Category: Reading L.A.

Reading L.A.: The once and future Plaza, nature in the city

January 1, 2012 |  8:08 am



Of the final three books we'll consider in Reading L.A., two offer reflections on the complicated relationship between nature and urbanism in Southern California. The third is a detailed and thoughtful look at the Plaza, the public square where Los Angeles was founded -- sort of.

Let's start with that "sort of," actually, since the book in question -- "Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space" -- ranks as one of the more pleasant surprises for me of Reading L.A. At the suggestion of several readers of this blog, I added William David Estrada's book, published in 2008, rather late in the game to my list of titles for this project. I'm very glad I did, for no survey of Los Angeles and its architectural and urban origins would be complete without at least one volume on the strange evolution of the Plaza, a place where the history and meaning of the city have been continually up for grabs. Of course this corner of downtown L.A. has also been in the news for the recent travails of the arts center La Plaza de Cultura y Artes.

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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. 

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Reading L.A.: Admirers of Los Angeles, warts and all

December 27, 2011 |  1:18 pm

Christopher Hawthorne's "Reading L.A." series considers books by Richard Longstreth, John Chase and William Alexander McClungThe three titles we'll consider next in Reading L.A. -- all published around the year 2000 -- are linked by an interest in examining Los Angeles as it actually exists, or has existed, rather than in its utopian or dystopian forms. As a result, each is marked by measured admiration for a city that has been so often written off as vacuous or irredeemable.

The first of the bunch, Richard Longstreth's "The Drive-In, the Supermarket and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941," explains how architecture and car culture developed a symbiotic relationship in Southern California between the world wars. In a broader sense it explores the ways in which Los Angeles and other American cities turned their backs in that period on their historic, aging and often congested downtowns in favor of the ease of shopping centers with gigantic surface parking lots.

As Longstreth tells it -- in scholarly, often Olympian prose -- in the 1920s and '30s real-estate developers, retailers and architects began designing their projects with one goal at the front of their minds: attracting the attention of passing motorists. In large part this meant staking out sites removed from the congestion of downtown, taking advantage of the low density and visual openness of neighborhoods that were still being developed.

Longstreth has some incisive things to say about the relationship between these new buildings and L.A.'s most innovative architects. The drive-in market, he notes, "afforded a unique opportunity at that time to apply modernist concepts ... to complexes that were not only arranged to accommodate the automobile, but were part of an urban order where movement by car was a primary generating force." (Emphasis mine.) The figures who produced designs for these drive-ins, which tended to be semicircular stores set back from a curving driveway, included Richard Neutra and Lloyd Wright.

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Reading L.A.: The Olmsted Brothers plan and what might have been

November 11, 2011 | 11:45 am


The editors of the 18th title in our Reading L.A. series, historians Greg Hise and William Deverell, write that the task that confronted them in putting the book together was “akin to urban archeology.” And in fact “Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region” managed when it was published in 2000 to rescue a key planning document from the dustbin of Southern California history (or at least to retrieve it from a distant shelf). It is a document that anyone with an interest in the urban design of Southern California will find both inspiring and -- because it was never implemented in anything beyond piecemeal fashion -- a little depressing.

The plan was commissioned in 1927 from a pair of major landscape architecture firms -- Olmsted Brothers, based in Brookline, Mass., and led by the sons of the famed Frederick Law Olmsted, and Harland Bartholomew & Associates of St. Louis -- by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. The chamber, which Hise and Deverell describe in their illuminating introduction as “probably the most powerful commercial body of its kind in the American West, if not in the nation,” asked the two firms to prepare a report on parks and open space across Los Angeles County.

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Reading L.A.: Think Southern California is unplanned? Think again

September 30, 2011 |  4:30 pm

Glendon and Lindbrook Avenues--1937--Dick Whittington Studios 
Debunkers and myth-busters have been among our favorite authors in Reading L.A., and in our 17th title we find a classic example of the type. In his 1997 book “Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis,” historian Greg Hise sets out systematically to undermine the idea that Los Angeles, particularly in the way it grew in the decades after World War II, is the ultimate unplanned metropolis.

It’s a hardy cliché, to be sure, this notion of L.A. as untouched by planning foresight of any kind. Hise, who was teaching urban history and planning at USC when he wrote the book and is now a professor in the history department at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, acknowledges the uphill nature of his scholarly climb here, noting that “planning and Los Angeles are not terms that are easily coupled.”

