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A Tour Through the L.A. That Could Have Been

A $600 million, offshore causeway stretching from Santa Monica to Topanga Canyon, proposed in the 1960s but never built.

A $600 million, offshore causeway stretching from Santa Monica to Topanga Canyon, proposed in the 1960s but never built.

This week, the Architecture+ Design Museum's long-awaited exhibition "Never Built: Los Angeles" opens, highlighting plans for the city that never made it off the page. To mark the occasion, L.A. Weekly takes a tour through the L.A. that would have existed today if these proposals had been realized. Our account is based on a conversation with "Never Built" co-curators Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell. In this imagined version of L.A., the city maintains its Spanish-revival hilltop homes, serpentine highways and celebrity-centric Hollywood flare, but other elements definitely look and feel different.

Fifth Street and Grand Avenue, downtown: Hey folks, thanks for joining us on our walking-cycling–river barge-and-bus tour through the lovely City of Angels. We'll be using many modes of transit across our fair city today, so keep your ears and eyes open, choose a buddy and don't dawdle.

The walking portion of our tour starts on the city center's enormous, terraced thoroughfare, which used to be Grand Avenue but has come to be known worldwide as "L.A.'s great public walkway." Designed by Lloyd Wright, it's wider than a football field, completely free of cars and stretches all the way north to Sunset Boulevard.

Despite its lush, well-kept hanging gardens, the walkway is rather run-down today — it was constructed way back in 1925. But the etched stone ziggurat motifs in the era's art deco style, its hulking proportions and Assyrian temple look make it feel like a classic D.W. Griffith movie set on steroids. Angelenos love it for its weirdness, but we're also proud — it's put our city center on par with Chicago's and New York's. Folks use it for picnicking, birthday parties, biking, strolling, people watching, suntanning and skateboarding.

We're using it today as a viewing point to some of L.A.'s best downtown sights, like the four gleaming, glassy towers of the Southern California Institute of Architecture's (SCI-Arc) L.A. River–adjacent campus by Coop Himmelblau, and Frank Gehry's alabaster Disney Concert Hall, clad with a warm, natural stone on its exterior curves — which glow like a lotus flower from the inside each time a concert is scheduled in the hall. Seeing the building's glorious glow from within, it's laughable that city boosters tried to convince Gehry to cover the building in silver titanium panels.

As we head north toward Griffith Park via Elysian Valley and the L.A. River, everyone needs to pick up a rent-a-bike. Choose any style that suits you: road bike, hybrid, lowrider, banana seat, beach cruiser. They're all free, subsidized by a nonprofit organization founded in 1995. Donors were especially inspired by the Dobbins cycleway — a 100-year-old, never-completed proposal that was revived in the 1990s by avid cyclist Dennis Crowley, and is now a meandering, elevated wooden route just for bikes, which hugs the Pasadena Freeway.

Many Hollywood stars footed the bill for the bikes, and celebrities funded other great public spaces in L.A.: Throw a rock and you'll hit one of the hundreds of parks and schools funded by your favorite actors.

Elysian Park: Unlike other sprawling, traffic-clogged U.S. cities like Phoenix and Atlanta, L.A. had the clear vision to plan for transit alternatives and to set the pace for smart housing developments that are both dense (to save on energy resources) and integrated into the region's natural landscape. Richard Neutra's Elysian Valley housing complex in Chavez Ravine provides light and airy living spaces in a stacked arrangement on the hilly site. The complex's mix of 24 towers and smaller, garden-style apartment buildings offers three times as much housing as was originally here, when the area was a shantytown. As we pedal through the Chavez backwoods, remember that before the modern, minimalist towers were built in the '50s, the area was slated to be a stadium site for Brooklyn's relocated Dodgers before they became the San Francisco Dodgers in 1955.

