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Abigail Sindzinski: Old Designs, Brighter Future

October 2, 2013

In 'Never Built: Los Angeles,' a new exhibit at the Los Angeles Architecture & Design Museum, a city’s unfulfilled past offers inspiration for its future.

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WikiMedia Commons via Chad K

The Los Angeles Architecture & Design Museum (A&D Museum) is situated across the street from Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in a stretch of L.A. that reflects some of the city’s best qualities. The surrounding neighborhoods of Miracle Mile and Hancock Park are studded with residential streets, parks, and bungalows; a closed diner nearly caddy-corner from the A&D Museum is now used for film shoots. This part of Wilshire—past the din of Beverly Hills—appears flat and wonderful. The area exemplifies the possibilities L.A. offers with its open stretches of land; it’s a place where room to shift and develop still exists.

In a new exhibition and accompanying book titled “Never Built: Los Angeles” (on view at the A&D Museum through October 13), two architectural journalists, Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, help further highlight this potential by exploring the terrain of L.A.’s invisible city: several development plans, large and small, that were never built. At a moment when construction is returning to the city for the first time in years, the exhibition serves as a map of the usefulness of architectural idealism and what L.A. might aspire to going forward.

Witnessing the energy of the most idealistic ideas is not unlike luxuriating in a copy of September’s Vogue. The loveliness may at times be somewhat fanciful, but it represents the best of what great design can aspire toward.

The exhibit also, in its own way, offers a welcome change in artistic focus. Of late, the tension surrounding one of the city’s more significant museums, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), has seemed to overwhelm its art scene: Jeffrey Deitch, installed as director of MOCA in 2010, ended his controversial tenure in July by resigning with two years remaining on his contract. In a particularly apt line from his piece on MOCA for Vanity Fair, Bob Colacello writes of Deitch’s arrival: “[His] decision to allow the young actor James Franco, who was in town for an episode of General Hospital, to stage a ‘Soap at MOCA’ night that summer only fed the argument that the museum’s new director was mistaking Los Angeles for Hollywood.”

If too often L.A.’s most prominent industry overshadows the city itself, “Never Built” challenges the audience to take a more expansive view and focus on more widespread issues, such as the need for parks and plazas that would revamp areas known more for their dental and government offices. The museum has utilized its small space for a close up on several major speculative designs, and witnessing the energy of the most idealistic ideas—a monorail from 1909 with cars shaped like torpedoes, a rendering for LAX that feels like the interior of a greenhouse cum sky mall, a Causeway built to reimagine Malibu’s waterfront, parks across the city—is not unlike luxuriating in a copy of September’s Vogue. The loveliness may at times be somewhat fanciful, but it represents the best of what great design—form and function—can aspire toward.

***

Divided into sections (Master Plans, Buildings, Follies & Amusements, Parks & Plazas and Transit Plans) and skillfully laid out, the exhibit’s accompanying book Never Built, expands on the offerings displayed in the museum. Ideas range from the relatively specific—a Central Library expansion—to large-scale overhauls of the city’s infrastructure, public works projects, and prime neighborhoods. Several of the ideas are impractically grand, but they often presage work being undertaken today—from the subway extension to the development of the city’s downtown and more. Many represent the hopefulness that was possible before the population size and culture of freeways changed the city.

In Frank Lloyd Wright’s Civic Center plan, speedways designed to keep pedestrian traffic on the street and cars below ground would have stretched from the Central Library up to Sunset Blvd.

Going back to nearly the beginning of the century is Charles Mulford Robinson’s 1907 “City Beautiful Plan,” which imagines long boulevards, parks, and tree-lined sidewalks that call to mind Paris’s grand walkways. Parts of it were in fact realized—the city’s Union Station, for example.

From a smaller perspective, among the most interesting dream projects are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Doheny Ranch from 1923 (slated to reside where Greystone Mansion now stands, northwest of Sunset Plaza) and his Huntington Hartford Sports Club and Cottage Group Center from 1947. In the former, Wright smartly uses artful retaining walls and plantings to incorporate the area’s notoriously difficult terrain, describing the project as “Earth-architecture,” not unlike his Ennis House in Los Feliz. The latter, designed as a 130-acre hillside hotel with a “Play Resort,” relies on a firm central core to withhold large concrete “saucers” that would have included a lounge, kitchen, and cinema. The sketches are futuristic and beautiful, with a “glass-walled welcome hall” for the hotel and a “dome-covered bowl that served as a sunbathing terrace”—a kind of idealized form of the Swiss Family Robinson tree house, with gentle trees lining the buildings’ bottom.

Many of the other plans in the book center on Los Angeles’s downtown, now experiencing a renaissance. One of the most radical is also courtesy of Wright. His Civic Center plan from 1925 reimagines the area, showing fascinating foresight on how to unify it. Speedways designed to keep pedestrian traffic on the street and cars below ground would have stretched from the Central Library up to Sunset Blvd. The library, Civic Center, and courthouses, would have been in close proximity to each other, allowing for easy pedestrian access. After seeing Wright’s plans, the author Anaïs Nin praised the project for its promise to make L.A. into a great city.

