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View from Los Angeles, USA

Is Reyner Banham’s gas-guzzling ‘Autopia’ finally going to embrace High-Speed Rail?

I write this travelling on the Eurostar from Lille to London. Fellow passengers seem to take this high-speed, sub-aquatic marvel for granted. And I check out the latest news from my chosen city, Los Angeles: Californians are about to find out whether months of voter criticism and budget crises have finally caused the state government to cancel a long-planned bullet train connecting LA to San Francisco.

If it is, many Angelenos won’t care, because most residents of the capital of post-war, car-based development are of a libertarian bent, and suspicious of public transit and all it means in terms of denser communities and sharing small spaces with the great unwashed. Add to that a general distrust of emulating European ways; if you are following the US presidential race you will have noticed that ‘being like Europe’ serves for the Republicans as a catch-all to demonise President Obama and his policies.And yet, the region Reyner Banham termed ‘autopia’ is changing. Out of sight and mind of most inhabitants in Southern California, a veritable transit building industry is overlaying a grid of freeways with a grid of light rail and subway lines.

Just this spring the Expo Line, essentially a remake of the extant Pacific Electric Red Car trolley that over 100 years ago connected downtown LA to Santa Monica at the sea, opened a new stretch of track, with the full line to be completed by 2016. While unadventurous design-wise, the line opened with festivities and grandstanding by local politicians who reminded the city that this light rail would bring people into contact with their fellow citizens and, specifically, would at last reconnect us all with South LA, seat of two serious riots (Watts and Rodney King) that has been cut off for years by the 10 Freeway from the more affluent Westside. And, last month, Metro (Metropolitan Transit Authority), announced a team to masterplan 38 acres of land around downtown’s classic Union Station with offices, housing and terminus for the growing network of light rail and subway and the prospective California high-speed rail. Selected for the job were Gruen Associates − founded by Victor Gruen, inventor of the enclosed shopping mall in a sea of parking − and, as design architect, Grimshaw, designer of, among other modern termini, the Eurostar station at Waterloo.

Union Station (1939, designed by English-born architect John Parkinson and his son Donald), once the luminous entrance into a bustling downtown for millions pouring into LA, now sits in an island, cut off by a seven-lane highway and Federal buildings from historic sites like Olvera Street, City Hall and newer civic buildings like the Walt Disney Concert Hall. A goal of the Union Station masterplan − echoing global efforts to reintegrate ruptured cities − is to reunite these areas, employing not only architects and transit engineers but also landscape designers.

Next month will see the opening of the large public Civic Park, connecting City Hall (by the Parkinsons) at the base of LA’s Bunker Hill to the Music Center at the top. Bunker Hill, a onetime Victorian residential area was deemed blighted by zealous city builders in the 1950s and turned into, to quote Jane Jacobs, a ‘decontaminated cultural district’: a strip of high art institutions cut off from the urban fabric. On Grand Avenue, this includes the Walt Disney Concert Hall (Gehry), the MOCA (Isozaki), an arts high school (Coop Himmelb(l)au), the Music Center (Welton Becket) and Broad Art Museum (to open in 2013) by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The park was designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios with input, as is the planning vogue in our post-Jane Jacobs era, from citizen groups. It is intended to serve downtown loft-dwellers as well as help to vitalise Bunker Hill. Like the Union Station masterplan and the Expo Line, Civic Park is further evidence of LA rethinking its urban infrastructure for a society no longer predicated on the car and single-family home. Coda: the Californian State Senate has voted by a whisker to move on with High-Speed Rail. Bad old Europe, here we come.

Fact File

Frances Anderton began her journalistic career in 1987 as Assistant Editor on The Architectural Review, for which she edited a special issue on Los Angeles. She promptly emigrated and now hosts a radio programme there − DnA: Design and Architecture.

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