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What is the Third Los Angeles?

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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" examines the city's architecture, urban planning, transportation and changing demographics, giving us a glimpse of Los Angeles as a model of urban reinvention for the nation and the world. The show debuted Tuesday, June 14 at 9 p.m. Check for rebroadcasts here. 

What is the Third Los Angeles?

Essentially it’s a shorthand, a way of describing the new civic identity that Los Angeles is working, and often struggling, to establish.

It’s a way of suggesting that many of the most stubborn cliches and stereotypes about L.A. and Southern California are crumbling or being held up for new scrutiny. Increasingly the city and region are taking real, measurable and often controversial steps to move past the building blocks of post-war Los Angeles, including the private car, the freeway, the single-family house and the lawn.

But it’s too easy to say simply that Los Angeles is moving into a new phase, from A to B. That idea overlooks one important fact: That many of the elements we’re now working to add or improve -- among them mass transit, pedestrian culture, experimental multifamily architecture, ambitious civic buildings and park design -- were actually produced in Los Angeles in remarkable quantities at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries.

Our civic DNA was formed before the car, before the freeway, before the concrete L.A. River and the lawn and the smog. Once you realize that, a new way of looking at Los Angeles and its history begins to open up before you.

Think of the First Los Angeles as running from the 1880s, the decade modern L.A. was really born, through World War II. And then the Second Los Angeles -- the L.A. that produced all those familiar stereotypes about car culture and a shrunken civic realm -- as covering the post-war decades and continuing, roughly, through the year 2000.

That means the emerging city we’re seeing now -- the one that’s rediscovering its public spaces, moving past the car and the single-family house, anxious about displacement and economic inequality and in many ways having to relearn the art of sharing the city rather than chopping it up into tens of thousands of private residential enclaves -- is best understood as the Third Los Angeles.

At the heart of the Third L.A. concept is the idea that the city is no longer pushing out at the edges but folding back on itself, doubling back, looking to develop more intensely the sections it developed lightly before -- or even overlooked entirely in its race to grow at the periphery.

Analyses of Los Angeles have too often fallen into one of two extreme camps: seeing the city either through the “sunshine” lens of boosterish enthusiasm or the “noir” lens of pessimism and dystopia. But the the history of the Southland is more complex than that. The Artbound episode “Third L.A. with Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne” moves from west to east, making stops at six locations, in search of a more nuanced reading of a city in flux.

From Venice Beach to Leimert Park, from Hollywood to East L.A., Artbound has looked closely at a cliche or stereotype about Los Angeles that is ready to be retired for good:

“L.A. is a frontier city”

Irish philosopher George Berkeley’s 1726 line, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” became the motto for America’s single-minded and often brutal westward expansion throughout the 19th century -- an expansion that reached its geographical and theoretical conclusion here, along the beach in Southern California. 

As recently as three decades ago, Venice was our frontier -- a place where experimentation happened in art, in architecture, in urban form. This was L.A.’s leading edge. But due to rising rents and a bigger set of urban shifts, the tide is moving out. There is new tech money around here, but the cultural vanguard of Southern California has decamped and moved away. Young architects, artists and writers who once set up shop along these streets, in cheap studios, are now looking east: to Leimert Park, Koreatown, Echo Park, Highland Park, downtown or the east side of the L.A. River.

Venice Canals
Image: Still from Artbound episode "Third L.A. with Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne."

“L.A. is a city of neighborhoods”

The Leimert Plaza Park is at the heart of a neighborhood facing rapid change. It was laid out in the 1920s, by Frederick Law Olmsted’s sons, as a picturesque commuter suburb, an easy streetcar ride from downtown, with a small but beautiful Beaux Arts plaza at its heart. In that sense it was a classic First L.A. pre-freeway district. It was also organized around restrictive racial covenants, which made its after WWII blossoming into a center of African-American political and cultural power all the more dramatic. Now, as a new light rail line is built along Crenshaw Boulevard, Leimert Park is poised for another dramatic transition. Much of this change can be understood by looking at just one slice of the neighborhood: the area around Leimert Plaza Park, which includes a restored Art Deco theater and a new set of black-owned galleries and businesses.

