Tag: Architecture


Indian Summer

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Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco. Photograph by Robert Berowitz via Flickr.

Karen Tei Yamashita

On 9/11, I flew out of JFK on a 6:00 am flight headed for SFO, ignorant of danger and spared the consequences of the disaster in my wake. Though preoccupied for months later by my narrow escape and devastated by any news of friends and old acquaintances, I had long resolved to leave New York for a new start in the central coastal town of Santa Cruz on the northern peninsula of the Monterey Bay. Upon arrival, I turned selfishly to unpacking and situating myself in a comfortably clean and furnished rental, bathed in warm dry winds and swirling heat, hot days interspersed with cool, the fall season intervening in fits and starts. We call these days Indian summer, supposing that the Indians had long ago marked our calendar with their climate wisdom. By contrast, having just traveled in Europe from August to September, I was surprised to note, while in Fiesole, the autumn coolness trade away the summer heat, as if on schedule from 31 August to 1 September, which made me think that the parsing of seasons is a European expectation of time passing.

I had been offered a lectureship in art history on the subject of American architecture and the arts and crafts movement. My particular focus was the design of Frank Lloyd Wright and the architects of his Taliesan Fellowship, and the turn toward and uses of a Japanese aesthetic. On arrival in California, I thought I knew little of this coastal town, but this assumption of ignorance was eventually reversed. My previous forays to California had been brief and directed: for example, a tour of works by Julia Morgan including Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Asilomar in Pacific Grove, and various YWCA centers and gracious homes in San Francisco and on the East Bay—Oakland and Berkeley. While quaint Victorians, trolleys running beneath bay windows of pastel painted ladies were charming, I focused on the modern—the use of concrete and natural stone, exposed beams of giant redwood and extended garden landscapes, seaside cypress, crooked and windswept, reaching beyond glass open to natural light, wavering through sunset and fog. I was thus pleased to discover in Santa Cruz examples of the architecture of Aaron G. Green, protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. Aaron Green had in the 1950s established himself independently in San Francisco and was the West Coast representative of Wright himself. I happened upon a building by Green somewhat by accident, a combination of fortune and misfortune, fortunate for my research and misfortunate in view of my health.

Soon after arriving in Santa Cruz I was plagued by dizzy spells, and while walking to class across the wooden bridges spanning long gullies that cut through the redwood campus, I experienced a curious sense of vertigo. I would stumble into my lectures, grip the podium for several moments to regain my balance, trying with difficulty to assure myself and any students who bothered to notice my distress that I had control of the situation. I learned that if I directed my concerns quickly to technology, in those years the use of a Kodak carousel projector, I would soon forget my dis-ease and turn to the subject of my lecture that day, whether interior design and craftsman furniture or perhaps the use of water as natural falls, pools, and flowing sound. So it was: I sought medical advice and was directed to a laboratory for a series of blood tests. The laboratory was located in a medical plaza of low roofed structures. As I walked into the waiting room, I immediately recognized the architectural style, the latticed windows just above waiting room seats—built-in couches facing a brick fireplace. While the narrow windows stained amber afforded very low light, light tumbled into the waiting room through a central Japanese garden atrium enclosed in glass. Such a waiting room for a medical laboratory seemed entirely out of character, but it was, as I knew, the architectural design of Aaron Green influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1964. I would come to frequent this waiting room numerous times and would note over the years subtle changes that remade and distorted the original intensions of design and aesthetic, but these were changes of time and age and inevitable forgetting.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House. Photograph by Mariano Mantel via Flickr.

You walk around the architectural model placed at the center of the large conference table and smile. You note the location of your future office with the insertion of a Japanese garden atrium. From above, you can see an open square in the low roof encasing a miniature maple, stones, and a pond embedded in moss. At the plaza center, a pharmacy is placed strategically in a pagoda, buildings graced with low eaves and convenient circling parking. You’ve driven up to San Francisco with your colleagues in your maroon Rolls Royce, enjoying the day and the pleasant ride along the coast up Highway 1. You exude a sweet confidence, your dress casual however smart, a red and gold silk scarf tied jauntily around your neck—your signature stylishness. Perhaps you, your doctor colleagues, the builder contractor, and the architect will dine in nearby Chinatown. You order for the group: Chinese chicken salad, roast duck, pork tofu, gai lan, bowls of steamed rice, beer for your companions, tea for you. Red lacquer and circling dragons swirl through the dining hall. You see yourself reflected infinitely in the surrounding mirrors, seated next to the architect as you discreetly suggest that you may be acquiring a mountain-side acreage; would he be interested in visiting the site?

Initially I was put off by the laboratory phlebotomist in charge, a commanding woman who seemed to bark out orders from behind the desk ensconced behind a half-door that served as a check-in station. Insurance card? Medicare? No doctor’s orders; who is your doctor? Are you fasting? Drink some water before you leave. What, no urine sample? Can’t pee today? Take this home, and bring me back some pee. Passing through the half-door, I realized she was a one-phlebotomist show—intake, paperwork, and phlebotomy all in one draw. That she managed this operation with efficiency and accuracy was a tribute to the job. She could slap my arm, tighten the rubber strap above the elbow, locate the vein, stick in the needle, and suck out my blood in five tubes in a matter of minutes. And despite all this, she remembered all her victims by name and likely our blood-types and disorders, and when in her infrequent absences, I truly missed her, those replacing her would commiserate with me. Ah yes, the general is on vacation.

Yet despite the general’s efficiency, I found myself on that first day sitting for perhaps 45 minutes in the waiting room with a pile of student papers, which I intended to grade in spare moments. Losing interest in student responses, I drew out the parameters of the space. The fireplace had ceased use, a potted plant in its altar, dark traces of smoke and ashes clearly smearing the brick within and above. The cubby designed to hold firewood was empty. I walked to the tall slabs of glass panes that served as the transparent wall to the garden and peered in. There was a pond with a small fall of flowing water and gold fish surrounded by grass and moss and flowering azaleas. A small maple shaded the area. And to one side was a bronze plaque set over a cement block imprinted with five names. Presumably the garden was a memorial to these names. Studying these names, I felt an uncanny awakening, a sudden sense of familiarity. I returned to my seat pressing a nervous palm into a slippery stack of papers and waited for the general to bark out my name.

You hike up an uneven path, the architect behind you. You point out trees and markers that designate the perimeters of the ten-acre hillside you’ve recently purchased. At some point in your trek, you turn around and look out toward the town below and the bay beyond. The view is spectacular that day, sunlight glinting off blue waves, the outline of the bay sweeping with lush clarity across the horizon. The architect nods with sympathetic pleasure, notes the southern facing direction, and agrees that this is the perfect open vista; no trees need to be cut or removed from this clearing. You will require a survey and structural engineering evaluations, but the architect imagines that retaining walls and foundation pylons to secure the structure to bedrock will pose no problems. The architect understands your intentions to create a home in concert with the living site, low to the ground and unobtrusive, bringing the natural outside into the gracious space of the home. You trade thoughts about your admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright. While living near Chicago, you’d admired examples of Wright’s homes; you admit your fascination for his architecture, bicycling through Oak Park and viewing the houses from the street, one by one. But you were a medical student and an intern in those days, and practical matters set you on a course away from your artistic pursuits. Your hobby has been furniture, following a craftsman aesthetic. Included in the plans, you’d like a carpenter’s studio separate from the house, a place to which you can retreat. You and the architect trade thoughts about the work of Isamu Noguchi and George Nakashima, but you demure, of course, yours is a hobby, something to pass the time away from your busy practice, your boisterous family.

I jumped to the general’s command, passed into the general’s quarters, and sat obediently at my designated seat. She peered, skewering her head toward my hanging face, staring into my eyes, and surprised me with her sharp query: Are you going to faint on me? I shook my head and woke to attention. I could not succumb to a dizzy spell at that moment if I were to discover the source of my malady. I thought that she must first draw my blood, and then, I could faint. Look that way, she ordered and pointed away from her needle, rubber hose, and tubes. I was offended; I had no such problem with the sight of blood. I purposely showed my strength and determination in this matter and caught her every movement with a purposeful fascination. I watched my blood syphon away into the general’s rubber hose, filling glass vials, one by one. By the last bloody vial, I knew the source of my discomforting remembering. The face of young woman rose in my vision, someone I had not thought of in more than 20 years.

Over time, you and the architect form a close relationship. He wants to see your furniture design ideas, incorporate them into the interior, and you’ve read about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, prompting the architect to talk about his tutelage with the great master. The architect studied with Wright during the pre-war years, became a conscientious objector contending that his work with Wright was an important effort for democracy. He explains his keen enthusiasm for Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture, an architecture tied to natural space and the education of the individual. He spreads his initial draft plans over your dining table. Architecture with Wright was a calling, but when the war really began in 1941, the architect volunteered for the Air Corps. You bond over the Air Corps; both you and your brother volunteered to fly as well; your brother was a paratrooper in the war. You say your brother survived, came home, got his degree, then got back into training, but died only a year later, a jet pilot over Bavaria in ’51. You guess the war isn’t ever over. Democracy is a hard mistress. Your last stint was in Dayton, Ohio, at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base, in ophthalmology. When that was over, you piled the family, the wife and four kids and three cats and some of your furniture into a Volkswagen van and drove across country to Santa Cruz. Camped out for a while at your sister’s place, then started your practice. Despite everything—the war, prejudice, you believe that America has done right by its people, given you the opportunities your parents dreamed for. You peruse the ground plans surrounding the house—landscaping, swimming pool, garden with a pond and small fall. The architect asks if you know any Japanese landscaper or gardener friend with whom you’d like to work.

I remembered her exquisite beauty, perfect Eurasian features. It was 1976, the year I began my graduate studies in architecture at Columbia. I was in the elevator scaling the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to the top. Through the faces and bodies in that rising box, I spied her in the corner, shy but with a certain nonchalance and happy innocence. I followed her through the elevator doors and wandered after her at a careful distance. I lost track of time and purpose and spent an entire and long afternoon in the museum as if smitten. I had originally intended to view a particular Léger and perhaps a matching Picasso, carefully attempt to memorize the structural design of the building itself, and then to rush off to my afternoon class. Instead I wandered and lingered in rooms, leaned from various viewpoints to view the hanging Calder—a cloud platter of red blood cells turning silently, ponderously, and followed her slow snail descent to the bottom. She wore the jeans of the day, bellbottoms over boots, covered by an oversized heavy pink Irish fisherman’s sweater, hand-knitted I assumed. On her head she wore a worn brown leather cap, which at some point she pulled away. I remember gasping at the glorious motion of her thick hair falling in graceful rivers across her face and shoulders. I was at the time studying architecture with an emphasis on historic preservation at Columbia. That moment in the elevator followed by my circling decline through the museum was the beginning of a tumultuous and torturous year for me in which I seemed to have lost all sense of direction.

You follow the execution of architectural plans with the extreme precision of a surgeon. In your line of work, perfection is a requirement. From the structural integrity of the foundation to the application of a subtle shade of paint, you meticulously manage every detail. The architect and contractor are conciliatory as you are kind but assertive, even forming your commands as gentle requests followed by astute observations and independent research. That is to say, before you make your recommendations, you hit the books, study the matter, prepare with knowing. Your assumption of authority has been learned in the military, but of gentleness, trained at the hospital bedside. But there is another veneer not so easily interpreted. You were born into one of the few Japanese families in a small rural town in Montana. Your father came at the turn of the century, labored as a foreman to complete the Northern Pacific—Minnesota to Spokane, and one day made enough to pay for your mother’s passage, a picture bride. As you come of age, you and your family represent an enemy from a place you have never known. To compare the small tightknit fishing villages of your parents to the rugged mountainous cowboy town of your upbringing is to imagine a folktale about two distant and exotic lands. If only it were a folktale and not a navigation through territories of hatred. Within months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you are aware that less than 200 miles away, across the border in Wyoming, 10,000 Japanese Americans evicted from the West Coast have been incarcerated in the same spectacular but desolate landscape in which you continue to be free. But it is a perilous freedom, especially for your immigrant parents designated enemy aliens. Thus every movement, every action, every facial expression must avoid trouble, anticipate a precarious future. Like any other kid from Montana, your older brother volunteers for the military. Your mother embroiders a thousand knots into a woven cotton belt that he obediently wears under his uniform, a protective talisman; so he returns but only to be killed in peacetime. You follow your brother’s path as if to complete what can never be completed, but you are driven to succeed. You skip lunch and drive from your practice at midday to see the rising stone escarpment, 650 tons of quarried Arizona sandstone, flashing a toothy grin toward the Pacific, a gesture of grandeur and place against a precarious future.

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UC Santa Cruz Arboretum. Photograph by Sara Stasi via Flickr.

I followed her out the museum’s glass doors down Fifth Avenue to 86th where she disappeared underground and caught a train downtown. Impetuously and mindlessly, I hopped on and emerged at Astor Place, following her to Cooper Union and into a classroom that I immediately surmised as a drawing course. Conveniently, I removed a drawing tablet from my satchel, sat unobtrusively in the rear, and leafed past my architectural renderings, mimicking other students with pencil or charcoal in hand. To my thrill and distress, I saw the object of my pursuit, now robed, walk barefoot to a middle dais. The white silk kimono slipped from her body, and there she stood, sans pink fishermen sweater, sans jeans and boots and leather cap—my Eurasian Aphrodite rising. I drew frantically, lousy drawings, one after the other, a cubist montage of breast, nipple, waist, shoulder, buttocks, nose, pubis, and eyes, my heart racing, my mind a bubble about to burst, and all my sensations a loaded gun.

You host an open house. The architect calls a few days before delighted about the invitation. He asks if a writer for Architectural Digest might also be invited. The writer would come with a photographer. You generously agree. The day is perfect, though somewhat chilly, but this is Santa Cruz. Guests who arrive early are greeted with the full expanse of the bay and sit in the stone veranda watching the fading sunlight cast a quiet orange glow. Your wife has ordered catering for the event—large platters of sushi, barbecued teriyaki on skewers, elegant pastel petit fours, saké cocktails, and champagne. You’ve gathered your entire family. Your mother from Montana and mother-in-law from Illinois have both flown in to visit. Your two young sons run in and out of the house with their friends with abandon. Your two daughters, teenagers now, appear and disappear with their cadre of friends, nodding politely when asked about their individual bedrooms, choice of colors, and décor. You watch your wife as she becomes visible through the interior light beyond glass doors. The bubble of her blonde coif shines in a halo. You fondle the stem of a champagne glass and nod at the comments of the writer, but your mind wanders to the day you first met your wife, your initial insecurity; could you hope to win the heart of such a beautiful girl? It hasn’t been easy, the loss of your first son, but she has weathered every difficulty, growing more beautiful as the years pass. You have become the perfect couple, the perfect family, and this house itself is confirmation. The photographer weaves about, surreptitiously it would seem, pointing a Nikon, capturing the house and décor from every angle, backdrop for beautiful people. Transmitted over pool waters, you catch the waves of a distant argument, something about bombing in Vietnam, and you wander in that direction with a wide smile, wanting nothing to spoil this perfect evening. Your very presence dissipates disagreement, a change of subject, compliments about the house, and you Japanese really understand nature. You glance again toward the lighted fireplace where your relatives seem huddled with your mother apart. In another room, your wife is showing off her current project on the loom; she’s weaving natural fibers dyed naturally for throw pillows. You feel your heart might burst. Meanwhile, the architect is telling the story of his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright to a group of rapt listeners. Wright built for his second wife the house he named Taliesin on family farmland in Wisconsin. Tragically, while Wright was in Chicago, this wife and her children and four of his apprentices were murdered by the housekeeper, a man from Barbados, who also set the house on fire.

At the break, twenty minutes later, I rushed from the classroom to the toilet, stood inside a stall, trying to calm the shaking in my knees. I threw cold water on my face and stared at myself in the mirror unsure of my own reflection. During the course of three hours, I did the same at every break, but I could not tear myself away. At the end of class, I lingered, waiting for her to emerge from the dressing room. A young man entered the room, and sure enough, to my sinking heart, he greeted her clothed body, and together they left the building. By this time, it was evening, and a slight drizzle had wet the dark streets. I watched the couple under an umbrella merge and disappear into the crossing crowd in a blur of car lights and neon. Reflecting back on this day, this was the moment at which I should have simply returned to my apartment in Harlem and continued my studies at Columbia, but I was ensnared in a design with a destiny I felt sure I must pursue to know. To be brief about the ensuing year, foolishly, I all but abandoned my coursework and research and was placed on probation. I forgot and lost contact with my friends and colleagues; if they showed concern, I shrugged away their questions and kept my secret counsul. I cannot precisely or chronologically relate with any detail what I did or how I lived during this time. All I remember is that my fulltime occupation was that of a detective, self-hired and certainly unpaid to know the daily life and moment-to-moment whereabouts of that young woman. I admit that my curiosity was made of infatuation, but it was an infatuation without any idea of finality, that is of meeting or consummating a relationship. Late into the early mornings, I pulled sheet after sheet of architectural drafting paper over my drawing table and feverishly designed structures of every sort, engineered houses in lilied valleys or on craggy promontories, next to astounding waterfalls, under snow pack, among bamboo groves, in tropical and desert climates. As much time as I spent as a detective, I was also enmeshed in geographical, climate, and environmental studies, always concerned with aspects of natural space and local materials. I was astounded by the beauty of my designs, the organic interwoven nature of place and structure, and always, she hovered ghostly above myriad drafts, rising perfectly from a white silk kimono.

