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Los Angeles: Renewed promise for the city

New projects are awaiting approval in LA, removing the city of angels from a state of stagnation while remaining faithful to its uniqueness and contradictions

No American city has provoked more impassioned debate or challenged precise definition more than Los Angeles. New York, Chicago and San Francisco bask in self-esteem, and are widely admired or envied, despite their failings. There’s fierce contention on specific issues, but none on the worth of the city. Each is perceived as a whole: the tip of Manhattan (though it is only one of five boroughs), the clustered skyscrapers of the Loop viewed from Lake Shore Drive, or San Franciscoʼs hilly peninsula sandwiched between ocean and bay are defining images. There one finds the beating heart of a centrifugal metropolis, with one or more edges sharply demarcated by water; a civic core that commands the allegiance of residents and visitors alike.

In contrast, LA is a crazy quilt of independent cities scattered over flatlands from desert to shore, climbing into the hills and leaping over mountains. Downtown is 15 miles from the ocean, and the beach communities have a small-town feel. The nearest thing to a defining image is the seemingly infinite carpet of lights as seen from the Hollywood Hills; by day it’s a hazy blur.

As Michael Maltzan wrote, ‘From Los Angeles’ inception, the city has defined itself by its ability to continuously push the outer edges farther and farther out.’1

Founded by Spanish settlers in 1781, it remained a dusty pueblo for its first century, but the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1887 sparked the first of many real-estate booms. Sixty new communities were plotted, and half survived. Scattered like landlocked islands across the basin, they struggled to remain independent of the city they encircled. Hollywood and Venice lost the battle and merged, Beverly Hills and Pasadena remained proudly independent, West Hollywood and Malibu have recently been incorporated.

Nostalgia is emerging from the Red Cars, the electric trams supplanted by freeway in the 1960s

Nostalgia is emerging from the Red Cars, the electric trams supplanted by freeway in the 1960s

From the 1920s on, the empty ground between these outposts was filled in, making the horizontal sprawl surprisingly dense. A few American cities have achieved a balance between entrepreneurial greed and civic idealism. In LA, almost everything is developer-driven. But for an occasional bond issue, the public purse is empty, and profit-driven pigmies rule.

You see it in the mediocrity of most building, the lack of public transit, privatised public space and scarce parks. Masterplans are briefly discussed and filed away. Decision-making is decentralised and fragmented. Most residents and the city council representatives they elect put local interests far above those of the city as a whole.The mayor is a mere figurehead, and the city government shares its authority with 88 independent jurisdictions, county supervisors who control large tracts of unincorporated land, and powerful neighbourhood groups. A labyrinthine bureaucracy impedes prompt action. It’s a recipe for urban paralysis, but somehow the metropolis retains its vibrancy, and its ability to fascinate and integrate outsiders.

Most residents are outsiders, having moved here from elsewhere in the US, Europe, Asia and especially Latin America. Crusading journalist Carey McWilliams came from Denver and, in his landmark history of southern California through the 1930s2, portrayed it as a region with natural boundaries, but no assets besides its climate; a place where everything from water to settlers had to be imported.

In the prosperous postwar years, Reyner Banham celebrated its uniqueness and contradictions,3 Esther McCoy and Charles Moore chronicled its innovative architecture,4,5 while Mike Davis famously judged it a dystopia with a viper under every stone.6 It has lured a steady stream of Brits; Banham was my Pied Piper.


Front cover of the 1987 AR special issue on LA, edited by Frances Anderton

As an AR editor, Frances Anderton edited a special issue on Los Angeles (AR December 1987), and stayed on to become a sharp-eyed commentator on the design scene. Even Mark Girouard, the habitué of country house libraries and an honorary Victorian, tore himself away to summarise LA as ‘… the city of Philip Marlowe and Charlie Chaplin, of Mickey Mouse and Frank Lloyd Wright, of weirdoes, professors, gangsters, gurus, millionaires, and nice ordinary people; a failed Jerusalem, a low-density Babylon’.7

Now, the city that grew, like a teenager, in a series of sharp spurts, may be on the threshold of another major shift. Our long love affair with the automobile is cooling, and there’s nostalgia for the Red Cars, a network of electric trams that was supplanted by freeways in the 1960s. Congestion has spurred the construction of a new skein of subways and light rail, often along the old rights of way. Bike lanes are multiplying, and Google’s research on computer-controlled electric cars holds promise of a brave new world. LA is home to the Tesla, and people are increasingly driving hybrids or relying on short-term rentals.

The limits of growth have been reached and young couples are leaving far-flung suburbs to live in lofts and condos that are close to the action, especially Downtown and in Hollywood, revitalising areas an earlier generation abandoned.

There are 35 major developments awaiting approval in Santa Monica alone; residents fear it could become a mini-Manhattan. Growth can be disruptive, but it’s far preferable to stagnation.

The triple blow of urban riots, recession and earthquake in the early 1990s, eroded LA’s faith in the future. Now it seems to be reviving. Maltzan takes an optimistic view: ‘As inhabitants of a city that is constantly confronting endless change, we possess an inherent creativity and ability to constantly surprise the world with our urban inventiveness.’8


1. No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond, Michael Maltzan, Hatje Cantz Verlag and USC, 2011.
2. Southern California: An Island on the Land, Carey McWilliams, Peregrine Smith Books, 1973 reprint of 1946 original.
3. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham, University of California Books, 2009 reprint of the 1971 original.
4. Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader, East of Borneo Books, 2012.
5. The City Observed: Los Angeles, Charles Moore, Peter Becker and Regula Campbell, Vintage Books, 1984.
6. City of Quartz, Mike Davis, Verso, 1990; revised edition 2006.
7. Cities & People, Mark Girouard, Yale University Press, 1985.
8. Michael Maltzan, ibid.

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