Can the ‘luscious particularity’ of Los Angeles catalyse amore expansive vision of its future?
‘Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles’, Frank Lloyd Wright once said. Yet for a city with little sense of collective consciousness, LA still exerts a beguiling hold on our cultural imagination. From the Bradbury Building to the Eames House, from Hollywood to Compton, LA’s scrapbook of memories thrillingly confirms its reputation as a narcissistic dystopia at the farthest end of America; ‘a low-density Babylon’, according to historian Mark Girouard. Beneath the ravishing scenography and lotus-eating climate beats a heart of darkness.
As a truly modern metropolis, Los Angeles should have lessons for us all, but rather than framing a 21st-century vision of the connectedness and social integration of the European urban model, it is still depressingly in thrall to the cult of the individual, insulated from the city’s hostile and suppurating underbelly in a ghettoised, car-centric landscape.
In ‘New Light on LA’ (AR December 1987), Frances Anderton wrote that ‘The fragmented nature of the city precludes a spontaneous metropolitan life’. Over 25 years on, not much has changed. Today, LA is a city of small plans. Big ambitions and contemporary grands projects generally succumb to collective failures of nerve, developer greed and Byzantine bureaucracy. This shying away from the public and the civic largely accounts for the insubstantial character of LA’s public buildings and spaces, and its debilitating lack of transport. ‘In LA almost everything is developer-driven’, writes Michael Webb. ‘But for an occasional bond issue, the public purse is empty and profit-driven pygmies rule.’
Instead, LA cultivates what Nicholas Olsberg describes as ‘a provocative tradition of luscious particularity’, of brilliant individual moments, adrift in a mediocre and unloved city fabric. There may be 4,000 people subsisting on the streets of Skid Row, but LA’s signature typology is still the trophy house. And however compelling such boutique statements of wealth and taste may be, little of this energy and imagination
feeds through into a convincing articulation of larger civic life.
Yet it was not always so. This year, Los Angeles has been deconstructing itself through the agency of Pacific Standard Time, a major series of exhibitions exploring its architectural and urban history since 1940. A key theme has been what Olsberg calls the ‘bravado, grace, novelty and ingenuity’ of public works programmes from the pre-war era. Now they serve to point up the paucity of current thinking.
However, there is some cause for optimism. As LA’s sprawling metropolis reaches its limits of growth, Downtown areas are being creatively recolonised. Public transport is finally on the agenda with new subways and light-rail developments. Never at a loss for confidence and vibrancy, LA is rebalancing and on the wing again. Can the ‘city of the eternal present’ finally construct a viable future?