Having lived in New York and Los Angeles for more than six years apiece, I’ve learned that while they have plenty in common—they’re obviously both huge cities with a level of cultural dynamism and diversity that dwarfs most American metropolises—they’re also utterly different places.
In the design world perhaps the most important division is this: New York has a number of important, powerful, and effective design champions, among them mayor Michael Bloomberg, planning director Amanda Burden, and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. The results have been, by all measures, impressive. The city has transformed itself through design, creating an elite new collection of parks, buildings, and master plans, including the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, dedicated bike lanes, and iconic buildings by most of the world’s most celebrated architects, including Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano, BIG, DS+R, and so many more.
Los Angeles is sorely lacking any such unifying galvanizers. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, while a stunningly effective promoter of transit, and leader of a recent triumph (despite heavy lobbying) on the Sixth Street Bridge, is still often subservient by legislative design to warring city council members and various agency heads. The planning director, Michael LoGrande, appears to have a rather tepid vision for long term, proactive planning. And few in the community seem to have taken the lead to fill the created vacuum. Instead of true design champions we have Eli Broad, who builds with little regard for public input or (despite hiring the best) even the input of his architects. Another is Metro, which has been enriched through recent measure R. But despite the valiant work of planning director Martha Welborne, the agency has shown little design savvy in its recent transit projects and transit oriented developments.
So who will step up for Los Angeles? For a long time we thought it would be city planning director Gail Goldberg, but she left after years of losing battles with the developers that really run the city and maintain the status quo. Richard Koshalek seemed a major champion for a while before that, but he skipped town after Art Center gave him the heave for, of all things, being too ambitious.
Now we have the perfect time to find out who’s next. LA mayoral candidates Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Jan Perry, and Kevin James are all vying to lead the city. All have taken part in a stimulating series of architectural forums sponsored by AIA/LA, and all espoused the usual talking points of pedestrian friendliness, design excellence, affordable housing, and neighborhood planning. But it still remains to be seen if any will take the proactive architectural stance exhibited by Bloomberg and his colleagues. It’s one thing to support the usual steps. It’s another to take unusual steps to transform the city. We need a design agenda that is clear and, above all, ambitious. Design needs to be a priority from the top, despite the struggles that might entail. There should be architects and design professionals at all levels of the administration. That includes a deputy mayor for architecture to oversee all city design; a planning department that continues to improve efficiency and actually enact citywide planning; streets that are designed for much more than cars; and a procurement process that doesn’t just favor big, well-connected firms. The improvements will be hard fought, but they can, like they have in New York, lift the quality of life. If New York can do it so can Los Angeles. It’s that simple. It just takes a few good people who can really sway the debate.