authored (with Jane Blumenfeld) California State legislation AB2299, which passed into law in 2017, effectively opening 8.1M single-family lots for accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Below, LA Forum Board Member Ismaelly Peña interviews Dr. Cuff about spatial justice, housing insecurity, and her forthcoming book.
The work that you and your students have done at cityLAB and the Urban Humanities initiative at UCLA is deeply rooted in an interdisciplinary, pluralistic approach to design that you’ve also explored in your own research. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
It’s a little like summarizing my career, which now has a long path. But I was always interested in practice, and in the architect’s agency. I started off in painting, sculpture and also in psychology, and kept thinking, I want to do creative work that makes a difference in the world. I think many young people – and older people – feel the same. It seemed to me that architecture was a clear way to make the world you wanted to live in. I see that in all of my students, in applications to come to graduate school; their dreams are really admirable and big-thinking. I started studying that phenomenon of how practice might make a difference in the world. I thought architects and clients would be the site where that would happen; in their conversations and negotiations. That’s where you’d find a kind of “public meets professional” moment. After looking at that, for — I don’t know, things take me ten years at a time, it seems, it’s a little slow — I decided it could be because so many clients are clients of privilege. Some of them are very publicly oriented, but they’re mostly white, they’re mostly male, and they are mostly wealthy. Whether the architect wants to work within that frame or not, that’s who our clients tend to be, especially now that the public sector is so emaciated, so stark. Then I thought, I’ll look at the history of how architects engaged in a really radical social agenda. It seemed to me that the most radical social agenda in the United States might be public housing. In other countries, social housing is part of the common will. But here, it was a battle, literally a fist fight sometimes between — in Los Angeles — the mayor and his opponents, about whether or not we should spend public money to house people who needed housing, especially the poor. Of course, those were primarily people of color. So it’s forever racialized. It is always and all the time, racialized. After working on that for ten years, I thought, well, okay, studying this through history and books is really valuable. But now I think maybe I should test myself one further and start a kind of design research practice. That’s what really gave birth to cityLAB. I started it with Roger Sherman, who has moved on to architectural practice outside the university. In 2016, we founded cityLAB thinking that there would be new approaches to practice that we might be able to launch from within a university. I don’t think I realized at the time, how important that platform would be to study the things that I was interested in, particularly spatial justice.
The University allows a certain insular protection of sorts and funding is another layer to that conversation, one that we as architects also grapple with, particularly those that are interested in doing socially engaged work. Because, as you say, the folks that are typically able to afford our work are not from communities that are low-income, disenfranchised, etc. So I’m wondering if you could speak to that a little bit.
There were two primary benefits, real gains to working within the University, for me and the work that I wanted to initiate. The first is the interdisciplinary potential there. Especially in a big research university, like UCLA, which is for an academic like a giant candy store. Every possible mind, and activists, and people whose intelligence just blow you over, are there. That was a huge resource that strangely architecture departments and schools rarely take advantage of. But that’s because we went through what I consider to be our disastrous autonomy project for so long prior to what I think, in the 70s, was a lot of interdisciplinarity. Then we lost it for a while, now we’re recovering that. So the first benefit was really interdisciplinarity. And the second was the disconnect from capital. I mean that really directly, that I’m able to explore what happens when you dissociate architectural practice from neoliberal capitalism, to at least some extent, I mean, the university is also part of the post-Fordist capitalist system. But cityLAB doesn’t get funds from the university. We bring in all our own funds related to projects that we initiate. We can get grants and gifts, and philanthropists see that what we’re doing is valuable, really some very generous people, and we’ve had large foundation funding, especially the Mellon Foundation, that has given us a tremendous amount of freedom and capacity to explore ideas of spatial justice in the city.
That’s fantastic. You mentioned tapping into various experts or departments within the university, and I think that’s brilliant. We can’t address these very important issues alone, as architects, so it makes sense to go to these fields of expertise; economists and sociologists, planners, etc, to develop the team.
In the 70s and 80s, as architects we primarily partnered with people like social scientists, psychologists, environmental psychologists, sociologists, even a few anthropologists, but I think now the much more interesting partners for the work that we’re doing are the humanists. So within the university, it’s the humanists, people who bring narrative and history and reminders about repressed histories, and poets, those partners and collaborators have been absolutely central. What they see in architecture, interestingly, is that we think about precedent and history and about the present, but we also project forward for the future, what to make of that knowledge, literally make of it. And they are equally hungry to have real impacts in the world. The ways that they explore pasts and presents are much more sophisticated typically than architects. So, on the university side, those are the partners cityLAB establishes. Outside the university, we’ve also been super lucky and effective at partnering with the real agents of the city. People who are elected officials, people who are community activists, people who have lived experience that as long as you build a kind of trust, they’re willing to bring something to share so that we can collectively author new futures.
What would you say is one of the biggest issues that we face today in the reality of our everyday life in our city, and how the layering of the social, the political, the spatial, manifest? How do your collaborators, both at the university community level and among bodies of governance, see those issues?
There’s no shortage of crises, as always, but I think we would probably all agree right now that there are two that you can’t escape, and that architecture really plays or could play an important role. The first is climate change. And the second is the housing crisis. If I could start another cityLAB, it would be the Green cityLAB, so we would have a sister that worked on climate change issues. Since that isn’t my expertise, I’m really hoping someone else will start that. We have been focusing for the last ten years at least on housing, and trying to rethink housing, especially now in relationship to our unhoused neighbors, which I think is the thorniest and most moral dilemma that we face as architects and as residents of the city.
Precisely. I completely agree. When addressing these issues with communities and engaging with the organizations that are on the ground doing the work — on Skid Row for example — when should we architects and planners practice deep listening, be quiet, and absorb? And when do we bring in our expertise, without being the authoritative architect saying “I’m here to save you?”
There’s so many versions of that. When I was studying architecture, the moral was that you needed to educate the public about architecture, but that idea of super dominance, that we know and it’s our job to impart that knowledge, I think distracted us and discouraged us from what we really could do with design. So, I actually think if we don’t attack problems or collaborate around thinking through the urban problems that we face through design we’re not really bringing our expertise to bear. I believe in the agency of the architect being leveraged through design. I’m sure there are many ways that each of us could contribute. If you came from a family with money, you could donate money, if you had an apartment building or backyard, you could open it up for people to live in. What we have in common as architects is our capacity to use design, to make new circumstances, to make fresh solutions, not to continue to make conventional solutions, because those are clearly not working. This is intrinsic in all the work I do. I’m not trying to radically transform the profession or discipline of architecture to be something else, but to unleash the DNA within the profession that has always existed there but has been repressed, like so many social justice agendas, through dominant interests of the status quo. That has primarily been white men. As a white woman in architecture, I also recognize my own culpability in this and what my participation has been. I specifically try to keep that in mind as I’m working. But in the work that I’m able to do through cityLAB, we look for projects in which you can use design to discover something fresh, something just that also is generative, that’s another important part, it’s not a singular solution that we’re looking for. So by meeting the people in an encampment, it’s not that I would “solve their problem” or that together, we would solve a problem, but that cityLAB can generate a demonstration that then can get reused and reiterated and rediscovered and evolve for other circumstances.
I remember in my early studios in undergrad my professors talked about the tools of the architect. So in thinking about spatial justice, how do we address the “how?” How do we create not necessarily a solution, but as you say, a prototype or a demonstration?
I think the most important tool is the potential of design to reimagine the material world. So, I’m really interested in physical architecture. I really value the work of my colleagues who are interested in theory, obviously that affects my work, but where my work gets traction is when you really look at what’s being built. Maybe that’s going to make me old fashioned as we look at a much more digital existence. But for now, especially in relationship to housing, the material world still really matters, so its design matters. And you said something earlier that I want to just lift back up again, which is the importance of listening. I think of that in the way that the landscape architect and architect Walter Hood talks about partnerships of difference. We recognize not diversity alone, but real difference as being the source of new perspectives and knowledge, then we generate a kind of respect for those partners and co-creators that are essential to coming up with new ideas for how we work through problems like the housing crisis. The other thing that we do is to try to expand the toolbox to say, well, housing is obviously the end goal. Permanent housing for everyone is a right in the Right To The City kind of model and I have articulated the same thing. But I also think that we need to imagine something more like a continuum of accommodation. That’s something we’ve been working on, as we’ve been working on a kind of overnight accommodations for students who don’t have housing, sleeping in their cars, they’re living unsheltered in some way or another.
When we first started at cityLAB, looking at the housing crisis and thinking about homelessness, we thought of it as “out there” when really, it was in my classroom and in our building, and in our parking garages, so we’ve spent the last three years working with students and student advocates who are starting with long distance commuters, people who can’t afford housing near campus, and have to commute so far that they can’t get back home safely in a day. Crazy. They’re super commuters. Our administration was very willing to form a coalition with students and student services and the Housing Administration to find a way to begin to address housing insecurity, along with food insecurity, in new ways, so we’re installing right now these really beautiful study beans, study pods. We just had four more delivered to the Rec Center. They’re so great, and so destigmatized. That’s one of the most important aspects of it. It’s not as if we’re treating students who are housing insecure as if they need a “shelter”. But really, that they’ve made choices, they are agents also of composing their own education, and we want to help towards making that as successful as possible so that they’re not struggling with where to sleep. This won’t be sufficient, but it will also be a model.
I did see them, and it reminded me of my days as a student in undergrad. I slept under my table many, many times because I was also one of those commuter students.
That’s why this continuum is so important. You know, we objectify homelessness as if it’s a state of being and it’s why I think language is so important because it’s not uncommon to go through a temporary condition of being housing insecure or having a sporadic condition of being unsheltered. And of course, the chronically unhoused are folks that we should be thinking of as neighbors, not as someone who is solely homeless.
Or “the other.”
…or the other. That’s right. You’d be surprised how rare it is for people to actually engage their unhoused neighbors in conversation. We interviewed some people who live in an encampment near a school that we’re partnered with, and the people that we spoke with had lived there for four to seven years, moving out when they could get placement in a housing development and otherwise staying there. On average, I think that’s longer than their housed neighbors live in their homes. So it’s just crazy that we don’t interact and try to treat each other more humanely.
Yeah, I think equally to listening, it’s also an act of seeing each other as fellow humans rather than “the other”.
It tends to erase difference in a way, because we categorize without knowledge, “the other.” So until you speak to people who are sitting in a park on a park bench all day, you might think they’re unhoused, but you actually are projecting a lot of your own stuff. You learn about people’s lives and their circumstances when you actually speak with them. So at cityLAB, kind of a mantra for us is to begin with what I would call low-hanging fruit. Meaning, take a thorny problem and try to address it where you’re most likely to succeed. And where you’re most likely to gather constituencies. One of the things that we’ve discovered over the fifteen years is that you really need partners in creating work, or a set of works, but you also need advocates. Unless you build that constituency, a new idea, a fresh work of architecture goes nowhere. So as we start to build constituencies, we understand their perspective, we incorporate their views, then they see the project is something they have a stake in or have some ownership of. And you know, it takes a very long time to do that, which is partly why it’s very hard to do this in a conventional practice that depends upon commissions.
Yes. And it’s trust-building. I think that’s key in making sure communities know you’re holding their best interest. I was reading in your work about this strategy of the “Thick Map.” Thinking about the tools again, the Thick Map provides a tool for understanding that layering that is in all of us as humans and the spaces we occupy. In a city like Los Angeles, every neighborhood has so much layering; the people who live and have lived there as well as the physical history of the place.
When I hear you speaking, it reminds me also that most architects are extremely curious. And if we could spend the time to dig deeper, we all benefit from really understanding the complexities of a situation in order to make something fresh from it. The “Thick Mapping” idea is a way of exploring that complexity. It came, again, from the humanities, particularly from my colleague, Todd Presner, who’s a literature professor and Jewish Studies professor. It really is a way of mapping, like trying to document things that might not be physically present in a space but are related to the physical geographies of space. You can look at histories, you can look at repressed histories, people can tell you about their own perceptions. And you start to literally layer that into the map so that you get, instead of a kind of singular narrative, let’s say what a Google Map gives, which is about streets and maybe the topography and about itineraries, you get a poly vocal cartography. You can map all the people who live there, all the impressions of what’s positive about their community, or what’s written in newspapers from the past. One of the most fascinating Thick Maps we’ve been working on since the urban humanities project began is a critical cartography of the Chinese massacre in Los Angeles in the early 1870s, which was the biggest single lynching in the history of the United States of Chinese residents here. The documentation is inadequate, we have maps of downtown, the stories are multiple, and just trying to grasp that narrative, that really complicated narrative, is part of what tells us about anti-Asian racism today. You can see connections and underpin perceptions and experiences through documentation that you can share with others. So it’s a new form, or another form of communication that can live outside the personal stories, or the individual histories. Those things then exist in ways that become points for further opening of understanding histories and information. So they’re kind of infinite, those maps.
The U.N. has recognized adequate housing as a fundamental human right. They define it as “the right to live in a home in peace, security, and dignity, and include security of tenure, availability of services, affordability, habitability, accessibility, appropriate location, and cultural adequacy.” It’s a mouthful, but it really does touch on the point of the specificity of the imaginary; what do we think of when we say housing and “adequate” housing? How do we hold our local governments, planners, designers, policymakers, citizens concerned with spatial justice, accountable for really addressing and meeting a “standard of care”?
Ed Soja, the urban geographer, is really insightful here, in saying that we’re always seeking something, like the goal of a perfect housing universe, which, if you don’t know what the goal is, you can’t really aim for it. This goal that feels so far away from where we are today, not just in Los Angeles, but when you look at cities in the global south, or anywhere in the world now. It’s a long way from what the U.N. is recommending. If what we’re really doing is seeking spatial justice through housing, and I think housing is the most important spatial inequity that we face, and probably racist histories of that injustice, then as an architect, you start thinking about it as, for me as a pragmatist, what can I do? It’s very direct. What kind of agency do I have to begin to seek that goal? Or to move just a tiny bit on that path? Just to advance it, push it one more step. There are hundreds of ways to do that. I think when people feel overwhelmed, they need to step back and say, where is my agency here? So you’re doing it by setting up a set of interviews. At cityLAB, we take every opportunity to try to push the needle a little further towards an anti-racist city that we’re working towards, I can tell you about some projects we’re doing. At the AIA Los Angeles, they can initiate conversations, they can elevate people of color to positions of power. As a school, we can open our doors to students who haven’t had those opportunities in the past and learn from them, not think we’re giving them a break. So you know, there’s just hundreds of ways. And when people say to me, “Well, you know, we’d like to have a black woman speak at our conference, but they’re impossible to get now.” No, they’re not. You know, first of all, there are a lot of black women who are really engaged, and look around you, they’re speaking in lots of conferences now, you can’t burden them with the job of representing their race and gender. But there’s not a shortage in terms of trying to bring people in. We need to produce more architects of greater differences. But when you say they’re not available, that’s because you’re not looking.
Agreed! The word accountability has been reverberating in the news lately in regards to the killing of George Floyd and the trial. How do we hold ourselves, our profession and political agents of the world accountable?
I think accountability and reckoning are two words that are part of our vocabulary in a way they’ve been sublimated in the past. And again, I think of these things through architecture, so if you look at the Holocaust memorials, there’s a form of accountability there that is inscribed in material terms. That’s the kind of thing we can do, is to make material the truths that people want to deflect themselves from. MASS Design’s memorial to lynching is an incredible example of accountability and reckoning, really. And it’s not just the building. It’s the fact that people brought soil from the counties where lynchings occurred and put those into the museum. So they contributed literally their land, the space, their geographies, to this idea of a greater justice, or reckoning or recognition. And then that the counties where the lynchings took place have to bring one of those recorded steles home, the big columns that show who was lynched, they have to bring that back to their county and put it in their place. The ones that are still sitting there are counties who have not addressed their own past. So there’s this action and engagement in that project – justice instilled in it. That’s really incredibly powerful. Especially in terms of the accountability that you’re talking about. That architects can make that, and that it is the architecture that keeps people facing that accountability, I think is profound.
That is profound. It is a kind of a physical manifestation of it and reminder of it.
Of the accountability.
I was listening to a podcast with Vietnamese American novelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen, who coined the concept of narrative scarcity, as he was reflecting on the lack of multiple narratives that exist in popular culture about people of color and minority groups. When I was listening to him speak about this, I was thinking it is more than narrative – spatial representation forms a huge part of that. You were speaking earlier about how we not only have to be critical of the issues of our city, but also project futures as architects and planners. How do we address this lack of narrative of communities that are not represented in the dominant culture? Who is involved in re-imagining, and who are we planning for in the public realm?
It’s such a complicated and important question in architecture, where we spend so much time thinking about precedent, and our practical history, which precedent, comes almost entirely in the United States from European roots and Classical roots, from Greco-Roman and Euro-axes. It places a real burden on us to both bring out the narratives, spaces and buildings in our histories that we have not attended to, you know, which is the other 95% of the world – the global South, the East. And, on the other hand, we need to retrieve and create with partners the repressed narratives or lost narratives, because of course, in history, only certain histories are preserved. When you look at slave narratives or narratives around the slave ship passages, you can find ships and records, but there are a number that are just missing. And you know that they exist. The best example of that is a historian called Saidiya Hartman, who wrote Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments and talks about something called critical fabulation. Again, here’s the humanists telling us how to work through some of these problems. She’s writing about black women in the 20s, and 30s, most of whose personal stories are told by outsiders, not by themselves. So she looks again at the photographs and imagines with all the data that she can find around it, what their versions of their stories would be. It’s a new kind of historical archive that has been very controversial in History, but in my mind, is absolutely necessary in trying to find what you’re referring to as the sort of scarcity of narratives. Too many narratives of those who were in power and wanted to maintain it. And not enough narratives of the people whose lives were repressed by those who kept those histories.
Yeah, and also the spaces that those communities occupied, or occupy in our cities.
I like the construct of spatial scarcity, of the biases that are built into the most resilient architectures, those that had the most invested in them, those that had the longest material cultures surrounding them. As an example of how valuable the “minor literatures” or the “minor architectures” might be, when we started the secondary unit research in Los Angeles and granny flats work, I was working in Pacoima at that time with a group of women who were actively trying to find ways to help their children and grandchildren stay housed in Pacoima, keep their families at home. There was the front architecture that was the most obvious, mostly small bungalows, houses probably from the turn of the century through the 30s, for the most part, but behind them, were the informal structures that had been built over that last 80 years. No one would have thought of those as architecture. In fact, my colleagues said to me, “why are you working on the garage apartments? There’s no architecture there. There’s never going to be architecture there.” It was basically by looking at the auto construction of people who’ve found ways, despite a lack of resources and the city being against them, to produce the housing they needed, that you realize there was this incredible secondary architecture that was hidden from view. If you could just bring that out and show how robust it was as a solution, we could change the nature of the suburbs, which were already changing but invisible to people who are looking at them for formal structures. To me, that was the perfect case for paying attention to the things that, since Ruskin, we’ve called “mere building”. Which is such an atrocity to have that embedded in our understanding of what architecture is. Sometimes it’s not the elevation or the detailing, it’s the strategy, or the building system, that we really should learn from.
You mentioned something that’s always been interesting to me; auto construction. I spent my childhood in Cuba and there people make do with what they have.This was part of our everyday life. Communities have agency to enact change or simply survive, and they take it in their own hands to do so. This happens in Cuba, this happens in Latin America, Asia, everywhere around the world, and it happens here. There’s something to be learned from that. We’re talking about ADUs today, and sometimes I hear folks talk about it as a new discovery. But it’s absolutely not true as evident in the research that you’ve done. So it’s interesting what happens when you look closely — I go back to the Thick Mapas a way of seeing and really understanding — you start revealing tectonics, emergent “informal” technologies, etc.
Making those spatial narratives public, I think, is really critical. When we co-authored the ADU bill for the state, it was a statement to say this is actually not new. This idea of the suburban house has never been pure, except as an imaginary, so let’s expand the imaginary to other histories, where households were not nuclear, but actually extended, where parents moved into a smaller building as they got older because they wanted to rent out their front houses. The idea that we would share the single family lot was something that was really central to me in working on that legislation, that we shift our way of thinking about the single family zone to being something that was collective, not male, heroic, which is the language that surrounds even the most humble, small tract house. Which is so ironic. It shows the power of imagination, if you can talk about a man’s home as his castle, applied to a Levittown 800-square-foot tract home that only the woman is present in? We can inscribe totally new narratives there. If we work at it.
Absolutely.To sum up some of the conversation, how would you define spatial justice? I know you’re working on a manuscript for a book that’s on spatial justice, if you want to tell us a little bit about that. And how has the trajectory of your research and earlier books, work at UCLA, how has that influenced the book?