The last time you speak with the architect is over the phone. The architect’s voice tremors, then retrieves his confidence with an edge of anger. He wonders what Frank Lloyd Wright would say if he were alive? The Marin County Civic Center was Wright’s last project; he died in 1959 and never lived to see the final inauguration of the building. It was the architect who completed the work. Every aspect of the center—its spacious elegance, skylight roof over interior gardens, arched windows framing the soft rise of distant hills, innovative jail design, the carefully studied configuration of the courtrooms themselves—honored Wright’s desire for democratic space. But this: first, the hostage-taking in the center’s courtroom and the shootout, the deaths of the prisoners and the judge and now, bombing the courtroom. You’ve read in the papers that some group called Weathermen say they are responsible. You commiserate with the architect’s sense of confoundedness and outrage. Everything the architect and you believe in is being contested and turned upside-down.

At first I thought she led a charmed life, prancing around the city from art to dance class to photo shoot. For example, I managed to follow her into the New York art scene—art receptions and openings where the likes of Yoko Ono, Isamu Noguchi, Nam June Paik, or the young up and coming, such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, might be the featured artists or emerge among the invitees. Despite her youth, she moved with an easy grace among celebrity. Always fashionably attired, she wore designs both chic and elaborate with a casual body language that said, of course. Modeling for art classes turned out to be a side job she did occasionally as a favor to her former teachers at Cooper Union. Professionally, she worked with a prominent agency, and I was able to catch glimpses of her strut the runway, for Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, Hanae Mori, and Stephen Burrows, to name a few. Despite her success, I followed her weekly to the office of a psychiatric therapist. I waited patiently for the hour to end and tried to discern the results of each session; I comprehended nothing. I clipped her photographs from Vogue and Elle, taping them to every inch of my small one-room studio. In the night, sleeping on an old futon, I could hear the tape peeling away with the bad paint job, the magazine photos fluttering to the floor like autumn leaves. One particularly snowy night, I entered my cold apartment, banging on the old lever of the radiator, and finally noticed gashes of blood-orange paint beneath the powder blue, scarring the walls, her colorful images scattered. I saw my breath in the cold air of that horrid old apartment and wept.

You stare at the man with the gun who can’t be much older than your eldest daughter, thankfully safely far away, studying art in New York. He accuses you of crimes against the environment. You think you recognize him, a long-haired fellow, but they are all long-haired these days; even you are letting your hair grow out stylishly. Perhaps he came to the office for a case of pink eye. He told you how much he liked the garden in the middle of the office, never seen an office with a garden. His eyes were so infected they were almost glued together in gunk, but he could see the garden. But, he said, you can’t live in a little garden like that; maybe the Japanese could, but anyway he lived in the forest up there in the mountains, lots of room and close to God, he said. Nothing artificial. You nodded in agreement. Japanese gardens are artificially natural, miniature vistas to create the sensation of distance and expanse. Gardening is an art. You were thinking about your father’s garden in Montana. He thought about this and said he liked his art original, wild. No stunted bonsai for him, but of course he’d never been to Japan. Neither had you, except for a short R&R at a base in Okinawa before returning to the states. Looking at your watch and into the crowded reception room, you knew you didn’t care to reply. He had no insurance, no money to pay. You waved him off, told the receptionist to make an exception. She looked up, and her eyes said, another exception. As the fellow left, the mail arrived, and your receptionist handed you a box with a small card. You opened the card: Doc, a small token of thanks for your handiwork on my cataract. Sure is great to see clear again. You handed back the box of See’s candies and pointed to the reception room, gesturing, pass it around. Perhaps it is not the same long-haired fellow, but you, your wife, your two sons, and the receptionist will die today.


Photograph by Karyn Christner via Flickr.

One day late in October, I scanned the Halloween paraphernalia decorating shop windows, the proliferation of jack-o-lanterns, witch hats, black cats, and skeletons along my route. I had affected a disinterested manner, gazing with feigned interest in odd directions, at window treatments or sidewalk displays. At this particular shop, I pretended interest in a skeleton mask, knowing she was passing on the sidewalk behind me. In all the time I followed her, our eyes never met, and I supposed she never knew or felt my presence. But this time, for some reason, she turned back to look my way, and our eyes met through that mask. I saw her disgust and terror. She stumbled away, walking hurriedly if not running into the underground. I abandoned the mask and followed with trepidation, chasing my sightline for her white trench coat, the slip of red and gold silk scarf trailing in the overheated draft of our descent. Surfacing at 86th Street, she walked quickly toward Fifth Avenue, fall colors of Central Park sparkling beyond. I slowed my pace, knowing her frequent destination. It was her habit to visit Magritte’s False Mirror, staring into that surreal sky eye. I should have anticipated this day, but I was obsessed with my own arrogance, my manic certainty of my own artistic genius, poet and prophet. That day, only I looked upward from the rotunda into the last rays of that October day streaming through the glass dome and saw her body tossed from the top of Wright’s magnificent nautilus, her white trench coat flapping, windswept black hair separating in silky strands, red and gold scarf fluttering along, passing the silent Calder, imposing an unusual commotion on those glorious clouds of vermillion.

Even though you were buried Catholic, you wander the past as a Buddhist. There is no extinguishing your anguish. The beauty of this place has betrayed you. After the murders and the fires, they rebuilt it all completely new again, but unlike your wife and your children, it returns no love, a temple of permanent and radiant beauty. A real Japanese has been hired to keep the gardens in a state of eternal beauty, constantly trimming and replanting, leaves and fading blossoms flutter onto rock and still water to form exquisite traces, never rotting. Koi flap about, red and gold and white, turning their bodies in chaos or moving gracefully in liquid silence. The bodies of you, your wife and children and associates lie beneath in the dark shoals where your blood pools like lead. One night in Indian summer, I climb the hill to your house and meet you there. In the tepid night, I see you shape-shift between father and lover, doctor and architect, artist and prophet. I guide you to the Rolls Royce, and together we syphon gasoline, spread it gallon-by-gallon at the most vulnerable corners of your beloved architecture.


Karen Tei Yamashita is professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her novels include I Hotel, Circle K Cycles, and Tropic of Orange, and the forthcoming Letters to Memory (September 2017), all published by Coffee House Press. A 2016 interview with Karen was conducted in Boom California by Jonathan Crisman and Jason Sexton.

This is a work of fiction, however based on true events. With gracious thanks to Frank Gravier, bibliographer for Humanities at UCSC McHenry Library; Paul Shea, director of the Yellowstone Gateway Museum in Livingston, Montana; and Lucy Asako Boltz, research assistant.

Copyright: © 2017 Karen Tei Yamashita. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Lying in Plain Sight: La Jolla’s Assemblage of Religious Art

Rick Kennedy

On 8 September 2016, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the cross on Mount Soledad in San Diego, which may be the most litigated religious symbol in America, is here to stay. Set aside for a moment matters about separation of church and state on the coast of California and specific features that were part of the recent controversy, and an opportunity emerges to reflect on the role of the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla’s larger assemblage of religious art, which includes University of California, San Diego’s Geisel Library, Snake Path, and the neon Virtues and Vices.

Assemblage is the art of proximity. Objects that individually evoke one meaning or experience when put in proximity to other things can change or expand that meaning or experience. Assemblage art can be a flower arrangement, a collage of images framed on a wall, or the placement of buildings or sculpture in artistic relationship to each other. Few people notice that in 1992, Alexis Smith, one of California’s most famous collage/assemblage artists, pulled together her grandest assemblage by uniting two buildings and the cross with her Snake Path on the ridge above La Jolla.

The Snake Path that unites the work was the last part constructed. The first was the cross on Mount Soledad; at 824 feet, it stands as the highest promontory on the coast that sits south of Orange County’s San Joaquin Hills. At 422 feet, Point Loma rises only half the height of Mount Soledad; and further north, Palos Verdes rises only a quarter the height (220 feet).

La Jolla was a bit of a bohemia before settling into its wealth. Molly McClain, a historian at the University of San Diego, quotes Ellen Scripps describing La Jolla as “a woman’s town.”As a progressive colony, it was friendly to spiritualists, scientists, theosophists, painters, and poets. But bohemia symbolically gave way to mainline Protestant culture when in 1913 a large wooden cross was placed in a reigning position on Mount Soledad. In 1954, the wooden cross was replaced with the twenty-nine-foot-tall concrete cross of mid-century modern design drawn by a prominent local architect named Donald Campbell. Like many of the coastal enclaves founded by progressive-minded, university-trained folks, La Jolla has a long history of racism, especially against Jews and East Asians. As a kind of post-1960s university-town backlash against its racist history, La Jollans, concerned about civil rights and separation of church and state, started in 1989 what became a long-standing ruckus demanding that the cross be taken down. Like all good art, the work is too meaningful. It communicates too much too well.

The UC San Diego library opened in 1970 and is a stunningly sculptured building. Its shape has become the UCSD brand image, designed by California’s most famous mid-century modernist, William Pereira. His work on the California Bight includes the initial designs of University of California, Santa Barbara; University of California, Irvine; the Malibu campus of Pepperdine University; the urban plan of Irvine; and the unfulfilled island plan for Santa Catalina Island. His most iconic buildings in California are San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid, the spider-like Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and UCSD’s central Library. Describing his design for the UCSD library, Pereira said he was sculpting a building inspired by hands joined at the wrist, fingers spreading wide, “holding aloft knowledge itself.”2

How did the library turn from cupped hands into the tree that is now the image most often associated with the library? Pereira thought up the cupped hands, and it fit his mental conception of a university; however, the site of the library screams trees to those who visit and listen. UCSD was built in the midst of a large forest of eucalyptus trees, and in 1983 the Stuart Collection of public art commissioned Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms, an installation designed to enhance the experience of UCSD’s eucalyptus trees. A few years later, one of Robert Irwin’s students from when he taught for a short time at UC Irvine, Alexis Smith, was asked to produce another installation for the Stuart Collection. Irwin and Smith had studios near each other in Venice where, in the decades after World War II, a new artistic bohemia gathered that shared many ideas about how to think about art and themselves as artists.

Robert Irwin wrote in 1985 about how a sculpture should be “conditioned/determined” by its site. “This means,” he wrote, “sitting, watching, walking through the site, the surrounding areas…the city at large or countryside.”At UCSD, Irwin sat, watched, walked, and understood that it was the forest of eucalyptus trees that would determine his work. In the same way, Alexis Smith would have felt the same thing sitting, watching, and walking around the library, which itself in turn became conditioned and even determined by the trees; and the library as a tree—the tree of life, the tree of knowledge—would then condition and determine the Snake Path.

Another aspect of their thought was that an artist needs to get out of the way of art. Irwin in the late 1950s and 1960s became very interested in Zen Buddhism and went so far in his anti-individualist notions of art that he stopped signing his paintings. Art must increase, and the ego of the artist must decrease.Sharing in these artistic ideals, Alexis Smith, in a 2010 interview available on YouTube, says that she thinks of herself as a novelist who lets a story lead her rather than the other way around. She wants art to reveal itself through her work. The meaning of art, she declared, should be cultural, not personal. She tells viewers that she is not interested in herself or what she thinks. In her work as an assemblage artist, she works within the “pool of cultural information,” the stories that cultures carry through time.In the video, she talks specifically about the small-framed assemblages she creates; but at UCSD, she tapped into the great tradition of a snake at the center of Western culture’s religious story of sin, disease, health, salvation, and redemption.

To those of us who visit the UCSD library, the Snake Path sucks everything around it into its narrative. Deep culture calls out in a religious tableau of tree, snake, and granite statue of a book marked clearly as Paradise Lost. That Smith so obviously calls visitors to John Milton’s classic story of the birth of sin and sickness also demands, artistically, a fuller story of the tree in Eden being linked to the cross on Golgotha. Get above the eucalyptus trees that encircle the Snake Path in the upper floors of the library and the Mount Soledad cross rules the skyline. Tree and cross, in the deep literary culture derived from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there are types and antitypes that link history together. Early on, soon after the death of Christ, the stories of tree and cross were linked as antitypes: through the tree of disobedience in Eden came sin and death, and through the cross/tree of obedience on Golgotha comes salvation and life. Add to this someone standing at the end of the snake’s tail and looking away from the library is staring directly at another piece in the Stuart Collection: Bruce Nauman’s Vices and Virtues, the seven-foot-tall neon banner finished in 1988 that wraps the Charles Lee Powell Structural Systems Laboratory with Christianity’s seven vices and seven virtues. The snake’s body, then, links artwork about humanity’s ethical choices to the ultimate choice of disobedience or obedience at the snake’s head and in the distance on Mount Soledad.


It is significant that Smith inscribed a quote onto the granite oversized sculpture of Paradise Lost that stands, encircled, half way up by the snake’s body. The quote offers some meaning to the whole assemblage: Then Wilt Thou Not Be Loth To Leave This Paradise, But Shall Possess A Paradise Within Thee, Happier Far. When my students—and probably most passers-by—read it, they usually assume this is what the snake says to the biblical character Eve and believe that it is a promise to individuals about finding happiness—but it is not. In Paradise Lost, an angel says this line to Adam in a manner that draws in all creation. The quote on the book sculpture, then, hints to the cross on Mount Soledad off in the distance. This quote comes at the culmination of Milton’s epic when the archangel Michael tells Adam about the future coming of Christ and the eventual salvation of all creation. The angel Michael tells him of the redemption of the Earth:

…for then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier daies.

Adam then declares, speaking for himself and all who follow him, his final speech:

Greatly instructed I shall hence depart.
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this Vessel can containe;
Beyond which was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learne, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the onely God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truths sake
Is fortitude to highest victorie,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;
Taught this by his example whom I now
Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest.

Did Alexis Smith in 1992 plan to use the Snake Path to link the engineering building to the library in the context of the Mount Soledad cross? Maybe. By her own standards, it does not matter what she thought. The Mount Soledad cross is the dominant work of art that towers over Smith’s Snake Path. If Smith sat in, walked, watched, and listened at the site, then the cross, the library shape, and the Vices and Virtues might have consciously or unconsciously conditioned/determined what story would be artistically told on that site without her fully knowing it. A novelist can set up a story without knowing its ending or its full meaning. The La Jolla ridge itself might demand something about which an artist has only an inkling. Whatever the initial consciousness, we can recognize today that the La Jolla ridge has inscribed into it a massive work of religious art on the California coast. Although today it is hard to see all four parts from the ground, the whole assemblage is readily visible to airplane pilots, UFOs, angels, and anyone with access to Google Earth. Maybe it is best to think of this assemblage as a grand quadrapartite-geoglyph, bigger than the ancient Blythe Geoglyphs in the desert near the Colorado River and the ancient Serpent Mound in Ohio. However one thinks about it, we should recognize that the cross on Mount Soledad has a larger role as religious art than merely proclaiming Protestantism’s supposed cultural dominance over La Jolla.


1 Molly McClain, “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment,” The Journal of San Diego History 56 (2010): 17.

2 James Steele, ed., William Pereira (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 2002), 148.

3 Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries: With Essays by Hugh M. Davies and Robert Irwin (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008), 180.

4 Lawrence Weschler, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 41–85.

5 “Alexis Smith – Revealing Art in the Studio – The Artist’s Studio – MOCAtv,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VsNvgj8k8A (24 October 2016).


Rick Kennedy is a professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Educated at UCSB, mostly under cultural and architectural historian Harold Kirker, he recently published The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans).


What Are the Urban Humanities?

Anthony Cascardi
Michael Dear


Photograph courtesy of Margaret Crawford.

The efforts in research and teaching that fly under the flag of the “urban humanities” represent one example of a much larger set of phenomena that have emerged across humanistic disciplines for the past two decades. That hybrid initiatives like this have appeared alongside many more broad-based interdisciplinary efforts is telling of the challenges involved in attempting to transform the knowledge and practices that had settled into more or less stable institutional configurations. The existing configurations have proven difficult to change because our institutions are less malleable than we might wish, and because they provide a sense of permanence—some would say a false sense of permanence—in the face of broad shifts in the external conditions surrounding the academic enterprise such as the withdrawal of public support for state institutions and the privatization of higher education across all sectors. But the naturalization of disciplines cannot be a good thing because it leads us to forget that the disciplines are human constructs, and that neither the objects of their study nor their methodological predilections are natural features of the world. It is not that disciplines are intrinsically pernicious, since specialization has led to greater insight and practical interventions, but that academic disciplines have progressively narrowed an appreciation of the meaning of human existence and ways in which it can be bettered.

