Mad Men’s Don Draper dismissed Los Angeles as “Detroit with palm trees.” Now the city that gave us car culture — and a whole lot more — is on its knees. On this DnA, LA-based, Detroit native Andrew Zago talks about Motor City’s rise and fall, why the “creative class” failed to save it, and the “difficult conversation” that has to take place if its unique urban problems are to be fixed. Plus, Neverbuilt exhibit at A+D Museum will show the visionary and mad schemes for Los Angeles that went unrealized. Matt Holzman tells the stories behind the unbuilt projects, starting with the thwarted dreams of Frank Lloyd Wright, and his son Lloyd.
Detroit: If the “Creative Class” Can’t Save this Creative City, What Will?
Andrew Zago (below left) is an architect and instructor who grew up in Detroit; he now lives and works in LA, running his own firm Zago Architecture, and teaching at SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) and UC Illinois at Chicago. He went back to his native town a few years ago to be part of the much-hoped for turnaround. He built the Museum of Contemporary Art (shown above, in 2006), a coffee house (Mercury Coffee Bar, 2009, photographed by Corine Vermeulen, below); he remodeled a church and built a pavilion (2001, below right) as part of a showcase for a tree-planting program, The Greening of Detroit. He joined in planning discussions for the region.
But then he joined the thousands who’ve retreated from downtown Detroit, telling KCRW’s To The Point that it was so hard to get paid he felt like he was running a nonprofit, rather than a business. He returned to Los Angeles, but he hasn’t given up on thinking about the city and its unique urban problems.
On this DnA, we talk at length about Detroit, starting with its outsize contribution: a car culture whose twenty year rollout of coveted automobiles equated, in Zago’s view, to Jobs’ output of desirable products at Apple; astonishing music (Motown, MC5, Iggy Pop, Jack White, Madonna, Alice Cooper, Eminem, just for starters); midcentury Modern architecture, planning and related design and crafts, centered on Cranbrook Academy of Art (Charles Eames, George Nelson, Florence Knoll, Eliel Saarinen, and many more).
Then we discuss how it imploded, literally, becoming a strange donut of a city with a declining, poor, and largely African-American populace in the “hole” in the middle, ringed by suburbs created by White Flight and, more recently, “Bright Flight” (the departure of anyone with money to the suburbs).
Andrews speaks fascinatingly about the problems created when a one-industry town loses its raison d’etre, and the “difficult conversation” addressing race and urbanism that has to take place if the city is to be rejuvenated.
He talks about the much-vaunted, “romantic” efforts by urban homesteaders and downtown artists and architects like himself to revive Detroit’s downtown, but how this “creative class” — notwithstanding the claims of consultants like Richard Florida — was ultimately incapable of rebuilding an economy (Richard Florida now argues that the bankruptcy signals a turning point for the city).
Lastly we ask, could Detroit go the way of ancient Rome, one of the few great cities to see its population plummet and cows return to its fallow city center? Or, can it come up with a new economic reason to exist, and an “urban idea?”
Neverbuilt: Frank Lloyd Wright and Lloyd Wright
For weeks now we’ve talked about Pacific Standard Time Presents, a series of exhibits sponsored by the Getty that explores LA’s architecture and urban form since the 1940s. But now a show opens that did not receive Getty sponsorship and instead of looking at what was built, it revisits projects that were never built. Neverbuilt is curated by Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin and opens this Saturday at A+D Museum on Wilshire.
Historian Alan Hess tells us, “It will give you the visionary projects, some very good, some very strange,” from monorails that would have gone up and down Wilshire Boulevard, towers in Santa Monica Bay and buildings and master plans, parks and follies and massive transportation proposals, by architects including Frank Gehry, Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Frank Lloyd Wright.
KCRW’s Matt Holzman has been doing some in-depth reporting on why some of these schemes did not happen. In the first of four stories that we’ll air on DnA, he takes a look at Frank Lloyd Wright, and his son Lloyd.
Lloyd also built some striking homes in Los Feliz in the 1920s. But both father and son had grander ideas, and designed some wildly imaginative schemes for our city, such as the Civic Center, above, and the Huntington Hartford Athletic Club (1947), below. Despite having rich and powerful patrons like Aline Barnsdall and Huntington Hartford, none were built. So what stopped the man regarded as the world’s greatest modern architect from building a Johnson Wax or Guggenheim in our backyard? Matt has the story.
Neverbuilt opens this Saturday with a party at A+D Museum at 6032 Wilshire Blvd, with opening remarks by Alan Hess. The installation was designed by architect Clive Wilkinson. I’ll emcee and Painkiller, a band helmed by Bennett Stein (my husband) will perform. Get there early to get in.
On Tuesday July 30 Alan Hess, author of books on Frank Lloyd Wright, Googie, California Ranch Houses, and much more, will discuss Neverbuilt at the LA Central Library as part of the ALOUD series, with Jocelyn Gibbs, Greg Goldin, Christopher Hawthorne, Mia Lehrer, and Sam Lubell.
And this Saturday, the day of the opening of Neverbuilt, Alan will talk with Robert Bruegmann, D.J. Waldie, and KCRW’s Kevin Roderick at a talk presented by the L.A. Conservancy called, “Preserving Sprawl: the Suburbs Become Historic.”