I think what you have to start with, with spatial justice, is to understand that justice has a geography. And that space is an essential part of building justice into everyday life. So the second thing I want to recognize in understanding spatial justice is that it’s a struggle. It’s not a thing. And that what we’re struggling for is an anti-racist geography, and an equitable geography, and one in which all people, as it says in the U.N. statement, live with dignity. So what’s the architect’s role in that, is what comes to me very quickly. How can we as architects advance the struggle for spatial justice? I think we do that in no single way, but through multiple means that step outside the standard economic relationships that our profession is based on. And out of the singular authorship models that we hold. Those two factors are open to all architects to greater and lesser degrees. In your work in a firm, as you’re just trying to feed your family, which many architects are doing, you know, we’re not a well-paid profession. The work you can do may be in your own neighborhood as you expand your humanity towards your unhoused neighbors. It may not be through the work you do at your firm. If you run a firm, it may be that you take a small percentage of the money you earn and dedicate it to work that doesn’t have a financial return. It may be that you volunteer at your local professional organization, at the LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design or the AIA, any of those, and inject the agendas there with conversations and actions that will move the dial towards greater equity, and greater inclusion. So, you know, I think we all have means, and it can be small or large, since everything is just a step on a really immense goal. Whatever size step you can take is a contribution.
So tell me a little bit about the book, I’m curious about it.
That is one step I’m working on. At cityLAB we’ve been working on spatial justice questions for years, particularly around housing. My last book had a lot to do with racism and housing in Los Angeles, and what it meant to construct a notion of a public that was responsible for housing, rather than the tract homes where private property was, you know, eating up land in order to fulfill another set of goals. So this book kind of builds out of all of that work earlier in my career. It’s an emancipatory project, I think, for architects to realize that their own profession has the DNA to work towards spatial justice. It’s really trying to examine architecture, for architects to say, this is our work. This is where our creativity matters and our agency is essential. You could write another book that would be a criticism of our profession. That would be an easy book to write, because everyone can see how inadequate our histories have been in terms of working towards anti-racism or equitable geographies. But I feel like this project that I’m working on through writing is to demonstrate how architecture actually can — by showing how architecture, particularly from the global South, and from the East — give us insight about the potentials that our discipline and profession hold.
We need to hear it as much as possible.
That’s why I would describe it as an insider’s revolution. I have a feeling that once the revolution I would like to start begins, they’ll kick me out, and I’ll no longer be an insider, but right at this moment, it’s still somehow from the inside.
I think it’ll come out and everybody will welcome it. Certainly the younger generation of students and those of us that are interested in teaching in schools of architecture, are interested in teaching in a different way. I’ve talked to colleagues that are my age and we’re interested in changing the canon and I think your research, your work, and what you just said is right on the spot.
That’s so good of you to say. I really am writing this for my students and my younger colleagues, all of whom express what you’re talking about and are searching for the “how,” really. They feel the “why,” they feel the convictions. And the question now is how? That’s what I’m trying to work on by showing all these different projects and strategies, not just cityLAB. I want to make it a bigger story. So people can see themselves in it, of course.
Javier Cabral is a journalist, cookbook author, and self-proclaimed “vato loco from East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley” who edits L.A. TACO, a small-but-mighty member-supported publication and platform covering the Los Angeles food scene as well as social justice, representation, and immigration issues. Cabral has been covering local and national food and drink culture since 2006 and was an Associate Producer for Las Cronicas del Taco on Netflix. Below, LA Forum Co-VP of Information Antonio Pacheco interviews Cabral to learn more about how the urban design of Los Angeles feeds into the city’s food culture and vice versa.
I want to talk a bit about the foodways of the city from your perspective as a writer and editor with L.A. TACO. How do you go about covering L.A.?
When L.A. TACO started back in 2004, it was covering tacos, cannabis, and graffiti, and was basically L.A.’s local answer to VICE magazine. I started writing about food in 2006 independently as a food blogger to reflect on my experience of being born in Hollywood (at the Children’s Hospital) and raised in Alhambra in the San Gabriel Valley and in the unincorporated parts of East L.A. in the 1990s. The one thing that L.A. TACO does to this day is to help to dispel myths about L.A. and to share stories of the marginalized communities in L.A. County. If you’re from here, you know that whenever you travel, L.A. has gotten a bad reputation for being “fake;” it’s the L.A. everyone loves to hate — the influencers, all the stuff that is joked about on Saturday Night Live, etc. My mission is to share the stories that are actually of this place, but that are especially of the east communities — all the neighborhoods of East L.A., Pico Rivera, Whittier, etc. — that’s kind of our mission at L.A. TACO, to share the stories that make people excited. Like our last big story about torta de cochinita from Yucatán in La Puente, for example. That headline read: “From Yucatán to La Puente,” those are the bridges we try to form with L.A. TACO.
We are a member-supported publication; we have no corporate funding. And you know, we made a lot of new members and earned a lot of respect last year during the uprisings by covering the struggles of Black Angelenos and Indigenous Angelenos who aren’t getting covered by larger publications.
As an editor, I constantly have to invest in and hire new writers; it’s easy to just hire the same writers. There’s no disrespect in that: If you’re a good writer, you’re a good writer, but I like to branch out. Instead of me telling someone else’s story, I’d rather find someone on Instagram who can tell it themselves. Since I came on board in 2019, we’ve published over 30 new writers. Many are people who didn’t identify as writers, or are young journalists that just have that passion for storytelling, like Janette Villafana, a writer who pitched me after I gave a talk at the Cal State Long Beach journalism program. She had a lot of raw talent and has done a lot of great reporting. And that’s been our formula: instead of filing the stories ourselves, we trust people from all over L.A. to tell their own stories, and their parents are proud, their friends are proud, their communities are proud.
Increasingly, Los Angeles is becoming known internationally as a place with incredible culinary traditions — from tacos and Birria to soup dumplings, Doro Wot, and everything in between. In some ways, the region’s sprawling geography facilitates this culinary diversity; for so many people cooking is a way of getting by and making ends meet. How does the way the city is designed and planned facilitate these food cultures?
Everyone likes to vilify L.A. for being so spread out, for not being built as a walking city, the traffic sucks, etc. As Jonathan Gold once said, sometimes we’re too occupied with our own selves because we live in single-family homes and don’t manage to do our civic duties — but my take on this, and a term I think about often as someone who is a child of immigrants — is the concept of rasquachismo as it relates to urban planning. I really feel like that combined with the informal economy, aka the street vendors, all the DM-only food, all the connects we make through word-of-mouth and social media, those are the things that make L.A. one of the best food cities in the world.
It’s that sense of adventure, of hearing every day about a different family or a new vendor who is cooking something unique and trying to honor their own culture or the region where they come from, and they’re doing this out of their driveways, in front of their house, out on the street, that can only happen because of L.A.’s urban design. And also, because of the segregation and redlining that happened in the past — For some reason, the neighborhood of Lennox outside of LAX has the best marisco spots per capita in the city. Why? Because it’s underneath the flight path of the planes, because it at one point had some of the cheapest housing in the city, which accommodated immigrants from Sinaloa who happen to specialize in mariscos.
Whenever I want to experience old school L.A., like the 90s and early 00s L.A. I grew up in, I drive down to Lynwood and Huntington Park, because these are the neighborhoods where you’ll be driving around and a house will have a sign saying “Birria estilo Michoacán” and you’ll know you’ve found something special. Or, in Cudahy, there’s this old taquero from Nayarit who makes a roasted Lechón with a mustard salsa that is just so good and unique. Think of how he got here: He came from Nayarit, moved to SELA because these are the areas that are more affordable, got old and didn’t have a plan for retirement and needed to make money, so, when all else fails, they started cooking food from their heart. If you’re just starting out in business and you cook a regional taco style that hasn’t made it to L.A. yet, you’re probably going to make it pretty big. The fact that people are still bringing new taco styles to L.A. in 2021 is exhilarating. It’s so special and one of my favorite things about this city.
I think back to Jonathan Gold and how instead of referring to L.A. as a melting pot, he referred to it as a cultural mosaic where you can defy the expectations of assimilation into American life, where you keep your identity and culture, and you are one part of this mosaic.
This issue of affordability is so critical, obviously. You hear a lot about different populations cycling through neighborhoods over the decades, how Isamu Noguchi and Julius Shulman both grew up in Boyle Heights, for example, when those were different neighborhoods, or how parts of South L.A. that are typically thought of as being Black enclaves are now majority-Latinx areas. How does L.A. TACO look at these changing circumstances and their impact on food?
You have to fight to live here — it’s so expensive, and you are essentially pinned against people with vast generational wealth competing for the same land. There’s constant development and violent gentrification at play. Recently a lot of people are moving out to the Inland Empire. You’re seeing a lot of taqueros open up branches over there because L.A. is not sustainable when you’re in business with no investors. L.A. is pushing beyond the geographical regions of “L.A.”, you’re seeing it exist in the IE (Inland Empire) now. We recently featured an article about how one writer dealt with the dissolution and identity crisis of not being able to afford to live in L.A. We try to feature personal essays that honor that generational L.A. struggle. And some people find themselves moving back to L.A. after leaving, because of their parents’ health, for family, for emotional and non-tangible reasons. It doesn’t really make sense — it’s so expensive, especially if you have a family, it’s hard to make a living in L.A. But also, you see the children of immigrants stepping up in the restaurant industry. They say, “this restaurant is my family’s legacy, am I really going to pursue my career in [fill in the blank] or am I going to step up?” They say, “I’m not ready to see my family’s legacy die in L.A.,” and they carry the restaurant on their backs.
Guelaguetza in Koreatown is the perfect example that brings together urban planning, immigration patterns, and L.A. life. It was one of the first Oaxacan restaurants in L.A. when it opened over 30 years ago; they moved into a building that used to be a Korean buffet. We think of K-town as a Korean community, which it is, but it’s also a hub for Oaxaqueños and Central Americans. Back then, the owner of Guelaguetza made a deal with the owner of the Korean buffet, and they did this, somehow, even though they didn’t speak the same language, they somehow forged a deal. And look at what it is now.
The trend has been one of more people leaving the US for Mexico in recent years. People say, “I’m tired. I want to go back to my country.” That’s what happened here — the founders both retired in 2012, and their kids stepped up and said, “Let’s buy it from our parents because we’re not ready to see the business die.” Now, the menu is smaller, the website is streamlined, you can buy Hoja de Aguacate if you want to make Oaxaqueño-style beans at home with an ingredient that was previously hard to obtain.
On L.A. TACO, we published a story about Anajak Thai, an old-school Thai place in Sherman Oaks, one of those restaurants with the framed signed portraits of famous people who have visited the restaurant. The father had health problems, the son was an art major at Art Center and had this pivotal moment of “Am I going to step up, or what?” And now he is offering a Thai Omakase, which is insanely good. It’s not cheap, but it’s an incredible meal, probably the best meal I’ve had this year, it’s a very luxurious experience. So that’s what I mean when I say the sons and daughters of the families that started restaurants in the 80s are stepping up and making some really cutting edge shit, stuff that you can’t make unless you have that pressure on you that comes with being a chef.
It’s interesting to see this type of fusion come up through generational change.
There’s also Sara’s Market, an old school corner tiendita in City Terrace; it used to be your run-of-the-mill L.A. liquor store with 40s in the back and where you can get gallons of milk. A few years ago, the daughter who now runs it stepped up to take control of the shop. And now that shop is one of the most unique and interesting shops in the US, I’d say. When I grew up, City Terrace was dangerous; you’d get beat up going to punk shows, etc. but now, the realtors are priming it up to be like the next Mount Washington or something, it’s getting really expensive, it’s getting marketed with all these realtor words like “views” and “hillside living” and whatnot that appeal to the upper class people, and you see that neighborhood is changing. The daughter kept the store going for her parents, recognizing that there’s a demand for high quality products, craft beer, organic tortillas, artisan chorizo, and natural wine in the neighborhood, but they did it in a way where they still honor the old-school customers who still come in for their 40s of King Cobra. You see white people come in for wine, but it’s still a hood-ass little tiendita, and they have crazy-delicious pizza from La Morra, which is this high quality Neapolitan-style pizza place in Mid-City; and they’re selling their frozen pizzas there. They’re offering these higher quality products without making the regular neighborhood customers feel they can’t come in or that it’s out of their reach, which, in my opinion, is a noble ass thing, that’s how you make change, when you appeal to everyone and don’t alienate the residents of a neighborhood who have lived there for generations.
For you, is there a point in which a “tiendita” takes on a new definition? Like, we see this huge debate in New York City over what is and is not a “bodega,” and I am wondering how flexible is the L.A. tiendita type as a place, as a neighborhood institution?
All west coast vs. east coast jokes aside, I see a big difference being that bodegas offer easy-to-prepare food (chopped cheese sandwiches, etc.); in L.A. because the way our food and permit systems are set up, not many liquor stores can even offer simple sandwiches, because at that point it becomes a deli [requiring different permits]. In L.A., all the food happens outside the tiendita; That’s one of the elements of how they become the beloved institution that they are. I’m happy with my elotes and my raspados with the street vendors that set up in front of it, that’s my childhood, and all that happens at outside of the tiendita, not on the inside.
Though there are a few exceptions, “bodega” is being used by some business owners, especially in cases where it’s a liquor store that the Los Angeles Food Policy Council invests in. They bring money to “underserved” communities so they can have access to “healthy food,” they revamp the liquor stores to offer fresh foods and vegetables, not just processed foods. A lot of them are called bodegas, at a certain point it’s regional pride and semantics to me.
How do you see the new regulatory system for street vendors impacting the food culture of the city?
The fact that the city of L.A. is acknowledging food vendors is so important; Mayor Garcetti, for the first time, acknowledged food vendors in his food conference a few weeks ago. It was the first time he acknowledged that street vendors were as important as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, he messed up pretty bad in the beginning of the pandemic when he completely neglected to talk about any street vendors and got reprimanded by activists who advocate for street vendors. It’s all very political, and that’s something we need to think about when we see a street vendor selling pupusas or bacon-wrapped hot dogs: they’re micro-entrepreneurs in the city. The new permit system is exciting, and at the same time, I think it’s going to cost $541 to get a permit. Early on, there was a big disconnect between the city agencies that run the program, there were problems with the bureaucracy, it still needs to get sorted out.
At the end of the day, all these street vendors, DM-only food providers, the new vegan vendors, all those people, are making L.A. an even stronger food city, this is why you’re seeing so many food writers move to L.A. Last week, David Chang went to a sushi and marisco spot in Lynwood and gave love to this Sinaloan dude from Culiacán who sells mariscos and sushi — its a trip because you’re seeing those things become more mainstream in front of your eyes, what we thought was personal is blowing up, and now it’s like “Oh, shit David Chang went to Lynwood and gave them love!” That’s all because of how great of a food city L.A. is. It’s simple: the more food vendors, the more L.A. becomes a world-class food city, and I hope the politicians acknowledge and support them for the asset they are.
A brick-and-mortar doesn’t have to beef, no pun intended, with the taquero down the street — El sol sale para todos. And that’s because there are two types of diners out there, the ones who want a bacon-wrapped hot dog after the show and the ones who want late-night Japanese food or a burger after the show; For me, L.A. is big enough for everyone to survive, food-wise.
Elizabeth Timme is an architect who wants to use the power of design and architecture to build power and resiliency in working class communities of color. LA Forum Co-VP of Information Antonio Pacheco caught up with Timme to discuss her growing interest in collective housing models and the role architects can play in working outside power structures to refine the work they do and the communities they serve.
You recently expressed dissatisfaction with the individual, capitalist-centered approaches current housing discourse revolves around. Can you elaborate?
After having had the privilege of teaching a housing studio at the Cal Poly Pomona School of Architecture with majority BIPOC students, I realized that culturally we (architects namely) are not talking about housing in the right way. In our studio we took canonical architectural projects that were single family housing and turned them into collective housing. The studio was co-taught with Chaz Kern, who is leading our backyard homes work at LA-Más and is a member of Design as Protest.
Over the course of the semester, Chaz and I realized that the majority of projects we learn from in our training as architects do not communicate that the housing and public spaces we design are for Black and brown people; that’s a disempowering experience for a BIPOC student. So, we shifted the conversation in the studio towards discussing the inherent resilience in communities of color, all of the incredible sustainable ways that communities of color thrive; Even still, I wasn’t immune from bias.
One instance sticks out in my memory: I kept asking a student in our studio why they didn’t have a window in their bedroom redesign (Hi Klaude, if you are reading this, again my apologies for this moment) of the iconic Albert Frey House II redesign. Using bamboo and reorienting the program layout, he redesigned the house with the Modernist five points, but we were getting into this debate on why the bedrooms didn’t have windows. I was telling him about how beds had to face windows and natural light. He kept saying that it wasn’t important to him. It was becoming a circular conversation, and we were both getting frustrated. He shared that in the Philippines it wasn’t a value to look out but rather to look in: to the house, to the kitchen, to the family, and see where other people in the household were in the routine of their day. He flatly said, ‘We didn’t have bedrooms with windows looking out, so I’m not going to do that.’ It was a very awesome and complicated moment where I realized most of what I know about what housing is supposed to look like, or be, is deeply flawed. I realized that although I have the values of fairness and inclusion, this student had to stand up to me because I was unaware of my own bias that western models of housing are ‘right.’
How did this conversation impact your thoughts about single-family housing as it’s designed in the US?
These strategies are not considered in single-family living as we normally understand it in the United States, so it was essential that we bring these ideas into how we were thinking about adapting single-family housing in our studio. Some students took a site and built inter-generational housing in that space, some for seniors, some for large families, some did shared housing models. At the end of it, though, I walked away as an instructor feeling mixed because everything we envisioned in this studio was still predicated on the site of a single-family home. In retrospect, this may have been needlessly limiting the students’ abilities to employ the knowledge they already have about architecture strategies which are valuable.
In case I’m not being clear, this student knew how to reinvent single-family housing before he even became an architect – just like every other student in the studio. This is one of so many instances I’ve had throughout my career where it’s painfully obvious that conversations about housing are not centered on communities of color with indigenous practices of sustainable living, especially in the ways we approach architectural strategies and speculative projects. This moment was just a microcosm of that.
What are your thoughts on ADUs, which are not just popular in Los Angeles, but a national hot topic among many interested in architecture, planning, and development?
When we started our Backyard Homes program, it was really on the heels of an A+D Museum show we had done and I was into the idea that we could develop a model to subvert and reinvent the profoundly racist pretext of suburbia. When we were working on those early designs I kept wondering what would Ed Ruscha design if he was a contemporary architect, faced with critiquing single-family housing, sprawl, and suburbia. Would it all be on fire? Would it look like a scene from Edward Scissorhands in vibrant pastels with so much resonant emptiness?
In the end, however, I think it’s a toxic idea that we can reinvent suburbia because it’s a conversation where we are centering the few people who can afford to have a lawful home. We are reinforcing their elite status by asking them to ‘save’ those at the margins, we are centering their privilege in making a concession to share their backyard but not limit their ability to profit. We were focused on building these individual homeowners’ capacity in a singular way – rather than focusing on a collective building of power for a community-shaped approach to housing.
Looking at what happened at Echo Park this last week… My children were looking over my shoulder as we watched live streams from different activists I follow, they were confused as to why a jail was better than a park? I’m confused about that too. Why are all of us participating in these circular conversations around making capitalist-centered solutions work? It feels like there is such a big chasm between the architectural and political conversations. The architectural conversation shouldn’t be how efficient we can get with our technological solutions to cut costs while embedding design, but rather, how are we going to challenge the land-use of a park by demonstrating that any use needed (housing, for example) is acceptable? What temporary structures are we going to build to do that? Why aren’t we asking Eli Broad to not build a museum but instead commit to funding these acts of reclaiming our city through demonstrating that housing is a basic human right? Dude, it’s opposite day in the land of architecture and architects sometimes, you know?
Oh, I know. So you’re saying architects and designers should think of ways for working outside the system?
There continues to be this myth that if we play within the system, that the system can accommodate those who are excluded from the system, but the truth is the system was not built for the marginalized. The system was built to marginalize.
But I also don’t want to sound like I’m out here burning my bra, because I acknowledge that for many I might be sounding very radical, which also isn’t accurate. With our ADU work, I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish working within the system of capitalism…by trying to expand the framework of what, at the time, was a very narrow field of affordable housing, while also trying to expand the discussion of what ADUs could do. We wanted to create a larger menu of options in the affordable housing conversation. We were also really pushing for there to be an ability for housing, but especially ADUs, to not be this rarified object but be affordable, inclusive, and have a vernacular identity.
While working in these communities we saw how hard it is for those with lower incomes to access financing, often not having the “right” assets, carrying too much debt to qualify, etc. Even the single-family home owners who do manage to get to this rarified place of homeownership are going to continue to miss out on the development opportunities because they will be excluded from pulling a second mortgage on their home to build a new ADU.
