Christopher Hawthorne

Christopher Hawthorne

Early last spring, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne launched the Third Los Angeles Project, a series of public conversations hosted by Occidental College that revolve around the city’s return to an era of transit and public-oriented planning and design. The school is planning a continuation of the series, with new programming in the upcoming year that will discuss such thorny questions as the impact of patronage on L.A.’s architecture and the future of the iconic Southern Californian lawn. AN contributing editor Sam Lubell spoke with Hawthorne about the series and its ramifications for a city whose identity is still very much in flux.

The Architect’s Newspaper: You covered a broad array of topics in the first year of the Third L.A., from culture to housing to the L.A. River to immigration to the book City of Quartz. What lessons did you learn?

Christopher Hawthorne: One thing that surprised us was that there was an audience for a discussion about the city and where it’s going. We had a hunch, but we were really encouraged that it turned out to be true. I think people from all walks of life have a sense that the city is going through these transformations. Some are excited, some are anxious. They want to know more. They don’t have a sense of what’s driving it. From the beginning it was a way of looking forward at a new chapter, but also suggesting that we should be taking a longer view of history and looking at the prewar decades. That’s an idea I want to continue to explore.

All of us continue to be disappointed by how much of the reading of L.A. just assumes that the city started in 1930 or 1945. Even in The New York Times’s piece on the city’s mobility plan, council member Gil Cedillo was quoted as saying Southern California was built around the automobile, which is just false. Southern California was really built around the convenient marriage between streetcar lines and real estate speculation. That laid down the network on top of which the freeways were built.

Why has that prewar era been forgotten?

The kind of tropes and stereotypes about the postwar period are so powerful and appealing. We built freeways and created suburbanization with such ambition and at such a wide scale. Hollywood helped amplify that in the popular imagination, supported by glamorous photos by Julius Shulman and others. That has proven very difficult to dislodge.

This seems to be a Los Angeles moment, doesn’t it?

I think it’s having a moment, but I think it’s also facing new challenges. The question is whether it’s a moment or an identity crisis. What makes this moment really interesting to think about and write about and discuss is that the basic identity of the city and its self-image are really up for grabs. There are a lot of changes to L.A.’s identity; and it’s not just the car and the freeway. I think the growth machine is really sputtering to a halt. If there’s one thing that ties the first and second L.A. it’s headlong growth. And growth that is so fast that it never has a chance to catch its breath and consolidate.

We are trying to move past the car and the postwar decade. There’s a demographic shift. It’s a city that has to deal with climate and water in a way that it hasn’t before. And I think most significant of all it’s a post-growth and post-immigrant city. That raises some very interesting and difficult questions. If those days are over that suggests the kind of identity question I’m talking about—establishing a post-suburban identity.

Is L.A. becoming a fundamentally different city, focusing on transit, walkable streets, and public space? Isn’t it still going to remain a car and single-family home dominated city?

It’s a question of the pace of change. In terms of which way the city is going, the writing is on the wall. It’s becoming a denser city, it’s moving away from being a single-family home city. It’s moving away from complete reliance on the car. The question is how quickly these changes will continue to happen, and the amount of influence that the defenders of the status quo continue to have.

An easy way to think about what’s happening is there was a time when nine out of every ten changes to a boulevard in L.A. were done with the idea of drivers in mind. Parking lots were added, sidewalks shrunk, buildings were destroyed along boulevards. Now the opposite is true; the vast majority of changes to boulevards are in favor of a balanced street. Sidewalks have been widened, transit lines extended, speed limits are being lowered. The same is true in residential architecture. We’re not building single-family houses anymore. We’re not building freeways any longer. All of this adds up to a fundamental shift.

That doesn’t mean we’re overnight going to have people commuting by transit and not in their cars. We pursued the suburbanization of the region at such a scale that the move to a new model is going to take a significant amount of time. It’s going to happen in fits and starts. There will be moments when it seems like a reversal. There are a lot of challenges ahead. Some go at the heart of the image of the city, particularly in terms of growth. There will be significant backlash to initiatives like the Mobility Plan 2035. But at the same time that plan passed by a 12-to-2 margin. That’s a pretty significant margin when you consider that members of the city council don’t like stepping out ahead of public opinion.

