If the West Coast has a 2015 tag line—something to be read in a deep voice at the end of a movie trailer or epitaphically carved in granite—it’s certainly Oscar Wilde: “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”
Our nature is certainly unruly—a parched region bracing for Santa Ana winds, El Niño, and earthquakes—but there’s nothing wild about Wilde’s sentiments. Susan Sontag used the line (quoted from the playwright’s An Ideal Husband) in her pivotal essay, 1964 “Notes on Camp,” to underscore the artifice, effort, and exaggeration required to approximate something authentic. In Los Angeles, we have a very loose relationship to what is natural or genuine. Reyner Banham clearly had his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek when he famously wrote “I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original,” as he searched out the city’s ecologies.
Here, the unnatural is second nature: face lifts, back lots, the Matterhorn, front lawns, palm tree cell towers. Which is why, perhaps, there’s been such an outpouring of good cheer for the restoration and re-opening of Clifton’s Cafeteria in Downtown L.A.—an establishment that has a full-sized redwood tree inside its dining room, as well as an assortment of taxidermy creatures: bears, coyotes, and buffalo. The restaurant is high camp, a celebration of its own ridiculousness, of our own perilousness in the face of real nature. Even before the tiki bar opens, it’s intoxicating.
Entering into this artifact of L.A. history that has been revived as a thematic accompanied by big band-era tunes, we dare to envision an original Broadway, one mythologically free from the frictions of today—the standoffs between the homeless and the business improvement district left at the door.
The incredible change Downtown Los Angeles is undergoing is serious business. However, we also need to address a kitschy scheme in the making: The Pershing Square Restoration Society’s petition to bring back the details and ethos of the park’s 1910 design.
In pleading for restoration, the group’s determination runs counter to Pershing Square Renew, the international design competition launched earlier this fall. Instead of pursuing an architectural solution, the society dreams of palm-lined allées and Mediterranean Beaux-Arts fountains—the version of L.A.’s first park prior to its midcentury demolition for a parking lot and the subsequent redesigns leading up to Legorreta’s effort.
The current state of Pershing Square is pretty much unlovable. Entrances to below-grade parking wall it off from the street and the architect’s Disney-fied version of Barragán hasn’t stood the test of time. The failings of this piece of architecture has led Pershing Square Renew, a public-private partnership with council member José Huizar, to favor a participatory placemaking approach. “Our intention is not to create a masterpiece, but to create a canvas that invites the community to create their own masterpieces in how they use the space,” said Eduardo Santana, executive director of Pershing Square Renew to AN back in September.
So while tipsters report that global players like OMA submitted for the RFQ (shortlist was notified at the end of last month), the odds are against star schemes. Nevertheless, it would be unfortunate if the revitalization of Downtown L.A. resulted in a corny exercise in recreation or a wholly processes-orientated attitude. While a natural Pershing Square is certainly tempting, it is impossible to return to a natural or genuine state in Los Angeles. The constant oscillation between real and “real” is the city at its most authentic; anything else is a theme park.