But that positive change is shadowed by a deep anxiety about the future. Those worries are in turn connected to a larger sense that the pace of change has become so quick in Los Angeles that it is beginning to make crucial cultural, ethnic and neighborhood distinctions less relevant -- flattening and maybe even homogenizing a famously eclectic and diverse city.

Leimert Park founders
Photo: Courtesy of USC Libraries Special Collections/"Dick" Whittington Photography Collection, 1924-1987.

“L.A. is a private city”

The Hollywood sign, which in First L.A. advertised a real estate subdivision, Hollywoodland, and in Second L.A. a globalized film business, now might as well be a billboard for the Third Los Angeles. Residents and tourists make a kind of pilgrimage to the sign in search of a proper place to take a selfie and tag themselves as having been there. Those who take the pilgrimage encounter obstacles of technology -- a Google maps itinerary that has been rigged by agreements between the city and Google to direct pedestrians to the terraces of the Griffith Observatory to see the sign -- and of neighborhood opposition, as residents on the pedestrian routes to the sign complain that their formerly quiet sidewalks are now overrun. This is the Third L.A. -- this mix of technology and obstructionism, these battles over access and shared space.

Hollywood Sign selfie
Image: Still from Artbound episode "Third L.A. with Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne."

“L.A. is a city of houses”

The modern single family home is where the advertising campaign for the Second Los Angeles was created and transmitted, thanks to a series of famous advertisements by the architectural photographer Julius Shulman. Those photographs suggested the forward-looking, deeply glamorous optimism of postwar Los Angeles, epitomized by the hillside modernist house with a pool -- and, of course, a view to die for. But what does that dream look like now? These homes were meant as prototypes for a new generation of middle-class housing -- big on architectural character but modest in size and price. Today, they are rented out for parties, film shoots and product launches. What you can see from their living rooms is not the expanse and promise of Second L.A. but a landscape of conflict in the flats of Hollywood, ground zero for debates about growth, density and development.

John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein house has been pledged by its owner to the L.A. County Museum of Art, to become a kind of hyper-modern house museum. There’s the palpable sense that L.A.’s architectural experimentation at the level of the individual building -- especially the single-family house -- has passed into history, is something to be protected by a museum, to be looked at as if under glass.

Sheats Goldstein house
Photo: Derek Swallwell, courtesy of James Goldstein.

“L.A. is a horizontal city”

The L.A. Fire Department’s longstanding helipad requirement for all new towers didn’t just produce a monotonous flat-top skyline. It was also emblematic of a city that has always been deeply ambivalent about tall buildings and their place here. With the helipad requirement scrapped, and towers like the Wilshire Grand/Korean Air tower under construction, will that change? In the Third Los Angeles, are we ready to extend our reputation for cultural and architectural innovation skyward? Are there ways we can keep our shiniest towers from being mere containers for foreign wealth, rather than for people, as has been the case in cities like New York and London?

Wilshire Grand building
A rendering of the Wilshire Grand Ceneter. | Image: Courtesy of AC Martin.

“L.A. is an immigrant city”

In the decades after World War II, the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles, just across the river from the skyscrapers of downtown and once a center of Jewish culture in L.A., was forcibly cut off from the rest of the city by a tangle of freeways. In certain ways, that isolation proved to be a source of strength for Boyle Heights, which developed a fiercely independent identity by the 1970s as an enclave for Spanish-speaking immigrants and as a center of Mexican-American culture in particular. In recent years, the neighborhood has been a settled district, home to more second and third generation immigrant families than to newcomers -- mirroring trends across a city that has moved squarely into a post-immigration and even post-growth phase of its development.

Virgen de Guadalupe mural shrine
Image: Still from Artbound episode "Third L.A. with Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne."

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