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29. Crowded desert

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From Lakewood to the summit of Laurel Canyon takes about three hours by public transit. Several buses, light rail, and the subway. The last bus "? a cranky van on the verge of breaking down "? jolted up the canyon to the stop where Mulholland and Laurel Canyon boulevards cross. Across the intersection is the western end of Woodrow Wilson Drive. A few hundred feet down that narrow street "? it snakes away east to Cahuenga "? is the Fitzpatrick-Leland house.

The bus had come up from late afternoon shadows at the mouth of the canyon. Now there was a second sundown and twilight. The house, on a steep embankment overlooking Laurel Canyon Boulevard, regards the west exclusively. It's a house made for sunsets.

The Fitzpatrick-Leland house was designed by Rudolph Schindler and built in 1936 to boost the opening of a real estate development. The house is now one of three Schindler residences in the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. The MAK Center in Los Angeles "? partially funded by the Austrian government "? is a satellite of MAK/Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art and under the leadership of MAK CEO and Artistic Director Peter Noever.

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The MAK Center takes Los Angeles seriously. It brings architects, artists, and public intellectuals here, puts them up in residence at one its Schindler properties, gives them support as they complete a major project, and adds to the conversation about place and meaning and Los Angeles.

I came to the Fitzpatrick-Leland house for dinner (excellent vegetarian Mexican) and to meet Alexia León "? from Perú, an architect, a MAK Urban Futures Initiative Fellow, and the current resident of the house. Deserts and the cities in them interest León, and she had come to Los Angeles to consider what we had made of our desert and what Limeños had made of theirs.

Paradoxically, ours is a crowded desert. In early March, after a season of rain, it's a green desert, too.

Despite our affection for the outside, we're poorly attuned to landscape here. We use it mostly "? as does the Fitzpatrick-Leland house "? for its theatrical qualities. Technicolor sunsets framed by non-native eucalyptus and bougainvilleas; not the chaparral that once crested all the ridges radiating from the canyon. Everything except the sky and the ocean has been malleable here into something better. Better than the landscape was without us, we like to think. Before us = a desert (despite the native Tongva, despite the ciénegas at the mouth of the canyon). After us = mostly a backdrop.

What sort of city is in this sort of desert, León seemed to be asking, showing her dinner guests images of Lima and the ashen coastal plain from which an ocher city has grown up into the greener valleys above it. A reverse river of brown. It's a city that has to reinvent itself "? its reason for being "? at the beginning of every day, I thought; a city in the desert is new each day. That partly solves the problem of Los Angeles, but only partly. Maybe it obscures more than it explains.

The image on this page was taken by Flickr user Dale East. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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