Unbuilt treasures and unbuildable schemes are celebrated and mourned, conjuring the spectre of a city that might have been
The last in a six-month series of shows on LA’s architecture − Never Built: Los Angeles at the Architecture and Design Museum − is one of the best, and because it wasn’t conceived in time for a Getty grant, had to be self-financed. Even so, curators Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin’s exhibition and catalogue far outshine MOCA’s well-funded flop.
A hundred unrealised projects from as many years feature in the book, which provides an alternative history of a metropolis that might have been. About 40 of these are displayed at the A+D Museum, which will soon lose its mid-town storefront gallery to make room for a future metro station. It’s hard to imagine a more inspiring farewell for a feisty institution that began as a nomad and will resume its peripatetic existence next year, organising pop-up shows and events in other venues.
Designed by Clive Wilkinson, the installation places models on low trapezoidal plinths on a 1938 map of LA printed onto the floor. That provides a sense of context and scale, in contrast to the tabula rasa of most architectural exhibitions. Each project has its own space and there’s a pleasing alternation of vintage, building type and style that corresponds well to the unplanned growth of the metropolis. Lenticular screens show what was planned for and actually built on several sites. Structural columns serve as the matrix for high-rise models, including a Lego version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1931 skyscraper cathedral proposal. A miniature monorail runs through the back wall, and projected images provide a virtual tour of five projects.
The proposals include masterplans and grandiose urban structures, an offshore freeway with a hotel rising from the surf, and a stately pleasure dome that Kubla Khan would have envied to enclose the new airport. Misty renderings of FLW’s visionary 1923 scheme to develop the slopes of Beverly Hills as though a Mayan temple were emerging from the jungle are placed near the maquette of a 100-metre angel perched atop a 250-metre multipurpose tower that an Australian sculptor proposed as a symbol of the City of Angels. Seventy-five years separate these examples of the sublime and the grotesque, but the spirit of reaching for the sky is the same. The oil magnate that Wright courted settled for an Olde English mansion; the angel found no takers.
‘The city’s longstanding culture of timidity, political fragmentation, and subservience to developers has not only thwarted a century’s worth of visionary schemes, but has engendered an ineffectual public realm,’ states the introductory text. One should add to that list NIMBY neighbours, a lack of philanthropy, and an absence of leadership. It’s a miracle that anything out of the ordinary gets built. Walt Disney Concert Hall was the great exception, and Frank Gehry’s bold design for the LA Rapid Transit Board headquarters lost out to a bland beige box by a commercial firm from Orange County. Peter Zumthor’s proposal for LACMA faces an uphill fight with the philistines and bean-counters. Private wealth is lavished on single-family houses and architectural invention is often hidden by high fences.
‘NIMBY neighbours, a lack of philanthropy, and an absence of leadership: it’s a miracle that anything out of the ordinary gets built’
Angelenos may mourn the failure to develop noble public buildings, mass transit and housing, but, as the curators observe, ‘For every park or subway the city foolishly dismissed, it fortunately dodged an albatross.’ Misguided efforts include FLW’s overpowering civic centre, which would have been more at home in Speer’s Berlin, and a succession of overweening towers, including a gilded 125-storey shaft for Donald Trump. Drivers on the San Diego freeway may be glad that this congested artery is not lined with Harlan Georgescu’s Skylots, a mid-’60s proposal for 385 vertical villages suspended on cables. It’s doubtful that the sunken section of the Hollywood freeway would have been improved by the elaborate steel gateways proposed by Morphosis and Asymptote. And it’s hard to imagine Wilshire Boulevard as an unbroken ribbon of arches, monuments and fountains: a scheme promoted in 1923 in a pamphlet ‘Why LA will become the World’s Greatest City’. Some dreams are best left to slumber.
And then there are the projects that would have raised the architectural bar and enriched the quality of life: DMJM’s terraced housing in Pacific Palisades, which appears in the 1966 renderings as a vast earthwork, and the 1950s Neutra-Alexander planned community of Elysian Park Heights, denounced as socialistic by a red-baiting consortium who preferred to replace Latino residents with Dodger Stadium and several acres of parking. The collaborative 1980 proposal for a Grand Avenue might have reanimated that Downtown street as Arthur Erickson’s sterile towers never will, and it’s a great loss that audacious designs by Steven Holl, Christian Portzamparc and Jean Nouvel were never realised.
Disappointment aside, this is a richly enjoyable collection, full of discoveries. Stylistically, it progresses from bombastic Beaux-Arts to the Mayan-inspired geometries of Robert Stacy-Judd and the Streamline Moderne movie houses of S Charles Lee who lived up to his motto ‘the show begins on the sidewalk’. Spindly confections of the ’60s morph into mirrored extrusions and a biomorphic reptile house for the city’s Zoo. Aficionados of LA’s diversity will relish this mix of visions and follies.
Never Built: Los Angeles, until 13 October at the Architecture and Design Museum, LA.
The accompanying catalogue is published by Distributed Art Publishers, £36.16