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Brave New Cityscape

Illustrations courtesy of Moule
& Polyzoides Architects and
Urban Planners

Who are the most important architects working in Los Angeles? Frank Gehry, of course, and Thom Mayne, whose Santa Monica– based Morphosis just won the design competition for New York City’s Olympic Village (an L.A. architect takes New York!), and whose Caltrans headquarters is muscling its way into the limelight, joining Disney Hall and Jose Rafael Moneo’s cathedral as another element in the visual iconography turning heads toward downtown. Add Eric Owen Moss and Michael Rotundi, who together with Mayne were the founders of SCI-Arc. And New Yorker Richard Meier, even though his hilltop acropolis for the Getty was most memorably dismissed by ex-SCI-Arc faculty member– author–provocateur Mike Davis as a “Nordstrom in the sky.”

These are the architects who hold high court in L.A. and win all the commissions — inspiring new descriptors such as “Gehrysh,” and “Meiered” — and whose work constitutes a body of highly expressive and aggressively sculptural forms. This is “starchitecture” that pushes the aesthetic frontier but also evidences the self-indulgence that can result from the cult of celebrity and genius. And there’s a strain of machismo running through these trophy buildings, as cocky and detached as they are from the surrounding neighborhoods. Moreover, if we’re assessing impact, these buildings contribute relatively little to the way the average citizen experiences Los Angeles. How often is one likely to visit Disney Hall over the course of a year?

Nor do these architects or buildings really address one of the central challenges posed by L.A.’s built environment: the deadness of the city’s public space and the bankruptcy of its street life. Mayne’s Caltrans building is a good example of what’s wrong with too many L.A. buildings. It’s as if intentionally designed to be viewed through a windshield, from a freeway, while offering a 300-foot expanse of blank wall to its neighbors in Little Tokyo and to those walking by. This is architecture dominated by aesthetic considerations — let the client buy the land and the community serve as blank canvas. What about urbanism? What about architecture that acknowledges context and history and is knit into the urban fabric?

Part of the problem is the estrangement between architecture and urban planning, which has become thoroughly prosaic and preoccupied with rules and policy, and out of touch with the experiential dimension of cities. Long, long ago the Renaissance theorists thought of buildings as small cities and of cities as large buildings, with all parts working in concert, and design was integral to the thinking at every scale. Jose Luis Sert tried to bridge the divide at Harvard in the 1960s, creating the term “urban design” to marry the professions. The postmodernists tried again in the ’70s to better understand cities, and when they fell from fashion and were forced into exile, they created the New Urbanism, and then the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) as a forum for conversation about the problems posed by sprawling post-urban cities like Los Angeles. Now that the modernist revival is in full swing, however, formal aesthetics once again dominate.

Starchitecture is heady stuff. But blessed are the L.A. architects who are also urbanists and activists, who care about the background buildings as well as the foreground buildings, about creating a streetscape that sustains an authentic 24/7 ebb and flow of everyday life, and particularly those who dare take on L.A.’s thorniest design problem: the transportation system. There’s Doug Suisman, whose design medium is the street grid and the bus stop, and who orchestrates the movement of buses and pedestrians to catalyze life on the street; Martha Welborne, who introduced L.A. to bus rapid transit, and whose Grand Avenue Project seeks to reconstitute and enliven the downtown neighborhood leveled by L.A.’s most brutal ’70s-era urban-renewal project; Deborah Murphy, who with the organization L.A. Walks campaigns to re-people the streets.

One-off trophy buildings are good for a thrill, but the really important work is at the structural level, creating new prototypes to replace the strip mall and the cheap stucco box as the building blocks of L.A.’s neighborhoods. There’s a pressing need to accommodate more density — and the resultant traffic — in a way that’s sensitive to what’s already been built. The detached single-family home with a two-car garage is old school; land is simply too expensive.

Multifamily housing in its myriad variations — condos, townhomes, flats, row houses, courtyard housing, lofts, live-work, accessory units, granny flats — is the new fashion for the new millennium. Add a few shops and a restaurant to the mix, include open space, put it near a transit stop, and several urban problems have been solved in one fell swoop. No need to drive! Two stellar examples of this transit-oriented development are coming “out of the ground,” as they say in the trade, both based next to Gold Line Metro Rail stations and designed by internationally renowned Pasadena-based architects Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule, two of the co-founders of the CNU. (Moule also just designed the greenest “green” building in the U.S., in Santa Monica, for the Natural Resources Defense Council.) Their urbane Mission-Meridian Village is nearing completion in South Pasadena, and opening next year below Pasadena’s Old Town will be the very high-profile, very high-density Del Mar Station project. (Disclaimer: the writer is contemplating buying a place at M-MV.)

The success of this kind of “infill” development is in the subtlety and thoughtfulness of the mix, and in sensitivity to context and to precedent. Mission-Meridian gets it right, clustering lofts, townhomes, flats, even a few detached residences, some shops and a restaurant around three courtyards in a walkable older neighborhood of single family homes. Courtyard housing was a popular “type” in L.A. in the ’20s and ’30s; incredibly, little has been built since — especially surprising given that the demands exists: There are some 350 names on the list for 67 units at M-MV. Courtyards are a quasi-public space that add sunlight and air and mediate between the home and the street, allowing for both density and green space.

While starchitecture has certainly given L.A. an edge, it’s those who look back as well as forward who will show us the way to a brave new world.