Getting the Best

Getting the Best

LA City Hall, where architects are hoping to enact some major changes to how the city builds.

You hear it constantly. Sure, LA has fantastic residential architecture—but its public architecture is not so impressive. There are a few recent exceptions, namely Disney Hall and Caltrans. From there, it’s a steep drop to a level of mediocrity undeserving of a major U.S. city.

There’s certainly no lack of talent in town. So what’s the problem? It’s the city’s procurement process. And even if LA isn’t bound to the lowest bidder, as some others in California are, the standards for getting a public project are not based on design excellence, but on experience, size (generally the very largest firms), connections, and what contractors and engineers you can team up with.

Luckily the AIA/LA is trying to remedy this problem. On its October 16 legislative day, members went to city hall armed with resolutions aimed at changing the game. The recommendations are highlighted by the proposed launch of a city office of architecture and urban design, charged with overseeing design review, selecting designers (in many cases through competitions), organizing community outreach, coordinating regulating agencies, and administering project delivery.

Another resolution recommends changing the city’s project delivery method from design-bid-build—which also favors better-connected firms that know the right contractors and engineers—to more egalitarian and better organized methods like integrated project delivery and design assist.

“The main thing we care about is making this change so that it empowers better architecture,” said Roger Sherman, co-chair of the AIA’s political outreach committee. And as the AIA’s own resolution puts it, “Good design not only contributes to making a place healthier, safer, more livable and delightful, it also engenders marketing and brand value that attracts prestige and prosperity.”

Without better public architecture, workers in public buildings will suffer, and so will the neighborhoods around them, along with the city as a whole. Great residential architecture is important. But with a poorly built public environment, the city will continue to lose talent, and investment, to cities that are becoming, quite frankly, better places to live.

And as Sherman points out, procurement should not only be improved for public projects, but for any project—like the struggling Grand Avenue development—that receives any percentage of public money. “There’s been a de facto process of people in power just deciding what they want to happen. We need to change that, instead of just having Eli Broad operating behind the scenes,” Sherman said. “It’s time the city grew up a bit.”

There are plenty of examples of cities with active architecture and design departments helping assure that public projects are vetted from a design perspective. They include London (where architects like Richard Rogers have played a major role in developing policy and overseeing designs), Paris, Barcelona, and, in the U.S., New York City. Los Angeles needs to follow their lead, especially in this rough economic climate, where the vast majority of ongoing work is publicly financed. If it sticks with business as usual, the city risks falling behind for years to come.

A version of this article appeared in AN 08_10.28.2009_CA.