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Reading L.A.: Growth, mega-projects and Freud

December 29, 2011 |  6:10 pm

William FultonOf the three titles we'll tackle next in our push to wrap up Reading L.A., it makes sense to begin with William B. Fulton's "The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles." Published in 1997 with a second edition (the one I read) following in 2001, the book remains a highly relevant explanation of Southern California's lack of political and architectural cohesion. On top of that, Fulton has been in the news recently for his decision -- after eight years on the Ventura City Council, including a recent stint as mayor -- to leave California for Washington, D.C.

Fulton will take up a job next year at Smart Growth America, but he's not leaving just for that gig; the relocation also has to do, he told my colleague Steve Chawkins, with the fact that he suffers from the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. "I can't always see it when someone wants to shake hands with me," he said. "When you're a politician, that's not good." Just as significant for a Ventura resident, driving has become difficult for Fulton, especially at night. He plans to rely heavily on Washington's Metro system to get around. 

It's a shame to lose him, for Fulton is one of the most level-headed analysts of the built environment to emerge in Southern California in at least two generations. "Reluctant Metropolis" is in certain ways an heir to Robert Fogelson's classic 1967 text "The Fragmented Metropolis," which we considered in Reading L.A. in March. And it shares with Greg Hise's "Magnetic Los Angeles," one of the more recent titles in our series, an interest in stressing that L.A.'s decentralized character, far from being a historical fluke or geographic accident, is the result of strategic moves by developers, employers and politicians alike.

It separates itself from those books, though, in two ways. One is Fulton's lucid prose style, which makes the book unusually readable and engaging for a study of regional planning. The second is Fulton's narrow historical focus, which restricts the book mostly to the years between 1980 and about 1995. 

For Fulton, this was the period when the "growth machine" that had driven development and expansion in Southern California for nearly a century ground to a halt, with huge implications not just for L.A. but for much of the country. In 12 essays looking at sites around the Southern California region -- many if not most of them near the developmental fringe, far from City Hall in downtown Los Angeles -- Fulton examines the ways in which the pact between developers and residents, assuming that growth and new construction would always be at the center of life in Southern California, began to fray and then unravel altogether.

That unraveling exposed the ways in which the growth machine had always depended on and promoted what Fulton labels an "anti-urban ideal." For decades, newcomers to Southern California settled into suburban-style neighborhoods, attracted to the freedom and privacy that Los Angeles, uniquely among major global cities, could offer its residents. But over time this approach to city- and region-building, as Fulton argues, "helped atomize the Los Angeles basin into a series of small duchies with little interest in one another or in the region as a whole." 

And when the metropolis reached the limits of sprawl -- when new development began to mean infill projects and growing density -- growth rather suddenly became something for residents to fear, if not attack. In fact, Fulton was among the first writers to identify what in recent years has become a commonplace of Southern California politics: citizens who had benefited from the growth machine, who had bought new houses when prices were cheap, proceeding to stand in the way of any new construction nearby.

These activists by the 1990s were often using ecological arguments to oppose new development, leading Fulton to dub them "tract-home environmentalists." Their political activism, he writes, flowed directly from the fact that they "had already received all the benefits they were going to get from the growth machine: a house, a plot of land, and a middle-class job. They saw no reason to permit the machine to continue operating, at least not in their neighborhood. And so they tried to shut it down. It was not uncommon, for example, to see Phase Two of a subdivision scrapped because residents of Phase One adamantly opposed construction of a neighborhood exactly like theirs filled with people exactly like them." 

That shift in feelings about growth had implications that went far beyond economics or urban-planning. It also removed the only unifying political force -- growth as a way to lift all boats -- the region had ever known. "While the growth consensus has collapsed, no new paradigm has emerged to take its place," Fulton writes. "We decline to take responsibility for a metropolis and an urban landscape that we ought to think is ours."

Instead, he argues, Southern Californians by the 1990s had perfected what he calls "cocoon citizenship": "Spread across a vast landscape by eighty years of sprawling development patterns, cut off from one another fiscally and socially, weary of sharing their space with fifteen million other people ... Southern Californians simply ceased to be citizens in the larger sense and withdrew into their subdivisions."

A different and more ambivalent take on development and growth is offered by Dana Cuff in her 2000 book "The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism." Cuff, a professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA, where she co-directs the indispensable CityLab, examines the history of 20th-century Los Angeles by looking at five separate mega-development sites, each of which featured housing as a major component.

Cuff's case studies, carefully chosen for the way they illustrate both the upheavals and opportunities created by extra-large development projects, are Aliso Village; Rodger Williams Village; Westchester; the clearing of Chavez Ravine to make way for an ill-fated housing plan and then Dodger Stadium; and finally Playa Vista, the controversial development on property once owned by Howard Hughes.