We started to ask ourselves, “What do reparations look like for redlining?” And, “how can we be involved in an architectural and urban planning strategy that can serve equity?” But this is the part that sucks about working in the system – we still didn’t really get to work with and support low income homeowners. First of all, without subsidies…which are rote in affordable housing projects and given to developers, it was hard to find income that would support even a modest construction project. Secondly, the fact that we had seriously progressive financial partners working overtime to make the financing work for just the moderate income homeowners to build Section 8 ADUs….that got the office questioning the impact of a program like the one we created. If this is the deal, if even our LA homeowners, who have this precarious but tangible advantage — if a significant number of them are financially “untouchable” — we have to open up a larger conversation about the way we are investing our time in building housing.
At the end of the day, we were building for a homeowner at an individual capacity, but this is the wrong approach. The sustainable strategy is building power within communities. For architects to be accomplices in this we need to lend our skills to negotiate with existing power structures, to go deeper in our commitments to those who have been placed at the margins. Property is capital, ownership is power. This is what opens the door for generational wealth to be passed down through communities of color. As a professional group we have the ability to step outside of the profession to build an alternative path for structural change.
What are some community-led models that you’ve seen for building power within communities?
Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) is a good example. They have helped stabilize Little Tokyo so that the neighborhood remains resilient–how is this possible? They have a thoughtful, resourceful approach of developing senior housing, affordable housing, buying up commercial properties — a holistic approach for how people can have that live/work experience while being a person of color. It’s a total community approach of collective power-building. Why aren’t architects partnered with CDCs [Community-based Development Corporations] to develop housing models organized around how neighborhoods are going to evolve over the next ten years?
Putting individual-based development on a pedestal glorifies the American Dream, which we know does not really exist since it is predicated on people coming here and making their own way, but only as long as they are white and middle class. It’s an anemic model, there are a lot of weaknesses in it. The pandemic has exposed what does not work about the individual approach, things like our mercadito and mutual aid market are starting to talk about systems of resilience that operate outside of capitalism; at the end of the day these models are not as powerful as capitalism but they are a more sustainable long-term approach, and they already operate in communities of color — babysitting, phone trees — these communities already operate within a framework of necessity.
It’s interesting to listen to you talk about working outside the system in this way. For me, and I don’t necessarily mean this in a bad way, architects and planners are agents of the state, right? You help people pull permits, you abide by building code, you interface between the governmental bureaucracy and your clients — How do you reconcile these two approaches?
An urban planner said ‘Our chief role is to perpetuate the inequity and our purpose is to enforce this inequity and if you love being a planner, you have to betray your profession.’ I agree with this framing. Designers have to actively reinforce models of sharing, models for centering people of color and BIPOC communities, and for de-centering design.
In our A+D ADU proposal back in 2015, we put forward a collective model for ADU housing that showed what it’d look like for multiple ADUs to be strung together on a block, and other models with four dwellings on two parcels, etc. Now state policy is allowing for three units on every formerly R-1 parcel. We tried to have an intentional conversation for how to break the zoning code as it existed, and worked on proposing alternatives built from the community level that offer new models, but it’s hard to see it from the outside. I chose to break those rules in a way that is intentional; I guess the first five years of LA-Más was really about doing that.
There are implicit and explicit rules that govern how architecture participates in social justice that have a lot more to do with class than anything else. If you are intentionally listening to and centering projects that include community ownership you have to write your own rules and to do it. We have to reinvent what the point of the profession is.
(A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the housing studio Elizabeth Timme referenced in this interview was taught at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. We regret the error.)
2021 Board of Directors & Executive Leadership
The Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design is thrilled to announce its Board of Directors and Executive leadership committee. As we plan 2021 programming, exhibitions, and publications – all of which are made manifest by the multidisciplinary expertise of our Members on the working Board of Directors – we look forward to a year of widened cultural representation and increased engagement addressing the social issues that face Los Angeles. We look forward to continuing our mission to instigate dialogues on design and the built environment and to reflect on what architecture means in our ever-evolving city.
Leading the LAForum this year are Co-Presidents Nina Briggs and Greg Kochanowski, in collaboration with Vice-President Jose Herrasti. We welcome our newest board members Anali Gharakhani, Lauren Dandridge Gaines, Lisa Teasley, Antonio Pacheco, Jayna Zweiman, Luciana Varkulja, and Souris Hong.
We would also like to celebrate our full Board and Executive team, including:
2020 was the final year of service for outgoing board members Mitchell De Jarnett, (Vice-President of Information), Aaron Neubert, Anthony Fontenot, Aaron Vaden-Youmans, and Katrin Terstegen. We thank them for their years of dedication and commitment to LA Forum’s efforts and mission.
And none of this would be possible without LAForum’s Administrative Assistant, Zaira Hernandez.
A special thanks to outgoing President Wendy Gilmartin for her vision and leadership through the momentous, pandemic-dominated 2020 year, and for carrying us through with unparalleled programming and grace.
Cheers to a new era of reconstitutions, solidarities, and celebrations!
INTERVIEW WITH NINA BRIGGS ON JUSTICEscape, A COURSE AND MANIFESTO ON RACISM IN THE MAKING OF SPACE.
Designer, founding principal of The Fabric, educator – and co-President of our own L.A. Forum for Architecture and Urban Design – Nina Briggs was interviewed earlier this year on Breaking the Silence of Design, a podcast featuring “a series of uncomfortable conversations around race and inequity in the AEC industry designed to break the silence of design.” Podcast hosts Karen Compton (CPSM, Principal of A3K Consulting) and Gabrielle Bullock (FAIA, NOMAC, IIDA, LEED AP, Principal, Director of Global Diversity at Perkins & Will) asked Nina about JUSTICEscape, the course she created at Cal Poly Pomona. Nina generously shared with us the JUSTICEscape manifesto and her preparatory notes for the interview, notes which are rich in content and references, an exploratory primer on “the infinite overlaps of how race and racism are constructed by spatial means.”
KC + GB:
You created a new course at Cal Poly Pomona, JUSTICEscape. First of all, what is it? And why did you feel it necessary to create it?
The JUSTICEscape course responds both to our Student Leadership Group’s ‘Open Letter to the Department of Landscape Architecture from Students For Immediate and Long-Term Changes to Combat Racism and Anti-Blackness’, and to my realization that the ‘BLM Reading Lists’ circulated among the built environment and academic communities would not be enough to contextualize the renewed yet overdue scrutiny of the systemic intersections of racism and the built environment. As I read every book I could over the 2020 summer, I found it necessary to ‘connect-the-dots’ from historically legislated white supremacy to the contemporary policies that continue to shape the built environment to the detriment of BIPOC. As these histories and policies went/go uninvestigated and are normalized in American curriculums, design schools continue to operate and educate from a Eurocentric lens, perpetuating the colonization, exploitation, and marginalization of peoples of color, simply by ignoring how the landscape and our environments have been systematically curated.
For my personal research, I graphically mapped the connections of Race-Space Theory to understand their impact and spatial intersectionality. As a practitioner and educator, I was under-educated in the infinite overlaps of how race and racism are constructed by spatial means, and I needed to data-visualize these systems. Reading Race-Space Theory is enlightening and horrifying but cannot be fully understood without illustrating its applications in design education and practice. It’s almost like we’ve been operating in the dark – in a kind of dreamlike state detached from the harsher realities of the power structures that determine what gets built and why.
My mapping was not intended to be a course. It was a personal exercise, to satisfy my curiosity, to make sense of the connections and why they are not integral to design curricula. I shared the map with an academic colleague who proclaimed, ‘This is a class – that needs to be taught!’ Word got out and I was asked to teach it. The course then became an uncomfortable, imposter-syndrome, weight to design, as I am so conscious of the incredibly prolific scholars, academics, activists, artists, designers, and practitioners who have dedicated their lives and careers to this work – who have the life experience and erudite expertise to teach Race-Space Theory. But my responsibility to, and consideration of, my students and their justified demands overrode my discomfort, and I culled all the applicable landscape architecture-related resources I could find into a living database for the students to study in response to the assignments, hoping it would enable them to craft future visions of space devoid of caste.
JUSTICEscape attempts to provide a safe space for students to voice their frustrations, concerns, experiences, dreams, and questions – to have difficult conversations. Since our pandemic-induced synchronous teaching and learning eliminate our studio-culture tradition of in-person collaboration, my teaching assistants and I do our best to create a virtual forum of ‘sharing’, as we discuss how space can be shaped by caste. We ask the students to make corresponding digital artifacts addressing the topics. It’s literally a protected learning community, carefully piloted by our manifesto to unearth, expose, and debunk the false narratives of discrimination, while engaging each other with empathy. The assignments and activities are designed to redefine personal dignity, sit with grief, and unpack policy as the students imagine futures devoid of caste. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is our textbook. This book helps us investigate and link racist ideologies and policies throughout history to explore the caste system and its legacies of colonialism and social inequities. We emphasize how space can be shaped by racism (or the ignorance or denial thereof) and its connections to modernity, migratory politics, public health, land use, the environment, and human representations in the built environment, including concepts of Blackness, Whiteness, civil rights, resistance, and protest. Our hands-on activities engage students’ insights on the interconnected discourse of humanness in Landscape Architecture, Urban Design, Architecture, and inform and reconceptualize what it means to be human. We trace the historical trajectory from socioeconomic access and mobility to the privatization and consumerization of public space and institutional goods as hoarding vehicles to maintain privilege, using race as the camouflaged driver of capitalism. We confront the hypocrisies of these processes to reveal denied facts and reclaim our value as tellers, keepers and preservers of our own histories and stories. We disassemble the illusions of the empire and decolonize inequitable structures, unmasking the intrinsic racial hierarchies that persist in the making of the built environment.
This is by no means a perfect curriculum model, but a beginning approach that poses subjugated perspectives from an epistemic standpoint, or what bell hooks calls “a central location for the production of a counter-hegemonic discourse.” This approach is also rooted in theories and research that prioritize a critical examination of whiteness and related concepts via the sociological disciplines, examining the complex intersections of Privilege vs Oppression, Social Identity Theory, Epistemology, Critical Whiteness Theory, Lived Experience Theory, Phenomenology, Environmental Law, and Human Behavior, and of course, the Eight Pillars of Caste Isabel Wilkerson details in her book. These topics need to be taught from multiple social, historical, and socioeconomic perspectives due of the vast differences in students’ experiences, to avoid the danger of homogenizing their experiences. Explicit education on the continuation of 21st century racism should be included, as a critical praxis capable of shifting the paradigm for students and contextualizing their current studies.
The goal of this course is to educate ourselves, hold each other accountable, and build solidarity in pursuit of embracive public space design, equitable representation, and consideration of all peoples in landscape architecture. We center our attention on social justice, examining and dismantling systemic canons founded on Eurocentric white supremacy, and work to create a genuinely accessible public realm.
A significant outcome of JUSTICEscape is the students’ investigation of social identity – the portion of an individual’s self-concept derived from perceived membership in a social group – and their reclamation of personal dignity, evidenced by the ‘Dignity Portraits’, co-opting a gilded age portrait with their own countenance, accompanied by an ethnographic narrative of their family history. This social identity approach to teaching/learning allows one to modify one’s self-identity or social group perception towards self-acceptance, pride in familial legacy.
Angela Davis speaks a lot about intersectionality. How do justice and anti-racism intersect with architecture/landscape architecture?
I look to Kimberlé Crenshaw as one of the founders of critical race theory and her development of intersectionality, the theory of how overlapping or intersecting social identities, particularly minority identities, relate to systems and structures of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Her research is critical to the development of intersectional feminism. Professor Crenshaw cites and continues the work of American Black feminists Anna Julia Cooper and Maria Stewart, in addition to Angela Davis and Deborah King. It’s Professor Crenshaw’s focus on how the law responds to issues of gender and race discrimination that inspired me to develop an intersectional analysis of how systemic racism has flowed through our socioeconomic and workplace systems, specific to planning, designing, and building.
Simultaneously, to establish the relevant nomenclature and discourse of JUSTICEscape, and to explore/question identity recognition, I wanted to dissect the history of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies. I question whether Affirmative Action and DEI policies are working towards decolonizing our systems. How far do compliances go in creating a genuinely accessible and equitable public realm? What do anti-discrimination laws and policies do beyond protecting at- risk groups, monitoring the workforce, and curtailing race-based bias? How do we calibrate de-biasing in the making of the built environment? Do these policies educate future designers to plan for the communities they will serve, or do we teach them to check the boxes?
In order to abstract these policies I researched the history of legislations and federal compliances aimed at eradicating discrimination, from Roosevelt’s 1941 Executive Order 8802 outlawing discrimination based on race, color, creed (broadened in 1943 to be applicable to all government contractors) through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to Obama’s 2014 Executive Order 13665 amending Johnson’s (and Bush’s amendment to) Executive Order 11246 to better enable workers to identify violations of equal pay laws, and his Executive Order 13672, again amending 11236 to prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2015, the Department of Labor changed OFCCP’s regulations to require federal contractors and subcontractors to disregard the sexual orientation or gender identity of applicants and employees, which required Contractors to revise their EEO and affirmative action policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.
The challenge in going down an anti-discrimination-law rabbit hole and cross-referencing it with city planning codes and ordinances is that laws (continuously subjected to political backlash) address workplace representation, and city planning codes (also subject to political will and fiscal stimuli) provide land use and building layout constraints, while superficially complying with diversity, equity, and inclusion laws. The deeper work is to unearth the concealed political, cultural, social, and economic codes of development, aesthetics, and space production – asking who has the power and agency to concretize design, and if livability for BIPOC is genuinely considered beyond face value? These codes are viewed separately, ignoring overlaps of racial hierarchies, social identities, and structural privilege, and appropriating cultural production. Raced bodies are further marginalized in architectural spaces and places through pervasive, legal exclusions and codified by inherent bias and stereotypes, resulting in homogenized, unjust environments, telling false stories. When addressing racism at institutional levels, these ordinances provide the illusion of fairness, but don’t address systemic injustice. Despite prohibitions on discrimination in housing, health, education, employment, and voting, the injustices persist. The policies are as limited as some corporations’ and institutions’ public statements supporting Diversity Equity and Inclusion and Black Lives Matter, which are not enough to dismantle oppressive systems, as we now are witnessing the co-opting of this social movement and brutal violations of civil rights.
I believe these obstacles are surmountable if we proceed beyond ‘awareness’ to education on the history and persistence of systemic racism (recognizing that colonial history shapes the current inequalities that structure society), while simultaneously acknowledging the full humanity and rich contributions of all BIPOC. We need to be able to hold these conflicting realities at once, as they are the keys to unlocking and supporting our future visions for a just and healthy landscape.
I’ve heard more than one of my peers in architecture say, we can shame people into changing. But you have been clear that ‘shame is not an effective social justice tool and is inherently dehumanizing.’ What do you see as a more effective approach?
Full disclosure: I look to Brene Brown for her research on vulnerability, shame, and accountability. Professor Brown says that accountability is a prerequisite for change and we need to understand the difference between being held accountable for racism, and feeling shame, and being shamed, while unpacking shame vs guilt. However, it’s important also to challenge cognitive dissonance and the six stages of ‘armouring-up’ as she describes. We try to address these and other mechanisms in our manifesto – as a sort of ‘rules for engagement’ in JUSTICEscape. Each manifesto tenant is accompanied by a corresponding plant, best known for its medicinal/healing qualities.
Planner, educator, and activist James Rojas works across the United States using hands-on community engagement practices to help individuals and communities reflect, collaborate, and find their core values. Rojas spoke with DLA in early February to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles and beyond.
You are well-known for your work on the topic of Latino Urbanism, can you share a few thoughts on what sets Latino Urbanism apart from other forms of urban design and also, how the principles of Latino Urbanism have found wider relevance during the COVID-19 era?
The Latino Urbanism movement, influenced by its Spanish and indigenous roots, treats land and people as a sensory experience rooted in relationships. When the shelter-in-place orders took effect this spring, Americans suddenly began living with spatial and social limitations, similar to living in a medieval walled city. Americans, however, traditionally think of land as a resource or as part of a transaction. Latino Urbanism, like the COVID-19 pandemic, is challenging the transactional and market-driven urban planning approaches to design that have dominated this country. These two forms of urbanism have core differences that go back centuries.
Early British settlements in the United States, for example, were settled by people who spoke the same language and shared similar values, creating a certain uniformity in design: Function, and homogeneity, was preferred over visual expression, sensory experience, and relationship to the landscape. By contrast, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, they developed a set of guidelines that clearly laid out plazas and street grids for anyone to understand. This may have helped the indigenous peoples or African slaves to spatially and visually navigate these settlements, and this visual expression of sensory experiences in the landscape became a shared language between these groups. Fast-forward 400 years, visual and self-expression have become key elements of Latino Urbanism.
During the pandemic people are walking because they can’t go many places. However, many Angelenos have discovered they can’t walk in their neighborhoods because their streets are designed for cars. By contrast, because Latinos walk and use transit, they have been able to develop a deeper relation with city streets, and in turn have transformed these same streets for intimate walking experiences. Walking in a Latino neighborhood becomes a rich, sensory experience with intimate connections to these spaces that you can’t get from driving. Every step becomes a mindful, sensory experience.
Unlike conventional American urban or suburban landscapes, where perfection is the ideal, the Latino-American landscape is one of cultural, social, and economic production. Every resident has a hand in the production of space and of the community; this empowers them. These landscapes are culturally vital and represent culturally informed approaches to space creation.
These do-it-yourself or “rasquache” adaptations and aspirational interventions create a hybrid style that I term “Latino Urbanism.” Art-making helps preserve and enhance the Latino community’s values through the urban planning process because it offers new methods of planning inquiry. It also taps into people’s aspirations of place and allows Latinos to add visual and spatial value to suburbia. During the COVID-19 era, this approach has taken on a greater urgency than ever before.
I did a workshop with USC students a few months ago, for example, where we built our ideal city block; most wanted to walk around the block to pick flowers or pick fruit, instead of getting in their cars and driving to a shopping mall. They want to stay on their block, they want to make space; But in reality, this approach is considered to be un-American (from a normative planning point of view). The car feeds transactional ways of life; with COVID-19, people have to think about what is immediately around them and how it makes them feel. I bet, right now, if we were to ask Angelenos whether they need more parking or more trees, they’d say “more trees.” That’s because of how COVID-19 has changed how we live in our neighborhoods.
What can we learn from Latino Urbanism in the COVID-19 era?
During the COVID-19 era, living outside, from dining to hanging out, has become the recommended and preferred way for socializing with our friends and family. And no one uses or designs better outdoor spaces than Latinos. For example at the historic Avila Adobe, the kitchen was in the patio outside. It was not until the arrivals of the Yankees that kitchens moved inside the home. Similar historic trends and land-use patterns can be experienced in the homes and neighborhoods of Latino L.A. today. Latinos have and always will embrace and use outside space as part of their daily life, from the residential to the commercial. As Latinos have moved to L.A., they have brought attitudes towards weather, housing, land, and public space with them from their home countries. Many Latinos come from the rural places of Mexico or Latin America, where social, cultural and—to some extent—economic life revolves around the Zócalo or plaza. The plaza becomes an extension of residents’ home life. This dialoge manifests itself in the way Latinos redesign their single-family homes in the U.S.
Because of warm weather and Spanish urban design precedents, the traditional Latin American courtyard home is built to the street and designed with a “patio” or interior courtyard, for example. The patio helps ventilate the interior of the home and floods it with light. With most rooms facing the patio, it becomes the physical focus of the home. By contrast, the American houses are tightly shielded from the weather. In the Latino house, the focus is on being either inside or outside, not in front or in back. The Latino household extends its presence to all four corners of the lot. Nowhere else in the Latino vernacular home is this use of space so illuminated and celebrated than in the enclosed front yard or plaza. Depending on the practical needs of the owners, the use and design of the front yards vary from elaborate courtyard gardens reminiscent of Latin America to working spaces.
While one can find fences in many front yards across America, the egalitarian front yard has led many to think of fences in terms of exclusion, seclusion, or security—barriers against the world. By contrast, in Latino neighborhoods and barrios, fences bring neighbors and pedestrians together. Front-yard fences have become cultural icons and places for social interaction. While it’s true that many Latino homeowners also build fences to protect their homes, keep neighbors pets off their lawns, or keep their small children from running into the street, the Latino front-yard fence also creates an edge where people tend to congregate—a comfortable point for social interaction between people in the front yard and on the sidewalk. The threshold is a pivotal part of the home and a powerful device that regulates interaction by indicating whether the residence is open/accessible vs. closed/inaccessible. The enclosed front yard physically defines a barrier between the public and private spaces of the home and the street. Thus, the enclosed front yard of the Latino home acts as a large foyer and becomes an active part of the house. The sense of entry into the Latino home begins at the front gate, often emphasized with an arch.
Collectively, the enclosed front yards in the neighborhoods change the scale of the suburban block and create an intimate atmosphere. As the fences along the street assign yard space to each home, the street becomes more urban in character, with each fence reflecting the personality of a resident on the street.
