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09.28.2010
Editorial> Eyes Wide Shut
The public process is being hijacked in LA, a city stunningly uninterested in open debate on design, writes Sam Lubell
Virtually no public discussion has been allowed over the still-secret design of Eli Broad's new museum, set to occupy this parking lot in downtown Los Angeles.
Sam Lubell

Like any crime, the worst architectural malfeasance is usually committed when nobody is watching. And so it is particularly disturbing to see the public process subverted in such overt ways in recent days in Los Angeles.

Take for example LA billionaire Eli Broad, who is building his own museum in downtown LA. This, it should be said, is a great coup for the city. But despite getting a deal from the city on one of its most valuable pieces of real estate, Broad still hasn’t shared designs for the new museum with the public. His only gesture in that direction was allowing LA Times critic Christopher Hawthorne a peek at the contending models, which the Broad Foundation doesn’t plan to otherwise share until after ground is broken, at which point it will likely be too late to make changes. The foundation staff is meanwhile impossible to reach, and has basically never returned a phone call in my experience. 

Another low blow: We’ve just reported on the approval of the imposing new development next to Neutra’s Strathmore Apartments in Westwood, called the Grandmarc Westwood. Despite being rejected six times by the local design review board, the plan was passed by the City Planning Commission, a move that ignored the emphatic advice of many architects and planners. At the public meeting about the project, the voice of the people may as well have been bought by the developer: Every person against the project seemed to be from nearby Westwood Village, while those supporting it appeared to hail from the Valley, the OC, and the Inland Empire. 

In both cases, it seems to me as though city officials were willing to look the other way and ignore the needs of the public in order to usher in projects they believed could be beneficial, either financially or culturally. Apart from any boon to the city, such decisions can’t be made at the expense of public debate. 

Los Angeles is stunningly uninterested in including the public in design decisions. When do we see major design competitions in Los Angeles? And when do public officials actually reach out to the public when proposing a big project? This culture needs to change so that policy-makers and stakeholders are held accountable. This also means that the public needs to be better informed about architecture and design. A NIMBY reaction any time a new project comes along is equally benighted. 

It doesn’t have to be this way: Try to put up a monstrosity in New York or San Francisco and community members mobilize instantly to tear out the offender’s eyeballs—until a compromise is reached. Here it’s a collective shrug, easy to ignore.

The greatest architecture reflects its community, but how can it be great if its creators turn a deaf ear to the public, and the public doesn’t bat an eye in return?

Sam Lubell

Sam Lubell is the West Coast editor of The Architect's Newspaper.