The creation of interdisciplinary fields has been one way of moving beyond disciplinary specialization toward a more holistic appreciation of the world and its problems. Since the 1980s, interdisciplinarity has given rise to various subdisciplinary “studies” (e.g., women’s studies, gender studies, sound studies). California was on the forefront of this trend. With them there have emerged new departments and centers. Their aim has been to establish areas of inquiry not recognized by preexisting disciplines (or concealed by them) and to create institutional spaces in which they could achieve the legitimacy enjoyed by the “traditional” humanistic disciplines like philosophy, history, and English. At the same time, the very notion of the “humanities” has come under various pressures, some originating from external demands to justify their relevance to contemporary realities, and others originating organically from within the disciplines themselves, motivated by the desire to establish more meaningful connections with a broad range of worldly activity. This has given rise to the hybrid humanities.

Why the “hybrid” modifier? Taken by itself, the term “humanities” carries relatively little meaning for those disciplines internal to it, serving mostly as a convenient abstraction for scholars who need to represent their disciplines externally, or for those on the outside who often demonstrate very little knowledge of the kind of work that humanists do. By contrast, the “hybrid humanities” better describe new areas of inquiry, areas where humanists have been making productive new connections, often outside established disciplines. These connections bridge some of the time-honored questions in the humanities with a set of new and emergent methods, technologies, and materials. The digital humanities, including some of its specific foci such as digital history, are some of the most prominent examples of the hybridization of the humanities. Other fields coalescing as spatial humanities, geohumanities, urban humanities, and global urban humanities represent more recent instances of this same hybridizing effort.

The hybridization reflected in the emergent field of urban humanities has happened with the willing participation of the environmental design disciplines, including architecture, urban and regional planning, and landscape and environmental design. Indeed, some argue that both as a discipline and as a practice, architecture became hybrid early on. In lectures delivered during the 1990s, later published under the title How Architecture Got its Hump, Roger Connah argued that architecture has long been “subject to interrelations with other disciplines. Film, photography, drawing, philosophy, and language are perhaps more familiar and fashionable interrelations. Recent indications suggest that dance, music, opera, physics, chaos theories, the new science of materials, computer science and software, and even boxing and cuisine are now being explored as serious analogical sources and interference for architectural theory, prediction, space, and metaphysics.…”Add to this list the new technologies associated with geographical information systems (GIS) plus a renewed interest in place as a means of counterbalancing the anonymizing forces of globalization, and it is not difficult to see how and why an environment hospitable to collaboration would begin to emerge.

The short history of the geohumanities is instructive because it represents a transdisciplinary merger that originated outside the humanities, from geography. The movement has its origins in a 2007 conference at the University of Virginia, organized by the Association of American Geographers (AAG). At that time, the term “geohumanities” had not yet been invented. The conference’s principal presentations were later included in a collective volume entitled GeoHumanities: Art, History, and Text at the Edge of Place (Routledge, 2011). It included critical reflections, empirical analyses, topical vignettes, and artwork from many fields, organized in a four-part structure: creative places (geocreativity); spatial literacies (geotexts); visual geographies (geoimagery); and spatial histories (geohistory). Place emerged as the common analytical focus of the book’s contributors. The editors prized transdisciplinarity, which seeks a fusion of diverse disciplinary approaches into novel hybrids distinct from parent disciplines, because its nonexclusionary openness to all forms of knowing produced a kind of “democratic intelligence” incorporating different ways of seeing and offering a firmer foundation for the shift from knowledge to action. Not until the very last pages of the volume did a tentative definition of the field materialize: “The geohumanities that emerges in this book is a transdisciplinary and multimethodological inquiry that begins with the human meanings of place and proceeds to reconstruct those meanings in ways that produce new knowledge and the promise of a better-informed scholarly and political practice.” A few years later, in 2014, the AAG launched a new journal entitled GeoHumanities, with an editorial board comprised of geographers and representatives of many humanities disciplines, signaling the legitimacy of this maturing discipline.

As with the geohumanities, the global urban humanities exert an expansive force over the way the humanities have tended to operate, both at the level of theory and as a set of practices—i.e., it has encouraged expansion of the theoretical and practical fields operative among humanists with global relevance. What specifically are those expansive forces?

The humanities have long privileged texts as their model, even where their primary materials were not texts in the literal sense—for example, musical scores, or easel paintings. The dominant metaphor of the disciplines was “reading,” a term that signaled both the preeminence of texts and the fact that the work of the humanities lay principally in interpretation. But in privileging reading and interpretation, too little attention was paid to lived experience; indeed, most sophisticated theories of interpretation cautioned against making connections between what was available as text and any sense of experience at all. To make the humanities global and urban meant, first of all, attending to conditions that cannot be fully metaphorized as “texts.” They incorporate what is left out in the process of textualization—that is, all the physical, material, social, and geographical factors that happen together in real time and in real space, even if they are recorded textually in ways that can be retrieved post hoc. And second, going global and urban introduced to the humanities a much broader tool kit of representational opportunities and analytical methods—e.g., in mapping and comparative textual investigations. In short, the urban humanities expanded the field of humanistic inquiry by adding new dimensions—of time, space, mapping, method—to the relatively two-dimensional world of textual interpretation.


Photograph courtesy of Margaret Crawford

The urban humanities have also posed previously neglected questions about practice and intervention on top of, or alongside, questions of interpretation. Humanists rarely use the word “intervention,” or have done so principally in the context of discursive engagements in response to a conference paper or lecture. By contrast, profession-oriented fields such as architecture and urban planning embrace questions about what can and might be done. The hovering question—what should be done?—demands a practical response to what is but also creates an opening for speculation about the possibilities of what might be. In the zone where environmental design intersects with the humanities, humanists are drawn to think in ways that are at once more practical and more imaginative than they are accustomed to. That effort, in turn, has consequences that are potentially beneficial for the disposition of the humanities more broadly conceived. Indeed, one of the criticisms leveled at the humanities is that the disciplines are too heavily weighted toward critical analysis and take insufficient notice of the possibilities for positive transformation.It has too often been forgotten that “ideology” is only meaningful in contrast to “utopia,” and that bottomless critique will eventually eat away any hope for a constructive view of the world. In engaging with future prospects, the urban humanities have introduced a way of thinking that stands some chance of breaking free from the hermeneutics of suspicion.

Not surprisingly, much urban humanities work has drawn on the creative disciplines—art practice, new media, theatre and performance, etc. But there is an additional reason why the disciplines just mentioned have been so hospitable to this work, which has more to do with method than with subject matter. Conventional humanistic scholarship has by and large been an individual affair. Notwithstanding exemplary efforts of teamwork that have produced magnificent outcomes (e.g., the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary), humanists have operated for the most part as solo practitioners. The dominant model has been the lone scholar in the archive. Because divergence and dominance weigh more heavily than collaboration in the appraisal of humanistic research, there have been few incentives for humanists to collaborate. In the traditional humanities, the important thing is to demonstrate how one’s particular view (interpretation) diverges from those already available, and then to hope for the dominance of that view, which all others will respectfully cite, at least until they can assert some powerful divergence from it. In work coalescing around the urban humanities, where interpretation is not privileged over creativity, design, and intervention, there is greater room—indeed, an imperative—for collaborative endeavors. Because work in theater and other arts is also open to the participation of multiple actors, the convergence between these disciplines and the urban humanities is not difficult to understand. At the same time, exposure to the kinds of studio work and field study that are familiar in environmental design challenges humanists to experience what it is like to work collectively, hence less proprietarily than they are used to. These pedagogical situations have obliged humanists to explore new ways of working, drawing on skills that they may find new and strange, pressing the need to show work that is preliminary and offered in formal criticism sessions at various stages of finality, and questioned for its practical utility and application.

None of these comments should be taken as a judgment against the traditional humanities. There is simply too much of the world’s knowledge—and experience—bound in books (and musical scores, and works of art) for anyone to forsake the values of reading and interpretation. It should not be forgotten that reading itself generates new experiences. Montaigne wrote, “…there are more books about books than about any other subject.” A master of irony, and endowed with great worldly wisdom brought from experience, Montaigne did not abandon writing, but rather assumed a distanced stance in relation to the book he was writing, which he also claimed was identical with himself.

Looking ahead, gathering researchers in transdisciplinary dialogue may not be as difficult as it first seems. Scholars are already accustomed to engaging simultaneously with multiple viewpoints; this is, after all, the basis of argumentation. We are capable of assessing different kinds of evidence and readily commit to transparency—that is, being forthcoming about how our studies are framed and conclusions derived. Many scholars willingly admit to the provisionality of their findings, and the inevitability that today’s knowledges will be superseded by subsequent discoveries and reinterpretations. Remarkably, we almost always acknowledge the utility of transdisciplinary work, as if the potential of such engagement is self-evident. Given these widespread, seemingly propitious circumstances, what could stand in the way of successful collaborative practice?

Two common hurdles blocking diversity in academic discourse are exceptionalism and exclusivity. The former refers to an assertion that one’s own practice is axiomatically superior because one’s own field or discipline somehow furnishes more fundamental or analytically more powerful insights than all others; and the latter actively elevates my claim for special privilege by diminishing yours. One such expression of privilege—intra-, rather than inter-disciplinary, in this case—is the current spat in physics. It concerns the apparent willingness of many physicists to set aside the requirement for experimental confirmation of a theory, largely on the grounds that empirical verification (or falsification) of today’s ambitious “blue-sky” theorizing is impossible. In a Nature article defending “the integrity of physics,” Ellis and Silk argue against weakening the “testability requirement for fundamental physics,” because this would represent a break with “centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical.” While not prohibiting the practice of imaginative, evidence-independent inquiry, they warn that legitimacy of the scientific method is at stake, insisting that the “imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable.” The merit of this argument is not at issue here; far more germane is the manner in which their exceptionalism and exclusivity are used to bludgeon peers who search for new ways of seeing.


Collage by Ettore Santi.

These days, the assertions that there is no such thing as a single method or world-view and that there is no Grand Theory of Everything are neither original nor especially provocative intellectual stances. All theories are partial, even though many may possess a topical home domain, which their practitioners claim renders some special insight. British philosopher Isaiah Berlin long ago pointed out that human conflicts over differing values are real and unavoidable, and have little or no potential for satisfactory reconciliation. In the face of such radical incommensurabilities, Berlin concluded that we had better focus on learning how to live with them and how to choose between irreconcilable value systems, rather than construct intellectual conceits and imagined worlds where reconciliation may be feasible. California’s intellectual culture is favorable to this.

Beyond the academy, opposition to transdisciplinarity can be traced to the current political climate associated with neoliberal austerity and its seemingly universal mandate to “Do More With Less.” Facing intrusive performance measures, diminished support for public universities, increased emphasis on grant-getting, and proof of relevance in teaching and research, academicians of all stripes are circling their disciplinary wagons as a prelude to launching fierce counteroffenses against any and all exogenous attacks. In defense of their solipsistic worlds, scholars have invented an extraordinary vocabulary for passing judgment, and one can only marvel at the variety and nuance that we have invented to credit or discredit our peers. It’s up to practitioners of the hybrid humanities, together with their allies in the digital humanities, geohumanities, and elsewhere to reveal the gains made through their transdisciplinary collaborations. In short, they need to demonstrate the superior outcomes of collaboration.

To give two indications: classical social theory is founded in a distinction between structure and agency, or between the enduring, deep-seated practices and institutions that undergird society (such as markets, law) and the everyday voluntaristic behavior of individuals. In the past, despite the best intentions, the cleavage between structure and agency seems to have done more to separate disciplinary camps than to act as a fulcrum for articulating the connections between the two. Our experience has been that urban humanities produce superior understandings of the structure/agency connection by its self-conscious, simultaneous engagement with social theory, human experience, and social action. In addition, humanities students hitherto steeped in the “lone scholar” ethos have blossomed intellectually and creatively in response to the collective experience of the studio setting, direct community engagement, and immersion in the “maker” culture of real-world environmental design.

This is only a beginning, and much work and persuasion remain to be done. The greatest imminent challenge facing the emerging urban humanities is how it can be absorbed into the institutional setting of the university without becoming just one more programmatic emphasis in a cross-disciplinary curriculum, or even a new subdiscipline in its own right. Fortunately, examples abound of how to proceed effectively without capitulating to institutional rigor mortis. They include myriad forms of creative commons abundant in the tech world, and the blaze of experimental learning settings spreading like wildfire across campuses. It is no coincidence that many of these teaching and research start-ups include the appellation Design in their titles and manifestos.

Centuries ago the great Montaigne practiced distancing himself from his writing in order to find perspective and generate new experience. These days, perspective and innovation are more readily realized through the surprising transdisciplinary collaborations of the kind envisaged in the urban humanities.

Roger Connah, How Architecture Got Its Hump (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), xv-xvi.

Michael Dear, J. Ketchum, S. Luria and D. Richardson, eds., Geohumanities: Art, History & Text at the Edge of Place (New York: Routledge, 2011), 312.

See Michael Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Donald Frame, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 818.

George Ellis and Joe Silk, “Defend the Integrity of Physics,” Nature 516 18.25 (December 2014): 321–322.

Ibid., 323.

John Gray, “The Case for Decency,” New York Review of Books, 13 July 2006, 20–22.

Anthony J. Cascardi is dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, and professor of comparative literature, rhetoric, and Spanish. He is former director of the Townsend Center for the Humanities and of the Arts Research Center.

Michael Dear is professor emeritus of city and regional planning in the University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. His most recent book is Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide.


Photograph by Susan Moffat.


My Boulevards

by Doug Suisman

 As an architect and urban designer, I have been preoccupied with the design of Los Angeles boulevards for nearly thirty years. When I talk about LA’s boulevards, it’s really a shorthand for American public space—for the architecture of the parts of cities we all share, like streets, parks, and squares. Almost one hundred years ago, the great architect Le Corbusier claimed, in his pontifical way, “The happy peoples are those who have an architecture.” I’ve always viewed that claim as somewhat dubious (the Greeks haven’t seemed too happy lately) and self-serving: architects and urban designers naturally have a vested professional interest in persuading others that the way we shape structures and public space actually matters. But for many of us, the belief in the importance of the work we do in the public realm derives not just from ego and self-interest, but from a genuine commitment to making spaces where public life can unfold and flourish. A new Warwick University study deployed massive quantities of data to determine that people really are happier and healthier when they live in a “scenic” environment, a quality that includes not only greenery but well-designed architectural and engineering structures as well. Perhaps Le Corbusier’s claim was not that outlandish after all.

But what constitutes good design for public space? I think our assumptions on that subject are shaped by our own experiences—especially the physical environments that we grew up in as children and young adults. As a designer, I have tried to understand how my own early experiences affect how I see urban places and how I design them. My suburban Hartford upbringing took place in a pastoral setting of broad green lawns, leafy woods, and gentle hills. From my bedroom window under the eaves of our third floor attic, I could stretch out and touch the upper branches of an elm tree. In the autumn, I tracked its leaves as they slowly changed from green to orange to red. During nighttime snowstorms, I watched as glowing white ribbons of powdery snow spread along the more horizontal branches, backlit by a single streetlight. These intimate connections between house and nature gave me not just a deep attachment to the beauty of trees but a lifelong interest in the landscape as a whole.

This interest was reinforced at the school I attended for ten years. It was situated high up on a ridge of hills overlooking the broad Connecticut River valley, on the grounds of an old Tudor-style estate with lovely cobbled courtyards and terraced gardens. From almost all of the classrooms, you could look across the valley and see downtown Hartford’s cluster of skyscrapers five miles away. They looked like the towers of a walled medieval city in an old European engraving. Rising above the cluster was the elegantly tapering, neoclassical, twenty-four-story spire of the Travelers insurance company. The Italian word campanilismo means a kind of homesickness or yearning evoked by the image of the campanile, or tall bell tower, in the town where you spent your childhood. I still feel that way about the Travelers tower.

In the 1950s and 1960s, downtown Hartford, like many other American downtowns, still exerted a magnetic pull on people living in the suburbs. Many of my friends’ parents (mostly fathers) commuted into downtown for work. My own family would drive downtown to have dinner at Honiss’s Oyster House or to buy school clothes at G. Fox & Company, the vast department store (its suburban mall branches would only come later). The family barber, doctor, and dentist were all downtown, so were the symphony and the art museum.

This gentle tidal movement from sylvan suburb to downtown streets and then back again established the geographic rhythm of my childhood. Our suburban town had its own little commercial center with one-story shops, restaurants, and a village green, all familiar and pretty but not very interesting to a young boy. Downtown had tall, glass office towers, monumental stone buildings with classical columns, flashing commercial signs, colorful movie theaters, big shop windows, and sidewalks crowded with all kinds of people. Downtown was exciting.

Around age twelve, I started taking the bus downtown alone. It usually arrived at my Albany Avenue bus stop filled with black women on their way back home to the North End, after caring for children or cleaning homes in West Hartford. I was usually the only child on the bus, the only male, and the only white. I would settle into my seat and look out the window at the passing scene of Colonial-style homes in brick or white siding, fronted by generous lawns and large shade trees.