Front porches are important to Latinos—In most American homes, the use and importance of the front porch has declined. But for Latino homeowners and renters, the front porch is a critical, valued connection between outdoor-indoor space and public-private space. In Latin America, rooms such as the laundry room are not roofed or are located outside the enclosed house; so the use of outdoor space as part of the home is a common practice.
On public streets, commercial activity such as street vending, swap meets, and Mercados also take place outdoors. These activities and places are an economic, social, and cultural center for the growing Latino community. This hybrid Mercado-swap meet was part of tianguis legacy of selling in open streets and public spaces pre-Hispanic times.
What do you think is missing from Los Angeles’s architecture and urban design conversations?
Recently my partner, John Kamp, wrote a beautiful story on El Gran Burrito taqueria on Vermont and Santa Monica Boulevard and the importance the place has as a place for Latino immigrants, gay, and trans folks to meet. It got such negative feedback from the self-professed progressive, non-Latino community, who quickly dismissed the story because the space was going to be a future site for affordable housing. While we agree that affordable housing is needed, there should be room in the discussion for how we can have a city where both places like El Gran Burrito and affordable housing can co-exist. Mono-solution thinking is problematic and precisely what drove the destruction of places like Chavez Ravine decades ago. Additionally, public space is just as critical for housing as the housing itself.
Cities are a collection of relationships between people and places that are forged through their memories and experiences. We did a Place It! workshop on Pico Boulevard where we asked people to build their favorite childhood memories. To help the community understand their relationship to the street. A few African American female participants built memories of doing hair with their elders and talked about wanting to see the beauty supply stores back on Pico. Knowing their memory allowed us to understand the importance of the beauty supply store.
Many non-Latino architecture and design critics dominate L.A. architecture and urban planning conversations. They pick and choose works based on their criteria. They measure outcomes through their aesthetic or functional lenses. They see L.A. as a tabula rasa, a blank space for new interventions that don’t have a relationship to land and people. This attitude further disempowers already marginalized Latinos and might lead to furthering some of our preexisting social ills. As design professionals we have to lift all people up.
Many Latinos may think differently about space because they do not come from the traditional middle class suburbs. Many Latinos living in the US question who they are, where they come from, and what they value; however, by celebrating their built environments we can help them answer these questions. We need to help Latinos articulate their experiences, and the feelings they have about their community. We have to transform their self-doubt into new ways of inquiry and problem-solving.
How would you articulate an urban planning and urban design response to the COVID-19 crisis?
A solution might be to look at life and urbanism as being relationship-based and rooted in places and a sense of well-being so that we’re not always traveling back and forth. Can we be content in our place? Everyday urban design and architecture blogs highlight new buildings framed as the solution to our problems. But what if building is not the solution? During COVID-19 people want to rekindle their physical relationship to nature through walking and growing plants. Nature is our go-to zone, and yet that’s never part of a building agenda. We tend to want to build our way out of our urban ills. However, we should always begin the design and planning process with our core human values, lived experiences, and relationships with land and others as starting points. This will provide us with holistic solutions that will change the outcomes on how we design and build.
Dear LAForum Community,
Your LAForum Board of Directors never let up in 2020, despite an exceptionally challenging year. Through their dedication, perseverance, and Zoom fatigue, the Board continued LAForum’s mission of instigating dialogues and offering diverse programming in the city by organizing socially distanced events, and supporting projects over virtual platforms and in new publications.
I’m proud to announce that the LAForum 2021 Board of Directors will be the most diverse in the organization’s history in terms of members’ backgrounds, professional expertise, and in their personal passions and interests.
Also in 2021, the LAForum will be helmed with exceptional talent in leadership by Nina Briggs (Co-President), Greg Kochanowski (Co-President) and Jose Herrasti (Vice President).
I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to have served as the President of the LAForum over this past year. As everyone very well knows, business was not as usual in 2020.
In June, the LAForum Board re-committed ourselves and our organization to unequivocally denouncing racism and to confronting racism in our own organization and in the broader professional sphere. Through our platforms, programming and actions in our ever-evolving city, we promised to make a greater and permanent commitment to change.
Our first completely digital 2020 Summer Newsletter was launched in September, and featured the team at the Southern California Library — an anti-racist resource — in conversation with LAForum on learning about the impacts and foundations of racism in the built environment. The Newsletter also featured protest posters by designer Luis Montoya and a collection of 2020’s most memorable ‘Delirious L.A.” interviews from our bi-weekly, emailed Newsletter: Some of those interviews included artist Lauren Halsey, critic and curator Mimi Zeiger, environmental journalist Mark Olalde, and author Geoff Manaugh discussing his new publication on quarantine architecture. Join the ‘DLA’ mailing list here, and stay updated on all 2021 events and conversations.
In August and September, LAForum hosted our Summer Exhibition, Every. Thing. Changes. with 20 artists, writers and designers offering 20 new works that speculate on LA’s new decade and possible futures. The newly commissioned texts and visual works were developed over the course of spring 2020, and were the outcomes of a “call and response” process. The new works were exhibited in physical sites and on the exhibition’s virtual platform site. The LAForum was honored to be the steward of such innovative, thoughtful and impactful works by so many talented creators. The exhibition was featured on KCRW, Archinect, The Architect’s Newspaper and SCI-Arc Live.
Greg Kochanowski’s book The Wild was released in October. It is the second in LAForum’s continuing pamphlet series which was re-launched last year after a 10-year hiatus. The Wild was generously funded by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and we are thankful particularly to County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and her staff for their ongoing support in projects like these. The Wild explores the urban periphery of Los Angeles, where the city meets the mountains — a landscape inherently vulnerable to wildfire and its secondary and tertiary effects, including flash floods and debris flows. The publication seeks to document the policies that have incentivized growth at the exurban periphery and reveal the risks produced by the urbanization of the fire-adapted landscape. Purchase a digital or hard copy here.
Board Members Aaron Vaden-Youmans and Jose Herrasti headed up our new ‘Think-In’ series — a transorganizational, knowledge-sharing conversation with other like-missioned non-profits and design organizations around the country and around the world in an effort to support the profound, positive change required post COVID-19 in our cities. The first of the series occurred in November with Mexico City’s EL CIELO MX and Elena Tudela of O-RU Oficina de Resiliencia Urbana on housing futures and urban realities in both L.A. and Mexico City.
Former LAForum 2019 Vice President Christopher Esteban Torres, 2020 Vice President Nina Briggs and I collaborated with the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office and L.A. City’s Chief Design Officer, Christopher Hawthorne, this year to help draft the brief and provide counsel for the recently launched $100,000 “Low-Rise” Housing Competition. We are honored and grateful to have been a part of making this exciting competition a success for Los Angeles.
Over the summer, our physical and digital archive — with some of the LAForum’s earliest publications and newsletters — were migrated to our laforum.org website for researchers, students and the curious to review and access there in future. To access the archive, visit http://laforum.org/publications/.
Thanks to Vice President of Membership Lilian Pfaff, LAForum’s fall fundraising campaign was a success despite a very challenging fundraising climate in late 2020. We also thank our dedicated Advisory Board Members for making this campaign a success. It is because of these efforts, that the 2021 LAForum Board will be able to execute the great work and programming they have planned this year. Our members, participants, and supporters are what make the Forum thrive. If you haven’t already, please become a member and join us during our 34th year in 2021!
Thanks as well to our outgoing Board Members: Katrin Terstegen, Aaron Vaden-Youmans, Aaron Neubert, Mitchell De Jarnett and Anthony Fontenot.
For me it was an honor to serve as President and as a Board Member over the last four years, I look forward to seeing the LAForum move into a new decade, with new leadership, and I am especially excited to witness the LAForum’s next insights, collaborations and approaches towards framing and challenging what architecture means in an evolving city.
It is my great pleasure to introduce the new 2021 LAForum Board of Directors and Executive Leadership below. Congratulations to all!
Very best wishes,
Wendy Gilmartin, AIA
2021 LAForum Board of Directors and Executive Leadership:
Nina Briggs, Co-President
Greg Kochanowski, Co-President
Jose Herrasti, Vice-President
Emmanuelle Bourlier, Co-Vice-President of Information
Antonio Pacheco, Co-Vice-President of Information
Anders Bjerregaard-Andersen, Vice-President of Grants Development
Lilian Pfaff, Co-Vice-President of Membership Development
Michelle Frier, Co-Vice-President of Membership Development
Ismaelly Peña, Vice-President of Operations
Edward Ogosta, Treasurer
This November and December, as part of #GivingTuesday, we will ask our community to consider celebrating the LAForum in their year-end charitable giving — and becoming a Member, or Sponsor, is an excellent way to contribute. We spoke with two LAForum Members, Lilian Pfaff of the LAForum Board of Directors, and Zaira Hernandez Administrative Assistant for the LAForum — who have headed up our 2020 initiative.
Hi Lilian and Zaira, thank you for making time to chat with Delirious LA. Please tell us, what is #GivingTuesday?
ZH: #GivingTuesday is a world-wide day for people to do good and donate to non-profit organizations. This event takes place the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, which this year falls on December 1st — and that is right around the corner! In 2020, when so many things were put on hold, the LAForum continued with their scheduled programming and worked hard to create socially distanced events for Los Angeles. Our small organization makes a big impact with events like this past summer’s exhibition Every. Thing. Changes., with events like ForumFest, and Newsletters and Pamphlets we publish every year for the design community. Please consider donating to the LAForum by becoming a Member or Sponsor — it will help the LAForum create future events.
LP: Our highly successful 2020 Summer Exhibition “Every. Thing. Changes.” was an outdoor event with 20 new works documenting the collective views of life in Los Angeles. Created by a select group of local designers and thinkers, “Every. Thing. Changes.” put forth a “call and response” process between the 20 L.A.-based writers, artists and designers. In parking lots and on virtual platforms around the city, the public could experience these new works together while safely distanced. It is events like this we need the publics’ help to continue. And it is easy to contribute: Go to http://laforum.org/join-us/ and you can become a Member or click on “Base (Flexible)” where you can contribute whatever amount you wish.
Why should giving to LAForum matter to the larger design community in Los Angeles?
ZH: The LAForum instigates dialogue, has an established voice, and works hard to maintain and continue to build communities in many formats. This year, Delirious LA had more interviews than in recent past years to provide members with perspectives on relevant topics of the times. The LAForum’s President’s letter of standing against racism was a much-needed statement for the organization itself, and also for the design community, which needs more diversity! An established organization like this is an example in the design and construction industry and LAForum leads by example. We must all work harder to include more Black and Brown voices in our workplace, teams and design conversations. This non-profit organization runs via an all-volunteer Board of Directors — we have talented and ambitious people on the board with great ideas! It is only possible to curate these interviews, newsletters, and events with donations from the community or by becoming a Member, Partner, Supporter, or Sponsor.
What will LAForum do with membership funds in 2021 specifically?
ZH: The membership funds in 2021 will go towards our operating budget, events and publications. Next year LAForum will be hosting their bi-yearly event, ForumFest, open to Members and Sponsors at a discounted price. Members can also expect more Newsletters and Pamphlets in response to relevant events. The more Members and Sponsors the LAForum has, the more programming we can do, it is as simple as that.
LP: The new publication “The Wild: Temporalities of Risk,” by architect Greg Kochanowski examines the urban periphery of Los Angeles which is a landscape vulnerable to fire, flash flood and debris flow. Documenting policies that have incentivized growth across this territory, it reveals the risks produced by the urbanization of the fire-adapted landscape. This important contribution, which we published this year, will be followed by further publications discussing the future of our built environment. The LAForum also has a “Think-In” underway to nurture dialogue with architecture and design organizations in other cities (LIGA Espacio para Architectura Mexico City, and Storefront for Art & Architecture New York, to name a few). The “Think-In” is focused on understanding the changes required in a post COVID-19 world and to promote social justice in our cities. The current prompt for the “Think-In” is: “How can we better support our members and community in these challenging times as they in turn support our cities to achieve a just, green recovery?”
But we need your to help us get all this great programming out there. Contribute today!
This week, Delirious LA caught up with the organizers of the 2020 AIA|LA 2X8 STUDENT EXHIBITION. As it enters its 14th year, the 2020 exhibition which opens on November 5th, 2020 at 6:00 PM, via http://2×8.org will be free to the public and entirely virtual. Issues of social equity, as they relate to housing conditions in Los Angeles and other cities across the country are the theme of this year’s work. To engage these issues more effectively, SoCal NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) consulted with the participants on issues of race, economic empowerment, and urban diversity. Delirious LA was delighted to speak to 2×8 program co-chairs Tatiana Sarkisian and Kirill Volchinskiy along with exhibition designer, Garet Ammerman, to learn more about this year’s 2020 AIA|LA 2X8 STUDENT EXHIBITION.
Tatiana, Kirill and Garet, greetings to all three of you, and thank you for taking the time to meet with Delirious LA. How does the 2×8 Exhibition and Competition fit into the larger mission of educational outreach for AIA|LA?
TS, & KV: Thank you to Delirious LA for taking the time to discuss the 2×8 program with us. The Competition bridges between academia and professional practice by providing a platform for student design work to be recognized outside of their respective schools. This serves as a path toward future professional opportunities and financial support as they pursue their academic goals. Furthermore, AIA|LA assists students by providing resources to help them out in licensure, mentorship, and building a network of professional contacts. The 2×8 Exhibition and Competition is an opportunity for students to develop a connection to our organization, and we hope that they will consider joining AIA|LA as young professionals.
GA: This is the first year I have worked with the 2×8 committee. Previously, I had only known the 2×8 student exhibition from a design perspective, and I have learned a lot about its’ underlying mission as well as all the work that goes into organizing it. It is such a great opportunity for students to be able to gain exposure through working with a nationally recognized organization like AIA/LA. The 2×8 Exhibition and Competitionprovides an inclusive and elevated platform for the students to share their work with the world. It is the longest running program of its kind and it engages students from most of the schools of architecture across California.
2020 has been such a challenging and difficult year to plan a public event of any kind. What were some the challenges you faced in putting together this year’s 2020 AIA|LA 2X8 STUDENT EXHIBITION?
TS: 2×8 usually focuses on the traditional gallery exhibition format, which is conducive to a large opening reception, with educators and practitioners in the same space engaging the students’ design work firsthand. This year, we had to think about how to recreate that experience, while making sure to do justice to the work of the students. This had to be our priority. We had to prioritize everyone’s safety during these times of C19, and we have been able to achieve this goal through the generosity of our sponsors, and the commitment from our amazing committee. We have had an overwhelming amount of support and were able to raise $30,000 in scholarship awards for the students this year.
KV: One of the greatest challenges this year was developing the technology in-house, pro-bono, solely using the talents and time of committee members to build this year’s virtual exhibition. In 2020, our challenges also became our opportunities, and not having a physical exhibition allowed us to manage funds and award a significantly larger scholarships to the students. Additionally, the virtual format of the exhibition allowed us to access jurors from east-coast institutions and practices including Jennifer Bonner from the GSD, Marc McQuade from Adjaye Associates, and Paul Petrunia from Archinect.
GA: The greatest challenge I faced this year was the abrupt reconceptualization of the exhibition from physical to the new virtual platform. While we were working through design details and materials acquisition for the original physical exhibition, I received the phone call that we were switching over to a virtual format. This necessitated a total reboot regarding the design of the exhibit. It was an opportunity and a challenge. The new format required a design response which could take advantage of the ways that visitors would interact with the work within the virtual space of the exhibition.
In what ways did the inclusion of SoCal NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) affect the process (and outcomes) of this year’s program?
KV: The coming of the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of public consciousness this spring prompted a re-thinking of the topics of equity, inclusion, and opportunity for many members of our discipline. SoCal NOMA has authored point by point plans for the profession regarding improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in architectural firms. They have also issued a similar challenge for colleges and universities. The 2×8 program is partnering with SoCal NOMA to hold a panel discussion where students of color engage representatives of architectural institutions directly. This discussion will be moderated by Josh Foster from NOMA. The title of the panel is “Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy.” The intended outcome of this panel is to reinvigorate the discussion surrounding these topics and share various strategies across institutions.
TS: The inclusion of SoCal NOMA has really opened the conversation within our committee. We needed to ensure that we were being responsive to these ongoing issues, which is why the supplemental panel discussion is organized the way that it is. Because all entries are anonymous, we do not factor in issues of identity in determining the winners of the competition. But we strongly advocate raising public awareness through our public events and programming and hope to continue this effort in the future.
How was the design of the 2020 AIA|LA 2X8 STUDENT EXHIBITION adapted from its original physical format to the new virtual one?
GA: Related to the aesthetics of the design itself, I would say that very little was adapted from the original physical format. However, some of the organizational and experiential strategies were bridged into the new virtual approach. A point of emphasis in the design of the original exhibition was an avoidance of a linear progression of project after project as displayed on a wall. This led to the creation of 9 free-floating ‘pods’, each with 3-4 sides available for the display of work. The notion of the ‘pods’ gave individuality to each display wall, with slightly different shapes and orientations within each physical room. This approach persisted in the new virtual exhibit. You can see it in how we navigate through the students’ work within the scaffolding of the virtual exhibition space. The limits of horizontality are further dissolved as the viewing angles can move vertically as well, and we maintain the uniqueness of each pod, each of which houses 1 student project.
KV: Originally, we had a building with an exhibition space and without that, the exhibition ceased to be tied to a specific physical site. Instead of being dictated by budget, square footage, and materials, the drivers for the new exhibit became the technology and the constraints of what the committee could assemble. The design ceased to be tethered to a space and is now only constrained by bandwidth. The 2×8 program is structured to provide visibility for students and opportunities for emerging faculty to design a public exhibition. The competition brief, to which Garet responded with the winning proposal, mandated designing for a second life of the exhibit. The theme of housing created a need to focus on zero waste and using materials that would be able to be repurposed after the exhibition was demounted. All these considerations were cast aside however, and the budget reserved for construction of the exhibition was made available to the students as scholarship awards.
Looking forward to next year, do you feel that some of the changes made in 2020 will affect the format of the 2021 AIA|LA 2X8 STUDENT EXHIBITION?
TS: With each iteration of this exhibition, we are given the opportunity to build on the previous years’ experience, and to expand the possibilities of what the 2×8 program can offer. While it cannot compare to an in-person connection, an online experience can supplement our efforts in supporting the students on their path towards professional careers. This year, we were able to reach outside of our network in Los Angeles and enjoy the perspectives of a diverse group of practitioners who agreed to serve as jurors and panelists. This is something we would like to carry forward in subsequent iterations of the program. The new virtual exhibition format allows for greater exposure of the work, and provides access to a national, and international audience.
GA: I like the idea of a virtual exhibition that is mirrored by physical exhibition. I do not foresee the virtual realm eliminating the need for an in-person experience with an opening night and the tactile experience of concrete space just yet. Assuming that the physical exhibition would forever be documented online through any number of social media sources, it seems appropriate to have a more curated version of that documentation by the organizers of the event. All of this is dependent on logistics and resources however, and there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes to create this year’s virtual exhibition. We have hopefully achieved a successful virtual platform for the AIA/LA. The 2×8 Exhibition and Competition that can be built upon for years to come.
To celebrate the launch of his new publication, The Wild, LAForum interviewed Greg Kochanowski, AIA / ASLA, Studio Director at RIOS. Greg is a licensed architect, aspiring landscape architect, and educator in the State of California. He has been practicing and teaching for over 25 years with projects spanning a wide array of scales, typologies, complexities, and disciplinary orientations. His work and research seek to holistically combine the techniques and strategies of architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism to create unique, sustainable, forward thinking, equitable environments that build upon and enhance the specific qualities of a place.
Congratulations on the publication of “The Wild” Greg. Can you tell us what led you to undertake the research which produced this pamphlet?
I started this work around 2014. Having lived in Los Angeles since 1997, I noticed the cycle fire, flood, debris flows the city experiences on a yearly basis. At that time, no one in the design community (that I knew of) was discussing the effects of climate change on arid regions (except for Hadley Arnold & Peter Arnold’s Arid Lands Institute). The conversation was very “coast / euro-centric”, focusing on sea level rise. So, I wanted to start examining what this meant for Los Angeles and other arid regions, as well as areas of Central and South America. My wife and I have lived in the Santa Monica Mountains since 2000. Up until 2018 we had personally experienced wildfires and debris flows but managed to always be just tangentially affected. Consequently, in November 2018, our luck ran out and we lost our home in the Woolsey Fire. We are part of a 215-home co-op community on 26 acres in Cornell, CA. Coincidentally, in October of the same year, I had just participated in an education session at the ASLA National Conference on the subject – which made losing our home one month later even that much more surreal. I found myself “living the research” so to speak. I guess as a way of dealing with the grief and loss, I dove headfirst into the research – essentially being consumed with listening to and reading whatever I could. This then led to further education sessions at the ASLA and AIA national conferences, and this pamphlet.
