The City as a Battleground of Ideas

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In his latest book, Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World, Graham writes about building types — and their charismatic creators — that have defined cities globally.

The Southland is going through transformation, and trauma — depending on your perspective — as tall, dense towers burst onto our mostly low-rise cityscape, from downtown to Santa Monica. And they are changing the narrative about home that has shaped LA to itself and the world. That’s a narrative that’s been explored by landscape designer, teacher and writer, Wade Graham.

In his latest book, Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World, Graham writes about building types — and their charismatic creators — that have defined cities globally: among the seven are pseudo- rural “homesteads,” “monuments” and “malls;” also “castles” and “slabs.”

“The more we are forced to live in cities, the more we flock together in massive urban conurbations, the more psychologically we are unable to cope and we try to create other forms,” Graham said. Those forms include pseudo-rural sprawl high rises, banks and shopping malls. “All of these were dreamed up as ways to either physically or mentally escape from the modern city.”

On the origins of “the castle” as a building type in California:

“Bertram Goodhue is the greatest American architect that no one has ever heard of. He designed Los Angeles Central Library, for example. He designed the Nebraska State Capitol. But he almost singlehandedly invented the Spanish Colonial revival in California in the early years of the 20th century. And he didn’t invent romantic suburbs. They’ve been building them in Britain for a while and back East. But he raised it to a new level of theatricality of actually creating an almost perfect illusion that when you entered a certain type of space you were in a different time period. You could be transported 400 years to the past: Andalusia, or baroque Mexico. And that time travel is the thing that was so sexy about what he did. And it ultimately became the blueprint for how California saw itself, how the world saw California, and what brought tens of millions of people to California. It was in part a kind of manufactured, illusory ability to travel away from the modern world through these buildings.”

On the origins of “the slab” as a building type:

The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s actual name was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris. “He comes from a bourgeois watchmaking town in the Jura Mountains. Protestant. And he ends up traveling to Paris and kind of inventing an identity for himself as a modernist prophet. And he picks up the notion of the very rationalized city, something that had been developed by other French architects earlier. And he turned it into something of a messianic campaign to remake the city along these modern lines. What is fascinating is the degree to which a fairly repellent notion became absolutely resplendent to tens of thousands of people around the world who went out and built these things. And now tens of millions of people live in them.”

“It’s called a tower in a park. I call them “slabs.” They’re almost always built out of concrete, sort of cell-block style. And his notion was that we needed to make cities simultaneously denser by having more people in bigger and bigger buildings. But also have more green. So we’d go up in the air and leave the surface uncovered. What you end up with ultimately is vertical congestion and then an unusable space in between that no one really feels good about, no one can occupy very well. They’re not really garden spaces, they become sort of dead space. The classic experience of these things is when we replaced “blighted” inner city districts and built these things. Those spaces in between become occupied by kind of negative things: drugs, gangs, crime, trash, parking lots.”

Can L.A. remain a city of fantasy castles and pseudo-rural homesteads, or is it going to keep going up, not necessarily with “slabs” in the park, but mixed-use towers like we’re seeing in Hollywood and other parts of LA?

“The anxiety, you can just feel it in the streets. And you see not just the towers and the remaking of Hollywood and downtown but the small-lot developments in the city of Los Angeles, small lot ordinance that’s allowing these packed in little row houses on what were single family lots, popping up in the midst of the little castles, you know, really increasing density and traffic and all that sort of things and the model of our romantic suburbia where you get around in your own car is grinding, it’s seizing, or simply too many of us in a small space for that old model to function. But people came to California in order to live that. It’s not really a fantasy at all. It is actually real. You can live in a little Spanish house and have an orange tree blooming in February in your yard and go out and drive your car along the lovely freeways, sometimes with no traffic. That is hard to give up. It’s hard to renegotiate what the pact is going to be, the California dream, when we have so many people coming in and still already here. It’s the most populous state in the United States.”

Read an excerpt from “Dream Cities” here.