Reflecting on complexity

The Light in Los AngelesLos Angeles continues to elude definition, despite the imaginative power of interpreters as diverse as Renyer Banham, Carey McWilliams, Mike Davis, and Kevin Starr. What Los Angeles is has uncertain boundaries in both space and in the imagination. Los Angeles is (1) a municipal corporation created in 1850, (2) an amalgam of 87 other cities in Los Angeles County, or (3) shorthand for all the costal parts of Southern California from Irvine to Ventura.

Or Los Angeles is something that hangs suspended between the everydayness of your specific neighborhood and the vague glamour of a place that exists only in dreams.

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Michael Maltzan is a Los Angeles architect with more than 20 years experience in materializing Los Angeles, one design project at a time. He's also the author of No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond, recently excerpted in the form of a memoir/essay in Design Observer. Maltzan imagines a Los Angeles before 1992 and one after - a Los Angeles that is increasingly not the Los Angeles of our dreams.

My thoughts are focused on Los Angeles at this moment not only because of its usefulness in general urban studies; nor am I interested simply because of my personal history and fascination with the city. I believe that Los Angeles is now at a pivotal moment where the general equation of what it is and has been is being redefined. Los Angeles's new identity is being determined. The critical moment is precipitated by two simultaneous realities: the exaggerated geographic boundaries of the city and the continuing appearance of new densities.

Edges and centers have always perplexed the definers of Los Angeles, who see only edges or too many centers. Maltzan wants to unsettle that dichotomy. What does Los Angeles mean, he asks, when it's not exactly "Los Angeles" any more - not the sum of its clichés? Maltzan is uncertain if an answer exists, but he expects the process of trying to find one will be difficult:

Now the bounding perimeter of the city has been hit, and perceptual, psychological and physical limits of what it means to be in Los Angeles have arrived. Part of this is purely pragmatic and a function of the real constraints of the region's physical geography. . . . Geography, however, is only part of the story in the transitioning identity of the city. . . . The debate about limits can be reduced to a philosophical exercise, but greater ramifications are found in the resulting question for Los Angeles: what is the new identity for a city whose entire life has been marked by its ability and desire to endlessly expand? Perhaps the lack of perceptible hierarchies - or, likely, the reality that traditional thresholds and boundaries in this city are hidden and constantly transgressed - makes Los Angeles a difficult case study in the urban milieu. Intuition, phenomena, perception and experience are necessary tools to make sense of this place.

Fundamentally, we don't yet know how to see Los Angeles (and far less how to define it). But Maltzan wonders if making "sense of this place" could ever be our goal.

First, we must develop a new approach to understanding this moment and acquire the proper additional vocabulary to describe what is around us. Or not. Perhaps the best approach to understand the city's high-velocity transformation is to step back and observe the visible complexities, ambiguities, activities and forces. Los Angeles is a place of constantly overlapping layers, complications and evolutions. As an evolving being, its dynamics make description difficult. Perhaps it is not a city - perhaps it can only be described as Los Angeles.

Exceptionalism is the cul-de-sac in which talking about Los Angeles stalls. It leaves the city outside the conversation about urbanism. Since 1990, a large and multidisciplinary literature has focused on "normalizing" Los Angeles as an urban form. I tend to agree, though perhaps from a different starting place.

But I also understand the allure of Maltzan's anticipation that Los Angeles has escaped our ability to speak about it in terms other than wonder and dismay. As he notes, "We have reached a point where past vocabularies of the city and of urbanism are no longer adequate, and at this moment, the very word city no longer applies."

If not a city, then what has change created? One of the reader comments to Maltzan's essay offers a contrary perspective that has at least some validity:

I personally have a much different reading of Los Angeles as a place that's stunning in how very little it ever changes. In a way, that's always been, I believe for so many, at the heart of the area's charm. I would bet that 99.9% of everything the eye falls upon in LA in terms of buildings and storefronts is decades if not a full half century old. The small business-lined boulevards like Pico and Westwood and Santa Monica that looked so much like what small town Main St America once looked like . . . haven't changed at all in the 25 years since they first charmed me upon my own arrival here.

That surely is part of the complexity of Los Angeles, that the city is an engine of change and much of it never changes or ever will.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user mharvey.nyc. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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