Is Los Angeles a Horizontal City?

Cloud Corridor model by Mad Architects
A rendering and model of "Cloud Corridor," designed by MAD Architects. The project was on view during the 2015 exhibition "Shelter: Rethinking How We Live In Los Angeles" at the A+D Museum. | Photo: © Hunter Kerhart, courtesy of the A+D Museum.

Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne partners with Artbound for an episode that looks into the future of Los Angeles. "Third L.A. with Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne" considers the city's changing architecture, urban planning, transportation and demographics. From Venice Beach to Leimert Park, and Hollywood to East L.A., the program also analyzes long-held cliches and stereotypes about city. 

The following column examines the statement "L.A. is a horizontal city."

Anyone who has lived in the Midwest knows the vast, ever-expanding flatness in all directions synonymous with true horizontality, and it's nothing like the lolloping land of Los Angeles. Canyons and vistas dip and rise in elevation from Valencia to Palos Verdes to Pomona. Even on the haziest day in Lawndale, look north and the San Gabriel range will reorient you. The infrastructure and engineering lattice work that winds across L.A. also responds to topography, tracking uphill and down continuously. The freedom afforded to L.A. by the car, open land and relentless free market speculation, however, manifested in a sideways urban pattern. The term “horizontal city” distinguishes the low-lying housing that spreads out like a blanket, clinging to every curve of the ground plane.

But as we accommodate rapid growth with floors upon floors of living space, today nine in 10 residential units constructed in Los Angeles County are either apartments or condos. We're building public amenities upwards as well. Hollywood's plan for a cap park over the 101 Freeway is an example of emerging thinking about not what to build next, but where and how to build -- on top, within and above. The fact that L.A.'s housing is turning up is not a surprise. How we adjust is merely the next chapter in the story of our celebrated aptitude for designing “home.” Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne and others are asking what vertical architecture will look like in Los Angeles, and they wonder how our generations-long penchant for architectural innovation might manifest, or if we'll soon look more like New York or London, with their glassy, gestural skylines, and less like “flat” L.A.

Cloud Corridor rendering by Mad Architects
A rendering of "Cloud Corridor," designed by MAD Architects. | Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects.

Story continues below

Early indicators aren't encouraging. Vertical L.A. has already adopted a developer's speculative and tiresome disposition. Recently constructed residential towers downtown are our new, car-less version of the suburban tract home: boring, predictable, and locationally indeterminate. In light of this, critics and city boosters need to demand and promote diverse, more capable architects (there are many -- an embarrassment of riches really, as demonstrated by the younger participants in the 2015 Architecture and Design Museum exhibition “Shelter: Rethinking How We Live In Los Angeles”), or suffer more buildings like "Elleven" at 1111 South Grand Avenue, its next door neighbor "Luma" at 1100 South Hope Street (both built in 2011), and “LEVEL” at 888 Olive Street (built last year). The design firms responsible for these projects aren't hacks; they're known for high standards when it comes to sustainability and pragmatic, transit-oriented design -- which is well-meant and appealing to developers, but also thin on imagination. An important opportunity to make legible the layered quality of the city through a visual culture is lost when buildings are asked to be this generic. We end up with the same typical sun shading and overhangs, the bland ground-floor retail, and the unoffending beige and teal glass cladding.

The challenge for vertical L.A. will be to execute an architecture based not on the demands of market-driven forces, but on the belief that buildings can exemplify how we want to live and belong -- in the air and over freeways now -- as we have across back yards and perched on hills in the past. Only designers who are willing to answer such questions with bold provocations will pull it off. 

Rendering by LA-Más
A rendering for project "Backyard Basics: An Alternative Story of the Granny Flat" by LA-Más. The proposal was on view during the 2015 exhibition "Shelter: Rethinking How We Live In Los Angeles" at the A+D Museum. | Image: Courtesy of LA-Más and the A+D Museum.

Immigrant architects Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano and Rudolph Schindler achieved indoor/outdoor flexibility and an agility to accommodate multiple families and generations through purity of form in L.A.'s single family homes of the 1920s to 1940s. Frank Gehry (originally from Toronto) made an architectural movement here inspired by euro-style theories of the 1970s and used L.A.'s built language (stucco, chain-link and stick frame construction) to break down elemental geometries and place them in a new context. Design movements such as these had immeasurable impact on mid-to-late 20th century design and commerce worldwide.

But the bravado of chain-link materiality and simple steel and glass mid-century modernism won't translate to vertical L.A. They're of another time that took a different approach to the land and operated in obsolete technologies. Young, regionally-diverse architects from Asia, Latin America and Europe -- not echoes from L.A.'s old schools -- are the bearers of the continued pursuit in design innovation as living in L.A goes vertical. Oversees, there are precedents for perception-shifting residential tower and high-rise housing projects. In places like Chile and the Netherlands, architects have influenced other areas of real estate development, leadership in policy and zoning changes, and alternative financing models so that as housing “grows up” it ultimately preserves the economic diversity of a city. Within this new realm, the antecedent to vertical L.A. awaits.

WATERshed by lLorcan O'Herlihy Architects
A rendering of "WATERshed" by Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects (LOHA). The project was on view during the 2015 exhibition "Shelter: Rethinking How We Live In Los Angeles" at the A+D Museum. | Photo: © Hunter Kerhart, courtesy of the A+D Museum.

Like this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on FacebookTwitter, and Youtube.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes