Sunday, March 29, 2009


In today's NY Times, Nicolai Ourousoff writes "Reinventing America's Cities: the Time is Now". One can only say: Baptists and bootleggers, anyone? With so much stimulus money around, visionaries feel inspired. God help us.

Writing about Los Angeles, Ourousoff notes:

Wilshire Boulevard is another favorite cause for the architects and city planners of Los Angeles. In the early 1990s Frank Gehry and I took a drive down the city’s once-great commercial spine, which stretches 16 miles from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica.

Mr. Gehry guided me through the range of communities that the boulevard intersects, from the Latino neighborhoods near MacArthur Park to Koreatown to the many cultural institutions that include the Wiltern Theater, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hammer Museum. The philanthropist Eli Broad is currently planning yet another museum at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards in Beverly Hills.

Mr. Gehry suggested that by concentrating more public transportation and cultural institutions along this thoroughfare, Los Angeles might finally find its center, both geographically and socially.

He is not alone in this fantasy. Los Angeles has the most talented cluster of architects practicing anywhere in the United States, and at one point or another most of them have invested significant brain power in figuring out how to remake Wilshire Boulevard. Michael Maltzan has looked at how new public school construction could be connected to the public transportation network along Wilshire, a plan that not only would be cost effective but also could begin healing some of the city’s deep class divisions.

There was an ideal moment, about a decade ago, when this vision might have taken hold; the county’s Metropolitan Transit Authority was just then in the midst of constructing a federally financed multibillion-dollar metro system, including a line that would have run the length of Wilshire Boulevard. The Los Angeles Unified School District was building scores of new schools. And the city’s rapid growth had led to a boom in new development.

Work on the metro ground to a halt several years ago after costs spiraled out of control, and when it was discovered that the district’s flagship school had been built on a toxic waste site, the agency quickly scaled back its goals.

Now a new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, is trying to revive the idea of expanding the metro. Without an overhaul of the city’s transportation network it is only a matter of time before the city breaks down, a victim of pollution and overcongestion. A citywide plan that anchored Los Angeles along two major axes — the green river and the asphalt boulevard — could save it from becoming a third world city.

Our problem is not too little funding for transit, but too much (see my blog of two weeks ago). And architects' and urban designers' fretting about where Los Angeles' real "center" can or should be is positively weird. The area has many "centers" that were not put in place by any committee of wise men and women. There is no such thing as a vision or a science that can make such choices. But those architects who decide to think outside the box (in this case, beyond designing a building) have the mistaken idea that they can design whole cities. Politicians with a spending agenda can see these guys coming from a mile away.