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Los Angeles, USA - Environmental fervour finally takes hold on the streets of Los Angeles

Cycle power comes to Los Angeles as bikers of the non-Hell’s Angels kind take to the city’s streets

I was recently asked for the buzz on Samitaur Tower, the latest project in Culver City by one-time avant-gardist, now head of SCI-Arc, architect Eric Owen Moss. The tower is an interesting building, I relayed, and will be even more striking when the promised information and art appears on its screens.

However, when it comes to buzz in Los Angeles, buildings such as the Samitaur Tower are not the centres of attention that they once were. This is in part because Moss’s latest work continues a formal language developed over a quarter century and does not offer fickle palettes novelty, and in part because purely formal experimentation is anyway viewed as suspect in these energy-conscious and recessionary times. But largely it is because many people concerned with the cityscape are currently not very interested in buildings at all.

Last week, I joined about 130,000 people participating in a freewheeling bicycle passeggiata across 12km of streets winding through East Hollywood and Downtown to Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. The event is called CicLAvia, and is based on the weekly ciclovía that originated in Bogotá, Colombia. For Los Angeles, it marks a truly stunning adaptation of the car-centric streets of the concrete megalopolis, once described by Reyner Banham as ‘Autopia’ in his famous tract Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.

This week, I went to the opening of Art in the Streets, a new exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA). The show is a triumphal survey of 40-plus years of graffiti art, much of it originating in the streets of Los Angeles. Outside the museum was a phalanx of food trucks, selling high-end tacos, Korean barbecue and ‘Coolhaus’ ice-cream sandwiches in the popular, eye-catching trucks that serve as a mobile version of Robert Venturi’s Duck and Decorated Shed. Many of the people at the event came from condos and lofts in the newly minted residential districts of downtown Los Angeles (an area once dismissed with a brief note by Banham because, that is all, he said, it ‘deserves’). Some even arrived by one of the several new subway lines.

At the end of last year, I polled local design experts for their picks of the best thing to happen to the built environment in Los Angeles in 2010. Between them they selected CicLAvia, high-quality housing for the homeless in Downtown, and the burgeoning Expo Line, a subway line that will eventually connect Downtown to the west side of Los Angeles County.

The fact is that Los Angeles is undergoing a fascinating metamorphosis, ranging from an oddly characterful set of suburbs to an oddly utopian suburb, driven by growing density and mass transit. But in large part this is being led by people who are altering the region in spontaneous ways through biking, walking, street art, urban gardening, farmers markets and so on.

On a final note, Eric Owen Moss’s Samitaur Tower will soon enjoy a prime location in this altered Los Angeles, as it moves into sight from the soon-to-open Expo Line.

Read Geoff Manugh’s review of the Samitaur Tower by Eric Owen Moss

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