A Vote for the Future

“I wish I could live another hundred years,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa after seeing what Los Angeles would look like a century from now — at least in the minds of eight architectural teams in a competition sponsored by the History Channel, “City of the Future.” All were gathered at LACMA last week for the presentation of proposals, their models installed in the plaza — the floating structure built atop the remains of Ice Age animals who didn’t have a clue they were on the brink of extinction. Yet the participants were hopeful.

The winner, SCI-Arc director Eric Owen Moss, figured that in 2106, downtown Los Angeles will be populated with gargantuan “Tower-Towers” (megaliths not unlike cubed Bonaventures), freeways will be double-decked with hotels and swank residences, and the banks of the L.A. River will be as green as the Riviera Golf Course. “We intend to build over, under, around and through the freeways, rivers, power grids and tracks, [for] a series of new, infrastructure-scaled conceptions of building form . . . that will redefine Los Angeles . . .” Although his images looked familiar, and seemed to draw on Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture’s 1988 “Steel Cloud” proposal, which also had buildings spanning the L.A. River, Moss was awarded the $10,000 prize — handed to him by the mayor.

Hernan Diaz Alonso, one of two runners-up, seemed to feel he was already in the next century. “For us, it’s easy to work in the future because what we do isn’t ready for the present.” Diaz Alonso’s firm, Xefirotarch, does self-generating computer animations of creaturelike objects that morph and spread — an architecture of fluid form, as ungraspable as water. His installation this chilly afternoon was a short movie starring a white guy who could be a Quiksilver model: As seaweedlike objects wafted by, this future city planner explained that after the great earthquake of 2022 wiped out the “boring” old city, a synthetic jungle spontaneously generated itself, and humans lived and grew among it.

Xefirotarch, which partnered with Imaginary Forces, called its plant-based city “Chlorophilia.” The other runner-up, Jennifer Siegal’s Office of Mobile Design, also promoted a biomass city, represented by a pair of baby turtles (imprisoned in a tiny glass beaker and looking starved for air), alfalfa sprouts, a tulip bulb and an orchid plant. Fed by desalinated water flowing uphill from the ocean, buildings would literally grow from the ground up as “self-sufficient organisms. Bio-intelligent, the buildings are innately smart. Like a plant, they learn and adapt to existing conditions.” Meanwhile, our bodies would be cultivars, capable of Luther Burbank–like grafts and genetic transformation. Siegal, who collaborated with Roland Ritter and Paulette Singley, predicts “a garden of earthly delights” where life expectancy is 105 years — maybe the mayor will make it to the 22nd century after all!

The jurors — Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne, L.A. City Planning Director Gail Goldberg, former Dwell editor in chief Allison Arieff, Loyola urban-studies professor Mara Marks and auto designer Bryan Thomson — quickly ruled out several proposals, one involving an aerotopia of 100-foot-tall landing pods and flying cars, another with ponds carved into the rejiggered post-global-warming landscape, still another with a superskyscraper, equipped with a keel, rising out of the new Santa Monica Bay.

Only one presentation made any effort to take the reality of Los Angeles and project it into the future — sans the apocalyptic prognostication. UCLA architecture professors Roger Sherman and Dana Cuff, joined by Ohio State architecture theorist Robert Somol, regard the city of today as composed of “zones of identity,” neighborhoods, even blocks, that constitute “overlay zones,” or O-Zones. Simply put, places like Larchmont Village or Venice Beach or the dying industrial swath east of the L.A. River are acquiring their own sense of place. In the future, these zones will become distinct subcultures that will both attract and repel residents, visitors and onlookers. In effect, the city of the future will be an extrapolation of the city of now, a polyglot democracy in which people with shared values and tastes will form a self-governing “crazy quilt or mosaic of difference,” as Sherman put it. In other words, 22nd-century L.A. might look a lot like 21st-century L.A., which is, perhaps, the clearest vision of how things will really be.

Mayne briefly and politely pushed for this view, but was quickly outvoted. Thomson, the car designer, repeatedly said of a number of the proposals, “I wouldn’t want to live there. It’s ugly.” Mayne quietly counseled, “It’s not always a matter of something being ugly . . . ,” but his voice tapered off as he leaned his long frame in my direction and said, “I see why Frank [Gehry] said he didn’t want to be on another Pritzker jury.” Mayne smiled his lopsided conspiratorial smile, as if to say, “It’s just you and me, kiddo, and we’re all alone. The rest of them just don’t get it.” It was then, at the urging of History Channel officials, that a final vote was taken. Moss, who seemed to be no one’s favorite, squeezed through the middle.

So much for the future of L.A.

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