That scene changed dramatically once we crossed the railroad tracks into Hartford, replaced with medical clinics, liquor stores, laundromats, and small markets, sometimes in poor repair. Just behind this commercial border stood five-story brick tenements wrapped in black, metal fire stairs, with dripping laundry hanging on ropes. Every now and then an empty lot would float by, studded with abandoned sofas and trash. The nearby sidewalks were often filled with people, mostly black, carrying groceries, waiting for the bus. A very different world from the one I lived in slid past the window of the bus, and it made a deep impression. Twenty minutes later, the bus would plunge into the shadows of the tall buildings in downtown. I would step out onto Main Street excited and a little frightened. With so many people around and none of them paying any attention to me, it was like being invisible. I would walk straight to the bakery with the jelly doughnuts I liked, turn onto a side street to reach the music store in its bright lofty space, and wander among the endless rows of sheet music. From there I often proceeded to the scruffy block next to the train station, home of the army-navy store where I bought my first pair of blue jeans. In the check-out line, the display of drug paraphernalia under the glass counter provided a gentle thrill of transgression.

I was enjoying, without knowing Baudelaire’s word, the freedom of an underage flâneur, wandering the streets, observing the scene, and watching strangers, all of it spurring my imagination (and sometimes desire). Looking back on his own such wandering on the streets of Philadelphia during his immigrant boyhood, the architect Louis Kahn took a more practical view: “A city is a place where a young boy walking through it discovers what he wants to do for the rest of his life.”

Downtown Hartford hatched my yearning not only to be on those streets, but to consume them and ultimately to help create them. The wine lover starts out with a first glass, is soon frequenting wine bars, later steps up to visiting vineyards, and finally becomes a winemaker; the coffee lover goes from sipping a cup to visiting cafes to buying beans to roasting the beans himself. In the same way, I progressed slowly from these first independent experiences of the city’s freedom into my desire to create vintage buildings, aromatic streets, and intoxicating urbanity.

In January of 1985 I flew to Rome, a twenty-year-old college dropout with a one-way ticket, a backpack, and no knowledge of Italian. A few days later, a long night train took me southward to Sicily and the town of Siracusa. Intentionally bereft of a camera but armed with a sketchbook, I began walking, looking, and drawing, the start of a lifelong habit. I eventually reached the town of Ragusa in the middle of the island. On a chilly February Monday morning, amid the beautiful Baroque ensemble of Ragusa’s upper town, I stood in the far corner of the main plaza, sketching the scene. I saw a large cafe cleverly built into the lower part of the church terrace, and in front of it a lively crowd, mostly elderly men dressed in black, standing, sitting, talking, and drinking coffee. This was a revelation.

In downtown Hartford, everyone I saw on the street had been doing something. As a good practical Yankee city, Hartford emphasized work and productivity, not leisure. Streets were ways to get somewhere, places to buy what you needed or offer a service. The idea that you could simply gather and linger—la dolce farniente—was new. Hartford once actually had its own “Little Italy,” but it had been wiped out by early-1960s urban renewal, before I was able to experience it. The long Italian tradition of occupying public space—adults drinking coffee, children playing soccer, the elderly leaning on canes and taking it all in—had been lost in Hartford; so when I found it in Italy, it came as shock. For three months I traversed Italy from south to north, visiting one city and town after another to gather a lifetime’s worth of imagery and inspiration.

That April I took a train to Paris and arrived at the Gare Montparnasse. I made my way to the Boulevard Montparnasse. The street seemed like a dream: beautiful shade trees; confident, well-dressed pedestrians; elegant shop windows; restaurant terraces with ornate light fixtures and tables. I settled into a modest cafe—not one of those made famous by artists and writers from the 1920s, like La Coupole, Le Select, Le Dome, or Closerie des Lilas, but an affordable one with seats offering good views of the sidewalk ballet. With my first café crème and croissant delivered by a waiter in a black vest and white apron, my exploration of Parisian cafe life began.

What amazed me in the weeks and months that followed was the integration of the sidewalk cafes with daily life: Parisians of all ages and classes might go to one four or five times during the course of the day to make a phone call, grab lunch, meet a friend or lover for a drink, buy cigarettes, study, draw, or read. And with cafes almost everywhere, there might be three or four to choose from at any given intersection.

Cafes have hundreds of years of history in Paris: they helped foment the intellectual discussions that spurred the French Revolution. But physically, they began as more internally oriented spaces—not quite private clubs, but very much “inside” places. The change came in Haussman’s era, from the 1850s to the 1870s, with the invention of the terrasse, or outdoor extension of the cafe. This wasn’t just a matter of throwing a few tables and chairs outside the front door. Haussman’s new boulevards, with their unusually wide sidewalks and shady plane trees, created a new and attractive public space that became a fully furnished outdoor extension of the cafe.

The result was a kind of spatial shish kebab, a linear sequence of overlapping spaces from the very back of the cafe interior all the way outside to the sidewalk, in some cases right up to the curb and gutter of the roadway. The back was dark and intimate, the middle was near the bar, the tables by the window were bright, and those outside the windows were covered and enclosed in bad weather. The tables still further outside the enclosure right next to the sidewalk had no cover, and in the really popular cafes, more tables were placed next to the curb so that passing pedestrians would traverse ranks of seated customers on both sides. Prices varied correspondingly: the same drink standing at the bar could cost you two or three times as much if you sat at a table on the terrace.

Just as French cooking came up with inventive recipes to use every part of the animal, French cafes used every part of their architectural space by coming up with a gamut of ingenious tools for expanding the interior and for operating cafe doors, windows, and awnings. These allowed the cafe’s operator to reconfigure the indoor/outdoor relationships according to the season, weather, and time of day. The result was a vibrant, intense, and elegant public street space that became the international standard for urbanity.

Though the most characteristic Parisian boulevard streetscapes were built in the short Haussmanian period, the larger city and its urban culture have evolved over two thousand years, since its founding before the arrival of the Romans. We tend to think of the streets we know as something given and fixed, but like all public spaces, they are actually designed and subject to change. Paris gave me a powerful sense of cities and streets in time—of urban form, street networks, and architecture evolving and changing over decades, centuries, even millennia.


When I decided to return from France to the United States for good in 1977, New York—still the singular great American city—seemed the obvious choice. But the seventies were a tough decade in New York. The city had nearly gone bankrupt two years earlier. Crime was high, graffiti was everywhere, and homelessness was endemic. You felt the risk in the streets. But it was also a time of great energy and invention. I found an apartment on the Upper West Side, directly facing Broadway. Beat up, beautiful, messy, crazy, and full of the most interesting mix of people, Upper Broadway felt like an oversized and decaying Paris boulevard with the springs coming out of the mattress.

From Broadway, I could easily walk to both Central and Riverside Parks. Broadway had a major subway line, crosstown buses, and plenty of taxis, making the whole city seemed accessible. From my corner apartment on the fifth floor, I could survey the busy intersection and see south all the way to the Empire State Building—my new campanile. The street was congested and noisy (amplified by the frequent sorties from the fire station across the street) but also a fantastic laboratory for learning how dense urban places really work. Attending architecture school at Columbia during that time, I felt New York was the ultimate place to study the interaction of architecture and public space, of building and street. Where they met, the physical and psychological intensity offered examples of every kind of urban pressure point and architectural permutation. I started a block association and got to know neighborhood characters ranging from the notorious Chicken Man, who startled unsuspecting pedestrians by hiding around the corner and then jumping onto Broadway waving his arms and squawking, to the Julliard-trained harpist who would set up her large gold instrument on the sidewalk, lay out a hat for tips, and enchant passersby with the unexpected sound of her soothing strings prevailing over the honking horns.

After graduation, I worked at an architecture firm that had just started designing an office tower in Los Angeles. To most people in the office, LA was like a foreign city. One of the bosses had flown out to see the building site on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood. On his return, he was asked what Wilshire was like. He knitted his brows and said, “Well, it’s kind of like a highway.” As the water boy on the design team, I was directed to read a pile of books about Los Angeles and report back. One was Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham. I was immediately seduced by his writing and his love affair with LA, its architecture, and its boulevards.

During that period, I had been hearing about a group of experimental LA architects, including one named Frank Gehry, so I decided to make a short vacation trip to see for myself. I sent some résumés ahead, scored some interviews during my visit, and received a job offer. Two months later I moved to Los Angeles. My friends in New York thought this was crazy. But I eagerly anticipated studying a new city that would challenge my preconceptions about the form and experience of cities, and about the relationship of architecture to its urban setting.

I rented a small Spanish-style bungalow on a residential street, with plenty of fruit trees and private gardens, in a sixty-block quadrangle known as Sawtelle, a traditionally Japanese American neighborhood. Sawtelle was belted on all four sides by boulevards: Barrington, narrow and primarily residential; Sawtelle, also narrow but commercial, with a loose array of small Japanese stores, sushi bars, and nurseries ribboned along its edges; and Olympic, wide, fast-moving, lined with bland with gas stations, repair shops, and occasional office buildings. It was the fourth side, Santa Monica Boulevard, that showed the most promising signs of life for someone on foot, so my initial research started with walks along its edges.

In New York, I used to leave my apartment building and step into a Broadway crowded with life: thronged sidewalks lined with restaurants, movies, subway entrances, butchers, cleaners, bookstores, schools. In Los Angeles, by contrast, walking out the door of the bungalow led to six long, quiet blocks of suburban mash-up: perfectly maintained cottages with Japanese architectural flourishes and bonsai trees in the front garden, interrupted by clunky apartment buildings called dingbats branded with fanciful names in script letters. It was all pleasant enough but a bit dull after three or four blocks, especially with so few people on the sidewalks.

As I neared Santa Monica Boulevard, the leafy street opened up into the raw parking lot of a small linear shopping center attached to a large supermarket. Among five shops set back in the parking lot stood Emil’s Swiss Bakery, where I spent many mornings over a decent coffee and an excellent bear claw. I had never seen a bear claw in New York; its marzipan filling was clearly Swiss in origin and gave me a little nostalgic thrill of Mitteleuropa (as did the ladies behind the counter who spoke with vaguely Germanic accents). I assumed the “bear” part had to do with California’s emblematic animal, and so felt pleased to imagine the pastry as a totem of Continental flavors blossoming in the warm sunshine of the Golden State.



But if, after breakfast, I ventured the few steps farther through the parking lot to the boulevard itself, the experience changed. The roadway’s seven lanes constituted a noisy, almost eighty-foot river of metal. The narrow, dirty sidewalks had few trees for shade. Driveways frequently interrupted the walking path, which meant a pedestrian could never be sure when a car would jump out. This proved to be a recurrent problem for a dreamy and distracted architect looking up at the profile of a billboard or the branches of an unfamiliar species of tree.

Clusters of narrow shops in a row generally came as more of an interruption than a regularity between large storefronts that could only be entered from huge parking lots behind. Vast open space can be exhilarating in the desert or on a mountain plateau, but in the city it feels unformed, indeterminate, even disturbing, rendering a person on foot small and vulnerable. This was a different experience from the fine-grained sidewalks of Paris or New York, where every linear foot was precious, and where the careful storefront display of goods—polished fruit, fish on ice, rare books—often rose to the level of a museum vitrine.

Still, even in the absence of traditional storefront rows, there were treasures to be found on foot: an old record store buried at the back of a corner mini-mall; an Italian restaurant presided over by an actual Italian who took great pride in his spaghetti puttanesca and marble flooring; the Royal movie theater showing first-run pictures in large single-screen splendor; and the venerable Nuart, which offered an ever-changing program of art-house films while decanting a bohemian whiff of the East Village.

Beyond that one stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard within a reasonable walking distance, the rest of the boulevards as a citywide system were generally too far-flung to explore only on foot. In order to discover the boulevards as a phenomenon, you had to drive, so I bought a used car, bearing in mind Reyner Banham’s famous quip that just as Goethe learned Greek to read the Iliad, Banham had learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles.

I drove the boulevards extensively, struck by their length and width—somehow they seemed wider than even the widest avenues in New York, an illusion fostered by low buildings and a lack of pedestrians. I was also struck by their sameness. There were some distinctive segments—the curving billboards of the Sunset Strip, the coral-tree medians of San Vicente, the canyon of towers on Wilshire in Westwood, the mossy terminus of Western into Griffith Park. But many of the boulevards projected the same looping film clip of supermarket, shopping mall, parking lot, drive-in fast-food restaurant, billboard, office building, parking lot, and supermarket.

With the exception of occasional key landmarks such as the cylindrical Columbia Records building or the beautifully composed Bullocks Wilshire, the architecture on the boulevards was disappointing. There were hardly any ensembles, or even groupings of buildings, that added up to a well-formed public space. Most of the buildings seemed to stand alone rather than activating the space around them. The dull designs looked tired and worn down by the demands of visibility from the car, access for the car, and parking for the car.

The best architectural talents had long focused on single-family houses, which usually had little impact on the landscape of the boulevards. Except for beautiful relics of the 1920s such as West Adams or Orange Grove in Pasadena or stretches of Sunset, there was practically no housing on the boulevards at all, most of it concentrated, like my own bungalow, on the quiet streets behind. The boulevards were for moving, for shopping, for eating, for buying gas—but not for living.

The more I drove, the more the architecture of the boulevards paled in comparison to the infrastructure for commerce and for traffic: the towering galvanized steel support structures for billboards, the massive and gloomy freeway overpasses, the stadium-style light poles, the heavy guardrails, the precariously cantilevered mast arms of the traffic signals. These created an interesting visual panorama, one as aggressively functional as an oil refinery.

As I drove farther and farther afield, I began to see the boulevards as not so much designed as engineered. Los Angeles was often dismissed by outsiders as silly, superficial, and fantasist— no doubt because of Hollywood—but that view did not take into account the extraordinary technical know-how required to produce movies. The great travel essayist Jan Morris, writing about the city’s wealth of aerospace engineers at Douglas Aircraft, the Jet Propulsion Labs, and Cal Tech., called Los Angeles “The Know-How City.” LA had built the world’s largest freeway system, a massive artificial port, and a 400-mile aqueduct. Los Angeles was an engineered city. Architecture was secondary; for example, the City Architect of Los Angeles, which sounded like a rather grand and prestigious position, turned out to be a mere employee in the Department of Engineering headed by the powerful City Engineer.

While engineering dominated the boulevard system, during my drives I also observed another, softer ordering system along the boulevard’s sides: the botanical colonnade. These long paired rows of trees were spaced with the dignified regularity of classical columns. They had their antecedents in the palm-lined carriageways and orange groves of nineteenth-century California. You could see examples in the brilliantly red flowering coral trees on San Vicente; the Canary Island date palms on the north-south streets of Beverly Hills, or the deodar pines in Pasadena. In contrast to New York, where landscapes could really be found only in parks and where street trees struggled to survive urination by dogs and nicking by taxis, these giant linear gardens seemed majestic and lush, often concealing or upstaging the wan and meager buildings behind them. Here was order, design, intention, and beauty, not to mention the relief of shady greenery—most of it imported—superimposed on a vast basin that had originally been treeless, dry, and brown.

All this driving was such a different way of experiencing a city and its architecture. Of course, people in New York and Paris spent time in cars, but usually to get somewhere more quickly or comfortably rather than to explore the city. Whenever I took a taxi from JFK, my impatience would increase once we crossed the Triborough Bridge into upper Manhattan, where I’d look through the window at the busy streets with a sense of frustration that I couldn’t get out and walk. It was like being trapped in a bubble until you could finally open the door, plant your foot on the sidewalk, and feel the city humming. The opposite seemed true in Los Angeles: when you got out of the car, the music stopped. (Randy Newman’s wry but affectionate “I Love L.A.” music video takes place almost entirely from the vantage point of a driver.)

I would frequently park, get out, and walk around a neighborhood I’d chosen to explore. There were often great rewards, but then it was back into the car and on to the next place. It was as if the city interrupted the drive, rather than the other way around. Why did LA seem to have this exceptional relationship with the car? Was it a cultural myth that I and others brought to the experience, or was it based on real physical factors, like design? This particular question for Los Angeles was merely a subset of the larger issue for twentieth-century urbanism: what is the relationship of the car and the city?

That question drove my subsequent design research and led to the publication in 1989 of my book Los Angeles Boulevard, a summary of my findings and a plea for a new focus on the boulevards as the great undervalued and underused public space of Los Angeles. Did I want to turn the boulevards into a string of Italian piazzas, like Ragusa? Or a network of Boulevard Montparnasses? Or a bundle of Broadways? Of course not, although there were qualities in each that would be wonderful to capture. Rather, I was hoping that LA boulevards, having already transformed many times from dirt paths to streetcar lines to auto highways, might transform again into a new form of sustainable public space, with transit, bike lanes, housing, trees and gardens, hotels, museums, and yes, lively sidewalk cafes, all framed by distinctive architecture appropriate to the climate and the land.

