Not Planning the Future
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I like to keep tabs on the future, so last month I went down to a contest to plan the L.A. of 100 years from now. It was sponsored by the History Channel and some of our leading architects created models showing their visions for L.A. in the 22nd Century.
Naturally, the Urban Man went with some fear. I mean, we all recall the last century, when people were always going around planning the future: Henry Ford, Ray Kroc, Woodrow Wilson, Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao. Some succeeded, some failed. But truly, our present century is littered with the ruins of grand visions.
For example, take contemporary America, which was mostly planned by General Motors. During the World's Fair of 1939, GM presented a huge working model of the future called “Futurama.” In this magnificent diorama, GM imagined people efficiently separated from one another by glittering automobiles and huge shopping malls. Cities of towering modernism would be separated from suburbs and linked by interstate highways. Little cars went flying around giant cloverleafs and unlimited urban sprawl: All things that did not yet exist; all things which would one day be created by unleashed human imagination and served by chain restaurants.
I've seen the newsreels. In 1939, long lines of giddy Americans flocked to this exhibit. They oohed and they aahed, and then they went home and built the world we now occupy.
This time, I think we should be a little more careful.
Sure enough, at the Future of L.A. contest last month, I found one of the architects handing out the same buttons GM handed out in 1939. They read, “I have seen the future.” In this man's vision, we would bury mag-lev trains under the existing L.A. freeways, then build enormous blocks of skyscrapers along the routes. The rest of our cluttered sprawl would be cleared for parkland.
At first I found the idea seductive. I mean, like most big ideas, it would look great from a helicopter.
Then I thought...didn't the Soviets try all that?
Another display showed L.A. re-organized beneath a massive array of landing platforms for flying cars. At first I thought wow...the Jetsons. Then I pictured the Urban Man standing on a street far below, looking up at these huge concrete structures and watching the morning sky darken with commuters.
And I thought...no thanks.
Several contestants imagined L.A. plowed under for some kind of new organic lifestyle: buildings grown from living plants and using chlorophyll for energy. But lovely as such Arcadian visions at first appeared, I couldn't help thinking about the whole plowing under process.
It seemed awfully...20th century.
Now, Southern California is famous for utopian visions. Indeed, we function as both the seed-ground and graveyard of all utopias. In 1900 we had the Cult of the Purple Mother down at Point Loma and something called Krotona once occupied the Hollywood Hills. Weeds and flowers get all mixed together here, and none seems to last long. The GM vision of freeways and suburbs came to full fruition here, but like so many fads, it will probably die here as well. Indeed, those of us who love L.A. love it not because it represents any grand vision, but because it functions like some exquisitely random and untended garden.
At the contest, judges ultimately chose a plan to cover over our river beds, train tracks, and freeways with huge mixed-use malls. It was a dramatically ugly, but truly L.A. idea which followed the local custom of letting developers do whatever the heck they want.
Our winning vision will now compete nationally against plans drawn for Chicago and New York. You can pick your favorite online (see links below).
Personally, I suggest you vote for a Utopia in one of those other cities. Let them plan the future somewhere else for a change.
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