Can “The Wild” be considered a “user’s guide” for life in the urban periphery of southern California?
That’s how it’s intended, of sorts. Peri-urban environments, such as the wildland urban interface (WUI), are so complex and multivalent that it seemed impossible to tackle all the issues in depth within the space of a pamphlet. Additionally, the book is attempting to describe a web of relations between economics, politics, infrastructure, planning, natural (and unnatural) ecosystems, architecture, landscape, geology, and communities. These classifications overlap and combine in various ways, so I thought it would be good to reframe the issues into categories that allow for an understanding of that complexity. The pamphlet, then, is not necessarily intended to be read from front to back, but rather I hoped someone could thumb through it and gain some understanding of this complexity. Hence the organization of the Clouds, Transects, Fields, and Blankets chapters came about. Each begins with a description of existing conditions, followed by some speculative vignettes. This is not intended to be exhaustive of any one issue but intended to reframe certain conditions within WUI environments to emphasize overlaps with the goal of thinking through potential future scenarios. These chapters are bracketed by a deeper dive written piece at the beginning of the book, and more in-depth project studies/speculations at the back. These environments, and this research, has its own language so the glossary is meant as an introduction those terms and definitions. Hopefully, the combination of all these various mediums and facets increases awareness and spurs interest in the reader to examine these issues more closely. Currently through my firm RIOS I, along with Elisa Read and Chihiro Isono, am working on an education project with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica mountains entitled “Sustainable Defensible Space” (www.defensiblespace.org), which is more directly a “user’s guide” to instruct the general public how to build, plant, maintain, and organize within these environments. It’s a very exciting project, and one of the first of its kind in Southern California.
When considering the near and middle-term future, where does “The Wild” come down on the “retreat” vs “remediation” dilemma faced by the residents of the urban periphery?
It’s an interesting and very complex question that usually gets reduced into a set of binaries. ‘Retreat’ from these environments, within popular culture, has been defined as the responsible thing to do, both for the person individually, as well as the general society (i.e., public dollars no longer needed to ‘bail out’ individuals). But this is tied to one’s own personal circumstance – can someone afford to leave the place (that might be the only place) providing affordable living? If they were to leave, what is the value of the property left behind, and can that value be recouped if the consensus is these environments should not be lived in? Conversely, the issue of ‘remediation’ is not really the right term to use in this situation, especially if we define it as “the act of reversing or stopping environmental change”. These are not systems that can be reversed as much as we can reverse the trajectory of climate change. Although exacerbated by human activity, these are fire adapted landscapes that have existed for centuries. Fires have rolled through the Santa Monica Mountains long before people settled there. So, the idea of reversing this is a misnomer, as there is no idealized state to go back to. Instead, and maybe this is what you meant by your question, we need to stop living in conflict with our environment. Los Angeles was born out of a harnessing of resources – the making of a place – instead of co-existing and adapting to the found conditions. Native Americans understood the symbiosis between wildlands and humans and, as such, were able to harness fire to their benefit in complex forms of land management. So too must we rethink the planning and development of our built environment. The publication is intended to foster that discussion.
Mike Davis wrote, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn”, (Ecology of Fear, 1998). Is “The Wild” a rebuttal or a reassessment of that position?
Yes. Although not explicitly cited in the writing, the intent was to provide a reassessment and somewhat of a rebuttal of ‘TCFLMB’. Davis’ piece has populist overtones that have become generalized and associated with other communities living in disaster prone environments. The demographics of most people living adjacent, or intermixed, with wildlands are lower to middle income and mostly driven out of urban centers due to inflated housing costs. This is certainly true for Los Angeles and the areas we are seeing affected by the simultaneous wildfires along the west coast in California, Oregon, Montana, and Washington State. So, holding the wealthy community of Malibu up as the rule rather than the exception may make for good reading, but is rather disingenuous. In fact, there is an enormous equity issue at play here, as most communities adjacent to wildlands lack the infrastructure, resources, or investment opportunities to properly mitigate, or fight, these wildfires. Indeed, some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world are the most affected by climate change – be that by wildfires, extreme heat, or flooding. Seeing the effects of climate change as not only an environmental issue but also a human rights issue is critical to creating more holistic, sustainable, and lasting solutions.
You are part of an ongoing series of town hall meetings (starting in November of 2018) addressing the effort to rebuild after the Woolsey Fire. How does publication of “The Wild” fit into that ongoing process?
Well the book does, and does not, fit into that process. Being part of a community that is in the process of rebuilding has certainly made my understanding of the issues more visceral and real. There is a tendency in the analysis of these environments (or I guess any level of analysis to some extent) to work in the abstract – 30,000 ft above evaluating broad systems and patterns, be they environmental, infrastructural, cultural, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there is a necessity for thinking big and visioning possible futures, and this publication tries to do exactly that in places. But what has been revealed to me over the past couple of years (and was immediately apparent in November 2018) is the impact of wildfires on people’s lives. That may sound obvious, but the deeper message that came out of Woolsey is how important strong communities are in creating nimble, adaptive (dare I say resilient) solutions. Wildfires are caused through a combination of global and local factors, so as much as humans have helped to exacerbate (and accelerate) the current climate crisis, so too are wildfires primarily caused by human activity adjacent to wildlands. As such, working on the ground at local levels is a necessity. The hope is that publications such as this, as well as nonprofits and locally organized groups (Fire Safe Councils and Fire Adapted Communities for example), can help to educate the general public, initiate dialogue, and spark the imagination – all with the purpose of promoting the ongoing stewardship of these landscapes in a sustainable manner.
Anthony Acock is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Cal Poly Pomona and a freelance art director focusing on the nonprofit sector. He formerly served on the Board of Directors for AIGA Los Angeles as an Education Co-Director, and is on the Ambassador Board of the Innovation Center of Design Excellence. Acock writes regularly on the subjects of; empathy, interdisciplinary collaborations, and punk culture. Skateboarding deep into middle age, being comfortable with a can of spray paint, sloppily playing drums in punk bands, and chasing his two delightful but not particularly useful children around are his other areas of interest.
Hi Anthony, this is the second LAForum Newsletter you have designed in as many years, how did your job as a designer change between the years of 2019 and 2020?
2020 is wild and awful in most measurable ways. So much has changed in how I view the world as a designer, the meaningfulness of design in general, and my own participation in the design process.
In 2019, On Listening was a really inspired project. I was given an audio recording of ambient city noises and google map directions, which I was able to replicate with a camera, walking around, shooting pictures of things that looked interesting or useful, and getting a feel for the subject matter before I started designing. It was honestly a great time.
2020 is not hospitable to a similar process. Leaving the house becomes an exercise in cost / benefit analysis. Can I go shoot photos of XYZ for this project safely? Is it worth it? How does leaving the house put my children at risk?
Additionally, with the subject matter of both publications there is a lot of outside-looking-in happening, so I do go to these places and document what I see in a way that is non voyeuristic and doesn’t fetishize poverty. The 2020 Newsletter has made me reevaluate my participation in documenting Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. I put a lot of effort put into creating a hospitable and holistic newsletter for 2020.
2020 has required all of us to “bear witness” to so many unforeseeable events and calamities, did designing the Newsletter in any way transform your perspective on our current predicament?
2020 has made me look at my own complicity in economic injustice and racism. I am also aware that it is a privilege to be able to spend time thinking about these things, versus living them firsthand. Having the luxury to philosophically consider one’s role, without fear of the rent not being paid, or whether food is being put on the table is a real privilege.
For the 2020 publication, it was important to design the newsletter so that it could reach beyond its’ core communities of design, planning and architecture. We decided to translate as many parts of the newsletter into spanish as we possibly could. We also determined to make the 2020 Newsletter free for download. Emphasis was put on extending the accessibility of the document both financially and culturally.
The 2019 LAForum Newsletter “On Listening” included a vinyl LP as well as images and text, what was it like to synthesize all those different modes of media into one package?
The 2019 publication was very much in my wheelhouse. I have long collected vinyl records and enjoy the design of their packaging immensely. The whole concept of recording the ambient noises of Los Angeles (which is one of my favorite cities), documenting class disparity, and packaging collectible vinyl, are all areas of interest to me.
The day I captured the images for the project, I rode my motorcycle down to Skid Row, and went for a long walk shooting photos, careful not to capture people, or fall into the “ruin porn” trap. The walk eventually led me through gradients of gentrification adjacent to the Los Angeles Central Library, Central Market, and back again to skid row.
Aggregating those photos and the text into a coherent package was quite easy. My job is really fun sometimes, and I learned a lot about Los Angeles from that walk, from studying the written content, and through the process of designing the 2019 publication.
This year the 2020 LAForum Newsletter is dual formatted for “no cost” download, and for “low cost” on-demand printing, what opportunities does that afford to the reader?
This drastically expands the accessibility of the document, which was very important for all of us, especially in 2020. The information is free. If you enjoy the ephemera of a physical piece, you can purchase one. Formatting the 2020 Newsletter to be printed ‘on demand’ means that it will never go ‘out of print’. The 2020 publication was as much an exercise in accessibility as it was a designed artifact. Both are important to me, but in 2020, accessibility takes precedent.
Do you have any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?
For better or worse, as I get further entrenched into teaching and academic work, I see myself making a transition from being a ‘graphic designer’ to being a ‘design educator’. I think I am mostly okay with this. Last year I became Chair of the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Communication Design at Cal Poly Pomona. It is a role I take very seriously, for a program I very much believe in, and in a College that I believe has immense capacity for doing good. Being Chair of a Department during a pandemic falls somewhere between playing ‘wack-a-mole’ and adjusting chairs on the deck of the Titanic. It is a complicated balance, riddled with catholic guilt and fear.
As I spend more time being concerned with design pedagogy, curriculum development, faculty / student engagement, and student wellbeing, I do spend less time creating logos and websites than I did previously. I am fortunate to be able to pick and choose my extracurricular projects. These days I favor those that are in the realm of advocacy, nonprofit work, and projects which allow me to involve my students. For instance, many of the photographs in the 2020 publication were taken by my students. I recently completed a book for Nader Tehrani which involved students documenting his teaching practice. I also do a lot of work for the Inland Valley Down Syndrome Association, where my students have done everything from designing their logo and website, to painting their office and building furniture.
Any upcoming projects that I take on in the near future will continue to foreground issues of social justice, student engagement, and accessible pedagogical design in academe.
As part of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we interview exhibition designer Tim Durfee about the support and presentation of 20 newly commissioned texts and visual works that make up the show.
If you missed the opening viewing of works on August 8th, you can still visit the exhibition online through September 27th at everythingchanges2020.org.
Visit everythingchanges2020.org to find out about our upcoming curator’s tour.
The LAForum’s Summer Exhibition was originally planned for Woodbury University’s Hollywood Outpost (WUHO) — that’s where the LAF Summer Exhibit has always been in the past. But the COVID crisis forced the closure of WUHO, and therefore the 2020 Summer Exhibition into a different realm; partially in physical sites around the city and partially on virtual platforms. As the exhibition designer, how did you approach the atypical nature of the project constraints?
In meetings with the curators and the whole team, we started to view the COVID situation less as a “constraint” and more as a catalyst — prompting us to consider an exhibition according to a different set of values that, as it turns out, may be more in sync with the social, ecological, and cultural nature of this time, even if one removes the health crisis from the picture. In this case, what emerged was an exhibition that inhabits our in-car, pedestrian, and online lives equally. It is less “look at this high-concept COVID exhibition,” than “this is life now, what is an exhibition in that new life?”
The primary manifestation of that approach was placing 13’-0” tall “posts” at each of the E.T.C. sites. These posts are physical signs, tall to be visible from the street, and substantial enough to mark the site as part of a network. As locations that were equally physical places as well as pins on the GPS apps of each visitor, these posts aspired to a kind of dumb (in a good way) instance of this co-reality — that is, not metaphors but just as the ubiquity of icons in software has, over time, elevated them from mere metaphors of action in the physical world.
Clamped to the top of each post is a smartphone holder for live-streaming. I always liked the way NASA footage will so often capture random hardware in the extreme foreground while streaming extraordinary views of Earth in the background. These ostensibly accidental guests in the frame make the video so much more “live.” In our case, we included small numbers at the tops of the posts intended to appear in each stream, stamping it with its respective location. The tall poles can also be detached from the base, so visitors or docents can roam the sites as dynamic hosts to its online existence.
With your current office Tim Durfee Studio, as well as your prior collaborations with Iris Anna Regn, Louise Sandhaus, and others, you have a lot of experience in exhibition design, from projects for the Hammer Museum to The Huntington Library to LACMA. How did those past jobs lend to the knowledge base and to your design development for the Every. Thing. Changes. exhibition?
While I have definitely worked on a lot of exhibitions, I have always found it productive to resist thinking of exhibition design as a specialization, but rather as a type of project where a bunch of other modes of making intersect. I really do believe that factoring ideas and information as the shapers of form are — or should be – how we view architecture at all scales.
That said, my experience with exhibitions has definitely heightened my sensitivity about something that seems extremely pragmatic and mundane, but which I have come to view as valuable enough to “elevate” as a conceptual consideration. That is the relationship of any given project to its use of material and labor. Exhibitions involve temporary construction, and — over time — the undue waste of material for non-permanent applications has just started to feel wrong to me. This is an ecological issue, of course, but in terms of design and culture, I’ve become interested in it in a way that is perhaps more philosophically aesthetic — that is, why wouldn’t our comfort/attraction/engagement with our built environment not begin to correlate with a perception of things as embracing the right balance of expenditure-to-benefit?
Every.Thing.Changes. continues as an online show until September 27th, but the physical/streaming hybrid exhibition was super-brief. While a typical “short-run” exhibition might be 5 weeks, the E.T.C. installations ran for 5 hours. Because of this, thinking of the show as a kind of designed coincidence — a “momentary” rather than “temporary” event — became really intriguing. (This idea of designing a coincidence grew out of collaborations I’ve done with Ben Hooker and Jenny Rodenhouse.) Could there be a way to treat every material as “just passing through” on its way to some other use? With this in mind, we then tried to put together a palette of elements that would either be reused, returned, or maybe turned into compost. For example, I’ve always admired the piles of chopped-up trees one often sees on the side of the road in L.A., left by the Department of Street Services. We needed heavy, above-grade footings, and using these beautiful old-growth stumps — future mulch — seemed easier, and obviously more sustainable than, say, cast concrete.
Similarly, considering the obscenity of cutting-up material to build walls for a 5-hour show, we thought of how one could (ethically) return supplies if they are completely unblemished. We made reusable braces to temporarily transform 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood into walls with ledges to support framed drawings and monitors. The idea was to acquire the boards in the morning, employ them as walls for the afternoon, then send them back the following morning back through the channels of capital and logistics — unaltered — to their original pile among the PVC and paint samples in a certain large hardware store on Figueroa.
Join us this Saturday August 8th, 3pm to 7pm to view the LAForum Summer Exhibition’s 20 new works in person.
Then, join us online for the opening reception, Saturday August 8th, 7pm to 9pm.
As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Anthony Carfello (editor and educator), Loren Adams (architect), Orhan Ayyuce (architect), Tory J. Lowitz (artist), and Jakob Sellaoui (architect). Find out more about each of them and their work at www.everythingchanges2020.org
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the spring of 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Anthony, you’re co-editor at Georgia and many of our readers know your past exhibition work at the MAK Center. The topic LAForum gave you to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s”. What does a vision of next-decade L.A. look like to you?
AC: I recall a panel discussion at Occidental College in 2015 about the 25th anniversary of the publication of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz. There was a congratulatory atmosphere throughout the entire event, as each participant highlighted the ways in which L.A. had “improved” or “corrected” the sociopolitical rot at the city’s core that Davis has described so poignantly. No one bothered with all that had gone unchanged since 1990, or that which had become worse. I thought again about this in 2017 when my class considered the results of Loyola Marymount’s quinquennial survey showing that people believed L.A. was headed for another uprising. Discussing this LAForum initiative with Wendy and Nina — in the midst of all the precarity and inequality amplified by the global pandemic and the protests and actions for Black lives following so many recent tragedies — again asserted how little has been remedied and how much remains to be questioned in this decade.
Loren, Orhan, and Tory, what are you producing for the exhibition in response to Anthony’s text?
LA: Anthony and I share a common interest in uncovering the rules that govern our access to urban space – and in finding ways to break, subvert, or resist those rules if/when they no longer serve us. I was especially drawn to his mention of “the crucial word choice, ‘riot’ or ‘uprising’” in Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles 1992. Language really is an instrument of power.
Lately I’ve been especially interested in the language of regulation in the built environment. I think that the specific things we choose to regulate – and the method by which we choose to measure compliance – tell a story about what we, as a society, collectively value. I’d like to see a reorientation of those values away from capital and towards public good. So, in response to Anthony’s text I’ve decided to use a bespoke deep learning text generator ‘bot — trained on Los Angeles-specific literary sources – to re-write planning regulations. This is one iteration in an ongoing project called “Regulatory Nonsense,” which asks: What could our cities be if regulations were written by poets, choreographers, philosophers, an A.I.? If we embrace linguistic ambiguity, would the language of our built environment begin to reflect the novel, poetic language of its regulations? Would it facilitate architecture that better serves our communities?
OA: I am organizing a public forum with a few invited guests on a bus stop on the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, from 10am to 12pm on Saturday the 8th.
TJL: I am crafting ten copies of a fictitious restaurant menu. The restaurant is called Délice Intangible. The menu implies an intangible, exotic cuisine that is specifically curated to the tenants of the property in Anthony’s text.
JS: Architecture for the greater part is in the “yes business.” Obliging and serving the demands of political and economic environments. The “success” of our behaviors and corresponding spaces are often determined by their economic efficiency. The project, “A Space For Doing Nothing” alludes to the notion of “refusal,” by proposing a temporal architectural space for a neglected hill-site staircase in El Sereno. A tent structure gives shelter, frames a view and “refuses” to be more — or less — than a place of momentary pause.
On Saturday August 8th the public can visit your work in various sites around town, so for a sneak peek, how are you translating Anthony’s text to a site?
LA: The “site” of my project is really the suite of standards, codes, policies, and regulatory documents that have become the rules of engagement for our profession. I’d argue that this regulatory landscape is the “site” of all projects in architectural practice nowadays – design intention is always subservient to regulatory compliance, and regulatory compliance is typically driven by fiscal risk. I am especially interested in the form that “instruction” takes. Regulations are a kind of instruction, and instructions aren’t “facts” – they are cultural artefacts. They are designed and constructed. They are products of judgement. Think: Michael Sorkin and Sol LeWitt, paired with the clumsy joy of an “I Forced A Bot” meme.
OA: In this text, Anthony talks about various people with different interactions with the city. So, I am taking on these issues and asking selected guests to reflect on them such as: income inequality, housing, domestic workers and public transportation.
TJL: The translation is the menu itself. By its very existence, it implies inequality while deliberately offering food to particular demography.
JS: Instead of translating an idea to a site, I like to think of it as a response. In this sense, a text or a site are equal suggestions for a possible direction. What I do is spatially relate these – sometimes opposing – conditions, that then eventually becomes the project.
Some exhibition participants have worked very closely together, exchanging ideas and adapting their designs to the others’ development of the works. Others not so much. How did you all work? And did that change once the pandemic hit?
TJL: Yes, regarding printing, availability, and tone mostly.
LA: I’m currently based in Melbourne, Australia, so remote collaboration isn’t new for me – in many ways the global shift to predominantly online modes of work have allowed me to more easily reconnect with my people across the Pacific. I grew up in a small town in Western Australia, which isn’t close to anything — it’s 100kms from one of the most isolated capital cities in the world. So it’s nice to still have access to opportunities without needing to be physically present or geographically co-located. The optimist in me hopes that this will lead to far greater equity of access in the longer term, especially for those of us with mobility issues or carer’s responsibilities.
That being said, I’ve been housebound for more than 4 months now – trying to grapple with the collapse of the two industries that I rely on to pay my bills (architecture and higher education) – and I’m exhausted. In Victoria, we have just returned to Stage 3 restrictions for another 6 weeks following a spike in COVID cases from community transmission and a further lockdown to Stage 4 is looming. Critical creative practice feels more urgent and needed now, but I’m finding that it takes a back seat to the pragmatics of day-to-day survival.
OA: Sure, what that conditions have not been influenced? Both the pandemic and social unrest weren’t yet happening when I agreed to take on this project. And, these events forced some changes and formulations on realizing the work. However, the location did not change. I am happy about that.
JS:In some ways the day-to-day work is for the greater part still the same. Being involved in projects that — even before the pandemic — are remote, where collaborations across borders are inevitable, has already set the directions for a method that is based in trust but also long Skype calls. What has changes is the awareness and direction of focus. Within all the difficulty and uncertainty there has been a positive side effect in the sense that certain assumptions have been challenged. A reality-check on what mattered before and still matters and also what doesn’t.