After years of teaching, I began my architectural practice in 1991 in order to pursue that dream of the boulevards. By that time, LA was no longer the city in which I had arrived. The optimism of the 1984 Olympics was gone. Ronald Reagan had closed mental-health facilities, and an increase in homelessness was visible on the boulevards. Many manufacturing and aerospace jobs moved to the American South or overseas, leaving behind a rise in unemployment and poverty. A growing drug culture produced more and more crime with a corresponding crackdown by LAPD, especially in black and Latino neighborhoods. Immigrants came to Los Angeles in ever greater numbers from all over the world, adding to cultural diversity but producing new frictions.

This tinder exploded in 1992 with the Rodney King riots. The impact on physical urban design could be seen in a new strategic defensiveness: public parks fenced in to prevent gang activity, a proliferation of residential communities with gates, a retreat of retail development onto privatized “streets” like The Grove and Universal CityWalk. This social upheaval seemed echoed in the natural world by the great Malibu fires of 1993 and the Northridge earthquake of 1994. A new organization, Rebuild LA, was forged as a symbol of a damaged city—one not needing to be made more efficient through engineering or more attractive through design, but more equitable through attention to underlying economic inequality, social discontent, and perceived injustice.

It was in this climate of change and upheaval that my firm began to work throughout the 1990s on public transit projects along the boulevards, first the Electric Trolley Bus project, which was never built, and then the Red Line subway and Metro Rapid system, which were. These boulevard projects were influenced by other cities—trolley buses in Vancouver, BART stations in San Francisco, bus rapid transit in Curitiba, Brazil. But the projects all dealt with regional problems particular to Los Angeles: air quality challenges due to our mountains, excessive transit travel times due to our sprawl, our underperforming downtown. Los Angeles boulevards needed to address Los Angeles problems.

During the late 1990s, the transit system began to expand and improve. More and more people were choosing transit as an alternative to congested freeways. Downtown cores in Los Angeles, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Glendale, Pasadena, Culver City, and Long Beach all began to revive. Along the boulevards in between, particularly near light rail or subway stations, new housing and mixed-use developments with ground-floor retail began to rise (giving hope for Swiss bakeries right on the boulevard instead of at the back of a parking lot!). The architecture community, once preoccupied with boutiques and galleries, began to turn its attention to these less glamorous projects, and the quality of design rose accordingly. By the turn of the millennium, my dream that Los Angeles develop its own distinctive boulevard architecture was beginning to come true, with our own work not just an outlier but contributing to a broader trend.

All of this regional, if not downright parochial focus on the boulevards of Los Angeles was violently shaken by the attacks on September 11, 2001, which made the whole country understand that the United States was no longer insulated from the rest of the world. Having moved past the height of the domestic crime wave and its resulting bunker urbanism, would we now revert to it under foreign threat? Would the growing street life on the sidewalks of the boulevards withdraw back into private malls with back entrances facing secured parking lots? The 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth highlighted the critical role of city design in reducing global warming. The importance of replacing carbon-fueled automobiles with transit, biking, and walking while reducing the carbon footprint of our buildings became the imperative of a new generation, with dramatic new pressures brought to bear on the cross-section of the boulevard. Cars would now have to share more and more of the limited road space with buses, bikes, and pedestrians, accommodated on wider sidewalks next to narrower roadways. More pedestrian crosswalks with traffic signals might slow traffic but would encourage more walking. Dedicated bike lanes would provide a greater margin of safety for all levels of riders and encourage more people to ride. More boulevard housing would make transit more convenient for many.

Meanwhile, new research on ocean pollution showed that local urban runoff and waste disposal could impact ocean waters thousands of miles away. This meant that the very gutters of the boulevard needed a redesign. Rainwater along the boulevards needed to be captured and absorbed into the soil where it fell, not funneled for miles in concrete channels only to pollute the rivers and ocean. Ornamental landscaping needed to use less water. The botanical vision of the boulevards would have to be reimagined.

Finally, the 2008 recession stunningly demonstrated the interconnectedness of the world’s economies. The same fluidity of international capital that collapsed markets worldwide has since led to enormous real estate investments in many American cities by wealthy foreigners, in some cases as a form of money laundering for ill-gotten gains. These investments often reduce the residential population as apartments sit empty. They can undermine community coherence, and they can heat up residential markets, driving up prices and driving out long-time residents. This destabilization at the neighborhood level is being felt in large cities around the world, and it exacerbates the effects of growing income inequality. The laudable preference of a whole younger generation of Americans for walkable urban life is bringing new investment and vibrancy to neighborhoods in center cities across the country, but raising concerns about further disruption from so-called gentrification and “hipsterization.”


In the face of these many new global challenges, the digitalization of almost all urban systems has also spawned revolutionary technologies and services unimaginable before, from carshare and bikeshare systems and smart bus stops to automated parking structures. Smart parking meters have made on-street parking space a fluidly priced commodity, thanks to the work of UCLA’s Donald Shoup. Conversion to electric vehicles is reducing not only emissions but also noise levels on the boulevards, making them more livable.

“If Los Angeles imposed a regulation that every car be driven by a chauffeur who never parks it, there would be an overnight revolution in the architectural form of the city,” I wrote in Los Angeles Boulevard in 1989. Twenty-five years later, a version of that revolution seems well under way, as the unanticipated arrival of Lyft and Uber (and eventual adoption of self-driving and even folding vehicles) may dramatically reduce the amount of boulevard-related parking required, freeing up boulevard frontage and parking lots for more productive use.

So it’s no longer just a question of local LA smog, or sprawl, or style. All of these global issues—social, cultural, economic, environmental—must be considered when we think about the design of Los Angeles boulevards. In almost all these respects, the boulevards seem headed in the right direction, with high-quality architecture, more transit lines and stations, greatly increased quantities of housing (including affordable units, though legions more are needed to address intractable homelessness), miles of new bike lanes, new trees and landscaping with low water requirements, and many new and wider sidewalks that are a pleasure to walk and linger on. The striking proliferation not just of sidewalk cafes but of an entire coffee culture and economy signals a new blend of sustainable urbanity: one that combines Southern California’s magnificent climate, landscape, and open skies with local powerhouse architectural talent, entrepreneurial energy, and, yes, engineering know-how.

If LA’s boulevards are going that way, boulevards in developing nations seem to be going the other. I visited China in 2007 to give talks at various planning agencies and architecture schools. My disclaimer was that as a first-time visitor to China, I would, of course, not presume to tell my hosts how to design their own cities; my only plea was to avoid repeating the mistakes that America had made in reshaping the city around the automobile. Needless to say, China did not listen. With its million bicycles, Beijing was once the Copenhagen of Asia; now bicyclists must make their way along roadways with as many as fourteen lanes of fast-moving traffic, which almost makes LA’s boulevards look human-scaled.

So California may have to lead the way. Governor Jerry Brown set the standard of leadership in his prominent role at the successful Paris climate change negotiations. With the US government stymied by political intransigence, the role of governors and mayors will become even more important in developing new urban strategies to combat pollution, income inequality, housing shortages, and global warming, and making the benefits of urbanity available to more people.

Even with all of these global challenges now weighing heavily on the design of our streets and public spaces, it’s critical that we not revert to the perspective of pure engineering, viewing the boulevards clinically, as mere problem-solvers and service-providers. The boulevards should also bring us delight. They should inspire us. My own journey began with that inspiration on the streets of my boyhood downtown and evolved into a practice focused on creating spaces that would inspire others.

The carefully designed street has been a powerful tool of urbanization for more than 2000 years since the Romans used urban street grids to colonize the Mediterranean. The ongoing question not just for Angelenos but for all Californians is how we conceive of our streets, for what purpose, and for whose benefit. From the gutter to the sidewalk to the roadway to the building to the subway station to the airport, the boulevards of Los Angeles are both the stage and the test for our collective efforts to find new strategies of urban design, the creative formation of places that will leave our cities, our landscapes, and our planet in better shape for our children and for theirs. My own children walk, bike, take the occasional bus, and now ride the new train from Santa Monica; they are comfortable on the boulevards. Hartford, Paris, and New York may hold the boulevards of my past, but Los Angeles boulevards hold my children’s future, which is why, as long as I am able, I will continue to design boulevards for them and their generation.


Photographs of the Great Los Angeles Walk 2014 by Flickr user Waltarrr.


Radical Remodeling

by Wendy Gilmartin

What comes after the single-family home?

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Since the 1920s, the single-family home of California has been, in its most elemental form, a snug, one-story, wood-framed house. But then came the remodels: the replacement windows, home-office additions, and backyard renovations in a continuous loop of demolition, rebuilding, and reinvention. Drive through any community in California, and you’ll see it, the basic bungalow—sometimes built more than a century ago and updated in 1961, 1989, 2007, 2015. The home might not impress at first glance, but linger a while and a Frankenstein stitching together of stylistic riffs is revealed. There might be a lattice up at the gable’s crux, inspired by a Dutch farmhouse motif; a squared bay on the driveway likely forms a dining room hutch, an interior design feature advertised to middle-class housewives in Ladies’ Home Journal circa 1910; the perky outdoor furniture from IKEA is Scandinavian modern; and the plaster is a nod to the Spanish tradition. These aesthetic traits are so commonplace in California’s suburban neighborhood homes that we barely notice, let alone marvel at the melting pot of ideas, concepts, and technologies our homes embody.

Over decades of gradual change, Californians played with the very idea of what a middle-class, single-family home can and should look like. But single-family homes of the twentieth century were not intended as outlets for individuality and creativity. Indeed, quite the opposite was true: most of California’s single-family housing stock was built speculatively, or semi-speculatively, by large homebuilding companies that built hundreds of homes at a time, by the acre, and with generic floor plans. The development company sold empty parcels to new owners. The owners would then peruse a book of architectural plans, choose one (a plan could be purchased anywhere from $10 to $15), and the builders would reconfigure the plans to suit the lot, for another $10.1 Architectural plans by developer-builder companies such as Pittman Brothers, Marlow-Burns Builders, Kaiser Community Homes, and Kaufman & Broad reveal little customization or personalization except for tweaks required to accommodate the constraints of an individual lot or other site condition. This formulaic model of real estate development generated California’s uniform suburbs, which are so often criticized and stylized in movies, literature, and urban studies classes.

A property owner’s individual identity could come through in the single family home, but only over time, with each successive paint job, kitchen renovation, or lawn ornament. Customization of the middle-class, single-unit home—like the Southern California–grown phenomenon of custom cars and hot rods—rose from the realm of the weekend tinkerer and the informal economy. These acts of home improvement, like those of the driveway mechanic, freed the suburban home from its generic, mass-produced relentlessness.

Southern California’s lax design guidelines in particular made an inexpensive individuality relatively simple to attain. Nonstructural renovations and additions such as wind chimes, flagpoles, new paint, colorful awnings, distinctive window treatments, and lawn ornaments set one home apart from another without much investment of time or capital. Larger-cost items such as pools, landscaping, professional-quality appliances, central heat and air conditioning, additional rooms, and, more recently, energy-saving measures such as insulated windows, new roofing materials, and greywater systems could be worth the expense because they might add equity and resale value to a home.

From the least expensive of Home Depot terra-cotta accents, to the most lush and ostentatious water-guzzling tropical gardens, basic bungalows helped make legible a frenzied human ecology across California. The carpet of everyday structures that rolls out across California embodies a spirit of individualism built one pink flamingo, planter box, and front-yard fence at a time.

Generations of owners have left their mark on this California bungalow.

In the twenty-first century, however, California’s middle class is shrinking. In 1980, 60 percent of Californians could call themselves “middle-class,” those who earn from $44,000 to $155,000 a year. That portion of the state’s population slipped in 2011 to 49.7 percent2 and it continues to erode. California has long seen the ticking decline of blue-collar and trade-worker numbers as industries have left the state and the country. But what’s more striking about this trend is that even white-collar, middle-class workers—those earning $150,000 per year, per household—cannot afford homes in many cities in California now. This is not just a problem of stagnating wages, but also stagnating housing: we are not building enough homes. A recent report from the Goldhirsh Foundation noted that Los Angeles, for example, will need a minimum of 500,000 additional units over the next thirty-five years to meet growing housing demands.

In April of 2015, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to build 100,000 new market-rate or below-market-rate homes by 2021, and he has instructed planning and building agencies to accommodate real estate developers to do so. More than 25,000 building permits have been issued in the city since Mayor Garcetti’s decree, and development is up in other California cities as well. But new development models are now taking the place of the stand-alone, single-family home, in part because of scarcity of land. Small-lot subdivisions, townhomes, and high-amenity condominiums are infiltrating a market that has had to adjust to provide affordable and denser housing alternatives in cities that can’t continue to develop beyond their exurbs.

Small-lot subdivisions are developed when a single lot zoned for multifamily buildings (apartments and condominiums) or commercial buildings is divided into smaller, individual lots of sellable land. Lots zoned for single-family homes are not allowed to be subdivided. Small-lot developments were intended to promote a different scale of home ownership, physically and financially, by way of infill. They can enable younger home buyers with less personal wealth to enter the housing market and do so in the center of a city. The typical small-lot development features a number of skinny three- or four-story structures with just inches of space between them, set around a common driveway. Developments can be as small as three homes and as large as fifty.

A row of houses in Silver Lake built under the small-lot subdivision ordinance.

Derek Leavitt, co-owner of Modative, a design-build firm and developer of small-lot projects, sees the emergence of small lots as providing a much needed antidote to the housing gap. “It’s become incredibly expensive to buy a home in LA, and there’s no help for all the people that did everything their parents told them to do—go to college, get a professional job, work your way up, and achieve success—and still they can’t afford a house,” Leavitt says. “Or they buy something way out in the Valley and that poses life quality and traffic problems. Or people just move to Austin, Portland—other cities that offer a life for young professionals, but where they can also afford homes. So for us, this is personal—we don’t want to see our friends leaving LA.”

Like the cookie-cutter tract developments of the 1940s and 1950s, many small-lot subdivision developments in Los Angeles are designed and built speculatively. But Architect Tracy Stone, who has designed several small-lot projects, points to the urban benefits of the development type, explaining, “It’s a nice development product for a neighborhood, along with apartments and single-family homes. It makes for a permanent resident population, in addition to a temporary population that live in apartments, and then you’ve got ‘eyes on the street’— people have an investment in the neighborhood, and a different price point for entry into homeownership for many people.” Stone adds: “It really has yet to be seen how owners of these developments will personalize them.” She thinks that the small-lot development’s new version of “home sweet home” will take on an owner’s personality in smaller ways at first. New owners have begun to put their individual stamps on the roof decks that top most of these homes, but they are mostly out of view from neighbors at the street level.

Small lots will provide an updated formal and financial model of living, but with market-rate home prices rising $120,000 over the last three years to a median price of $393,000 in California,3 house buying is surely not a viable solution for all of the home-needy. Much criticism has been waged against small-lot developments from low-income-housing equity groups who see the type replacing desperately needed apartment housing in the region. When they see a clutch of dense homes appear on a lot that had previously been home to fewer people, neighborhood groups aren’t happy either. But California is in dire need of more market-rate housing. For Californians wedded to the idea of the bungalow as an icon of California living, the small-lot house might also just look wrong—more vertical than horizontal, each built right up against its neighbor with no yard in front or back, and with a tidy uniformity that seems to discourage the personalization that marked twentieth-century modes housing.

Senior city planner for Los Angeles Jae Kim refers to small-lot development as a “new model—LA’s own brownstone walk-up.” Says Kim, “There’s a growing perception that we need less space at home because we’re going to have better city around us. For LA, there’s some shock value for residents and transplants who thought they could own a house with a yard, and here’s where small lots come in.”

“How will the form be affected as a result of the guidelines we put forth?” asks Kim, rhetorically. “We’re concerned how the actual integrity of the form will affect the neighbors and the built environment,” he says. “It’s always in the back of my mind, what are we going to see, formally as a community? We haven’t had a ‘Case Study’ movement with small lots yet, like we did with single-family homes in the forties and fifties.”

LA’s experimental Case Study houses interrogated, manipulated, and transformed the single-family home in Southern California from a mishmash of borrowed European forms into a modern, streamlined regional type, now emulated across the globe for its clean lines, indoor/outdoor flexibility, and agility in accommodating multiple families and generations. Architects like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler transformed the model of suburban, single-family homes in California and simultaneously established residential modernism’s immeasurable impact on mid-to-late twentieth-century design. That design style emerged from the prefab tract home “kit of parts,” zoning laws set forth by municipalities, and the designers’ and owners’ political bent. Today, new trends in the so-called “sharing economy” and small-lot types could blend to produce an emergent model, too—one that offers fundamental cooperative financing in a smaller portioning of land.