Cuff's book, first published in 2000, is influenced by the architect Rem Koolhaas' studies of "bigness" in the 1990s. Unlike Koolhaas, though, who described large-scale urban projects as essentially amoral and "beyond" good or bad, Cuff argues that they are "bimoral: they are inherently good and bad, simultaneously."

As Cuff's discussion of the endless debates over Playa Vista makes clear, the era of the mega-project is largely behind us. American cities are for the most part no longer ambitious, wealthy or foolhardy enough to plan the sorts of housing and development schemes that are, in Cuff's words, "planned all at once, built as a whole." Community activism, environmental consciousness and various critiques of modernism have all made such projects harder to achieve.

Though the book begins before they were fully active and ends long after they retired, two men stand at the heart of Cuff's story: the housing advocate Frank Wilkinson and the developer Fritz Burns. Each played a major role in the building of modern Los Angeles, though they did so from different ends of the political spectrum. In concert with local leaders of the Catholic Church, Wilkinson argued that cities had a moral obligation to replace slums with safe, modern housing, while Burns did everything he could to keep the government out of housing altogether, hoping to maintain that business as profitable as possible for himself and his fellow developers.

That divide was never more clearly illustrated than in the battle over Chavez Ravine, where a thriving if modest community was ruthlessly cleared to make way for a housing project designed by Richard Neutra. The project was caught up in the larger critique of government housing as a sign of socialism (or worse). Eventually the Neutra project -- which, as Cuff demonstrates, had some strong elements architecturally -- was canceled and the land essentially handed over to the Dodgers.

While Burns' career continued apace -- he was named "Builder of the Year" in 1952, Cuff reports -- Wilkinson was squeezed by red baiters, who forced him out of his job at L.A.'s Housing Authority. The fascinating story of those two men is also the story of how Los Angeles accelerated its turn toward privatization in the years after World War II.

Cuff's final case study, on Playa Vista, lacks some of the drama that pervades the linked stories of Wilkinson and Burns. But it is also more layered and considered, and it arguably has more relevance to current debates over planning and development in Southern California. Proposals for a giant mixed-use development at Playa Vista -- advanced, contested, reworked, opposed anew and ultimately achieved only in part -- emerge as a metaphor for how cities get remade these days. 

In the end, Cuff comes to a surprising kind of appreciation for this process. She argues that large-scale development is still something that we should attempt, given how it can marshal design talent and bring attention to neglected parts of the city. ("Better than many other types of urban change," she argues, "large upheavals can contribute to the public domain.") But she also values the role that activists of many stripes play in keeping those plans honest and acknowledging the "convulsive" role they often play in uprooting communities.

"It may be disagreement and contention," she concludes, "that spare us from both corporate takeover and vapid harmony."

Neutra's Koblick House in Silver Lake
Cuff's colleague at UCLA, the architectural historian Sylvia Lavin, is the author of the third work in today's trio. Lavin's "Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture," published in 2004, is an "alternative study of modernism" focusing on Neutra's late work and the overlap between Freudian ideas and architectural ones. For Lavin, Neutra's projects offer an ideal vehicle for understanding "the process through which architecture ingested and transfigured Freud." 

In a broader sense, she's interested in the ways in which Neutra's interest in empathy and the psychological state of his clients gave him the tools to transcend "the cool and neutral spaces" of International Style modernism and introduce to 20th-century architecture the kind of ambience she refers to throughout the book as "mood." 

Before he left Vienna for the United States, Neutra was friendly with the Freud family: He was particularly close to Ernst Freud, who went on to become an architect. And when Neutra began writing books and articles on architectural theory -- he was a much more prolific author than even his fans tend to know -- he turned regularly to questions about Freud, analysis and the psychological potency of well-designed space.

"As an authority both to be followed and to resist," Lavin writes, Freud was "a touchstone for Neutra."

Early on, Lavin pauses for a fascinating discussion of the relationship between architecture and psychoanalysis in cities such as Vienna, where Freud and others worked in apartments or office settings rather than clinics or storefronts. "Unlike [a] prison or hospital," she notes, "the psychoanalytic office had no urban presence but was rather a private, even hidden phenomenon. As if mimicking the nature of the unconscious itself, psychoanalysis was invisible to the urban eye yet was located in the very core of the domestic scene."

In fairly short order she is following Neutra to Los Angeles, where she finds him deliberately modeling "his role as an architect for residential clients on the analyst working with neurotic patients."

Even if you don't agree with Lavin that Neutra is "the moodiest of architects" (what about Furness, Kahn, Ando, Soane and Barragan?), you're likely to see his much-published work in a new way after reading this study. And it concludes with a provocative aside that could be the basis for a book of its own.

By the 1970s, Lavin writes, "architects no longer imagined themselves as psychoanalysts, as Neutra did, and began to imagine themselves as patients." Architects including Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman, she points out, "speak often and openly" of their years on the couch.


-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photographs, from top: William Fulton on the beach recently in Ventura. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times.

Neutra's Koblick House in Silver Lake. Credit: Flickr user Kansas Sebastian.