Westwood Village resembles the US Congress: everyone agrees it’s broken, but nobody knows how to fix it. Traffic gridlock, scarce parking, vacant storefronts, the homeless, and a pervasive air of decay contrast with the vibrancy of downtown Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, and even Century City. Those hubs provide the quality retail, restaurants, and entertainment that the Village once had and has now lost.
CityLAB, UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design’s think tank, has spent the past year considering how Westwood might be revitalized. UCLA’s Hammer Museum recently hosted a symposium at which two architectural teams presented bold visions and CityLAB director Dana Cuff moderated the comments of an expert panel. In their presentations architects Roger Sherman and Edwin Chan urged that cultural resources bottled up on the UCLA campus be transferred to the Village to boost audiences in the landmark Fox and Bruin theaters, and encouraged artists to occupy empty storefronts. Neil Denari proposed that through-traffic be limited to an express bus linking the campus to future Metro stations, with cars left in peripheral parking structures, and ten blocks of the Village given over to pedestrians and cyclists. Both argued for a mix of high and low buildings and open space.
In the discussion that followed, panelists questioned these assumptions and made their own suggestions. LA Times critic Christopher Hawthorne and Cincinnati Art Museum director Aaron Betsky agreed that the car is not going to go away any time soon. The new Westwood metro station, part of LA’s Purple Line extension, won’t open before 2024, and—to judge from others in the system—it may create a development node without significantly reducing traffic. Mark Robbins, Dean of Syracuse University School of Architecture, spoke of a downtown warehouse his institution had redeveloped; its popularity spurred commercial development on neighboring blocks. UCLA, in contrast, has developed its campus as a self-sufficient island on the land, where students can sleep, shop, eat and be entertained, leaving only in search of alcohol. The notion that the university would relocate its major museum and performing arts programs, let alone its profitable concessions, seems highly unlikely.
Cuff insisted that this initiative was not intended as a master plan or redevelopment, even though both schemes were radical transformations that would require visionary leadership and major funding. Where might these come from? Nobody was saying, and (surprisingly) none of the seven architects contributing to the discussion mentioned the importance of design in this transformation. This is one area in which the Village could compete effectively. Century City’s mall is made of bland boxes, and Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and Beverly Hills’ Golden Triangle have nothing to match the Fox Theater and other survivals of the legendary Janss Company’s enlightened development. Imagine UCLA commissioning the best architects, in LA and beyond, and giving them a free hand to design its property, as the University of Cincinnati invited Morphosis, Bernard Tschumi, and Gwathmey Siegel to help create a stunning urban complex on its campus. What if they were to leverage their prestige and their physical dominance of the Village to set an exemplary standard that its 350 small property owners will never aspire to?
Those who still believe in the tooth fairy might cling to such an illusion; others will look at what UCLA’s Capital Programs have done over the past two decades and despair. The monstrous bulk and mediocre design of the second phase of Weyburn Terrace—a retro apartment block for graduate students on the west side of the Village—is as damaging to the character of the community as Alan Casden’s Palazzo, a garish, clumsily detailed residential complex on the east side. Housing students near the campus to reduce commuting is a great idea, and it could infuse life into the Village, but why can’t UCLA take inspiration from other top schools and LA’s extraordinary roster of architectural talent, rather than crass developers?
The lack of enlightened patronage and impoverishment of the public realm afflicts all of southern California. We excel in the creation of art, music, and entertainment but architecture is an orphan—except for private houses. Westwood is a symptom of that disease, but it has the potential to test a cure.