Like the cosmos, Los Angeles seems so infinite and contradictory as to defy understanding. That hasn’t stopped such writers as Cary McWilliams, Reyner Banham, Mike Davis, and Charles Jencks from offering ambitious overviews. Everyone has an opinion about LA, sometimes memorable but usually negative. Orson Welles wrote it off as “a loose and sprawling confederation of shopping centers…with a downtown as metropolitan as Des Moines or Schenectady.” In Cities and People Mark Girouard termed it, “a failed Jerusalem, a low-density Babylon." Michael Maltzan has wisely framed his analysis as a symposium, conversing with ten individuals who share his concerns about the state of the metropolis and its future. All came from somewhere else, and this gives them a critical perspective and a stubborn optimism about the potential of this urban agglomeration. Photographer Iwan Baan complements their insights with a quirky collection of images that range from a trailer park in East LA to traffic stalled on the 405.
Maltzan has built SROs on Skid Row, mansions in Beverly Hills, and a park in Playa Vista, so he has first-hand experience of LA’s diversity. He grew up back east in the Long Island suburb of Levittown and remembers, “I was drawn to LA because it seemed real.” Twenty years on, he can still muster enthusiasm for his adopted home. “As inhabitants of a city that is constantly confronting endless change, we possess an inherent creativity and ability to surprise the world with our urban inventiveness,” he writes. “LA is now at a pivotal moment when its new identity is being determined.”
Those themes recur throughout these conversations. There’s consensus that LA is a great laboratory for urban investigation, especially of infrastructure, for in-between spaces, and communities that mutate with each new wave of immigration. There are also disagreements. James Flannigan, a business correspondent, calls LA the new Ellis Island, a portal to opportunity. Edward Soja, a UCLA professor of urban studies, deplores the extremes of wealth, but sees the heterogeneity as an opportunity for grass roots action. He cites the court victory of the Bus Riders’ Alliance over the MTA, which diverted billions of dollars into improving bus service for the city’s poorest inhabitants. Sarah Whiting, an architectural professor at Rice, compares LA to Houston in its lack of a comprehensive plan. “People think the best idea in urbanism is a neighborhood,” she remarks. “I think large-scale juxtapositions are far more interesting and applicable to contemporary cities.”
No More Play is full of provocative insights, and it tries to spur fresh thinking without offering easy answers. We all construct personal maps of the cities we live and work in, focusing on the places we know and often losing sight of the larger whole. Carey McWilliams subtitled his study of Southern California, “An Island on the Land”—it’s easy to relapse into insularity. This symposium offers a corrective. As Qingyun Ma, Dean of the USC School of Architecture observes, “Architects today realize that if they are not part of the urban voice, then…our practice will never sustain itself.”