Unlike the way exhibitions are usually organized, the current situation demanded from us all to somehow “allow” uncertainty — not only as a conceptual frame — but a daily reality to be part of the show. The optimism and generosity for each other was not just a very humbling but also inspiring experience.
AC: As this group is not so much in direct collaboration as it is in dialogue, I’d just say that it’s been nice to have a reason to check in. More exhibitions should make room for mutation in response to surrounding conditions.
Join us Saturday August 8th, 3pm to 7pm to view the LAForum Summer Exhibition’s 20 new works in person.
Then, join us online for the opening reception, Saturday August 8th, 7pm to 9pm.
As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Viva Padilla (poet, editor), Lorena Garcia (landscape architect), Polaris Castillo (artist) and Cameron Stallones (musician and artist). Find out more about each of them and their work at www.everythingchanges2020.org
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the spring of 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Viva, you’re a poet, editor and founder of Dryland literary journal. The topic LAForum gave you to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s”. What does that vision of next-decade L.A. look like to you?
VP: When I was first thinking about L.A. in the 20s, we were in pre-pandemic times. I wanted to physically explore spaces that were important to me growing up that have themselves changed in the past 20 years. My idea was to go by train and bus, and write as a I traveled between these spaces. These places and the people moving through them (mainly Black and Brown) are not usually depicted in L.A. literature; I wanted to bring that to my piece. Sadly, once the pandemic hit I had to come up with a new plan so I did a pandemic-friendly variation on this where I drove the city. I started in one of the poorest areas of L.A., South Central L.A. where I grew up, and took myself all the way to its polar opposite to Beverly Hills and Brentwood.
L.A. is a metropolis addicted to making itself unknown. It does this even with its people. I imagine that in the next decade we’ll continue to lose more and more people to displacement, gentrification, the housing crisis — the only thing that might stop this is the Big One hits and the transplants go home. This might just make things affordable for those of us native to L.A. and literary — who’ve been dreaming of living somewhere like Bunker Hill.
Lorena, Polaris, and Cameron, what are you producing for the exhibition in response to Viva’s text?
LG: I am creating a series of vessels as elements in the street landscape for people to present tributes to their memories, to people, or to historic events. The installation is accompanied by a visual piece where, starting from Viva´s experiences, I navigate through my own map of memories, along with visions of the vases splashed throughout the urban grid, following the hypnotizing tunes by Sun Araw, which is Cameron’s band.
PC: I’m producing a hand drawn illustration that I’m taking into Photoshop and Illustrator to create a digital piece that feels like a postcard. Viva’s text captures a wide range of ideas and scenes from a well lived life. My goal is to embody the text emotionally through image, which is the challenge. I want to literally take bits and pieces from the text and translate them visually, as poetry can be filled with abstract metaphors. To give these metaphors a visual can make that abstraction stronger, while surrounding it with a living, breathing world.
CS: I’m mostly a musician and audio producer, and I’m working with a new coalition here in L.A. building an educational arts and culture FM radio station called LOOKOUT FM. When I read Viva’s piece I was really taken with her ability to evoke such specific feelings of place with really potent fragments of imagery. One of our projects at LOOKOUT FM is to produce poetry and other literature for radio, so I decided to produce a short radio piece from her poem, composing some original music and sound design around a recording she provided me. It’s such an evocative piece of writing! I didn’t want the audio environment to be a 1-to-1 illustration, so I worked to find an emotional language that was compatible but not literal.
On Saturday August 8th from 3pm to 7pm the public can visit your work in various sites around town, so for a sneak peek, how are you translating Viva’s text to the site (at Bestor Architects)?
LG: Viva´s poem is so beautiful and powerful. Immediately, after a first read, you feel the vigor to direct through your own psycho-geography of the city. For me, at the same time, it conveys nostalgia, loneliness and solitude. We are all struggling with very sad circumstances, so I started to work in concepts as memories and tributes, within the urban grid.
I think that a tribute object, accessible to the people, is a very necessary element nowadays in our cities and of course I am not talking about monuments, I’m talking about objects that belong to the communities, where they can express and share their joys and sorrows. I decided to make the vases with simple non-uniform shapes and neutral colors. Like a version of a non-perfect everyday object. I didn’t spend a long time in the design of the piece or create a beautiful glaze, I ran away from the impression of a pottery exhibition or any other distraction from the idea of just having — scattered around the city — a communal and personal honoring of sites. For the afternoon on Saturday the 8th, the exhibition site will be that place.
PC: With the ongoing challenges of the world and the pandemic, I’m still working out the best possible way to present the piece. I’d like it to be as simple and straightforward as possible so viewers can really take in the detail of the work. The drawing will be displayed at the site and also postcards of the drawing will be available for visitors to take with them or to mail to a friend with a personal note.
CS: Sound design has always been a real interest of mine, I made a record a few years ago that really explored “space design” as a compositional tool for music, some of the songs being “rooms” and others being “corridors,” based on how they moved or didn’t move. Viva’s piece really felt like a corridor, a series of images that are passing by and giving a certain quality to a few moments, so I tried to build the piece with a feeling of being carried along, peering into different descriptive moments. Visitors to the exhibition site can tune into the FM station and hear the piece.
Some exhibition participants have worked very closely together, exchanging ideas and adapting their designs to the others’ development of the works. Others not so much. How did you all work? And did that change once the pandemic hit?
LG: Definitely, the pandemic quarantine has influenced the production. Probably I wouldn’t be doing this piece if we were not in these tough times. In terms of work, I chose a coil technique to shape the vases since it is a technique that I can do in my house. I hadn’t used this technique before so it has been a totally new and very joyful experiment.
Like all of us, I’ve found myself waking one day feeling no urgency in anything related to my work, just waiting to stop and listen the world, and then the next day, finding relief in being able to focus on projects. Thus, the production has taken double time than in normal conditions.
PC: The quarantine has influenced the work a bit, but not too much. I think the intent behind it before starting it was a fun challenge. Viva and I had initially agreed on sending each other random fragments of inspiration (letters, texts, images, trinkets, etc.) as a way to spark ideas. She also sent me a recording of herself reciting the poem. Ultimately, though, the influence from that simple intention I think washed over to my mind and what I wound up creating.
CS: Yes definitely, I’ve been unable to work with the band since lockdown, there’s not a great digital solution for playing together unfortunately due to lag. So I’ve been working on different sorts of projects that don’t require playing live together, but it’s been discouraging to not be able to.
Question for all of you: What’s been the most surprising thing about the exhibition for you so far?
VP: For me it was how natural it all felt. We worked on this as the pandemic and the uprisings were starting, and it seemed uncertain that we’d have an exhibition. However, Wendy and Nina never put too much pressure on the project which I think really helped us in finding our footing first before going forward with our ideas. With Lorena, Polaris, Cameron — it was more like we were all on the same episode of the Twilight Zone, so we were all on the same page from the start which made the whole thing come together and make sense.
PC: The most surprising thing about the development of the exhibition has been the emphasis on a collective effort. Because of the pandemic, we’ve done a number of zoom calls and kept each other in the loop regarding what we’re up to, how we’re executing, and keeping each other informed on what the show will be, despite its many evolutions. I’ve been part of group art shows before, but this is a really nice and different way of letting everybody in on the presentation.
LG: Viva´s text is so universal and easy to identify with, we haven’t needed long conversations. I felt from the beginning very close to it. I think that for the four of us, and with the generosity and kindness of Nina and Wendy, the process has been very mellow and pleasing. And there is a lot to say in these days.
CS: I’m super enthusiastic about the exquisite corpse concept at the foundation of the exhibition, it’s been so interesting to see all the different angles people have brought to each prompt. It’s not often people ask for such direct engagement with other people in a show, I’ve really enjoyed it!
As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we will interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Sam Bloch (journalist), Julie Smith-Clementi and Frank Clementi (architects), Hyunch Sung (landscape designer and artist) and John Atkinson (sound artist). Find out more about each of them and their work at www.everythingchanges2020.org
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the spring of 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Sam, you’re a journalist and writer. Many of our readers are likely familiar with your work in Places Journal on shade equity. The topic LAForum gave you to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s”. What does that vision of the future, of next-decade L.A. look like to you?
SB: I started thinking about the fashion of climate change last fall, when I was reporting on L.A.’s plan to cover 250 miles of road lanes in creamy, light-reflective material by 2028. The idea behind these “cool pavements,” as city officials call them, is to lower ever-rising urban temperatures by bouncing solar radiation back into space, rather than allowing all of that asphalt to store and release it through the night as more heat.
The radiation doesn’t disappear. It hits people and warms them up—unless they’re wearing the right kind of clothes. An urban climatologist explained to me that clothes are like any other surface—they absorb and disperse heat based on things like their shape, material and color. So this is when I started to wonder: What could Angelenos wear to protect themselves from this coming abundance of killer heat rays, whether from the sun or the ground below?
There’s a bit of levity and glibness in framing the problem of extreme heat as a matter of fashion. (“What should I wear?”) But I think it’s instructive, because it acknowledges an ultimate truth about public health threats, which is that we’re probably most worried about how they affect us individually, as opposed to how they pound the most vulnerable people. We now know there’s a grave cost to that way of thinking—that a failure to protect each other devastates all of us.
When I think most optimistically about L.A. in the next decade, I imagine a Garden of Eden. I’d like to see sun-baked neighborhoods shaded by a lush tree canopy. I’d like to see streets made pleasant and tolerable, if only to invite more people out of their cars and take buses and walk more often. But I also foresee permanent social distancing—a fear of the public, and disengagement with shared space, that’s both an outgrowth of the pandemic and abetted by city coffers once again drained by economic depression. If we’re going to keep our distance, I can imagine the need for some kind of protective suit or armor—not just from the weather, but also from each other.
Julie, Frank, Hyunch and John, what are you producing for the exhibition in response to Sam’s text?
JSC & FC: We are producing shadow boxes and digital animations depicting environmental responsive fashion. Sam opened up a question about how people have always created skins to mitigate their environment. Initially these are practical skins in response to environmental conditions; it’s too cold, it’s too sunny, or it’s too wet. This results in rain gear, a hat or sunglasses. Eventually these become mixed with social responses as well; clothing like the proper hat, the proper shoes, the latest sunglasses. This was our starting point.
JA: I appreciated Sam’s evocative text on how climate change might affect our daily lives and relationship with the weather in LA — and, as someone who has worked in renewable energy and clean tech for most of my career outside of music, I was excited for the opportunity to mirror this with a sonic imagining of what a future of “climate whiplash” might feel like.
HS: I actually read all the texts for the exhibition, and was drawn to what Terry Wolverton wrote about the past and future evolution of feminism, art, and community in Los Angeles. I am creating a community mixtape/jukebox by collecting song-stories from mothers of color in Los Angeles. It feels urgent to think about how we listen to one another right now in the throes of a pandemic that is revealing and exacerbating a trauma of inequity. I chose mothers from communities of color because this intersectional identity is not given much air time in the world that we live in. Let us not forget that we all come from a woman’s body. One empathizes by listening to stories, and song is a lyric-story set to music. Music engenders primal feeling and memory. These songs are about the human voice. Listening to someone is the same as needing someone. We all need each other so much right now.
And how are you translating Sam’s text to a site and/or to a formal idea? And Hyunch, how are you translating Terry’s text?
JSC & FC: We are architects, which are inherently site-based, but for one reason or another we’ve had the luck to deal with design at a spectrum of scales. So rather than deal with the site as a physical place, our site is the human body.
JA: Like most of my recent sound design and composition, I started with field recordings: One, from a walk through Silverlake in the heat of June while helicopters circled in the early days of the George Floyd protests, and the other of a summer thunderstorm on the east coast on the same day. In the same way that anthropogenic climate change is transforming and interconnecting our environment in new ways, I used a variety of sound processing techniques to reshape these sounds from our present day world into a narrative about our future.
HS: I am creating a community mixtape or jukebox by collecting song-stories from mothers of color in Los Angeles, as inspired by Terry Wolverton’s text.
The individuals in this particular group are spread across the country (N.Y., L.A. and Oakland, which was totally unintended by the curatorial team, by the way), so when the pandemic quarantine required other participants’ to work remotely starting in March, you all had worked remotely from day one. Did that distance influence production? And did the pandemic change your work at all?
JSC & FC: Absolutely, and when we started before the pandemic, the responses were mostly to the environmental conditions Sam described, (i.e. climate). But the pandemic has shown how creative people are by making social distance prosthetics, from school kids in China with their Song Dynasty influenced hats to the Sparkletts bottle masks people were wearing in India and Vancouver. We took that as a starting point to imagine protective fashion that is both useful and symbolic.
In terms of collaboration, the discussion was easier and arguably more productive than it would’ve been if we had smaller one on one meetings with our collaborators in New York and San Francisco. Which actually calls into question the constraints of site in the coming paradigm or the coming normalized context. The pandemic forced us to stay in one place, each on one side the conversation, but all together. It normalized a relationship of a multi video conversation. Now, post Covid, cross connection is much easier permitting richer arbitrary adjacencies. You can assert your identity through your site. All the sites are cross connected.
JA: Absolutely for me too. Since giving up my full-time apartment in L.A. in 2016, I’ve been living as a bit of a nomad, splitting time between Melbourne Australia, Los Angeles, and New York. My last stay in Los Angeles ended in February; since the pandemic has put future plans to return on hold, I had to rely on my friend Jesse Novak (composer of TV soundtracks including Bojack Horseman and The Mindy Project) to record in Silverlake while I remained quarantined in New York.
HS: My piece is created by having conversations and recording sessions with mothers from communities of color in Los Angeles over the phone. I chose the phone as the mode of communication to emphasize voice and sound. I also thought it would make people feel less self-conscious. It is lulling and special to just listen to someone’s voice. Video conferencing feels disconnecting to me because of the lack of real eye contact, and the unrelenting grid. I also dislike how I’m basically watching other people watch me and others, and watching myself being watched and watching. It is like a cray cray mirror from a Tarkovsky movie. It’s very comforting to just focus on what another person is saying or singing on the phone.
Question for all of you: What’s been the most surprising thing about the exhibition in general?
SB: It’s been a treat to collaborate with Frank and Julie. It seems obvious in retrospect, but the notion that clothing, or bodily appendages, could be architectural was fairly mind-blowing to me. Their ideas and concepts about instigating risky movements pushed me forward—and I’m grateful to have learned from them.
JSC & FC: We have really enjoyed the overall collaboration and the expansion of the original group with arrival of the “plus ones.” By them joining mid-way through the process the themes developed from the texts in unexpected ways.
HS: I am surprised by how much some women have shared with me in my conversations with them. I feel that they have given me gifts. I’ve learned that song is a part of a cultural diaspora, and that each and every song is political and personal. Identifying as a woman, who is a mother, from a community of color is a particular intersection of identities. I spoke with African-American women, Black women, immigrants from Afghanistan, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Each story was a facet of a world I have not lived. I am super grateful to the contributors.
JA: Given the constraints of the pandemic, I feel like you folks at LAForum have had to be as creative as the artists in mounting this exhibition! We’re all learning to do things in new ways during this time, and it’s been cool to see this become something so different yet still so quintessentially L.A.
As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we will interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Terry Wolverton (novelist and poet), Yvonne Estrada (poet and photographer), and Yara Feghali and Viviane El Kmati (multidisciplinary designers).
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the course of spring 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial L.A.-based writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Terry, the topic given to the writers to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s” how did you decide to approach the topic? And what does the vision of the future, next-decade L.A. look like to you?
TW: I moved to Los Angeles to take part at the Woman’s Building and spent 13 years there making art and activism in collaboration with an immensely talented and subversive group of artists. It is always and forever my “home” in L.A. But Los Angeles in the 20s, fraught with gentrification, income inequality and now a global pandemic, is no longer a city that can foster such a dynamic home. I fear what that will mean to women of my generation as well as the new generation of feminist activists.
Yvonne, Yara and Viviane, what are you producing for the exhibition and what do you want folks to know most about your response to Terry’s text?
YE: I am producing a visual piece that will hopefully create a feeling of solidarity among all women—many of whom know nothing about the Woman’s Building, yet are just as freed by the work that was done there. I hope to give all the artists that came from that time and place credit for this perceived freedom.
YF: Viviane and I were inspired by Terry’s story and wanted to dig inside our personal arrival to Los Angeles and how we were also looking for a community. We started asking ourselves what were the visual cues that gave us this sense of belonging in a city that we had just met?
VEK: We are producing an immersive video-wall about a woman’s journey driving through LA’s neighborhoods in search of her queer community. We want visitors to be able to identify with Amal, the woman narrating the road diary, and to invoke belonging and alienation through her visual story.
And how are you translating Terry’s text to a site and/or to a formal idea?
YE: I am using photographs of doorways of the actual physical building that was the Woman’s Building, and collaging some of my existing photos of women/girls. These will hopefully be photoshopped to appear as though pouring forth from said doorways at a fast pace.
VF: Our first encounter with Los Angeles was through its residential neighborhoods. Because of traffic our Uber drove away from the highway, so we were looking at an endless variety of single-story houses.
VEK: This is where the project really takes form, we are looking at around 20 different residential neighborhoods in L.A. to tease out the particularities of their domestic front porches. We are focusing on stereotypical symbols of queer culture and their manifestation on the houses’ front porch.
Has the pandemic quarantine or creating and collaborating remotely influenced your production?
YE: Fortunately I am using my own collection of photographs and am doing digital work, so I’ll say no.
YF: It has definitely influenced the installation format. We initially wanted the projection to be experienced in an enclosed immersive space were people would gather and form their community while watching the short diary together. Well, this is not possible anymore due to the pandemic!
VEK: So, we thought the second-best thing that would keep everyone safe and still enjoy a similar experience would be one’s own car. The idea is that you can drive into the space, park and stay in your car. The visitor experiences the film diary through their own car windows as if they were themselves driving through the reconstructed queer neighborhoods.
Question for all of you: What’s been the most surprising thing about the collaboration or the development of the exhibition in general?
TW: The de-centralizing of the exhibition location has been a wonderful innovation in response to the restrictions of the pandemic. Los Angeles is such a de-centralized city anyway and locating various parts of the exhibit in neighborhoods is a great reflection of that.
YE: I would say it is the way the exhibition will be viewed by people in specific settings that become part of the pieces.
YF: It is amazing to work with such wonderful women! Talking with Wendy [Gilmartin], Nina [Briggs] and the LAForum team has been wonderful. I am happy to see a whole project being directed by women. Also being chosen to respond to Terry’s text has been a pleasure. We are lucky to get to work with ideas we believe in and align with.
VEK: We are also excited about the turn the exhibition format has taken. The way it is adapting to the current pandemic and responding in a provocative and creative proposal.
As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” LAForum will interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Lisa Teasley (author and artist), Imogen Teasley-Vlautin (artist and composer), Silvia Herrasti and Paulina Herrasti (artists) and MUTUO (Fernanda Oppermann and Jose Herrasti, architects).
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the course of spring 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial L.A.-based writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Lisa, the topic given to the writers to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s” how did you decide to approach the topic? And what does the vision of the future, next-decade L.A. look like to you?
LT: As an L.A. native, I have lived in various neighborhoods such as Baldwin Hills, Koreatown, Venice, the Adams District, Mar Vista and Laurel Canyon, among others, and so have walked and driven through the ever-changing psychogeography of the city over the decades. But what has been consistent is the presence of a rich and culturally diverse population. As a passionate world traveler, I love that I come home to as many stories as wherever I have just left. The idea of the Castle as a setting of awe and beauty for diverse collaborations is a longtime vision of mine, and upon this opportunity for the LA Forum show, I seized the chance to explore it as a collaborative vision for the infinite ways I could have never thought of—just as next-decade L.A. will continue to mirror the ever-changing globe.
Imogen, Silvia, Paulina, Fernanda and Jose, what are you producing for the exhibition and what do you want folks to know most about your response to Lisa’s text?
ITV: I am producing a sound piece with the intentions of resonating the imagined space that is the Castle. I want the music to illustrate the magic of the ever-present creative energy in the Castle, and reflect the lively, collaborative spirit that Lisa describes in her written piece.
MUTUO: Lisa’s ‘The Castle in the Trees’ describes a space of collaboration in Los Angeles. As we were thinking about our response to Lisa’s text it only made sense to expand the collaborative spirit. Mutuo decided to invite a group of talented recent graduate architects and architecture students to build an assemblage of pieces. This assemblage of pieces will be the physical manifestation of a group interpretation of what a castle may mean. After a few back-and-forth discussions with this young group of collaborators, Mutuo is writing non-prescriptive, perhaps even poetic instructions for them, giving leeway for interpretation and creative individuality. Our guest collaborators are: Irving Estrada Alvarez, Mónica Lamela Blázquez, Luis Montoya, Alejandra Novelo, Kamila Weiss & Kanata Yamayoshi.
