Two Day Symposium at the Getty Takes On the “Evolution of Los Angeles”

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An ongoing exhibit at the Getty, Overdrive: L.A Constructs the Future, explores the architectural, economic, and industrial metamorphosis of Los Angeles in the post World War II period. Last week, the…

“Paradise Lost and Found” discussion panel. Pictured from left to right: Rani Singh, John Humble, Judy Fiskin, Michael Light, Peter Alexander, and Tim Street Porter

An ongoing exhibit at the Getty, Overdrive: L.A Constructs the Future, explores the architectural, economic, and industrial metamorphosis of Los Angeles in the post World War II period. Last week, the Getty also held a two-day symposium called “Urban Ambition: Assessing the Evolution of Los Angeles” that addressed these issues in a series of lectures, panels, and short films. DnA’s Caroline Chamberlain attended the event and had this to report.

Assessing the evolution of Los Angeles in two days is in itself a very ambitious task, but 30-40 LA intellectuals turned out to witness a fascinating exchange of views on four central themes: Architectural Discourse, Professional Practice, L.A.’s Layered Built Environment, and Artistic Interpretations of L.A. An underlying theme throughout the program was tension–particularly the tension between boosterism and cynicism that has characterized attitudes toward L.A.’s expansion.

Los Angeles Times Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne kicked off the symposium with a lecture on the history of architectural discourse surrounding Los Angeles, going as far back as the 1880’s. Anthony Vidler, former dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at Cooper Union, offered a new take on one of L.A.’s famous boosters, Reyner Banham.

The lectures were followed with a panel moderated by L.A. Observed writer Kevin Roderick where Christopher Hawthorne, Anthony Vidler, and  Los Angeles landscape architect Mia Lehrer discussed the future of L.A. in regards to the new mayor, public transportation, and urban design among other topics.

Christopher Hawthorne expressed hope that under the Garcetti administration a “design czar within City Hall” w0uld emerge who could harness significant influence on city-planning. On public transportation, Anthony Vidler quipped that he was “looking forward to a time when a freeway is worth historic preservation.” Christopher Hawthorne expressed optimism that Measure J would reappear on the ballot, and that so-called Millenials with their lack of cars will create pressure to improve public transportation infrastructure.

Another panel followed that represented the perspective of Design Firms. David C. Martin of AC Martin Partners and Martin Brower of Welton Becket & Associates reflected on their involvement in shaping L.A.’s landscape during their careers. They also discussed the proposed Millenium Towers in Hollywood, an issue DnA and Which Way, LA? has covered in the series L.A. Grows UP. While neither panelist endorsed the proposed project, they were open to the idea of L.A. possessing more skyscrapers in the future. And as David C. Martin put it, “the controversy is how tall, how wide, and about protecting lovely parts of Los Angeles.”

MOCA, Moss tower

My personal favorite part of the symposium was the panel in which Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith and architect Eric Owen Moss discussed the challenges and rewards behind revitalizing some of L.A.’s once abandoned neighborhoods through the use of innovative architecture and job creation. While many of the other guests had fascinating backgrounds and impressive accomplishments, it was inspiring to see people who had a distinct vision for Los Angeles on artistic, social, and economic levels. On their choice to develop areas such as Culver City (a neighborhood I as a 23-year-old had always assumed was well-off) and South Los Angeles that were at the time of their development 97% abandoned,  Laurie stated “I wanted to be in an area where I could institute a social change.” (Pictured right, Samitaur Tower in Culver City)

The next day, during the ‘Artistic Interpretations’ portion of the symposium John Humble, Michael Light, Peter Alexander, Tim Street-Porter and Judy Fiskin discussed why L.A. inspired much of their work. Street-Porter, an expat Brit who has spent several decades in LA, noted how “even as a child I was attracted to how glamorous the west coast is,” while Michael Light  remarked, “I wanted to understand something that’s too big to understand.”

Light’s sentiment highlighted what seemed to be the objective of the two-day event: an attempt to make sense of the size, contradictions, and challenges that Los Angeles has grappled with as a city since the 1940’s.