Reflecting on complexity

The Light in Los Angeles
The Light in Los Angeles

Los Angeles continues to elude definition, despite the imaginative power of interpreters as diverse as Renyer Banham, Carey McWilliams, Mike Davis, and Kevin Starr. What Los Angeles is has uncertain boundaries in both space and in the imagination. Los Angeles is (1) a municipal corporation created in 1850, (2) an amalgam of 87 other cities in Los Angeles County, or (3) shorthand for all the costal parts of Southern California from Irvine to Ventura.

Or Los Angeles is something that hangs suspended between the everydayness of your specific neighborhood and the vague glamour of a place that exists only in dreams.

Michael Maltzan is a Los Angeles architect with more than 20 years experience in materializing Los Angeles, one design project at a time. He's also the author of No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond, recently excerpted in the form of a memoir/essay in Design Observer. Maltzan imagines a Los Angeles before 1992 and one after - a Los Angeles that is increasingly not the Los Angeles of our dreams.

Edges and centers have always perplexed the definers of Los Angeles, who see only edges or too many centers. Maltzan wants to unsettle that dichotomy. What does Los Angeles mean, he asks, when it's not exactly "Los Angeles" any more - not the sum of its clichés? Maltzan is uncertain if an answer exists, but he expects the process of trying to find one will be difficult:

Fundamentally, we don't yet know how to see Los Angeles (and far less how to define it). But Maltzan wonders if making "sense of this place" could ever be our goal.

Exceptionalism is the cul-de-sac in which talking about Los Angeles stalls. It leaves the city outside the conversation about urbanism. Since 1990, a large and multidisciplinary literature has focused on "normalizing" Los Angeles as an urban form. I tend to agree, though perhaps from a different starting place.

But I also understand the allure of Maltzan's anticipation that Los Angeles has escaped our ability to speak about it in terms other than wonder and dismay. As he notes, "We have reached a point where past vocabularies of the city and of urbanism are no longer adequate, and at this moment, the very word city no longer applies."

If not a city, then what has change created? One of the reader comments to Maltzan's essay offers a contrary perspective that has at least some validity:

That surely is part of the complexity of Los Angeles, that the city is an engine of change and much of it never changes or ever will.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user mharvey.nyc. It is used under a Creative Commons License.