I think that margin represents a real shift in public opinion in terms of how we strike this balance among cars, buses, trains, pedestrians, and cyclists. That doesn’t mean that the change itself is smooth or will be popular. There’s still tremendous political power in single family neighborhoods and parts of the city that have benefited from second L.A. building blocks like Prop 13. Those homeowners were the beneficiaries of an incredible combination of policy changes and economic shifts. They have a huge amount to defend and they’re very influential.

What is the end result of all these changes? How has L.A. changing in ways that we haven’t discussed—beyond infrastructure, but as a way of life?

The broader question is about individual versus collective ambition. At least in its second incarnation, L.A. has been a terrifically productive place in terms of advancing individual ambition. It has not been very good at advancing a collective idea of itself or advancing its public identity.

I’m working on a series of pieces about the freeways and the L.A. River. Those are two examples of a Second L.A. approach that produced not private infrastructure but something I call single-use infrastructure. They are highly public, but they are designed so only one activity can take place. In the river, it was flood control and moving water from one place to the next. With a broader definition of public space, can we think about infrastructure that’s open to a variety of uses? Can a freeway become a park? Could we think about using carpool lanes not for drivers but for bus rapid transit? The car’s not going away. The freeway’s not going away. But is there some chunk that could be redefined for a more collective or public use?

What all these topics get back to is that what makes L.A. fascinating right now: That a lot of the basic ways in which the city defines itself are up for grabs in a way that’s not true in any other major American city that I can think of. It’s not true in San Francisco, New York, or Chicago. Those cities are in many ways fixed. In L.A., existential questions are still up for grabs. That makes the architectural realm and political realm deeper.

What are your biggest frustrations with Los Angeles? What still doesn’t seem to be changing, even in the new Los Angeles?

I think number one it’s become a very difficult place to be an architect. I’m very pessimistic about Los Angeles in terms of its ability to produce individual works of important architecture. It’s become a very constrained, regulated, and risk-averse place in terms of new architecture. That’s still surprising for people outside of L.A. to hear. That hasn’t been the case for at least a couple of decades. There are very cumbersome rules and regulations. The planning process is not streamlined. The clients and patrons of experimental architecture are harder to find. Land is harder to find. I don’t think the architecture schools in Los Angeles are preparing young architects to deal with the political realities of practicing in L.A. They’re not having the conversations about urbanism and planning that they need to be. I think all three schools are detached from a civic conversation.

I’m pessimistic about architecture and these other developments we’ve been talking about. What’s the relationship between the transit expansion and architecture? I don’t think we’ve thought about this in a way that’s sophisticated enough.

I’m pessimistic about the political culture and how difficult it remains for politicians to speak honestly about some of these issues, given the political power that goes into defending the status quo around home ownership and let’s say congestion. There’s a big challenge around climate. This is a city where the relationship between architecture and climate has been of real ease. The climate has encouraged a lot of experiments; that’s changing. There are a lot of challenges at this moment. They’re particularly acute in architecture.

It seems like design is still not as respected in the public realm as it should be in Los Angeles. We do have a great history of public space and civic architecture that we lost sight of. Think of how much of the great architecture of the 1920s and 30s was public. But the track record in recent decades in terms of public architecture is not strong. Disney Hall was an exception. This is why the question of patronage, and particularly public patronage becomes so important. The city of L.A., Metro, LAUSD, all these public bodies have an increasingly important role to play as patrons of public architecture. I’m not sure all are prepared to embrace this role. This is a place where we could rely on a more vocal presence from Mayor Garcetti in terms of setting those priorities and saying this is a city that’s trying to reanimate its public realm. With that must come some sophistication in how we design and commission public architecture and spaces.

Is there a chance that the city could lose its unique L.A.-ness and be like other cities?

I think it’s a legitimate concern. How you balance the individual and the collective? In L.A. it’s a new balance to strike—to invest more money and attention in the public realm without losing the great sense of creative freedom that has defined the city culturally and architecturally. Is it possible to improve our record on the collective side without taking away from the opportunities for creative individual expression? In terms of architecture at the level of individual buildings, that can be tricky.