Public Beauty, Part 1
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By Marc Porter Zasada
Even though we live in a town obsessed with beauty, we all know that here in Los Angeles, beauty itself is often hard to find. You have to search it out among the hasty buildings and littered vistas, the tangled power lines and unmeasured fields of stucco. Then suddenly you do see a red sports car. A string of palms.
Generally, we Angelenos survive by creating our own personal landcapes: besides buying the sports car, we plant cattailed backyards in Bel Air and alleyway gardens in South Central; we place small Chinese vases of curled bamboo on our kitchen counters. In fact, most local beauty is held in private trust: golf courses, chic restaurants, the Huntington.
Still, every day, when we walk out our front doors, we can't help seeking out those little scraps of public beauty: The rununculas planted next door. The Art Deco building that survived. The jacaranda dropping purple blossoms on a long row of automobiles. Truly, by now, the slightest thing can please our hungry eye: A witty postmodern frill on a mini-mall. A pale sky glimpsed above the roof of a 7-11.
But really, it's not enough.
Tonight, the Urban Man finds himself sitting in a lecture at LACMA about the future of public parks in L.A. Now parks are a sore topic here. Some of us can't understand how we live in the fourth wealthiest place on earth, but our parks are marked with such sad distemper: Exposition, Lafayette, Pan Pacific, MacArthur, Pershing Square... little beauty there.
I mean, why is that again, exactly?
Tonight, the panel on stage includes artists, academics, activists, and the very landscape architect selected to redesign the civic park below Grand Avenue downtown. Each shows slides demonstrating great cleverness and bold vision, each speaks of cultural context and high-tech kiosks. But lo, though I sit forward on my seat and strain my ear for two hours, the Urban Man doesn't hear anyone use the actual word... "beauty."
Okay, the architect does show a few slides of European parks, and he admits they're pretty. But then he tells us that his greatest fear... yes, his greatest fear... is that he will build something in L.A. that looks too much like one of those. No, he says, it's important to create something distinctly local. And then he shows many parks filled, like L.A. itself, with very clever things built of plastic and steel.
So me, I plan a little speech for the Q&A period. I figure I'll raise my hand and say, "You may have noticed that L.A. is, for the most part, an ugly town. And most of us here spend our days among unmeasured fields of stucco. But still every morning, we look for purple blossoms on the hoods of our cars. The ice plant blooming in the median strip.
"Dear park design professional," I would say, "I know that 'beauty' is a careless and unsubstantiated word. I know it's easier to talk about context and theory. And yes, I do recognize the value in highly witty things.
"But still, I ask you, when you sit at your drawing board, remember Boston Common and recall Central Park. You don't have to embarrass yourself by actually speaking of beauty, just produce a little for our beauty-starved town."
Of course, when I get my chance, I don't really have the courage to make this speech. No I'm worried the Urban Man would sound like some eager gadfly, or public fool, or perhaps some Oliver Twist standing up with his empty bowl and saying, "Please sir, I want some more."
Copyright -- 2006 All Rights Reserved. Marc Porter Zasada.
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