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Local Architects Looking Up: Aeriality and Los Angeles

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I shared an evening with local architects and architectural students the other day, part of a program of conversations called (What is) the Nature of Los Angeles organized by the American Institute of Architects Los Angeles and its Committee on the Environment. (The COTE co-chairs are Ilaria Mazzoleni and Debbie Richmond.)

It was a drizzly evening for a panel discussion, gray with lowering clouds, not at all the brilliant clarity of overheated air when a Santa Ana kicks up or the glamour of the golden light of autumn.

We gathered at Santa Monica Airport to talk, appropriately, about "Airborne L.A." at the invitation of Berenika Boberska. She is a principal of the architectural firm Feral Office and teaches at the Woodbury School of Architecture.

The immediate subject was light and air in Los Angeles (something about which I've written here), but the conversation grew far larger to consider the ecology over our heads, the chemistry of the atmosphere's reactions, and what we see when we look up and when we look down on L.A.

For Berenika Boberska, "The air of Los Angeles has always been a contentious, turbulent, and magical territory. Artists, film-makers, writers, environmentalists, and scientists have found both inspiration and conflict in its thickness, its refractions, its particulates, and luminosities."

For San Francisco-based artist and photographer Michael Light, Los Angeles presents itself as a pattern of reflections from utterly washed-out brightness to blackness gridded by light. For Travis Longcore, a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment, Los Angeles is an interface between land and air into which an aerial ecology rises and takes wing. Overhead also is a zone penetrated by human habitation. The light that spills from our presence there troubles Longcore, who sees the harmful effects of light pollution on both the human and non-human populations.

For Richard Flagan, professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at Catech, Los Angeles is a volume of air crowded with dust, spores, pollen, globules of moisture, and complex molecules that stew under the basin's notorious inversion layer. That stew, Flagan reported, has changed markedly since the 1950s because of tough environmental regulation. Now we can see the mountains more often.

Light and air are substances in the Los Angeles basin, as material as the mountains that frame our horizon. What goes up in the air of L.A. stays there and its presence in the light of L.A. both harms and delights us.

As for me, I was reminded of a conversation that I had with the writer Lawrence Weschler about our light. To begin with, I told Weschler, there's the cruel light of summer that cuts pitilessly through the shabbiness of Los Angeles. Second comes the nostalgic light that turns Los Angeles into a city of fool's gold. Third, there's the gunmetal gray light of June that's as monotonous as Seattle's. Finally, there's the light, clear as stone-dry champagne, that comes after a day of rain.

Everything in that light is simultaneously particularized and idealized -- each perfect, specific tract house, one beside the next. And that's the light that breaks hearts in L.A.

(To learn more about AIA Los Angeles programs, go to the COTE | AIA Los Angeles Facebook page.)

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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