Small-lot development by speculative developers is not likely to push new living styles or design methods. But small-lot development in concert with new cooperative concepts by resident-owner groups could provide a next-wave of micro-homesteading. Groups of residents who pool finances for land and home ownership in California could spark development outside the usual mode of developers staking an initial investment for maximum short-term profit, which is how many small-lot developments get built now. In the guidelines and legalities of small-lot regulation that planners such as Jae Kim are developing, a strategy to abate this trend may emerge. Mayors are on board, and the crisis of affordable housing is hot. The time for alternatives is now. In California today, rentable granny flats, home-swapping, and AirBnB are—despite regulatory issues—establishing precedents for reconceptualizing and repackaging space, habitation, and the housing economy.

The emergence of new models in equitable co-housing, shared amenities, and multi-owner group developments are likely to shift design paradigms even further away from purely aesthetic revisions of “home,” to new organizational modes of living. These hybrid housing models are less about formal design trends and more about a spirit of empowerment and co-ownership emerging from the sharing economy.

When the owners of a nine-unit apartment building in the Divisadero neighborhood of San Francisco put their property up for sale in 2012—a move that would displace the group of artists who lived there—residents mobilized to buy the building themselves. They formed a community-development nonprofit group, Neighbors Developing Divisadero, and, with help from a crowdfunding campaign and the San Francisco Community Land Trust, proposed a sustainable mix of uses and housing types within the building that could garner subsidies and tax breaks over time for the potential new owners. The plan included converting existing units into low-income apartments and adding a community gathering space called “The Living Room,” a lively, semipublic space within the apartment building that could host occasional pop-up art exhibitions and performances.

Outside the Eco-Village.


In Southern California, Eco-Village is a cooperative community just west of downtown Los Angeles, where residents have cut away curbs and rerouted neighborhood streets to favor pedestrians over vehicle traffic and to make more room for community gardens. Their ad hoc, take-back-the-neighborhood approach to community living shares aspects of the commune movement of the sixties and seventies. Amenities such as shared bike racks mingle with colorfully painted spiral patterns on the streets, walls, and gates that are peppered throughout the two-block area, where around forty residents live in a variety of redeveloped homes and apartment complexes within the village.

More than a century’s worth of California homes now cover the former oil fields of LA, the shrubby foothills above Fresno County, and the sunny hillsides of San Diego, their crazy-quilt layered history and identity on display for all. Our frenzied residential ecology may be set to morph again in a co-financed, individually owned and built small-lot boom. Kickstarter-funded homesteading, stacked-up mini-homes with their own roof decks, co-owned properties with flexible commons, reoriented lots, new addresses, streets, and small neighborhoods will usher in a new phase of ideation on formal modes of habitation and place-making, calling forth new forms of architectural legibility. Both the spirit of the weekend tinkerer and the cagey developer have their parts to play in this potential model—homegrown in its customization and eager to accommodate the next mixture of ideas, concepts, and technologies that may remodel what we think of as California living.


All photographs by the author.

1. Dana Cuff, The Provisional City, (MIT Press, 2000).

2. Public Policy Institute California, 2011.

3. Zillow.com real estate tracking, 2015.


Our Car Culture Is Not a Problem

by Colin Marshall

Our house culture is

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Like so many fascinated by Los Angeles, I grew up worshiping the Case Study houses. With their crisp edges, clean lines, muted colors, and vast planes of glass, they struck me as the perfect objects of aesthetic desire, especially when seen through the loving, era-defining eye of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. I think of the most famous of all his images, the one of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22: one party-dressed lady perched on an ottoman, another relaxed in a faintly Corbusian chair, both visible through seemingly endless floor-to-ceiling windows and cantilevered over the illuminated grid of the city below. But somewhere along the way I lost my religion.

“Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, provided it’s seen at night and from a distance”—an apocryphal quotation and Shulman’s photograph have reinforced each other and a certain idea of Los Angeles’s peculiar appeal in our collective conscious. Appreciation for the city requires distance from the city, and the distance attained is an index of the success achieved. Look at any well-known picture of a Case Study house, taken by Shulman or a less legendary residential photographer, and you never see Los Angeles, at least not at any level of detail at which it feels real. When the city appears at all, it does so almost as an abstraction: a blanket of lights or a distant skyline, visibility dependent on the smog level of the day. Los Angeles functioned not as a setting for the Case Study houses, but as a backdrop.

But the city isn’t a backdrop. It’s the main event. It’s where I eat and drink, where I buy books and watch movies, where I meet friends, and, indeed, where I actually live. The city is where things happen. The city is where I want to be. Why don’t these houses want to be there too? The Case Study program sprang from laudable, democratic ideals, but they are the ideals of a different era. Our cities still need good affordable housing, but it’s time to change our vision of that housing: it should not be in the shape of a house distant from the city.

Case Study House #22 photographs by Julius Shulman. © J.Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.


The Case Study houses came to be at the behest of John Entenza, Arts & Architecture‘s publisher between 1938 and 1962, dreamed up in the magazine’s editorial offices when wartime shortages and restrictions relegated capital-A architecture to the drawing board. Those constraints looked like they were going to ease enough that with its June 1945 issue, Arts & Architecture could announce that “eight nationally known architects, chosen not only for their obvious talents, but for their ability to evaluate realistically housing in terms of need, have been commissioned to take a plot of God’s green earth and create ‘good’ living conditions for eight American families.”

The announcement stated that each Case Study house “must be capable of duplication and in no sense be an individual ‘performance,'” so that the housing solutions discovered “will be general enough to be of practical assistance to the average American in search of a home in which he can afford to live.” In the event, every one of the twenty-four Case Study houses built out of thirty-six commissioned proved a one-off. And if you want to buy one of the Case Study houses that still stand today, as architectural treasures in Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Pacific Palisades, and other areas now synonymous with wealth, it will cost you dearly.

Architectural historians still argue about why the Case Study houses failed to bring about a landscape of high-design, low-cost architecture for all. Still, they played straight into a distinctive fantasy of postwar American suburbanism. One could imagine enjoying the cultural and economic benefits of a major world city while at the same time avoiding engagement with that city on many levels. One could luxuriate in modern technology and design and at the same time live a life of ease in a kind of futuristic, small-scale simulation of a pastoral idyll. And though the Case Study project didn’t pan out as a mass delivery system for that fantasy, the fantasy itself lives on.

In the decade after the Case Study program, Reyner Banham celebrated the unrestrained architectural exuberance and sense of possibility in the city’s built environment in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. But that possibility and exuberance existed, for Banham, in only two of those four ecologies: the coast, which he branded “Surfurbia,” and the hills, where you’ll find the iconic Case Study House No. 22. The “Plains of Id” were not for Banham. Those “central flatlands are where the crudest urban lusts and most fundamental aspirations are created, manipulated, and, with luck, satisfied,” he wrote. The city itself, that roiling, hazy purgatory you might end up quite literally looking down upon, if not erasing from your personal geography entirely, was best seen at a remove.

Banham pointed to LA’s rich heritage of private residential architecture—the Case Study houses and other gems—as a chief asset of the city. And this heritage has become part of a ritual defense in the face of complaints about the city’s air quality, traffic, and insufficiently clear-and-present sense of history. But while those homes undoubtedly are great assets in the eyes of those who happen to live in pieces of that rich heritage, what pride is the rest of the city supposed to muster for a scattered, mostly unrelated series of houses of the wealthy, viewable only from the street in a passing car or—best-case scenario—amid the reverential hush of a paid tour? And what conclusions should outsiders draw about a city that touts those bloodless experiences as its peaks?

Many of those outsiders, especially those from more traditionally urban cities, have laid the blame for all of Los Angeles’s shortcomings squarely at the foot of the automobile—or, less concretely, at the foot of the city’s supposedly pervasive “car culture.” But it takes little more than a glance at the city in the twenty-first century to conclude that whatever car culture might have once possessed it has dissipated. Motorists no longer move freely on the freeways (“Autopia,” in Banham’s styling), but instead inch through “rush” hours that have gradually expanded to consume much of the day, stuck in uninspiring vehicles: utilitarian, aesthetically bland, and often cheap, symbols not of liberation but dour obligation.

You may not want to drive, but you’ve got to do it to get from your single-family house, a dwelling by its very nature not serviceable by rapid transit, to wherever you’re going. What holds Los Angeles back, then, isn’t a car culture but the house culture that necessitates the car. It’s a point made clearly by many of the Case Study houses themselves. Through their windows and out to those striking city views: the house is here; the city is there. Our “house culture” holds that ownership of your very own detached home is the goal for which all can strive. The result is built forms incompatible with a truly urban and urbane city.

This culture in Los Angeles may no longer hold up the Case Study houses as its prime ideal, but it continues to regard them as something like pieces of art in a white-cube gallery, enshrined to highlight their beauty and independence of context. They stand as especially artistic by-products of the promise long held out by Los Angeles’s house culture, a siren’s call heard and believed across the rest of California, the rest of America, and increasingly, unfortunately, the world: we can build a new, better kind of city, one that simultaneously maximizes individual comfort and access to urban amenities. We can build a city of houses.

LA-MAS considers accessory dwelling units, or granny flats, as part of the exhibit “Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles” at the Architecture and Design Museum.


I think of a city as a place that has every dimension of variety, where things change not just as you walk north, south, east, or west, but as you go up and down, ascending a tower or descending into underground pathways and subway tunnels. The city also changes across the dimension of time, ideally serving a slightly different social, commercial, and even architectural cocktail from one day to the next. For me, this experience climaxes in the cities of east Asia, especially in Japan, where forests of towers, falling as suddenly as they rise, act as ever-changing vertical streets sprouting from ever-changing horizontal ones.

For all its appeal in the imagination, the city of houses has one big problem: it doesn’t exist. Building and preserving a city of houses, where one plot of land gets used for exactly one purpose, strips away the multidimensionality that characterizes the urban itself. It seems like this realization has finally dawned on Los Angeles, but only after the city sprawled outward just about as far as it could, leaving no option but to face the challenge of doubling back and filling itself in more densely. It’s a long time coming: New Yorker correspondent Christopher Rand wrote in 1966 of the region’s “conflict between centripetal and centrifugal forces,” extrapolating a future of “much high-rise living” for Los Angeles from a present in which “whatever its origin, the preference for one-family houses seems to be on the way out.”

Rand may have spoken too soon, but now the high-rises have come, and more cranes to build them seem to pop up against the sky every day. Tall towers had already begun to appear during Rand’s time in Los Angeles, but mostly on downtown’s recently cleared Bunker Hill (once a neighborhood of houses, Victorians placed, by modern suburban standards, cheek-by-jowl) and the westside business district of Century City, built on a former 20th Century Fox back lot. But this small boom produced apartment buildings that were nothing more than apartment buildings and office buildings that were nothing more than office buildings, with a smattering of retail space here and there, in thrall to the deadening twentieth-century notion of the separation of functions in the urban fabric. That idea held strong fifty years ago, but has in this century given way to a renewed fashion for buildings, here given the special-sounding label of “mixed-use,” but the norm in other countries, built to accommodate residential, commercial, and office space all in one.

But not every Angeleno—even among the younger cohort who supposedly have come to a generational realization that, to live in a city, you must live in the city—embraces it. “Yeah, they’re putting up a new mixed-use building across the street from us,” I once heard a woman at a party say with audible dismay. When I asked what she thought was the matter with mixed-use buildings, she immediately clarified that their mix of uses itself doesn’t bother her, but their blandness does. Most new mixed-use buildings, once they appear, seem to have emerged not from any strong design idea but instead from the simple economic imperative of quickly capitalizing on a lifestyle trend.

These contemporary buildings, while essentially sound building blocks of urbanism, often project a lack of imagination aggressive enough to remind one of the Los Angeles that James M. Cain described in 1933 as subject to neither “reward for aesthetic virtue” nor “punishment for aesthetic crime.” It’s enough to drive anyone back to the dream of an older Los Angeles, to the day of the Case Study houses. Hence the passion of local architectural preservationists, who seem ready to do battle not just for Pierre Koenig and Charles and Ray Eames, but for drive-in coffee shops and other midcentury novelties of questionable architectural value. But at least they’re kind of neat to look at.

Judging by their work so far, the architects enlisted in this current moment of urbanization dare not attempt either aesthetic virtue or aesthetic crime, a timidity that seems to validate the premise implicit in the preservationists’ work that, if you let an old building fall, whatever rises in its place will, by default, be blockier, blunter, and blander, with nothing more interesting on the ground floor than a Starbucks. So much for the thrills of city life.

As justifiable as it seems given our current crop of architecture, the assumption that the built environment of Los Angeles reached its high-water mark decades ago, and that we can now only hope to hold on to architectural remnants of that time of optimism and eccentricity has become a self-fulfilling prophecy—and a big part of our current problem.

The Los Angeles preservation movement tends to submit to the same confusion that plagues preservation movements all over the western world: that between the artifacts of a culture and the culture itself. The Japanese, by contrast, don’t bend to the same deep insecurity about their culture that we do. They know that any new building will be just as much a product of the Japanese culture as the one it replaces and no less meaningful a structure. Witness the recent outcry over the demolition of the Tokyo Olympics–era Hotel Okura—an outcry heard almost exclusively from Westerners.

So when we idealize the Case Study houses, perhaps we idealize not physical buildings as much as we idealize the culture of the time that produced them, years that now feel impossibly distant when, in Banham’s words, “the program, the magazine, Entenza, and a handful of architects really made it appear that Los Angeles was about to contribute to the world not merely odd works of architectural genius but a whole consistent style.” To say nothing of longing for a time when a regional architecture magazine had the resources to commission actual, built work from a host of big-name architects!

Los Angeles looked about to contribute its own architectural style to the world again in the 1980s when the zeitgeist branded a cohort of local architects including Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, and Eric Owen Moss the “LA School.” The sharp, cerebral, mannered modernism of the first wave of Case Study architects had been supplanted by a kind of sharp, cerebral, tough postmodernism, the fruit of a loose, primarily Venice-based movement that deliberately foregrounded a variety of harsh design elements: jagged edges; shapes, letters, and numbers in exaggerated scale; rugged industrial materials not just employed but deliberately left exposed.

MAD architects’ vision for Cloud Corridor, a high-density village, photographed at “Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles” at the Architecture and Design Museum.


Whenever I pass by “LA School” buildings—Moss’s complex of experimental office spaces in Culver City called the Hayden Tract; Gehry’s Chiat/Day Building, fronted by a giant pair of binoculars, now home to Google in Venice; Mayne’s Caltrans headquarters downtown—I do sense the traces of a bold new future, a future, as science fiction writer William Gibson put it, that is already here but unevenly distributed. New projects under construction in Los Angeles right now impress in their own ways—the efficiently compact footprints of buildings reclaiming downtown’s surface parking lots and the sheer physical and technological scale of the Wilshire Grand Tower come to mind—but they lack bravado.

This stifling air of mediocrity is not limited to Los Angeles. San Francisco suffers from a different manifestation of the same syndrome. There one senses a city’s enormous potential fighting to get out from under an avalanche of rigid restrictions and nostalgic ideals. Just as in Los Angeles, a true urban form struggles to emerge from the legacy of the contradictory and mirage-like vision of a city with a suburban texture.

We must dispense with the dream of a city of houses once and for all, and acknowledge that even our rich heritage of privately held residential architecture adds little to, and in many ways actually detracts from, the public life of the city. The state’s growing population increasingly means a growing urban population, which means someplace has to lead the way into a post-house California.

Los Angeles could do it. So could San Francisco. Or San Jose. Or Oakland. Maybe even Fresno. If pulled off right, a new California urbanism in any of these cities could provide a model for the rest of California, for the rest of the United States, and maybe our increasingly urban world.

In Los Angeles, that would require relinquishing our attachment to buildings like the Case Study houses even as we might rediscover the spirit that built them, the spirit of a culture that characterizes Los Angeles more than any movement in residential architecture could: a readiness, willingness, and ability to reinvent the way in which we live.

What might a post-house Los Angeles look like? When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner envisioned a thoroughly urbanized twenty-first-century future for the city in the early 1980s, it presented a downtown heightened in every sense of the word, with not just taller buildings and renewed industry, but a more diverse and densely packed population in action twenty-four hours a day—a vision that has shaped our image of dystopia for decades. To this day, the term “Blade Runner-ization” gets tossed around by those looking to block buildings they consider too big, or that would mix elements, functional or human or hybrid, that they don’t want mixed.

In 2013, Spike Jonze’s Her offered a vision of near-future Los Angeles that viewers found more appealing, or at least less hellish. But its glossy towers, high-speed trains, and sidewalks in the sky came cut and pasted by movie magic straight from Shanghai, opting for a bland, almost placeless internationalism rather than daring to imagine the possibility of a new and distinctive architectural aesthetic emerging from an urbanized Los Angeles.

Here in the real world, ideas for architecture stylistically suited to the next Los Angeles have begun to appear, if only just. Michael Maltzan’s mixed-used development One Santa Fe in the downtown Arts District, with its quarter-mile length and candy-cane color scheme, exudes a brazenness of a frontrunner. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne described it, complimentarily, as banality stretched in the direction of monumentality. Maltzan has injected a badly needed dose of vitality into the city’s architecture scene just by building something that is impossible to ignore and not argue about.

