More than 100 years ago, Pacific Electric's "Balloon Route" rail line reached my Ocean Park neighborhood here in Santa Monica. Before L.A. communities were severed psychically, physically, and economically by the freeways, this Red Car trolley route traveled from downtown, through Hollywood, all the way to the "Westside." Then this hot air balloon-shaped route disappeared. With the recent launch of a Light Rail Line from La Cienega-Jefferson to downtown, soon to reach Culver City and someday Colorado and 4th Streets in my backyard, it is back to the future for mass transit. The Expo line is a new idea, that's really an old one: a train to the sea.
While the design of the system lacks pizzazz, my first train ride itself was thrilling, being whisked through neighborhoods South of the 10, taking in new views of LA at the high points on the line and an almost Disneyworld-like chug past the pavilions of USC, the Natural History Museum and Exposition Park's enchanted rose garden.
Then there was the most different and yet at the same time most natural piece of all: the company of strangers. In terms of getting out of traffic, and connecting with Angelenos, the arrival of the Expo Line is a boon. Yet for those of us drawn to this region by its unique smorgasbord of architecture borne to some extent of its car-centric lifestyle, this transition also represents an existential shift.
It seems that most major cities grow without fundamentally changing their physical character; aren't New York, London, Hong Kong, Mexico City essentially more built-up versions of their earlier selves? Yet Los Angeles seems to be in a fascinating state of personality change, with everything from its built form to ones sense of what it is to be an Angeleno in flux. Since my head is spinning at the speed of this evolution, I chose to reflect upon it in this kick-off article for an ongoing series for Artbound on architecture, design and all things related.
Forty-one years ago, a forbear of mine, Reyner Banham, onetime editor of the London-based Architectural Review magazine (a publication I would eventually work for) moved to Los Angeles, learned to drive and wrote Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Perhaps even more influential in defining the nature of a place than Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York, "Four Ecologies" offered a pop-intellectual framework for understanding Southern California's built environment that became a bible for visiting architecture enthusiasts.
The book gave us concepts like Autopia, where driving on Los Angeles freeways represented a "special way of being alive;" Surfurbia, which assumed that "the beach is what life is all about in Los Angeles;" the vast, undifferentiated Plains of Id; and the notion of a decentralized region in which its downtown had "shriveled to insignificance."
Banham described Los Angeles buildings as "instant architecture" in a "uniquely mobile metropolis" that was home to essentially libertarian homesteaders who were not in the least offended by loud advertizing billboards or hamburger stands that looked like hamburgers, and that provided fertile terrain for the creativity of architects from Rudolf Schindler to Frank Gehry.
For those of us who came of age in the 1980s, and felt oppressed by straight-jacketed, East Coast and European cities and their ghastly, then fashionable, neo-historicist, Postmodern buildings, this exotic, dynamic, anti-urban environment was both fascinating and repelling, utopian, and dystopian.
Fast forward to now. What do we see?
Autopia, once seen as the "city of the perpetual future," is remaking itself in the mold of "old" world cities. Auto, a Greek root meaning "self" --appropriate for individualist Angelenos -- is being replaced by "us," a generation that grew up in the suburbs, hated being driven everywhere by mom, and is shaping L.A. into close-knit living in lofts and apartments. Customized bikes, not cars, and that massive anti-auto action, CicLAvia, are the new mobility.
Surfurbia of course remains core to the L.A. psyche but it does not dominate, as Banham observed. The center of gravity, culturally, has indisputably shifted East, and for the denizens of Echo Park and Silver Lake and Mount Washington and Highland Park, the ocean is a long, crowded drive and a large mental leap away.
Which brings us to another leap.
Downtown. In "Four Ecologies," Banham wrote off downtown with a brief chapter entitled, dismissively, "A Note on Downtown," followed by, "because that is all it deserves." He gently derided the "seriously-intended and massively-funded attempts to reactivate the area" in the form of the "cultural 'Acropolis' being created on Bunker Hill above City Hall" (a project I have recently critically examined in a new book, Grand Illusion, based on a research studio I co-taught at USC with Frank Gehry and his partners). And comparing LA's efforts to revive its downtown with other US cities, Banham remarked that "in none of the others does one have quite such a strong feeling that this is where the action cannot possibly be."
Enter a smart adaptive reuse ordinance that permitted the conversion of old commercial buildings to residential, a subsequent influx of new development and restaurants, clubs and shops, and downtown now has 30,000 new residents and is the happening-est part of LA.
Plains of Id. Even though L.A. began as dispersed pueblos that were gradually melded through regional transit, by the time Banham was writing, much of the "central flatlands" had been transformed by the "crudest urban lusts" of post-war land speculation into a vast, undifferentiated mass. But the passage of time is giving rise to intensified local character. The Southland has devolved, not just into cities with newly strong centers, like Culver City, but into hundreds of sub-neighborhoods. The Awl's Eric Spiegelman even spotted three neighborhood signs within just yards of each other at Highland and Wilshire Ave., reading Brookside, Park Mile, Sycamore Square.
This emerging, and in many ways highly desirable, new Us-urbia also means the onset of other attributes of older cities such as design review and architectural preservation, and growing hostility to the blaring billboards or extreme architecture - for good or bad - that was, in Banham's view, so quintessentially L.A.
For those of us that found LA's "instant townscape" a relief from cities encrusted over time, this maturation is a mixed blessing. Michael Maltzan, a noted architect, explored creativity here an age of new constraints in a recent book of interviews with artists, cleverly entitled, No More Play. Incidentally, he is now working on a quintessentially future-LA project: a dense, mixed-use housing project in Little Tokyo, running along train tracks between 1st and 4th street bridges, that at a quarter mile long, will be one of the longest buildings in Los Angeles.
Coda: I recently met with Charles Phoenix, self-appointed "Ambassador of Americana" and witty dandy, who bases much of his understanding of LA on his childhood experience of Disneyland and his study of kodachrome, domestic photos of the postwar middle classes--his latest e-blast: kids decorating a Christmas tree with Easter eggs. We discussed the changes taking place in L.A., agreeing that the transformation of downtown, particularly, was truly mind-blowing. But, he reminded me, there was a core L.A. characteristic that was still very much in "play," and it is one that Reyner Banham, as an architecture critic, perhaps overlooked: the region's connection to the natural "ecology."
Phoenix pointed out that it is the relationship to the outside that has shaped the physical and mental environment of the Angeleno as much as its mobility, and this is a relationship that will not be severed -- even if the gardens of tomorrow's L.A. take the form, as they increasingly do, of public parks, balconies of the proliferating small apartments and rooftops of new downtown condo buildings, instead of the backyards of single family houses.
I left the meeting with Phoenix feeling somewhat reassured that the place I had made my spiritual home still had its mojo. Then I got on my bike and peddled off to take another ride on the Expo line.
Top Image: The Expo Line, La Cienega-Jefferson Station. Photo by Bennett Stein.
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