SH & PH: We will be presenting a mixed media diptych that includes a hand-embroidered piece with appliqués, and a color photograph of an assemblage of found objects. We decided to create a composition that relates to any culture and society around the world.
And how are you translating Lisa’s text to a site and/or to a formal idea?
ITV: I want to acknowledge the multi-layered relationship between sound and space within the walls of the Castle by creating a piece that symbolically fills the space Lisa envisions, and portrays the energy and activity she describes by using specific sounds to represent bits of the imagery she gave us.
MUTUO: We are interpreting the text both literally and figuratively. The making of the object itself is a direct response to the text.
SH & PH: The embroidery in our piece depicts the landscape leading to the Castle of Trees, and the actual fort. The assemblage resembles the façade of a castle, with symbolic meanings conveyed through each component.
Has the pandemic quarantine or creating and collaborating remotely influenced your production?
LT: As a writer and a visual artist I am used to creating at home alone, even my work as an editor at Los Angeles Review of Books is done remotely, so initially upon the pandemic, my work life had not changed significantly. But with the addition of this tremendous opportunity to collaborate on the Castle project with visionaries like the architects Fernanda and Jose, the artists Silvia and Paulina, and the musician/composer, Imogen, the entire process has buoyed me tremendously during this most uncertain time in history, that is being felt and experienced the world over.
ITV: Quarantine hasn’t had a huge effect on the way I produce creative work because I tended to work alone even before the pandemic. However, I had been craving more creative collaboration and this time has catalyzed, out of necessity, a lot of innovation in how we create, share, and experience work, which has been inspiring to me as I’ve found myself collaborating much more with brilliant artists in projects such as this, and experiencing creative work more often even if virtually.
MUTUO: The quarantine has offered a re-thinking of what an exhibition might be. We have structured the fabrication of our object so that there are no overlaps and our collaborators can be safe.
SH & PH: We had thought about having random participants in public space help build the assemblage for our piece, which was not possible because of the pandemic.
Question for all of you: What’s been the most surprising thing about the collaboration or the development of the exhibition in general?
LT: I have to say that the most surprising thing about this collaboration is the bursts of emotion I’m experiencing, the sheer elation it has brought to my life during such a trying moment in history. The fact that this LAForum exhibition is happening, at all — the fact that the show will go on — I consider to be a tremendous gift.
MUTUO: The surprising part is that even though it is a complex exhibit with many participants, it has run relatively smoothly. I wonder if it would have been more difficult doing it with personal meetings. The flexibility because of the pandemic has been great. I also wonder if adopting more flexible systems is a part of the new normal.
ITV: I can’t say that I’ve been surprised but I am immensely grateful and excited to be a part of this project, and in particular I really appreciate, to touch on what Fernanda and Jose said, being able to witness and participate in a complex exhibition that has been adapted so creatively to work within the limitations of the pandemic.
SH & PH: Agree with the Imogen and the MUTUO team (big thumbs up emoji !!)
On August 8th, 2020, the summer exhibition by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design will present 20 new works documenting collective views of life in Los Angeles by a group of 20 emerging designers and thinkers. Delirious LA is happy to be able to interview exhibition curator, Wendy Gilmartin, and assistant curator, Nina Briggs, as they complete preparations for the new exhibit entitled “Every. Thing. Changes.”
Hi Wendy and Nina, can you give us an overview of “Every. Thing. Changes.”?
WG: For the LAForum’s 2020 Summer Exhibition, we have commissioned 20 new text and visual works by 20 participants who have developed the work over the spring this year. We wanted to go big for the new decade and look forward.
When the LAF Board of Directors met at our yearly retreat in early February, a lot of topics were on the table to tackle and to talk about this year. Some of the quotes I kept from my notes were “What does it mean to support diverse voices?” “Anti-Nostalgia” “Rogue Spirit” “Change the definition of ownership” “Put groups of people in a space who normally wouldn’t be in that space” and “We can still change.”
Nina and I decided that — instead of issuing a call for proposals for this year’s summer exhibition, which is what the LAForum has typically done in the past — we would curate the exhibition and explore the topics set forth at our Board of Directors retreat as a way to commit to those ideas; especially those in relation to “What does it mean to support diverse voices?” and “people in a space who normally wouldn’t be there.“
But capturing and distilling the collective imagination of a diverse group is hard!
NB: Yes, it is hard to integrate the strengths, talents, wisdom, and perspectives from multidisciplinary and distinct creatives into a collaborative effort. But it gets easier and richer with practice. And isn’t this what we all need to do from now on? Are we not in – not a moment – but at the necessary intersection of centering the immeasurable value of diverse voices in all institutions, systems, cultures, and practices?
WG: So, we left some room for mistakes, mis readings, and messiness. We used words like “messy” and “uncertainty” in a lot of the writings we did leading up to the formulation of the call for participants. And we embraced those words as generative and opportunistic for the project. Thankfully all the participants we asked were down with that kind of thinking too, and they were game for a big, weird project no one really understood yet at that point.
How do the values of this exhibit relate to the overall mission of the LAForum?
WG: I think it is the LAForum’s job to frame architecture in L.A. within a set of larger questions or set of consequences — and hopefully that framing and those questions are really good and can be unpacked, challenged, re-framed and discussed. That allows us to get to a deeper level of thinking about cities or what we do as architects, so that we might pivot our thinking or get enlightened or connect the dots in some new way about what we do. Its also LAForum’s job to provide a platform for emerging thinkers and practitioners — those who lead the way with their new questions and re-framings.
NB: In the context of our mission, we ask what L.A. is seeking to understand through the multiple definitions of the city in 2020 — its attitudes, moods, disposition, burgeoning ideas, personal accounts, anxieties, speculations and hopes.
WG: I had a conversation recently with someone who described the LAForum as the “architecture illuminati” or “architecture Anonymous” because they see us as having this independent freedom (for example, we’re not a professional organization like AIA or an academic institution connected to a school), and we lie low for a while and then come up with some big, fantastic piece of programming and then go low gain for a while. I liked that image. And, yes, we have freedom to ask more critical questions than other organizations. I think we have a responsibility to do that.
On one hand, the formulation of the Every. Thing. Changes. exhibition itself is a question about how we support diverse voices. But on the other hand, it is also about asking those voices to expand upon a set of topical issues for architecture and life in L.A. this year. It’s up to the Every. Thing. Changes. participants to frame these and certain other relevant topics (climate change, civic obstinacy, the nature of collaboration, aging in an unconnected city) through an architectural or spatial approach. The hope is that all this challenges what architecture could mean in an evolving city, which is what our LAForum mission statement asks us to do.
By what process were the different project teams assembled ?
WG: We did not want to write a typical call for ideas or curatorial call. We wanted to re-write how we formulate an architecture exhibition and upend conventions around how to start the process. There was also an intentional motivation to stop ourselves from falling into any architectural feedback loop around current concerns that we as a discipline might tend to focus on. We were more concerned about what we might be missing if we took the conventional track.
So, we started with writers. Like us in the design profession, writers are good communicators and translators of the city and its socio-personal interactions. And they do it really well! The writers, in a sense, then wrote the prompt for the visual works. We are absolutely floored by the writerly talent who agreed to participate with us. Writers include: a poet and publisher (Viva Padilla), a novelist (Lisa Teasley), a poet and activist (Terry Wolverton), a critic and editor (Anthony Carfello) and a journalist (Sam Bloch). Their texts consist of: a speculative fiction piece in which the classes of L.A. are even more desperate and disparate than they are currently, a journalistic look at climate change fashion, a personal essay on aging in place during the COVID crisis, a long-form poem using the triangulation of google maps to describe the author’s own desmadre (chaos), and a fairytale about a group of collaborators who live in a seminar house in the trees.
Once we had the writers in place, we paired them with five designers/design teams, (well actually six): Jacob Sellaoui, Lorena Garcia, Yara Feghali, Orhan Ayyuce, MUTUO (Jose Herrasti and Fernanda Oppermann) and Julie Smith-Clementi and Frank Clementi. We asked the designers to each produce a visual response to one of the writers’ texts.
For the final 10 participants, we asked each writer and each designer to choose a “plus one” collaborator to bring into the project. That makes a total of 20 participants. 20 new works in 2020.
NB: And in re-writing the call, beginning with writers, thinking about the power of language to spin narratives – to weave foundational ideas – and craft those inquiries into experiential concepts, I’m haunted by Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (eternally and especially apt for this time), in which she begins a story with one question – and as it goes unanswered – the perspective of who has asked, shifts to the asked being questioned and held responsible for the object of question. Morrison’s speech guides us through the process of reading language, its uses and ultimate demise – for which all makers are accountable. My favorite part is when she asserts: “The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.” And then the unanswered question is bombarded with more questions, until finally she concludes with: “Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done — together.” In this Every. Thing. Changes. multidisciplinary team assembly, we’ve already had the privilege of witnessing the questioning, shifting, transferring and making derived from the writers’ language – it’s an imperfect, open-ended process and discourse, but oh so beautiful.
Dialogue seems built into the core of this exhibit; how did the different teams respond to the challenge of producing work through that process?
WG: Everyone seemed a little confused when we first started explaining the idea of the exhibition to them — especially the addition of the 10 plus ones. But, like I mentioned, everyone was willing to go with it and jump in together.
As for dialogue among participants, two participants started writing letters to each other (actual mailed letters!) as part of their process. A couple participants knew each other but had not seen each other in years. And another participant went rogue and joined another team without telling us, but that was great because it was one of the initial texts outside of her group that really resonated with her, and she wanted to respond to that.
It has been exciting to see how invested in one another’s works each participant has become, and they are in deep dialogue with one another — both through the work and in correspondence. It is beautiful and heartwarming, not to get all sappy. At some point we started referring to each of the five participant groupings as “families” based on the initial writer (e.g. Lisa’s family or Sam’s family). The participants all are very much aware of the content and development of other participants’ works; some have even adapted their own projects as a result along the way. But each piece still very much embodies the integrity of each artist or designer, obviously. That has been a great success of this collaborative experiment.
Since you framed the process as curators, have you been surprised by any of the project outcomes?
WG: We baked surprise into the cake at the beginning. We did not even know who these other 10 participants would be at the outset, until they were chosen by the initial writers and designers and brought into the mix in mid-April. We had a giant Zoom meeting at one point when all 20 participants were locked in, and I was looking around at all the Zoom boxes just astonished at the level of talent we had managed to gather. But we started with very good core participants, so the fact that we have ended up with 20 great works and 20 excitingly diverse and talented participants isn’t a surprise.
NB: No surprise that these chosen participants would produce such meaningful works, but I must admit a kind of awe for the revelatory concepts impossible to foresee.
What was it like to plan a “public” exhibition in a time of social crisis and quarantine?
WG: As of February, we had a goofy working title for the project — something like “2020 Visions LA” — and when the COVID-19 crises hit, our graphic designer, Jessica Fleischmann (Still Room), suggested “Every. Thing. Changes.” Those words really resonated. And then in early June, those words started to feel and sound like a chant in the street.
By Mid-March we knew the exhibition would have to be unconventional in its siting as well. For instance, the space that normally hosts our LAForum Summer Exhibitions, Woodbury University’s Hollywood Outpost location, is closed indefinitely until the University re-opens. So we knew very quickly this exhibition was going to have to take on a craftiness in planning we hadn’t anticipated and that we would have to design a deployable exhibit that embodied a high degree of flexibility in the face of a shelter-in-place to re-opening, back to shelter-in-place whiplash. The works will be exhibited in parking lots and other outdoor spots and on virtual platforms around the city, culminating in an opening reception outdoors and online. This will allow us to celebrate the new works together while safely distanced.
It was helpful to see some of the other drive-by exhibits folks have organized across town. However, unlike those projects, the LAForum Summer Exhibition offers a tighter framing and more concise set of ideas and questions because we have just had a longer time to plan and think about it.
Also, the exhibition website has taken on a much larger role than we had originally anticipated. The website is fantastic, and we will be holding roundtable discussions and a curatorial tour and other events virtually there. (The launch is coming soon!) The website gives visitors an ever-changing visual shuffle or re-mix of the works, potentially into new collaborative relationships — and curatorial re-telling — not initially offered in the physical, in-site experience.
NB: Although both our outside and inside worlds are in uncomfortably flux, there’s a curious comfort in these moving parts of the exhibition – a trust that, almost like Newton’s third law – the planning of this exhibition, even in its changes, provides a restfulness.
WG: This embracing of uncertainty really became just another constraint of the project and a significant part of the works as well. DLA readers will hear about in the coming weeks as we interview the participant teams.
EVERY THING CHANGES PARTICIPANTS
John F. Atkinson
Yara Feghali & Viviane El Kmati
Silvia Herrasti & Paulina Herrasti
Tory J. Lowitz
Julie Smith-Clementi & Frank Clementi
More information coming soon on event times, future programming and registration.
Geoff Manaugh, Los Angeles-based writer and creator of BLDGBLOG, and Nicola Twilley, contributing writer for the New Yorker, are writing a book on the history and future of quarantine, to be published by MCD Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in 2021. Manaugh spoke with DLA in late April.
You and Nicola Twilley started this project on quarantine ten years ago with your initial research and the exhibition, titled “Landscapes of Quarantine,” at Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2010, where you asked designers to come up with visions for the future of quarantine. You’ve spoken about your experience of beginning this project after finding an old quarantine station in Sydney, Australia, that had been abandoned and then turned into a hotel. Why was something that seemed such a relic of the past interesting for you and Nicky?
For me, as someone who writes about architecture, it was the idea that there was a way of dealing with disease—which, from a modern point of view, I would associate with vaccines, pills, or surgery—instead you can design a building in such a way that you can prevent the spread of a disease from one person to the next. It seemed like a way to instrumentalize architecture beyond just aesthetics, or beyond just everyday use value such as, you know, this is a restaurant or this is a home. It gives architecture – and the very fundamentals of architecture, including questions of circulation and sequence, and where walls and doors might be placed – a medical effect. And it helps to avoid the need for a vaccine or avoid the need for medical treatment later.
There was something fascinating about that for me. Quarantine seems, on one level, like a very simple practice – let’s just put one person in this room and another person in that room. But, actually, it’s a really sophisticated and strange way of giving architecture a medical purpose that is larger than just a building or a building design. And then it was also just the idea that something that interesting is now just a ruin, and it’s just been turned into a hotel, and in many cases has just been erased entirely. Most quarantine stations are missing now. They’re gone. What does it say about the state of quarantine today that something that fascinating and that interesting architecturally is just totally overlooked?
Thinking back to the exhibition on quarantine at Storefront ten years ago, I was wondering if there were aspects of that, some of those investigations then that have become even more relevant now? What kinds of visions can we look to architecturally or urban design-wise for new visions of quarantine?
For the exhibition, and the design studio that led to it, we wanted to invite people outside of the design world, not just architects or designers. There was a graphic novelist, an author, a photographer. There were also artists in a more traditional sense. There was a sound designer, a musician. We wanted to bring all those disciplines together and focus on the concept of quarantine. How can they all learn from one another? What would an architect and a sound designer come up with if they discussed quarantine? What would an architect and a graphic novelist come up with if they were trying to tell a narrative about quarantine? …Maybe where the story is set, or the kinds of buildings that are featured in it, or how an architect might influence the story.
The idea was a multidisciplinary approach to one idea. That’s one of the things we liked so much about the studio and the exhibition. That approach in architecture is quite important. If you take an abstract idea like quarantine, or disease, or transportation, and you bring people from outside of architecture into an architecture studio, you can have a really exciting conversation about what that term means in their fields, or what it means for the things they might be exploring.
The sound artist, for example, was looking at temperature tracking stations when you first get off of airplanes and are being held in a kind of liminal state before you’re given entry to the country that you’ve arrived in. The kinds of technical experience and the… almost sonic environment of paranoia waiting to have your temperature taken.
One participant, architect Brian Slocum, looked at the famously perforated facade of Storefront for Art and Architecture which swivels on hinges and opens to the outside air. He found a way to take a couple of those doors and attach prosthetic devices onto them so that, depending on what state the door was in, it was simultaneously open and closed. It would be open and closed for different people for different states of the door. It was a really interesting engagement with the very idea of the threshold of a building, of being inside and outside, and potentially being inside at the expense of other people and vice versa. It was the idea that quarantine might come down to devices that we add to buildings that simultaneously are inside and outside.
Another group called Front Studio looked at what they called Q-City. The idea was that it was possible to implement a kind of parallel quarantine infrastructure so that you can still inhabit the city and its full range of experiences, from shops to operas to movie theaters, but never leave the quarantine infrastructure. And they explored the ways in which there would be a parallel infrastructure – almost like a New York City A and a New York City B – and you would be in one or the other depending on what state of quarantine you were in. I think that that kind of thing would be really interesting especially as coronavirus might become a multiple year experience – some people are talking about 18 months of social distancing – what might be implemented that’s a bit like their vision for Q-City.
That seems to be something that reclaims the role of physical design in a topic that in some ways has become much more about the “touchless.” Following up about the role of architects and designers in this pandemic: we’ve had a lot of debates recently about how architects and designers can become more relevant in terms of our relationship to power, as people who are oftentimes involved in reinforcing structures of power. You’ve pointed out the issues of power that quarantine inevitably brings up. Do you think that this moment is an invitation to designers and architects about how we may have more social responsibility and possibly social relevance in this moment, and are there ways that we can do that?
Yes, this could be a way for architects and urban designers to insert themselves in a more engaged manner in very important conversations. And for us to bring more importance to the design field. On one level, you see this in terms of how we design the city to make it easier for social distancing. How do we reuse a street as a temporary park or maybe a permanent park? How do we widen the sidewalks for medical reasons, not just because walking is already good for you in terms of preventing diabetes or keeping the populace healthy. But now wider sidewalks can actually allow us to avoid one another in terms of disease. Those are questions of urban design as much as they are questions of medical necessity. I think that engaging in that conversation is very important.
Another thing that comes up a lot is the importance of dual-use facilities. We’ve been looking at everything from the Javits Center in New York City being suddenly remade into a medical facility for overspill patients from hospitals, and at one point they were even looking at Saint John the Divine, the gothic cathedral in New York City, as a possible medical bay, which has all kinds of metaphoric resonance. But, in any case, we’re looking at facilities that aren’t designed with a medical purpose in mind suddenly taking on medical purpose. The example that comes to mind a lot for me is that, in Japan, there is already an importance placed on dual-use architecture in the expectation of there being a large earthquake. So there are extra electrical outlets, there are water hookups for fresh water for taps, there are even these kind of pop-in devices that allow you to turn manhole openings for the sewer into makeshift toilets for people to use in public.
There could be an earthquake while you and I are having this conversation! So we’re always just on the cusp of a radical transformation, and architects can help imagine that transformation, how we might build our buildings differently. One thing that Nicky talks about is the possibility of a kind of quarantine code that architects could help develop, so that when you’re designing a new building, whether it’s a stadium or it’s a shopping mall, when you go through the building code you would add a quarantine code, and you would figure out ways that you could make sure that it’s ready. So a supermarket, for example, is ready to switch into quarantine mode where now we have to maintain distance between each other.
I’m sure, for you and Nicky, this present moment has changed your work for the near-term. Your book will certainly include this moment in it! How does the sudden timeliness and pertinence make you think about the relationship between quarantine and disease and other aspects of our world that architects and designers have increasingly looked at, such as issues of sustainability and climate change?
One of the things that’s very interesting is that, for decades now, people have been talking about international airplane travel and the greenhouse gas emissions of the transportation industry in general as if there’s nothing we can do about it. I have a friend here who’s an architect who allegedly lives in Los Angeles. But every time this person is on social media, you know, it’s a new airport, they’re flying over a new landscape… They go out of their way to take international trips that seem unnecessary. Now with COVID-19, at the flip of a switch, suddenly all of those international trips – flying all the way to Austria to give one lecture, or flying all the way to Istanbul to appear at a gallery opening – seem kind of flippant and frivolous. And if we can turn it off that quickly for this then why can’t we turn it off that quickly for climate change? In terms of its effects beyond just the human sphere, of entire ecosystems, of sea-level rise, climate change is a very substantial threat that dwarfs the coronavirus pandemic. So why can’t we implement those changes for that?
I think that, if anything, the quarantine experience that we’re having is the realization that large-scale, drastic changes are actually possible. People will in fact go along with them. And that we’re resilient. We’ll find a new way to make things happen. We just gave a lecture to 160 people. We’re using the internet, and it didn’t require driving through rush-hour traffic, or someone flying in from out of state. There are ways that we can adapt and communicate with each other and respond to looming crises.
I’ll just add briefly that the original title for our book was The Coming Quarantine. The idea was that at some point there will be a massive quarantine because of international travel and emerging diseases and so on and so forth. But needless to say we’re looking at a new title. This is the coming quarantine! You know, it’s here – the near future crisis that our book was describing has arrived. And it’s very interesting to experience that from the inside.