Another Maltzan design, the striking Skid Row Star Apartments, appeared in Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles, an exhibition at A + D, Los Angeles’s architecture and design museum. Some of the concepts on display there looked like house culture artifacts spruced up to survive another century. Others, especially PAR’s 6030 Wilshire, might point a way forward to a creative refiguring of the very idea of “house.” The firm envisions a 930-foot-tall tower atop the coming Wilshire/Fairfax subway station, but a tower that would, in the firm’s own words, stand against the existing uncreative “tower typology,” which “has become anonymous, defined mainly by its height.” Instead, the structure would effectively consist of a “stack of individual houses, each with a direct connection to nature through oversized terraces,” none placed too rigidly atop the one below it, resulting in a vertical street of replicable yet “unique living environments with access to green space, qualities that are emblematic of Los Angeles living.”

Those very qualities placed near the top of the priority list for the editors of Arts & Architecture as they looked to the future back in 1945. “Perhaps we will cling longest to the symbol of ‘house’ as we have known it,” they wrote as they launched the Case Study Program more than sixty years ago, pondering the future of residential architecture to come in postwar America. “Or perhaps, we will realize that in accommodating ourselves to a new world the most important step in avoiding retrogression into the old is a willingness to understand and to accept contemporary ideas in the creation of environment that is responsible for shaping the largest part of our living and thinking.”


Latino Urbanism

by David Butow

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Editor’s note: In his 1994 review of the newly redesigned Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, architecture critic Leon Whiteson noted that LA is an “intensely private” place where public spaces “seldom serve as real meeting places for the population of a fractured city.” It was hoped that the park’s design, by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and landscape architect Laurie Olin, with its bold colors and forms and nods to local history, would be a public gathering place for both the mostly Anglo community that worked west of the park and the mostly Latino commercial district just to the east. In his review, Whiteson asked, “Can an act of architecture change a city’s ingrained social habits?” The answer, at least the one provided by Pershing Square, was no. Whether it was the lack of trees and shade, awkward access points, or a general allergy to Legorreta’s postmodern design, people did not flock to the park.

But can social habits change a city’s architecture? James Rojas, an urban planner who pioneered the idea of “Latino Urbanism,” says that’s exactly what is happening in California’s cities and around the country. Latino Urbanism describes the myriad ways that immigrants from Latin America are remaking American cities to feel more like the places from which they came. It describes a culture in many ways the opposite of the “intensely private” city Leon Whiteson described, with an emphasis much more on sociability and extending private and commercial realms outside and onto the street. Perhaps there’s no better example of this than LA’s CicLAvia—modeled on Bogotá’s Ciclovía—the open streets festival that brings tens of thousands of pedestrians and cyclists out onto temporarily closed streets.

Latino Urbanism is remaking California not by demolishing and rebuilding—as Legorreta’s Pershing Square did—but by adapting what already exists. Metal fences are erected in front of low-slung ranch houses, murals are painted on shop fronts, informal markets crowd sidewalks, and the streets spring to life.

We sent photographer David Butow around California to capture some of this spirit.


The Boom Interview: Christopher Hawthorne

with Christopher Hawthorne

The third Los Angeles

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Editor’s Note: As the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne has an enviable beat. Not only is he charged with covering new developments in architecture and urban design in the second largest city in the United States, he gets to travel around the state, the country, and the world, thinking and writing about new buildings and how they might—or might not—change the way we live. But Hawthorne has also used his beat for something more. His subject is not just buildings, but the city itself, and how we understand it and ourselves. So he has written about boulevards and freeways, books and art, immigration and homelessness. Thinking about the built environment is never just thinking about the built environment.

Hawthorne calls his big project “The Third Los Angeles.” It’s what the changing city is becoming. And it’s what comes next—if we can make it so. Like no other critic in the land, Hawthorne has grasped the challenge of telling the story of a great city—its past, present, and future—while playing a prominent role in shaping the city’s vision of itself, intellectually, creatively, and pragmatically.

This interview was conducted by Boom editor Jon Christensen and Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture, urban design, and urban planning, and director of cityLAB at UCLA.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti snaps a photo of musician Gabriel Kahane while Christopher Hawthorne looks on at an Occidental College event in 2014. Photograph by Marc Campos, Occidental College.


Jon Christensen: What is the Third LA?

Christopher Hawthorne: For a number of years, I’ve been writing about a significant transition that Los Angeles is going through. In a range of ways, a city that was deeply privatized in the postwar years, that was organized largely around the single-family house and the car and the freeway, is trying to rediscover and reanimate its public realm. That’s been, in many ways, my main subject, that transition and the various factors that make that transition difficult—not simply politically, but in terms of urban design and planning.

Mayor Garcetti recently talked about this as being a “hinge moment” in the city’s development. That idea that the city is navigating this transition has become part of the popular, broader discussion about the city. But the more that I wrote and thought about the history of Los Angeles, it occurred to me that a lot of the elements that we’re struggling to add—whether it’s mass transit, places to walk, more ambitious public architecture, innovative multifamily housing, or more forward-looking city and regional planning—we actually produced in really remarkable quantities in the prewar decades. In the DNA of the city’s history is something before the car and the freeway.

Christensen: And that’s in the “First LA”?

Hawthorne: Right. And so it struck me that rather than just going from A to B, in this binary progression, it might make more sense to think about three phases of the city’s modern civic development. For the purposes of this framework, the First Los Angeles starts in the 1880s. The city was founded a whole century before that, but I think it’s fair to say that modern Los Angeles begins in the 1880s. That’s the decade of the first population boom, the first real estate boom, right after the transcontinental railroad got here. It is the decade that the telephone system was established. The population of LA in 1880 is something like 10,000. It’s a very small place. But the population more than quadruples in that decade. And then every decade after that until pretty recently, there’s significant growth happening.

So I’m thinking of the First LA as running from the 1880s through World War II. And then the Second Los Angeles as running from World War II through, let’s say, 2000. That’s the period in which the city produced the tropes and stereotypes that most of us are familiar with: this privatized city that’s organized around the car and the freeway, but also an immigrant city, a city that continues the growth of the First Los Angeles, and really remakes its own infrastructure, with lots of subsidy and encouragement from the federal government. So think about private homeownership, the growth of the single-family house, the subdivision, and the freeway, all of that as being heavily encouraged and subsidized from Washington, too. It’s not just that we love cars and houses and lawns more than anybody else. We were growing and expanding in a time when the federal government was making it very easy to expand in precisely that way—and making it difficult to expand, in fact, in any other way. So that’s the Second LA.

And it seems to me that this phase that we’re moving into now is the Third Los Angeles. It was emerging even as I arrived in 2004, and I think its emergence has accelerated. But it’s also important to say we’re in the early stages of that transition.

In some ways, there are lessons that we can draw in this new LA from the First LA. In terms of transit, in terms of landscape, in terms of attitude toward the natural world, in a whole bunch of ways, there is this earlier history that we can draw on.

I mentioned multifamily housing. It’s interesting. LA is known as a city of houses. But think about the twenties and thirties. We produced incredible experiments in multifamily and modernist housing in those decades. Irving Gill, beginning in San Diego, but then moving up to LA, is doing work in the 1920s that is as innovative and experimental as what anybody in the Bauhaus is doing. And a lot of it is collective, cooperative, or multifamily housing, all over the region. Neutra and Schindler are not just doing single-family houses. They’re doing a lot of multifamily work. And then there’s an even bigger scale, what we think of as public housing in the thirties and into the forties, with incredible rosters of architects and landscape architects working on those projects. That history can be useful for architects trying to work on new multifamily architecture.

But there are other ways that this emerging city is completely different. First LA and Second LA are both driven by huge growth. And the Third LA is really a kind of post-growth city. Population and immigration have both slowed really dramatically in Los Angeles. Manufacturing is a shell of what it once was. So, in some ways, we have the first chance since the 1880s to really catch our breath and think about how to consolidate our gains—and about what kind of place we want to be. So that’s the basic framework. Another way to talk about what’s happening in LA is that all of the LA clichés—all the things somebody from outside of LA might think of as being the prototypical building blocks of Los Angeles urbanism and civic identity—they all have a prehistory as well as a future. They have a before and they have an after. So, if you take the long view of LA history, a lot of those things are not permanent, as we’ve been led to believe, but transitory. Think about the lawn. People think of the lawn as being so intrinsically connected with an idea of Los Angeles. But if you look at pictures of residential architecture in the late nineteenth century, those landscapes look a lot like what people are tearing out their lawns to plant now, what we would call a drought-tolerant landscape. You can say something similar about the single-family house and you can say that about the car. You can say that about the freeway and you can say that about mobility. In the First LA, we had this incredibly far-reaching streetcar system that was the envy of most cities in the country, if not the world. The river is another classic example. We had a first river, a seasonal river that sometimes flooded dramatically. Then we had a channelized river. Now we’re trying to imagine what a third river looks like. So it’s too easy and simplistic just to say, “We have lawns, and we’re taking them out,” or “We’re imagining the city after the car.” We also had a city before the lawn, before the car.

LA River/Grid Series by Victor Hugo Zayas.


Dana Cuff: Do you think that there is always a return? A number of the things that you’ve mentioned have basically been about coming back to something that was there before.

Hawthorne: It’s important to say that in certain ways, it’s very much not a return. There are certain ways in which it’s really different. We’re facing climate change, and our attitude about the natural world, natural resources has changed. What’s really come to an end is this kind of frontier mentality about the city—this idea of infinite growth and infinite expansion, and that the way to study the city is to look at the edges, where it’s gobbling up new territory. This is a city that is very aware of its limits now.

Mike Davis starts City of Quartz out on the edges, and he talks about a city that dreamt of becoming infinite. He talks about Los Angeles as the city that ate the desert. As I think about how to structure a new book, the last thing I want to do is start at the edges. I want to start in the middle of things. That’s where the city is being reinvented. It’s a city that’s folding back on itself. That’s one thing that’s really changed. This idea that we can grow our way out of any problem and that we’re always a city that’s expanding and finding or even colonizing new territory—that has ended. And water, too. This idea that we could always just find new sources of water versus thinking, as we’re starting to do now, about how we treat the water that falls here and the water we have—that strikes me as a big change in mindset.

Cuff: Well, that’s an interesting segue to talk about the LA River, because I believe there’s a kind of nostalgia for a metropolitan nature. You can understand why, because parts of the river are surprisingly beautiful as natural spaces. But the people who see it as a flyaway or as a place to kayak, or only in those ways, forget that there are all these neighborhoods of every different economic and ethnic background that front onto the river. It’s also this incredible seam through the center of the city that actually could be something unifying and maybe not just as a piece of wilderness in the city, but as something that is designed to stitch together our urban fabric.

Hawthorne: I agree. And I’ve been surprised, in the discussion about what should happen with the river, by how much power that nostalgia holds. First, restoration is not practical or feasible in terms of taking out all or even most of the concrete. But even if it were, I think we should be asking the question: What vision of the river are we trying to get back to? And did the river ever operate that way?

Frank Gehry told me that not only does he not think it is possible, maybe it isn’t desirable to take out the concrete in certain parts of the river. The reaction that I got when I included that comment in one of my pieces was surprising. People still have this idea that the river can be “restored” to some past that never really existed, a green landscape full of water, with tree-lined banks. I think that particularly when the river gets really wide as it goes south, you have this almost sublime scale of concrete. The idea that that is not an LA landscape or that we should be in a hurry to tear that out to plant some representation of a natural world that maybe didn’t ever exist, that strikes me as a misreading of our own history. What history are we talking about? It’s like Ed Ruscha and Bob Irwin never existed. If you say it’s an insult to LA to keep that concrete, that whole idea of reading the landscape here and understanding a particular kind of beauty here is out the window. Fifty years of new ways of reading the city by architects and artists alike—that’s just out the window. Or, the idea that the postwar infrastructure of the city is both beautiful and in certain political, social, or ecological ways was deeply misguided. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.

Cuff: One of the things that’s cool to me is that Gehry—and I take him at his word—says he’s starting with hydrology, which everyone agrees about. We have to reclaim the water and not let it go back out to the ocean without capturing it. But just what that would mean, and the possibility of designing around the water in a variety of ways, rather than only as a restoration project, is hard for most people in the city to imagine. We have only seen the river as a movie set for drag racing or as a myth of what it might have been as a beautiful natural setting, which I don’t think it ever was.

Hawthorne: I am really ambivalent about Gehry’s involvement. I do think there’s reason for cynicism. But I think some of the cynicism forgets the history of the river. Take this idea that what Gehry’s involvement will mean is to allow the river to become a vehicle for gentrification. I mean, we channelized the river in the first place to allow real estate development, to protect real estate interests. The whole project of the channelization was basically a real estate project driven by people who had a lot of interest in developing the city more densely, or protecting what they already owned.

Grid Series #18 by Victor Hugo Zayas.


Cuff: People may not trust Frank Gehry to have that broad-minded nature. But to me, it seems like he’s a perfect character.

Hawthorne: And we need somebody to do it. Absolutely.

Christensen: On the other hand, it seems to me, that we haven’t seen such a starkly framed battle royale over two different visions of the city since Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses in New York.

Hawthorne: The problem is that we lack the vocabulary to talk about it. Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses? That’s a New York sort of dichotomy, and a dated one at that. I think the challenge in any city, particularly in LA right now, is to think about the local and the regional scale together, simultaneously. We do need to have a vision for the whole river because it’s a huge piece of infrastructure. It has been since the Army Corps wrapped the whole thing in concrete. So the Jane Jacobs approach isn’t enough to solve this problem. We have to be thinking about it at a regional level.

That’s one of the reasons I did a series for the Times a few years ago on the boulevards, because the boulevard is really the only part of the built environment that operates at both scales. Sunset Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard are huge regional pieces, but also have connections at an intensely local scale. You can talk about the meanings of a half block of the boulevard.

Cuff: Besides the river, the only two pieces of LA landscape with which the whole of the city identifies are the boulevards, especially Wilshire Boulevard, and the beach.

Hawthorne: Exactly. The problem with the boulevards is we tried to make them like freeways. And we sort of made our river like a freeway, too. We made it operate only at the regional scale. We made it a monoculture, a piece of infrastructure that achieved flood control and nothing else. The difference between the boulevard and the freeway is that the freeway does not operate at a local level, except in a destructive way, right? It doesn’t have any connection to the neighborhood. It looms over the neighborhood or under the neighborhood or destroys the neighborhood to make room for itself. And the way the river was channelized made it operate that way, too. That channelization was accompanied by cutting it off from the public, fencing it, again, like the freeway, essentially turning it into private property. It was inaccessible on a neighborhood scale.

I think the reason that there is some frustration about Gehry’s involvement among the advocates who have been working on the river for so long, Lewis MacAdams and others, is that they were attempting to make some connections at a neighborhood scale and say, “This thing is in your backyard, and it belongs to you.” And that was an incredibly difficult and important political battle. So I think seeing somebody coming in, as if from above, Robert Moses style, saying, “I’m going to produce this solution for the whole fifty-one miles”—it seems to suggest their work is being undone. And I can understand that.

At the same time, the most effective way to think about the river is as a platform for building new kinds of urbanism in the city—not getting back to something that we had and lost, but producing something we need. What are we missing in the city? We’re missing public space, green space, collective space—space where we can come together. We’re missing connections in terms of mobility across the region. And we don’t have enough housing. So rather than a rendering that shows a green riverbank—and I’m sure this is not going to please some river advocates to hear me say this—we should be thinking about using the airspace over the river. We should be thinking about building housing on the river—as long as it’s high enough not to flood—and over the river.

Maybe the best thing you can say about the river politically, as complicated as it is, is that it’s not on the West Side, which seems entirely closed off to big ideas at the moment. It runs through places that are desperate for development, that want investment. It also runs through places that are wary of development, and for good reason. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. But we need to think about LA as a city that’s run out of open space to build. We have this landscape, fifty-one miles, that should be a platform to address the most basic problems that we’re facing—inequality and lack of open space and mobility. If you think about it as a spine that could produce housing, that could connect us in terms of getting around, that could be open space, the kind of shared collective space of the city, that’s an incredible opportunity.

Cuff: We have not had good large-scale infrastructure interventions in LA. Think of the freeways displacing neighborhoods—or Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium. People are right to be wary. But the river’s fifty-one miles are on a scale that is beyond imagination. You could talk about it being a place where you could have housing and park benches and cycling and bird sanctuaries and concrete. We don’t have any way of picturing a locally based, large-scale piece of infrastructure. We just don’t have that. That’s what the reimagined river could demonstrate: the next generation of our city, with neighborhoods linked along the way that are all part of something bigger. This would change our mindset about Los Angeles, from the “fragmented metropolis” and “suburbs in search of a city” to considering the city as a whole. This is not the way we have thought about Los Angeles.

