Making LA: The built environment

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Photo: Saul Gonzalez

Is Los Angeles a world-class city? If not, what will make it become one? Those questions are at the heart of a new series on Press Play called “Making LA.”

Over the last century, Los Angeles become a giant. But even with the rapid growth, it has a bit of an inferiority complex, constantly questioning its own identity.

Over the next few weeks, Madeleine Brand’s Press Play will try to tackle some of the questions now facing Los Angeles.

First, a look at the built environment. Is it time to embrace density and challenge the old notions of what Los Angeles is?

“We’re really changing and we’re having to debate the identity of the city going forward,” said Christopher Hawthorne, Architecture Critic for the Los Angeles Times.

“Los Angeles is definitely a city that’s always reimagined itself,” said Dana Cuff, professor of Architecture and Urban Design, and Director of the cityLAB at UCLA. “I think Los Angeles is a place where the imaginary – like the Hollywood version – plays a huge role,” she said. “Just like now we think of the LA river as an actual river, we may start to think of LA as an actual city.”

The revival of Downtown Los Angeles has helped that transition. According to Hawthorne, policy changes combined with a new perspective on Downtown as an “interesting, neglected edge of the city,” made it appealing. “And there was this stock of beautiful historic architecture that could be turned into housing just at that moment.”

Can this reimagining catch on in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles? Car culture is fading, single family homes are expensive, metro is expanding and density is inevitable. “Density is kind of a dirty word here in Los Angeles, but I think everyone’s going to have to face the fact that we’re growing and we can’t grow out any more,” said Cuff.

And as we build up, and the trains come, the neighborhood will come into focus. Just the act of walking from home to the station forces the Angeleno to pay attention to her street, her sidewalk and the surroundings.

This, said Hawthorne, is actually part of LA’s history. The “deeply privatized LA, organized around cars and the single family house isn’t the city of the future or the past,” he said. The city used to be train-dependent and families used to live in apartment buildings. Will remembering that past help us find a future?

“If you look at LA compared to San Francisco or New York, I think the thing that’s amazing about Los Angeles is that we don’t have a set physical environment that seems to drive everything we do,” said Cuff. “San Francisco and New York see their historic cities as critical thing to preserve and further and maintain, and I think they’re probably right, the beauty of Los Angeles is that history isn’t so fixed for us in physical form and in that sense I think we can reinvent the physical form of the city in a way that other cities can’t.”