But he is also eager to suggest a new way to look at the history of urban development in Southern California -- and to understand how we got from the relatively small city of the early years of the 20th century to the massive, medium-density, “polynucleated” region we have today. His goal, he writes, is “uncovering the loosely knit but mutually reinforcing decisions and actions of home builders, industrialists, financiers, home buyers, and government” in shaping the urbanism of Southern California.

Far from working at cross purposes, Hise argues that these various actors together “forged a regional vision” and “thought in terms of a coordinated metropolitan system, a network of integrated communities. They did not dichotomize the urban landscape into a core and periphery, a city and suburb. And I have found it useful to view the American city from this perspective.”

Hise discovers that from about the 1920s on, planners and developers “envisioned growth and development occurring in urbanized clusters within the metropolitan region.”

“In 1922,” he writes, “the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors sponsored four conferences on regional planning devoted to subdivision regulation, transportation, and water and sewage, issues whose effects and domain elided tidy jurisdictional boundaries.” Near the end of World War II the city would sponsor a similar campaign to plot future growth in the San Fernando Valley, which was in the middle of a massive population boom, nearly tripling in size between 1940 and 1950.

And well before that -- by the late 1930s, Hise argues -- “a vision of an alternative urban future was in place.” The heart of that vision was a new sort of planned community: not just a detached suburban subdivision, but, as Hise defines it, an entire interconnected ecosystem of housing, shopping, schools and jobs. Lakewood, Leimert Park and Westwood Village are among the local examples.

At the core of Hise’s book is an effort is to study the relationship between modern community planning and industry -- particularly Southern California’s major aircraft and aerospace companies. As he puts it, the very “spatial logic of community building” was closely tied to the rise and location of industry: “Private home builders sited their new neighborhoods in close proximity to employment, aggressively marketed their projects’ location as a primary inducement for sales, and targeted wage earners employed in defense industries as their principal buyers.”

This is a significant and in some ways counterintuitive set of propositions about how Los Angeles grew. Instead of following the usual logic that the American suburb was created by people fleeing something -- usually the overcrowded, overpriced, crime-ridden city -- Hise argues that at least in Southern California suburban growth was driven by people drawn to something, primarily jobs and to a lesser extent a certain kind of community or residential architecture. Hence the book's title and its use of the word "magnetic."

The writing in “Magnetic Los Angeles” can be pretty dry. If the book has another weakness, it flows from Hise’s disinclination to examine in any detail the architectural and urban design aspects of the seams where the various postwar communities he studies came together.

There’s no doubt that modern community planning, before Hise’s book, was underexamined and underappreciated as a key element in building Southern California. But the fact is that the landscape we tend overwhelmingly to see as we move through Los Angeles is not those communities themselves as much as the commercial thoroughfares, often barely landscaped, that run between them and stitch them together.

This is precisely the vantage point that has given rise to the clichés and the stereotypes about Los Angeles that Hise works so steadily -- and for the most so persuasively –- to overturn.

We’ll meet up with Hise again very soon: He’s the co-editor, with William Deverell, of the next book in our series, "Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region.”


Reading L.A.: The giant, complex legacy of the Case Study program

Previously in Reading L.A.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo: Westwood in 1937. Credit: Dick Whittington Studios.

Reading L.A.: The giant, complex legacy of the Case Study program

September 20, 2011 | 12:26 pm

CS16Shulman Consider this installment of Reading L.A. the All-Star Game of the series.

The 16th title in our year-long trek is "Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses," published to accompany a 1989 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art curated by Elizabeth A.T. Smith. It includes essays by some of the biggest hitters in our series, including Esther McCoy, Reyner Banham and Thomas Hines. There are also entries by historians Kevin Starr and Dolores Hayden and by Smith herself.

It is the only collection of essays I decided to include in Reading L.A., which is otherwise made up of books by single authors (plus one pair). Given the list of contributors to the book -- and the wide-ranging and continuing influence of the Case Study houses on American culture -- it was an exception that had to be made.

"Blueprints," which Smith edited, is remarkably good: smart, concise, deftly organized and generously illustrated. It ranges far beyond the limits you'd expect to find in an exhibition catalog, especially one supporting a show on what was essentially regional architecture.