One more question because we’re in Los Angeles. It seems like every city has its own idea of itself. It makes its own myths through either its triumphs or its crises. Like, New York City now certainly reflects its idea of how it responded to 9/11. In LA we think of events like the Rodney King uprising. And I was wondering if there’s anything particular about LA’s social or spatial history that you think is particularly pertinent now for how we are responding to this crisis.
Not to downplay the disease, I do think that it’s interesting how easily it’s been to lock off certain neighborhoods from each other and not have the kind of epidemic spread that we see in New York City. It’s almost like Los Angeles was prototyped on the idea of social distancing. We already live in a social distanced landscape. I do think that the spread out nature of Los Angeles means that we’re kind of skating through the quarantine – or through the lockdown I should say – with a slight more sense of ease than other municipalities like New York City or Boston. We’re already usually in a car traveling through a landscape alone going from one building to the next and not usually interacting with other people. The stereotype of nobody walking in Los Angeles… You’re already describing a world under lockdown.
The dark humor of it all is that some of Los Angeles hasn’t necessarily noticed that things have changed. Of course, having said that, and more seriously, it’s fascinating that we have the cleanest air we’ve had since the 1980s because fewer people are driving and industrial plants are shutting down. People are seeing Los Angeles as beautiful for the first time in a generation. So many people associate it with smog and ugliness and concrete. Now you’re seeing people on social media sharing photographs of Los Angeles and being like, my god, it’s actually a beautiful city because the sunsets are coming down over clear skies. I think that there’s a strange kind of resonance between social distancing and lockdown and what we already had in Los Angeles, and that’s actually quite interesting to me.
In March, the week before Los Angeles’ Mayor Garcetti announced the Stay at Home order for the city, LA Forum Board Member Emmanuelle Bourlier interviewed artist Lauren Halsey at David Kordansky Gallery, where her installation was on view through March 14. “A vivid, mythopoetic hauntscape of South Central Los Angeles, [t]hese latest works continue Halsey’s exploration of monuments, memorials, and public space, particularly her reckonings with gentrification and the threatening economic displacement of Black and Latino/a stores and shops.” (Douglas Kearney, exhibition text.)
The world has changed abruptly and significantly since the interview took place, but Halsey’s thoughts on art and social justice in the city remain relevant; perhaps especially her view of the need for urban space to allow for a smaller scale of living and for “space for folks to dream”
This installation, like much of your prior work, has an architectural, urban sensibility in the way it creates spatial sequences, deals with materiality and signs. How do you feel about your work being characterized as architectural, and architectonic?
That’s my dream. I see things through the lens of art, of course. But I wanted to become an architect. In everything that led me to this path, I truly believe I have been appropriating and myth-making the processes of architecture; how you engage and get to form. Even leading up to this project, for seven years I made blueprints where I was re-organizing the city, my neighborhood of South Central. Just as exercises. Formally, a lot of the stacking happened very early on in blueprints where I was sort of making ideal city blocks. And poetics. Knowing that the first phase in an architect’s process is the flat work. Those blueprints are not a one to one thing, but they definitely explored the affect. Then, thinking about the second phase as the model-making. So far I feel like I’ve just made models that are very large. The next phase will be the actual architecture. Where a foundation is poured. You know, it’s just a different set of conditions. So, I mean, I’m excited someone would even use those words. I feel like I’m getting closer and closer. I am interested in getting to that level of building where it becomes animated not by the conversation or dialogue but it’s an actual architecture that people inhabit. For a long time.
You’ve said that you originally considered architecture “an emancipatory solution to oppressive spatial paradigms in the hood.” Do you believe that architecture and urban design can provide solutions to issues of race, class and gentrification? And if not, if architecture isn’t now an instigator of change, what can we do differently?
I’m not currently in the field to know. When I was in design studio, we were given these speculative proposals – conditions for a film school or a library or a parking lot. These were always devoid of the real demographics that make a city a city, a neighborhood a neighborhood, a street a street. Poetically and in the real sense of things. It was never about class or race. It felt like we were dreaming up form that just didn’t trickle down to an authentic reading of a place. I was looking for a more holistic approach. So I went back to community college; I did some more architecture classes, and then I did a bunch of art classes and I started thinking about how I could appropriate what I was learning to propose space, and to do it more urgently. I went to a community college, El Camino, and in the architecture department, once you did a certain amount of pre-requisites you were able to take a design build course, which was the cherry on top, because you get to build these free-form designs. So you took your blueprints, and went to this huge construction build, and you built your designs, with people, you know, your friends. That’s how I started this path, which is my ethos. We would build very fast. It just made sense that it would happen that way. Rather than [my art] being divorced from the making process, you know?And what’s beautiful about it is that I am making [my art] with people who have lived it and who know it. So even when they’re helping me build this box or paint this letter, whatever that is, they are part of an aesthetic family that’s in a certain community, and it’s recognizable. It’s just more soulful. The cues are already there because they were ours first. But I’m not saying it’s Disneyland either. It’s really hard. There are really hard days.
You have deep roots in LA; your family has been here for generations and has been very invested in the community. As we enter a new decade, what is the most urgent issue facing our city?
Space. Space that’s not about and for capital gain. Spaces for folks to dream. Whether that means at a smaller scale of business or at a smaller scale of living. I think people are getting pushed out and having to make these new migrations. Cities do this, I know that. Cities do this. But I would love to see the Community Land Trust model. Where council members hand over some of the city-owned plots of land to people who have successfully engaged in these models. I just don’t know why not. It just seems like the right thing to do. Especially because everything is happening at a very aggressive pace and I just wonder what the city could look like if the powers to be leveraged space for folks that don’t have all the power and all the money. Instead of for luxury condos or a five-dollar apples. So equity, fairness. I look forward to one day being able to buy land and engage some of these models. And invite people to participate, you know. Even if it takes ten years. Meanwhile I’m opening a community center in South Central this summer. It will be for children and young adults and supporting all sorts of intelligence, creative to intellectual; from sports, dance, to SATs, ACT prep, learning to read, to gardening to yoga to field trips and art making. So I’m excited about that contribution.
What are your thoughts about “holding Black space”?
That is in everything that I do. I mean, I propose explicitly Black spaces. We need them. The history of the world is our fight for space in every sense. I think what compelled me to the idea of architecture like fantasy space-making was creating and holding space through form and through these experiential objects, installations, because of our historically very oppressive relationship to space. I wanted to create spaces without all that baggage. And weight. And stereotype. And the ugliness and the mess. To be in spaces absent of all that and see what happens. I think every single thing in my work is already that. Creating with a freedom from baggage. Five hundred years of baggage.
On behalf of the LAForum, we are questioning what our role could be in the city, how we could start to bring more diverse voices to the table. What does the word Forum mean to you, and do you have any advice to offer us?
Well it depends. I would think, “what is it supposed to do? Who gets a voice in the Forum?” And if those other voices aren’t there, how to extend the opportunity for that, so that the conversation is a total view. I would intentionally invite people who don’t have that expertise, or the degrees, but have an interest in space-making. I have four or five friends who wanted to become architects but it’s just that five years is so expensive, and then interning after that. It’s just about expanding the dialogue to all sorts of class levels. Especially in a city like this which is so diverse, maybe it should just be reflective of that.
What inspires you most about LA right now?
Well, what I said before [about the potential to build actual urban spaces for folks to dream and learn, free from baggage and oppression]. But also, what inspires me is the palette of LA. It’s just beautiful. No matter how ugly it can get, as far as the newness of things. There is always the palette, colors, the sunset. The beach, the tacos, the smells, my family.
And another thing that inspires me, I think there is something very empowering about building with your hands. There is something that I enjoy and that also happens in the making, when I’m a participant. Of course I couldn’t have built all of this alone [gestures to the show], I would have taken 50 years. There is something about doing it in a collaborative spirit and energy. It makes it a lot more monumental. Then it becomes also, even though I author it, it becomes a part of others, that they own. So then it just expands, the ego of the work changes. For the MoCA project, applying the concrete and all that, it started with my best friend and I, then it was my best friend, me, and my girlfriend, and then three weeks before it was going to get picked up it was twenty of us in my grandma’s backyard. Including my little cousin. So when [my little cousin] is giving the tour with her friends in school she is able to talk about his moment that she sculpted, to other 9 year olds, in this way that I could never do. It’s not my hand. She definitely shaped the concrete, you know. She gets to re-present the form and re-address it. Without my lens. Which is powerful.
This week, DLA connected with Ilaria Mazzoleni and Deborah Weintraub – architects living and working in Los Angeles – about their committed work for Nature, Art and Habitat, a non-profit organization based in northern Italy, with a substantial presence here in Los Angeles.
Ilaria, could you tell us about the Nature, Art and Habitat Residency (NAHR)?
IM: Nature Art and Habitat Residency (NAHR) is an Eco-laboratory of Multidisciplinary Practice located in the Italian Alps. It is dedicated to the environment and creativity, to the intersection of science and the arts. NAHR aims to reveal and display a culture sensitive to nature as a source of inspiration, and as a gauge of health and wellbeing. NAHR invites people to move out of their comfort zone, out of the urban setting and into nature, into places in which the human can still feel like a part of nature rather than as the OTHER.
NAHR was born to bring people together to be in nature and to explore the culture-nature relationship firsthand through a summer residency program. Founded in 2015 by the will and support of a small group of invested volunteers, under the guidance of the Italian architect Alessandro Mendini, NAHR has grown over time to have multiple programs hosted in Italy and in Los Angeles, where some of the key players reside.
Deborah, how and why did you get involved with this Organization based in a far and distant Italian village?
DW: I met Ilaria a long time ago, here in Los Angeles. Our professional friendship finds common ground in our commitment to sustainability. Since that first meeting, we have kept in touch, and 3 years ago, while visiting Italy for the Venice Biennale, Ilaria invited me to join the NAHR Workshop on the theme of Water. The workshop took place in the rural setting of the Italian Alps, and included local scientists describing how the world-renowned San Pellegrino water emerges from a spring after percolating through rocks for 30 years. I presented the work I have been doing the last 18 years on the Los Angeles River for the City of Los Angeles. For me, there were intriguing conceptual commonalities to the scale of the discussion of water in the Alps with the LA River and its transformation. I was excited by NAHR’s focus on combining nature, science, art, and design. I was hooked, and when Ilaria asked me to join the scientific committee, I was honored and excited.
You both are architects, but you said NAHR is a multidisciplinary think tank. Are other disciplines a part of NAHR?
IM: Correct. NAHR is consciously structured to host multidisciplinary dialogues that include the sciences, the humanities, the applied and performing arts, and architecture. Our leadership and core interlocutors reflect this multidisciplinary commitment. Let me mention them: our President Gabi Scardi is a prominent independent art curator based in Milano; Enrico Bassi is a biologist based in the Italian Alps; Asli Suner is an architect based in Istanbul; and Dan Disney is an Australian poet living in Seoul. There are several other people with a variety of expertise. They include geologists, anthropologists, writers, dancers, and artists, and their individual voices contribute to shaping each year’s topic. It is this richness of building an ever-growing diverse community that nurtures the practices of the NAHR residents. I firmly believe that architectural thinking must expand its frontiers in the face of the environmental crisis, including the recent pandemic. I feel the dialogue with the various disciplines is critical in forming the way I practice architecture. It is also an inclusive structure that mimics our philosophical commitment to coexistence at the core, and to exploring climate change and social change in the age of the Anthropocene.
How does NAHR contribute to the architectural discourse?
IM: NAHR was consciously formulated to encourage exploration of the rural/urban codependency. Architecture has focused most recently on urban life, and we wanted to expand that lens. The setting for the residency is a historically rich region where one can physically see how the rural/urban codependency has evolved and reflect on how it might in the future improve in terms of nurturance of the planet. It is rich in physical, social, economic and artistic manifestations of the rural/urban connection, and in that sense, is a provocative context for this dialogue.
DW: Each year a topic that relates to the natural elements (water, rocks, grasses, woods, animals) provides the basis for the field investigations that the fellows produce, each in their particular medium. During their month-long residency, fellows use their field research as a source of inspiration for the production of site-specific work. The work emerges very much from being in this extraordinary physical location. It is a physically based analysis and response. The importance of this cannot be overstated, and as an architect, this is perhaps a key premise that Ilaria and I bring from our professional training, a training very much focused on place. The residency is an opportunity to step back from the economic pressures that drive our work. Even for those of us deeply committed to sustainability, it is often hard to keep that primary motivation front and center. At NAHR the departure point is nature, and the end point is nature.
In our current condition, confined by the global pandemic, what is most striking is how quickly nature can recover from man’s abuses, and how quickly nature takes back human spaces. Learning from this grand experiment in limiting man’s impact on our planet will hopefully be a key outcome of this virus.
I read that 2020 NAHR’s topic is Animals: Interdependence between Species, correct?
IM: Yes, how timely, right!? The call included the following questions: In what ways can we envision a post human-centered world in which all living organisms could coexist? We are inspired by this quote from Giorgio Agamben that says, “…the relations between animals and men will take on a new form, and man himself will be reconciled with his animal nature.’’ We feel this prompts several important questions:
How do we define boundaries between species that depend on each other?
How can we develop our ability to interact with the non-human in non-visual ways?
Can we learn to build in a manner more attuned to the environment?
Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit the Italian village where NAHR is based very hard, and with all the uncertainties we have postponed the 2020 program until 2021. We felt that NAHR could offer something NOW to the discussion of how our cities and our lives will be transformed by this pandemic.
So with Asli, Gabi, and others, we developed a digital call to submit on this year’s topic that is entitled NAH_Remote: Reflections – Coexistence in Times of COVID 19, still with the interdependence between species as the core. Central to this call was input from Jose Herrasti an architect in Los Angeles (an LAForum Board Member), and Noah Mercer a software designer in Los Angeles. Anyone is welcome to contribute a reflection in any medium at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We meet every weekend via Zoom to discuss how urban lives have been reshaped by the pandemic.
These are urgent and important questions. NAHR works by participation and through the sharing of available resources, both intellectual and material. This is the essence of our commitment towards building a fair and sustainable future for all living organisms.
This week, the LA Forum takes a break from our typical DLA interview format to share information and links about the way the AEC community has come together to address the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we may each contribute. We hope this newsletter finds you navigating the ever-shifting situation in good health and positivity. Your comments and additional resources are welcome in response.
Operation PPE is an effort by architects, designers, and makers around the country to use their skills and tools to help produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for the medical community. In Los Angeles, an initiative led by Alvin Huang, Director of Graduate Studies at the USC School of Architecture is joined by a growing team of architectural firms, students and volunteers to use 3d printers to produce PPE face shields and masks for use by healthcare workers. The office of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has issued a call to action to all those having access to 3d printers to join the effort.
Operation PPE has been covered by, among others, KCRW’s Design and Architecture, Architects’ Newspaper, the LA Times and Architecture Magazine, which also looks at How Architects, Designers, and Makers Can Help and Volunteer in the Coronavirus Era.
Do you have 3d printing capacity? Sign up on this Google Sheet to participate in Operation PPE Los Angeles, led by USC Architecture.
Masks for Humanity
Masks for Humanity connects people who need handmade face masks with people making handmade face masks.
LA City guidelines and LA area funds
LA times guidelines on how to make a non-medical grade face mask of the type now recommended for wear in public places. Includes a no-sew mask option.
COVID-19 emergency response fund (Mayor’s office)
This week, DLA connected with Mark Olalde, formerly with the Center for Public Integrity about his two recent pieces in the Los Angeles Times CALIFORNIA’S MULTIBILLION-DOLLAR PROBLEM: THE TOXIC LEGACY OF OLD OIL WELLS and DESERTED OIL WELLS HAUNT LOS ANGELES WITH TOXIC FUMES AND ENORMOUS CLEANUP COSTS (both co-reported with Times reporter Ryan Menezes).
First of all, Mark, thanks to you and Ryan for your recent articles. For our DLA readers who might have missed reading your LA Times pieces, could you summarize the public health challenge that deserted oil wells present to the citizens of Los Angeles?
At its simplest level, the investigation says that someone needs to pay to clean up the oil and gas industry’s mess around Los Angeles and California. Neither the industry nor the state have made enough money available to do so, and until these old oil and gas wells are plugged and remediated, the public is going to face a threat of leaking gases that can negatively affect community health and help fuel climate change. As the state’s fossil fuel industry continues to shrink, the government might be too late in actually using its regulatory authority to make sure the liability burden falls on the companies responsible. If they don’t do this in time, they’ll be faced with a dilemma: saddle Californians with either the health or financial burden (or perhaps a dollop of both).
What more can you share about how urban communities might address this problem more directly? And do you know if there are elements of LA’s Green New Deal that address this issue?
There are a few main problems in addressing old oil well cleanup in urban areas. The first, specific to Los Angeles, is age. The first well to be drilled around the Echo Park area, for example, was in 1892, and now almost none of the more than 1,000 that were drilled in that single oil field are still operational. So, who pays, and how do they pay if there’s no money coming in from current production? The second big issue is cost. If you’ve got a landscape in Kern County that’s been stripped of vegetation and covered in oil wells, it’s not too expensive to clean up due to economies of scale. But in Los Angeles, you’ve got to do this work around built-up infrastructure, private property and people going about their lives. If plugging and abandoning — the term for cleaning up an old well — costs in the ballpark of $40,000 in Kern, that figure is $100,000 in Los Angeles. On Firmin Street near Echo Park, plugging just two wells cost $1.2 million several years ago.
I’m not an expert on LA’s Green New Deal plan, but there are a few instances where related issues appear. The first is a commitment to filling the role of petroleum administrator, which is the city’s top oil regulator. Ironically, there is only an acting administrator right now. Another big point — at least to someone like me who has spent months digging through incomplete and scattered government data — is the pledge to create a real tracking system for the city’s wells by 2021. This would be a big step in the right direction. Also by 2021, the city is saying it will create an “auditing and tracking program for oil and gas wells.” Inspections are currently piecemeal, so this is another huge, positive step.
One of the criticisms of the LA Green New Deal is that it does not include a 2,500 ft buffer zone between active oil drilling sites and adjacent homes or schools. With so many Angelinos at risk, do you think such a buffer zone should be added to the LA Green New Deal?
It’s not my place as a journalist to opine too much, but a report from the city petroleum administrator’s office found that there are various impacts to community health and safety within certain distances. These issues range from degraded air quality to safety in cases of leaks or explosions. And, there are always the unknowns when living around oil wells. Take, for instance, the explosion in Firestone, Colorado, in 2017 that was related to oil and gas infrastructure near a residential area and killed two people. In addition to a strong fossil fuel lobby fighting tooth and nail against proposed buffer zones, city and state officials are also scared of instituting too large of a buffer for the fear that they might have to pay oil and gas companies for their potential loss in revenue. This could be a huge financial blow to localities.
It’s probably also helpful to make mention of how a few of our case studies play into this. It appears that the architecture world and the building industry more broadly has already to some degree been tasked with cleaning up Los Angeles’ orphaned oil well problem. In the second piece from this project, we found that some developers take on the liability for plugging old wells on land that they buy before they build.
What can the design community do to better support public health and environmental justice in the southland?
As we transition globally, however slowly, to a newer and cleaner economy, heavy extractive industries like oil and gas will likely become increasingly irrelevant. It may take decades, but as that happens, associated infrastructure will be in need of cleanup. What we do with it, who pays, and what secondary economic lives they have that might finance that cleanup and a just transition are all questions that creatively planning the built environment can begin answering. I’d also suggest engagement with city officials, state oil regulators, environmental groups working on those buffer zones, unions and oil industry groups, if they are willing to create a constructive dialogue. I say this because the city has historically been playing catch-up in dealing with its historical oil wells, and in many instances, they severely lack the expertise you would assume of the city. But, in recent years, they and the state have shown what seems to be a genuine willingness to take on this issue, making now a great time to take a seat at the table.
CALIFORNIA’S MULTIBILLION-DOLLAR PROBLEM: THE TOXIC LEGACY OF OLD OIL WELLS [Los Angeles Times, Mark Olalde, formerly with the Center for Public Integrity, and Ryan Menezes, with the Los Angeles Times, reported this story, Published — February 6, 2020] https://publicintegrity.org/environment/wells-run-dry/californias-multibillion-dollar-problem-the-toxic-legacy-of-old-oil-wells/
DESERTED OIL WELLS HAUNT LOS ANGELES WITH TOXIC FUMES AND ENORMOUS CLEANUP COSTS [Los Angeles Times, Mark Olalde, formerly with the Center for Public Integrity, and Ryan Menezes, with the Los Angeles Times, reported this story, Published — March 5, 2020] https://publicintegrity.org/environment/wells-run-dry/deserted-oil-wells-haunt-los-angeles-with-toxic-fumes-and-enormous-cleanup-costs/
We at the Forum are interested in instigating a dialogue about how this legacy oil and gas infrastructure in Los Angeles intersects with the Mayor’s goals of an equitable and sustainable city as per LA’s Green New Deal.