L.A. River: Drop your bikes at the dock and hop aboard the barge for the pleasure-cruise portion of our tour. As we wind lazily up the L.A. River toward Griffith Park, enjoy the landscape's bountiful springtime bloom, well known to commuters traveling to and from work on the river barges. Envisioned by local landscape architect Mia Lehrer in 2009, the design scheme for the riverbed has already transformed the once-concrete walls of the flood channel to earthen berms and mounds, so that greenery could once again thrive on the banks.

The 505 Freeway: From Silver Lake through Beverly Hills and into the Pacific Palisades, our tour continues via tour bus on the 505 freeway, L.A.'s alternative to the 10. True, we could've taken the subway — our system goes everywhere in the city, with more than 150 miles of track — or we could've walked through the citywide, interconnected parks system.

Out the right side of the bus windows, notice architect Jean Nouvel's 45-story-tall "green blade" housing tower in Century City, where million-dollar condos are wrapped in an exterior skin of hanging, overgrown gardens — desert flora gardens face south, Mediterranean gardens face north. Out the left-side windows, check out Neutra's Museum of Contemporary Art Westwood, completed in 1936, and the streamlined, '70s modern–style monorail station by Ray Kappe, part of the citywide monorail system.

Sepulveda and the 405: As we make our way through the Westside, it's 6 p.m. and cars are zooming freely up and down the 405, as folks head home from work to their condos and apartments in the sky, designed by Romanian architect Harlan Georgescu in 1965.

Like a giant steel spiderweb that stretches and swoops along the 405 from Laguna Beach to Westwood, Georgescu's development provides housing to nearly 5 million residents, 2 million of whom have an ocean view. Gingerly integrating transit and housing, Georgescu's "Skylots" were a reaction to the sprawl taking hold of the city in the early 1960s. The "vertical villages" make access to transit easy and allow residents to share resources and network in communal public areas, serving as a blueprint for sustainable housing options in other cities.

Santa Monica: Welcome to Santa Monica, the Waikiki Beach of the West Coast, with its hotel and residential towers packed right next to one another in tight rows, leaving only a narrow strip of sand between their 50 stories and the sea. We can see the towers looming from miles away, and as we approach, taxis crowd the streets, and tourists swarm the beach cabanas, strip joints, bars and resort attractions.

Santa Monica's governing body is fairly conservative, thanks to a big win in the 1960s by developers, who put a stop to the city's burgeoning "red army" environmental movement. Now that developers rule, the bay cities are a cheap place for loads of people to live and access via the subway system — especially UCLA and some UC Burbank students, notorious for partying despite the rigorousness of their renowned school of international relations, founded in 1925. The desalinization plant and nuclear power plant — just off the coast on a man-made island — provide clean water and cheap power to much of the Westside, although some are fearful that an earthquake/tsunami combo could cause a meltdown. You can barely make out the island today. The smog has gotten so bad from the offshore causeway, built in the 1960s along more man-made islands, stretching up to Topanga Canyon.

Pacific Coast Highway and Sunset Boulevard: Our walking-biking-busing-and-barging tour ends on the coast, where Sunset Boulevard emerges from the canyon and meets the sea. Feel free to follow the chain of parkland along PCH from here, either to the north or to the south. It's part of a 440-mile ring of long, skinny, "micro-linear" parks that connects back east to Griffith Park, with 71,000 additional square feet of smaller "pocket parks" connecting individual neighborhoods to the larger ring. This plan, completed in 1935, was designed by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted (famous for building Central Park in New York). Residents of, say, Culver City can meet up with friends from Los Feliz, Inglewood or Studio City just by strolling or riding on a bike.

Drivers along PCH here take in a breathtaking view of the water and hills for a solid 20-mile stretch. If developers had had their way and the Olmsted plan had been scrapped in the 1930s, this portion of the coast might have been developed with single-family homes, and all any driver would see is the backs of rich people's houses. What a shame that would've been.

NEVER BUILT: LOS ANGELES | Architecture+Design Museum | 6032 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile | July 27-Oct. 13 | (323) 932-9393 | aplusd.org

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A+D Architecture and Design Museum
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6032 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036

323-932-9393

www.aplusd.org