The Case Study program, in case it still needs any introduction, was a pioneering effort sponsored by L.A.-based Arts & Architecture magazine and its ambitious editor, John Entenza, to develop new and unapologetically modernist prototypes for the postwar American house. The program was unveiled in the January 1945 issue of the magazine; it made its last appearance there in 1964, after David Travers had taken over for Entenza, who by then was running the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

The architects hired to design the Case Study houses, for sites that were mostly in and around Los Angeles but ranged as far as the Bay Area and Arizona, made up a who's who of California modernism: Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra, Julius Ralph Davidson, Raphael Soriano, Pierre Koenig, A. Quincy Jones and Craig Ellwood, among many others. (There is a brief discussion in the book about the best-known local modernists who were left out, including Gregory Ain and Harwell Hamilton Harris.) In all, 35 designs were published, and roughly two dozen of them were built. Nearly all were single-family houses -- and fairly small ones at that -- but the program did in later years feature two multifamily projects, including an unbuilt proposal by Edward Killingsworth for a 10-unit complex in Newport Beach.

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Reading L.A.: Norman M. Klein on our collective amnesia

August 29, 2011 |  3:32 pm

Bunker Hill and the Angel's Flight funicular, shown in 1962

A few caveats -- OK, a whole bunch of them -- before you pick up a copy of the 15th title in our Reading L.A. series. Norman M. Klein's "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory," first published in 1997, is an ambitious book about urban growth and gentrification that often seems to be at war, or at least in a prolonged spat, with itself. It offers generous helpings of reheated Mike Davis. (Can you imagine a less tasty dish?) It experiments with form and point of view -- there is a 64-page novella, about Vietnamese immigrants and Los Angeles, in the middle of the book -- in ways that ought to have spiced up the proceedings but instead manage to make them even tougher to get through.

Reader, I skimmed the novella.

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Reading L.A.: D.J. Waldie's spare, poetic 'Holy Land'

July 31, 2011 | 12:04 pm

"If Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo had collaborated on a study of an archetypal American postwar suburb, the result would be D.J. Waldie's visionary history and memoir of Lakewood, California."

So begins a review by the University of Michigan's Robert Fishman of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir," the 14th title in Reading L.A.

Waldie's book, published in 1996, is unlike any other book in our series -- and, for that matter, unlike any ever written on the architectural and civic makeup of Southern California. In 316 brief, numbered entries, some just a sentence or two long, some written in the first person and others in third, Waldie relates the history of Lakewood's first major post-war suburban housing development, and of his own family's history there, in the modest house where his father died and where Waldie still lives.

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Reading L.A.: Charles Jencks on Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and the rest of the L.A. School

July 29, 2011 |  9:00 am


If Mike Davis' seminal "City of Quartz," which we encountered last month in Reading L.A., is a bleak study of Los Angeles on the brink of the Rodney King riots, our next title is a surprisingly sunny take on the city in their immediate aftermath. It also ranks as one of the most pleasant surprises in this reading marathon for me, a thoughtful, sharp-minded book that includes some of the best descriptions I've yet encountered of the work of Frank Gehry, Eric Owen Moss, Frank Israel, Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi — the core of the so-called L.A. School, whose members burst into prominence in the 1980s.

Published in 1993, Charles Jencks' "Heteropolis: Los Angeles, the Riots and Strange Beauty of Hetero-architecture," is in short a far more elegant and concise book than its awful mouthful of a title suggests. Jencks, an American-born critic who now lives in London and is often credited for coining the term "postmodern architecture," is a longtime admirer of Gehry and the rest of the L.A. School. In "Heteropolis" he lays out a careful, detailed series of arguments about how their work evolved.

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Carmageddon, something we can all agree on

July 12, 2011 | 11:02 am


Any time I write about mass transit and freeways in Los Angeles I brace myself for the inevitable backlash in the form of displeased emails and phone calls. (No subject is more contentious in Southern California.) Tuesday morning, though, after my Critic's Notebook on this weekend's coming Carmageddon appeared in the Calendar section, I am happy to report that the email is running strongly in favor of many of the ideas laid out in the piece.

It's early, of course. Things could change.

Meanwhile, check out my Reading L.A. post on David Brodsly's "L.A. Freeway," a book whose wisdom about mobility in Los Angeles holds up quite well three decades after it was published.


Reading L.A.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo: An L.A. freeway interchange at night. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times 


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