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Becoming L.A.

Throughout the 1920s, Los Angeles was busy becoming the city it is today, paving, spreading, subdividing. It expanded at an unprecedented speed -- in 30 years, the region’s population had ballooned by a factor of 20. These boom years coincided with the rise of the automobile, a beast that was quickly transforming the shape of urban living, decentering it, stretching it, flattening it out.

In its rush to sell off every empty parcel of land, the growing city neglected to leave itself much in the way of open public space. By 1927, the problem was glaring enough that the Chamber of Commerce hired the landscape-and-urban-design firms of Olmsted Brothers (heirs of Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York‘s Central Park) and Bartholomew and Associates to prepare a report surveying the city’s existing parklands and planning their expansion. What they produced and published three years later was far grander, a $233 million, 40-year plan not only to buy up beachfront land and build more playgrounds and athletic fields, but also to redesign the city itself around a system of interlocking ”pleasureway parks,“ 440 miles of highways built for pleasure cruising, lined with 70,000 acres of elongated parkland.

The Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan, as it came to be known, was dead before it hit the press, killed off not only by the Great Depression, but by the very forces that commissioned it, which were threatened by the broad powers it would have given to a planned metropolitan parks board. A scant 200 copies were printed, and only a few of its less ambitious propositions were, in a slow and piecemeal fashion, ever realized. Known since only to scholars and urban planners, it has nonetheless won a nearly mythical status as, in Mike Davis‘ words, ”a window into a lost future,“ a vision crafted at the crossroads of what was and what might have been. William Deverell and Greg Hise, professors at Caltech and USC respectively, tracked down one of the few surviving copies, digitally reproduced it, sandwiched it between a careful, informative introduction and an interview with landscape architect Laurie Olin, and released the study early this summer under the title Eden by Design.

The report, ably contextualized by Deverell, Hise and Olin, is a strange artifact, invaluable for the relief into which it throws the decisions Los Angeles made, consciously and unconsciously, as it groped its way through the 20th century. Magnificent in its breadth and daring, it is also bizarre and even worrisome in many of its details. Displaying remarkable prescience, its authors were keenly, urgently aware of the dangers L.A. faced, of congestion, diffusion, all those things we throw today under the rubric ”sprawl.“ Most of their complaints, of canyons ”fast being subjected to subdivision and cheek-by-jowl cabin construction,“ of ”traveling on congested roads, through long, tedious stretches of unrefreshing, monotonously urbanized territory,“ are now familiar refrains.

The Olmsted-Bartholomew vision for the city, though, is an odd one. Employing a pastoralism that is at the same time resolutely modern, the planners combined a 19th-century faith in the curative power of the outdoors with a romantic fascination with the automobile. They imagined a vast city of single-family homes, small parks and playgrounds scattered liberally throughout, its outer limits joined by a skein of leisurely park-lined highways, beside which one might hike and picnic and play, and on which ”one may drive . . . for pleasure, and with pleasure.“ They planned to turn Santa Monica Bay into a ”pleasure harbour“ by encircling it with ”a long breakwater or chain of narrow islands connected by bridges and carrying a park drive,“ so the Pacific could be enjoyed from the car as well as from a sailboat. Theirs would be a paradise that could be fully enjoyed at 40 mph, not a city so much as a more-perfect suburb, Mayberry blown up to gross proportions.

If it is unlikely that the Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan would have created, as Davis predicted, ”a vigorous social democracy of beaches and playgrounds“ -- Davis overlooks the paternalistic ease with which its authors planned to replace poor neighborhoods west of downtown with parkland, and Chavez Ravine with a golf course, all to create space for recreation that, they hoped, would soothe the class-bound fury of the masses -- it might at least a have produced a dystopia as interestingly bizarre as the one we now inhabit. As Olin says in the afterword, ”Had it been done, I don’t know what the hell we‘d think of it, but it would have been marvelous and unique and the world would have never seen anything like it.“