Among the more fascinating proposals for the larger city area, meanwhile, is an enormous plan that addressed L.A.’s still unresolved struggle for more green space. With the Chamber of Commerce at the time fretting that “barely one percent of the Los Angeles region was dedicated to public parks or beaches, the lowest ratio of public to private land in the country,” the Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew project from 1930 called for an impressive influx of parks into the city.

The idea was to create “71,000 acres of small parks within roughly a half-mile walking distance of every household and scatter another 92,000 acres of larger parks throughout the basin.” The coastline would also have remained in public trust. For a handful of reasons—not the least of which was the chamber of commerce’s fear that it would stop land speculation—the plan was quashed.

In an even more idealistic strain, the Pereira and Luckman plan for LAX from the early 1950s strives for innovation, with ample room to spare:

Pereira and his students dreamed up the concept of a centralized, circular terminal building housed under an enormous glass dome. Six covered, elevated passageway ‘fingers’ radiated from the periphery of the dome […] The dome soared several stories above a grand concourse decked in palm and banana trees.

Nixed because the city’s Building Department decided that the “cost of air-conditioning would have been exorbitant,” it was replaced by a plan that proved to be just as overly ambitious. The new design’s interior would have had tall walkways up to the planes and an “open-air corridor encircling [the] glass dome,” among other features. In its grandiose aspirations, if not necessarily in actual design, it is reminiscent of Hiroshi Hara’s impressive Kyoto train station, with fifteen floors filled with shopping, a hotel, a department store, and a movie theatre, not to mention “hydraulically operated underground ‘elevator-lounges’ and ‘snorkel’ escalator lounges rising out of the depths” of underground terminals. No doubt ludicrously expensive, it is fanciful to the tune of the underground shark pool in Thunderball, less the villain of course.

If L.A. is no longer the empty canvas of its earlier days, it nevertheless finds itself at a potentially fruitful moment for design and urban planning.

Equally far-fetched is the John Drescher and Moffat and Nichol plan to remake the boundaries of Los Angeles. Named “The Causeway”—and given the remarkably apt tag, “An Unusual Future”—the design called for a “30,000 foot-long chain of small man-made islands—similar to the Florida Keys—with residences for 29,000 people,” that would have extended six miles from Santa Monica to Malibu and created a new layer of coastal property. Ideally, the Seaway would have offset the then-planned double-decker freeway. Ultimately, the project was abandoned after resident tempers flared and budgets ran short. Governor Edmund Brown quashed it in 1965, perhaps with the foresight that environmental impact studies would not look kindly on such an undertaking.

***

In Never Built introduction, Thom Mayne, a Pritzker Prize winning architect, writes: “The built environment of Los Angeles has always exhibited a split personality of presence and potential. Branded as a tabula rasa on an urban scale, L.A. is a heterogeneous city of immigrants governed by a dispersed, fluctuating center of authority.”

If L.A. is no longer the empty canvas of its earlier days, it nevertheless finds itself at a potentially fruitful moment for design and urban planning. The city is no longer a blank slate, but its sheer space, and the current movement of residents away from the city center and out into new neighborhoods, offers opportunity for redevelopment and new projects—both outward and upward.

In a 2008 review of the recent Renzo Piano-designed extension of east LACMA (BCAM and the Resnick Pavilion), Never Built co-author Greg Goldin comments on the museum’s conflicted relationship to “the unstable ground of Los Angeles.” After all, Goldin notes, “the museum sits on a bed of liquid tar.”

Much of modern Los Angeles contends with a similar relationship to the land. In many regions, the physical outlines are unwelcoming: a missed turn can lead one miles off-course on precarious freeway entrances and exits; awkward combinations of shopping centers and residential neighborhoods turn places like Park LaBrea and The Grove into awkward suburbs, while trips to the Walt Disney Concert Hall or Griffith Park feel as though one is navigating a maze. The city’s lack of so-called pedestrian friendly regions, and its only relatively recent venture into a viable public transit commute, can be daunting.

While out west, an older relative of mine expressed skepticism at the reported rise of people living without cars: How would one get to the office? Daycare? What about the death trap of Silver Lake’s Trader Joe’s parking lot? The daily experience of life in L.A. suggests a city so defined by sprawl that it cannot withstand a generation vying for more subways, less traffic, increased greenery, and public projects with abidingly reasonable (but visually exciting) homes.

But there are also pockets of the city that might help provide a more visually integrated future: the focus on a larger metro system will help combat the area’s longstanding congestion problems, while the 6th street viaduct changes and renovations for LAX signal a desire for prominent landmarks and a more interconnected city. An outline of downtown’s forthcoming work highlights new residences alongside Whole Foods supermarkets, as well as new low-income housing in areas close to the city’s already existing metro. Perhaps such new ideas from a new generation of designers and planners aiming for a different feel in the 21st century is what’s needed to let parts of Never Built idealism and unification manifest themselves at last.

Abigail Sindzinski, a former associate editor at HBO and current master’s candidate in English, lives and works in New York.

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