'Ever Built' and 'Never Built' Reflect L.A.'s Confusion of Plans and Place

Map of a portion of the City of Los Angeles, California showing Bellevue Terrace tract, the Beaudry Tract, the Arcadia Tract, and the Ballesteros Tract by Britton and Rey Litho of San Francisco, 1868

The Architecture and Design Museum on Wilshire Boulevard has re-imagined several cities of Los Angeles as they might have been in a new show called "Never Built." The exhibition lays out what planners and architects for the past 80 years had wanted to impose on our accepting landscape, from a string of artificial islands in Santa Monica Bay to Frank Gehry's slumping towers along Grand Avenue.

Unbuilt Los Angeles -- as much as the city we have -- reflects our confusion of plans and place.

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Before Los Angeles had been experienced as a place for European settlement there already was a plan -- a sketch really -- of house lots and a plaza adjacent to an unreliable river, drawn by a Spanish bureaucrat in conformity with the "Laws of the Indies." The angle of the river bending south and west prevented the right orientation of the house lots and plaza, which should have been 45 degrees askew from true north and south as required for Nueva España. The non-existent streets of the not-a-city in 1781 as drawn by Governor Felipe de Neve ultimately had to be cocked at an imprecise 36 degrees.

Today, even after more than 220 years, the streets in the city's historic core still point to directions that are not quite true to Spain's vision of the unbuilt.

The city imagined into existence by de Neve had its not-yet-built future drawn on larger and larger sheets of paper after 1850, platting a city with streets that arrowed into fields where American dreams put farms and houses in neat rows. Place seemed reduced to the thin lines on a map indicating something vague and easily forgotten about the city's landscape.

The sheet of paper parceling out rectangles of quarter-acre lots for sale probably seemed more real to potential buyers.

The boomtown of 1888 realized salesmen's dreams in gridded terms that any Midwesterner of the period would have understood and approved. The suburban immensity that working-class Los Angeles became -- and still is -- only enlarged on the 19th century plan.

Members of the Los Angeles Conservancy gathered in the Valley the other day for a discussion with the deliberately provocative title "Preserving Sprawl: The Suburbs Become Historic." The panelists were Robert Bruegmann (Professor Emeritus of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of "Sprawl: A Compact History"), Kevin Roderick (of L.A. Observed and author of "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb"), and me.

It was the "ever built" Valley -- not "never built" -- that drove our discussion, although I guess some in the audience might have wished the Valley, just like islands in the Santa Monica Bay, had only been a developer's fantasy.

Angeleños can be disoriented by the ordinary. We have come to a place so new, so free of associations. The uniform grid of Los Angeles could be seen as a spectacle of democracy.

"Ever" and "never" continue redrawing a presumed paradise on the city's body, never and ever meeting the demands of our desire.

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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