If one man more than any other can be said to have left a physical mark on Los Angeles, it is William Mulholland, patron saint of L.A.’s green lawns or sly thief of the Owens Valley‘s water, depending on whom you ask. His granddaughter Catherine Mulholland is eager to dust off his much trampled laurels and has penned a lengthy biography to staple them back on his pate. Titled William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, her tome offers few deep insights into either of its subjects, but rather expends most of its energy laboriously, and at times disingenuously, refuting the various conspiracy theories surrounding the city’s purchase of Owens Valley land and the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

William Mulholland‘s adventurous youth -- his childhood in Dublin, years spent at sea, laboring in Michigan lumber camps and Arizona gold mines, his meteoric rise from well digger to superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Co. -- is rushed over, as is his entire personal life. His marriage, the birth of his children, his wife’s death barely merit a paragraph. On Page 245, mention is made ”of the faith he had long ago abandoned,“ though we never before or after read a word about his Catholicism, or much at all that would provide a hint about his inner workings. Mulholland the man, surely filled with contradiction and occasional doubt, perhaps even a flaw or two, never appears. We read instead of a flat, gruff, but charismatic figure of unfailing integrity and will. Catherine Mulholland is so eager to defend her grandfather, who has been burdened with far more than his fair share of L.A.‘s guilt about its origins, that she unwittingly paints a caricature, the very ”St. Mulholland“ that his onetime foe, Socialist mayoral candidate Job Harriman, once mocked.

A similar flatness mars her account of L.A.’s growth, from a city of 9,000 when Mulholland arrived in 1876 (10 years later, people still found fish in their water pipes) to a well-irrigated city of millions when he died in 1935. There is no deep sense here of the issues that defined the times, and thus no context that might explain the viciousness of the Owens Valley controversy, or its staying power as founding myth. We learn, for instance, that the battle was split along class lines, that labor unions and the Socialist Party opposed the aqueduct‘s construction, but never find any analysis of why, except that they were ”uninformed on the subject“ or eager to use it for political ends. While Mulholland’s bio does extensively document L.A.‘s early-century water battles and provide an important counterweight to much that’s been written demonizing her grandfather, it never comes alive as history.

Setting aside costume jewels such as the Getty Center, Los Angeles architecture -- think reckless Spanish-tiled mansard genre mixing, mammoth doughnuts and L-shaped mini-malls -- gets little respect in highbrow circles. Thankfully, John Chase is around to defend it. Every page of his Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving exhales an affectionate architectural populism and a refreshing disdain for art snobs. ”The point of much contemporary high-art architecture is to launder everything out of a project except the abstract play of form,“ Chase writes. ”Only lesser mortals, incapable of existing on the thin-oxygen, high-altitude plain of distilled abstraction, fret over experiential qualities or relationships to site or other nearby buildings.“

Just such a lesser mortal, Chase essays the invisible and the scorned: the ”stucco box“ apartment building; the gated community; outlaw genres like Hollywood Regency, a mix of ”Regency, Georgian, Federal and, to a lesser degree, the French Provincial manor house revival styles . . . influenced by the emergence of the International style of the 1920s and 1930s.“ He adds an at-times highly personal memoir of his experiences living in Silver Lake and Venice, ”to demonstrate how subjective notions of place and social identity become the world we inhabit.“

Decrying the exclusive devotion of most architectural criticism to the world of high art, Chase outlines a typology of what he calls ”building construction,“ the larger physical environment that includes not only showpiece homes but ”motels, tilt-slab warehouses, shopping malls, parking structures and parking lots, ice-vending machines and concrete-block warehouses.“ His hope: ”To illuminate the contemporary urban landscape in a way that is redemptive, one that allows for creative reinterpretation on the part of individual designers, architects and citizens, so that we can react to consumer culture and appropriate it rather than being passive consumers of it -- or being overpowered by it.“

One might fault Chase for lacking the daring to imagine an architecture more confrontational in its relation to consumer culture, one that challenges or evades rather than merely appropriating, but it‘s hard to hold a grudge against someone who lists among his fundamental aesthetic principles a preference for buildings that ”are so lovably inept in their handling of rules of composition, massing, detailing, or formal references that they . . . constitute a form of architectural ignorance.“