Hawthorne: That’s a really good point because it’s also running counter to other forces in the city which are promoting a kind of balkanization, with a new focus on the neighborhood. One of the characteristics of the Third LA, as I see it, is the idea, the concept, of the greater city has broken down, largely because of freeway immobility, and because we haven’t built out a comprehensive transit system yet. People who live on one side of town once thought about the other side of town as being part of the same city in a very intimate way. That idea has been broken for a number of years, and there’s been a more of a focus on the neighborhood as a result. And there are good things and bad things about that. The good thing is that there is new attention to the neighborhoods. There’s a constituency for how neighborhoods are designed, what our sidewalks look like, whether there’s a park on the corner, what the public and collective space in the neighborhood looks like. There’s a renewed interest and focus on that, which is a very good thing.

But what makes the river tricky is that, at this moment where things are turning inward and more local, there’s this breakdown of regional connection. The river is this piece that requires a huge, wide regional vision to think about successfully. And so it’s even more challenging at the moment because our attention is fixed on a different level. We’re not thinking at the William Mulholland, Robert Moses, freeway-building scale, for better and worse. But now we have to think about that, at least in part, to make the river work.

There is a diversity of communities on the river. Some are desperate for investment and change. They can’t wait for things to happen. Others feel that their neighborhood already has a strong sense of community, and they want to protect it, and they’re worried about that for good reason.

Grid Series #25 by Victor Hugo Zayas.


Cuff: How do you think about the housing affordability problem?

Hawthorne: In general, I try to be careful not to say that things are generational. It’s too easy sometimes. But I think in the case of housing production, it’s very much the case. It goes back to state policies like Proposition 13, like CEQA, and a generation of homeowners that, in my opinion, has been extraordinarily fortunate and…

Cuff: …basically pulled up the ladder after itself.

Hawthorne: Yes. And is very active in doing whatever it can to protect what is at stake in whatever city they’re in, whether that’s Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles. If you bought your house in the 1970s, it’s not just that its value has doubled or tripled. I would be thrilled if the house that I bought a couple of years ago were to someday triple in value. But the houses people bought in the 1970s? They might be worth 30 or 40 times what those homeowners paid. And these are the same people, thanks to Prop 13, who are paying a tiny fraction of the property taxes of their neighbors. So there are larger questions about what kind of reform we can talk about with Prop 13 and CEQA.

There has also been an attitude among the political left that sees development—even smart growth—as suspect, always, that sees the larger environmental project as including opposition to development, even in cities, even near transit. And this is perhaps most extreme in places like San Francisco and Santa Monica, where people see opposing development—and even mass transit—as consistent with the left, progressive environmental and political agenda. I think that is, in many ways, directly responsible for the housing situation that we’re in now. People in very good conscience who live in Santa Monica or San Francisco think of a moratorium on development as a progressive thing to support rather than reactionary or conservative or just in their own political self-interest. I don’t have a problem with somebody who bought a house at a certain point saying, “I bought into a certain place, you know, I want it to stay this way, and I’m going to use whatever resources I can to keep it that way.” They have every right to say that, even if I disagree. I have a problem with people saying that’s consistent with a progressive agenda about cities or a forward-looking attitude about the environment or about resources. It’s not.

Christensen: Do you think the discourse around climate and urbanism is going to change that?

Hawthorne: Yes. I think the conversation is changing. The conversation around climate change sees densification, urbanization as part of the solution. And think about water. The New York Times did a piece about whether the water crisis and climate change and all of these shifts meant the end of the California dream, the end of growth, when in fact, as that piece itself acknowledged, growth is the only thing that has saved us in terms of our water. Our water use in Los Angeles has gone down since the 1980s—and not just per capita. Our total water use has gone down. Now, that has to do with efficient appliances, in part, but in the city, it’s also gone down because we’re living closer together and we’re not building subdivisions in the same way.

So it doesn’t make sense to say that the water crisis is a challenge to the idea of growth. Growth and densification is the one thing that is going to help us solve the water problem. But there’s this idea that those things are at odds. That to me is a direct product of exactly what we were just talking about, this idea that opposing growth or being wary of it, being wary of densification, is consistent with a progressive or environmental agenda. I think climate change is going to expose the contradiction in that. It already has in many ways.

Cuff: We seem to be arguing that the LA River could give Los Angeles an identity, but the key is also how you recognize the differences along the river and still make that a single thing. I wonder if there’s a way to do that with the high-speed rail, so that it stitches the state together, but every time it stops, there’s a station identity that’s related to Fresno versus LA versus San Francisco.

LA River 11 by Victor Hugo Zayas.


Hawthorne: I have some doubts about that approach because I’ve seen it play out locally, in LA, with the design of the Metro stations in a way that I don’t think was successful. When transit was controversial and Metro needed to get community buy-in to get different lines approved, one of the ways that they did that was to have stations whose architecture reflected the neighborhood. From an architectural and a practical point of view, it was a disaster. Just think about maintenance. You can’t clean the stations in the same way. You can’t replace the lightbulbs in the same way, because each one had a different design.

On top of that, I think it was important to say that the city as a whole—and the region as a whole—was putting in a new generation of transit and that those stations would relate to each other as a system rather than to each different neighborhood. And Metro has finally, I think, seen the light on that issue.

That colors how I think about high-speed rail. It’s a little different because those cities do have really distinct identities in the way that parts of LA might not. I would be interested to think about it. But I’m still baffled that high-speed rail is even controversial. I mean, it’s been horribly mismanaged. Putting aside the question of how it’s been rolled out, which has been a disaster, this is proven technology, in use for decades all over the world. As someone who drives and flies this corridor all the time, I guarantee you the high-speed train will be wildly popular from day one.

Cuff: What’s your explanation of the opposition, then?

Hawthorne: I think there is an incredible amount of distrust of public projects. I think the opposition is different in Northern and Southern California.

I think here, it was such a privatized landscape that there is a lot of doubt about what the public bodies can accomplish in terms of infrastructure. They see both the transit system and the freeways as failures for different reasons. That breeds a lot of anxiety—and a lot of cynicism.

In Northern California, unfortunately, I think a lot of the opposition comes from Silicon Valley. It’s connected to the libertarian distrust of government that is really rampant in Silicon Valley. And that is connected to this idea of Silicon Valley wanting to secede and form its own state, and to its enthusiasm for projects like Hyperloop, for example.

Christensen: Well, let me ask you a visionary question to conclude. What do you think the city of Los Angeles is going to look like in a generation or so? Say, around 2050? It’s a time far off, but close enough that anyone under forty is very likely to still be alive. Is LA going to be more like the movie Her or Elysium?

Hawthorne: I don’t think it’s going to be either of those things. I think we’re going to do what we always do, which is muddle through. Despite these big changes, I don’t think that’s suddenly going to either allow us to magically solve the political obstacles or produce a dystopia. I think we will continue to build transit. I think the obstacles to new housing, though they are substantial now, will begin to fall away over time. So we’ll be smarter, hopefully, about how much housing we can produce and where it goes.

We’re going to have a new transit measure on the ballot in the fall, the new Measure R. And if it passes, it will probably raise at least $100 billion. Now, not all of that will go to mass transit. There’s always some road money in those things, but the lion’s share of it will. And that’s enough money to reshape the landscape of the city around transit, in much the same way that we reshaped it around freeways. That’s enough money to put a train tunnel under the Sepulveda Pass. That’s enough money to think in a really ambitious way.

That said, I’m still pretty pessimistic about the leadership of the various agencies and how much they see themselves as being in a position even to think in this visionary way, let alone their ability to execute visionary plans. So I don’t think we’re magically going to get good at doing that. But we are in the midst of reshaping the whole landscape of the city. That’s just going to accelerate. We’ll do some things well. We’ll do some things not so well. But we’re already further into this transition than people realize.


Water Works

by Scott Kildall

Visualizing San Francisco’s water infrastructure

San Francisco has an urban circulatory system that lives underneath our feet. It provides water to our homes, delivers a reliable supply to fire hydrants, removes waste from our toilets, and ultimately purifies it and directs it into the bay and ocean. Most of us don’t think about this amazing system because we don’t have to—it simply works.

But I like to think about how water works in San Francisco. I am fascinated by urban infrastructure, from fire hydrants to electrical access panels to phone cable boxes—the stuff you see when you are walking through the physical space of a city. Whenever city employees are working in a manhole, I stop and peer inside to see what is down there. They may not appreciate this, but I can’t help myself. I’ve even done my share of urban spelunking, adventuring through storm drains and other places I don’t belong. I’m just curious. So last summer I started work on Water Works, an art project and 3D data visualization through which I explored how water moves through the bowels of the city.


The project was part of a Creative Code Fellowship, supported by Stamen Design, Autodesk, and Gray Area—a design studio, a 3D software corporation, and a nonprofit arts organization, respectively. At these three organizations, I had desk space, state-of-the-art fabrication tools, and mentoring to help me create large-scale 3D-printed sculptures, each paired with an interactive web map at www.waterworks.io.

As an artist, I’ve worked with sculpture and software code for many years, but I’m only now learning to fully integrate the two media, using digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters, 3D printers, and other computer-controlled machines. These machines can use 3D renderings or 2D image files to create objects such as plastic 3D models, perfectly cut wood stencils, and finely milled aluminum parts. Since they remove traditional shop-craft techniques such as table sawing and routing from making sculpture, the artistry is in the concept, the ferreting out and assembling the data, and the ways that data can be manipulated and transformed into something tangible. That programming is an art is a fact often overlooked, and it’s never truer than when it is in service of a project like Water Works.

It’s a new frontier of artistic possibility. As far as I know, I’m the first person to mine city data and write software algorithms to generate 3D-printed maps. My directive for the project was to somehow make visible what is invisible; to turn virtual data into physical reality.

2Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 10.09.19 PM



The first step was to get permission from San Francisco to access its sewer data. The dataset was both incredible and incredibly complex. I discovered that the city had about 30,000 nodes (underground chambers with manholes) with 30,000 connections (pipes). But it quickly became clear that the information I needed, like all data, was messy and needed a lot of pruning, trimming and reworking. From previous data projects, I knew you have to work with the data you can get, though, not the data you think someone should have and wish you could get. So I spent many hours writing custom software algorithms to clean up the data. It was tedious, but oddly satisfying.

Then I began a deep survey of San Francisco’s water infrastructure. In the first month of the Water Works project, this involved endless research and culling, chasing leads and running into dead ends. I called myself a “water detective,” much like Jake Gittes in Chinatown. I soon learned that the city has three separate sets of pipes that comprise the water infrastructure: a potable water system, supplied by Hetch Hetchy; a combined stormwater and wastewater sewer system; and the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS), which is a separate infrastructure used only for emergency fire fighting and which is fed from the Twin Peaks Reservoir. The AWSS was built in the years immediately following the 1906 earthquake, when many of the water mains collapsed and most of the city proper was destroyed by fires.

My nights were consumed with the search for water data, and I eventually found a great lead: the brick circles I’d long been puzzled over in the middle of intersections throughout the city. It turns out these markings are used to indicate the locations of underground cisterns, tanks of water used exclusively for emergency fire fighting. According to various blogs, there are about 170 of them, though the estimates vary.

The history of the cisterns mirrors San Francisco’s history. In the 1850s, after a series of great fires tore through the city, the small but rapidly growing municipal government built twenty-three underground reservoirs that could be drawn on for fire fighting. These cisterns were planted beneath streets in the central part of the city, between Telegraph Hill and Rincon Hill. They weren’t connected to any other pipes, because the fire department intended to use them as a backup water supply, in case the water mains broke in another earthquake.

They languished for decades. Many people thought they should be defunded since they had long gone unused. However, after the 1906 earthquake, fires once again leveled much of the city. Many water mains broke, and the neglected cisterns helped save portions of San Francisco.


Two years after the 1906 earthquake and fires, the city passed a $5.2 million bond to begin building the AWSS, both restoring the first generation of cisterns and constructing many new ones. The largest one is underneath the Civic Center and has a capacity of 243,000 gallons, though most of the twentieth-century cisterns hold about 75,000 gallons of water each. The original ones hold much less water, anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 gallons.

While working with the cistern data, I kept returning to the formidable task of building a large-scale sewer map. With approximately 30,000 manholes and 30,000 pipes that connect them, I kept asking myself: how do I even begin mapping this? Even the Department of Public Works hadn’t mapped this out in 3D space. I don’t know if any city ever has.


Conventional software modeling packages can’t handle datasets this large, and they don’t enable the kind of artistic expression that I wanted to enable. So, I built my own 3D modeling software using a popular open source toolkit called OpenFrameworks, which supports the ancient C++ programming language. With it, I was able to map out the nodes and pipes in 3D space. While working on my laptop, on a plane ride from Seattle, my code finally rendered a manhole map of San Francisco, and it looked just like the city’s terrain. I let out a yelp of joy at 30,000 feet. The algorithms I created were quick, efficient, and could generate complex 3D models that could directly interface with the 3D printers at Autodesk.

For the sewer portion of Water Works, I chose to 3D print just a portion of San Francisco including the waterfront by San Francisco Bay, the historic Ferry Building, and a section of Market Street. I made the pipes a light gray and the manhole chambers represented by a darker gray. The sewer dataset included the diameters of the pipes and the volume of the manhole chambers, so I scaled the nodes and pipes accordingly, and I found that increasing the Z-axis (elevation) by a factor of three would perfectly accentuate the hills of San Francisco. The results surprised me: a huge sewer line runs down Kearny Street. The Pier 9 Autodesk office, where I was working sits right next to one of the largest underground chambers in the city.

The visualizations of the sewer and cistern data have overlapping, chaotic geometries. They are not to scale—the pieces would be impossibly small. The final prints have a 20-inch by 16-inch footprint and each is about 6-inches high. They took forty to fifty hours to print. They sit on a map made with the help of Stamen Design. I worked with their custom map tiles, and their developers provided me with a high-resolution black-and-white map that I used for laser-etching onto a cherry wood. The final 3D prints rested on pins, attached to the wood. They feel architectural and synthetic, yet organic as they follow the terrain of San Francisco.

To me, the best part about integrating code and sculpture was the uncertainty of form. When I altered my software algorithm, suddenly a 3D model would have an entirely different look. If the cisterns were too large, then the form felt clunky; and if they were too small, well, the 3D print would break in my hands. It wasn’t until I mapped the data in 3D space that I truly understood what it would look like. The combination of code and sculpture is powerful, and yet it takes the control away from my own hands. Like walking through an urban environment, the Water Works project fully engaged my imagination, as I transformed virtual data into physical objects that enable a general audience to appreciate what’s under their feet.



The Lotus and the Rose

by Elizabeth Logan

Californians plant a world in 1915

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

In June 1914, Golden Gate Park Supervisor John McLaren and his team of landscape engineers placed an enormous order: 7,000 rhododendrons, 200,000 daffodil bulbs, 158,000 tulips, 45,000 anemones, 23,000 ranunculus, and 15,000 hyacinths.1 Those flowers and the thousands more they would order over the following eighth months were needed to meet an audacious goal: to re-create the entire world within the grounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that would open in February 1915. They aimed to construct “a microcosm so nearly complete that if all the world were destroyed except the 635 acres of land within the Exposition gates, the material basis of the life of today could have been reproduced” from the examples. California’s soil and climate would provide the connective tissue.2

The project was a rousing success. Between the blooms McLaren and his team nurtured and the other gardens and exhibits on site, flowers and plant life defined the experience of the exposition for many; after the fair, novelist and lecturer Peter Clark MacFarlane of New York City reflected on his visit: “The Exposition was a perfect flower.”

Courtesy of the California Historical Society.

To re-create the world in microcosm on the exposition grounds was ambitious enough—and it eerily prefigures some of today’s efforts to protect samples of seeds and DNA in case the “life of today” on Earth should need to be reproduced. But fair planners had another message they wanted to convey to visitors, through plants and flowers, about San Francisco’s changing place in the United States and the world. The fair strived to put The City at the center of it all.

The Spanish-American War in 1898 had greatly expanded the imperial and territorial ambitions of the United States of America, making Californians middle-westerners at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, part of an empire stretching from Maine to Manila. San Francisco’s political leaders understood early on that a world’s fair would give them an opportunity to reposition their city from an outpost at the end of the continent to a place central to the nation’s interests.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In January 1904, department store tycoon Reuben B. Hale wrote in a letter to potential investors in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition: “Horace Greeley said, ‘Go West, young man’; but when he goes west from San Francisco he goes east. It is the beginning of the east, and the ending of the west. We are the center around which trade revolves between the United States and all European countries that are looking for trade with the Orient and other Pacific Ocean points.”3

It sounds like something Lewis Carroll might have written: west was east and east was west. But redefining space was key to the fair. Six years later in an article promoting San Francisco as the host city for the exposition, Rufus M. Steele concluded: “San Francisco is remote only to that American whose consciousness has failed to keep pace with the expansion of his country. Measured laterally, the United States presents five capital cities marking the westward course along which empire has taken its way. They are New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Honolulu, Manila.” Continuing his pitch, he teased, the “city’s blood is red, its heart clean, its hospitality as rich and undiscriminating as the breath of its flowers.”4

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Much has been written about the exposition as a showcase for San Francisco’s recovery from the great earthquake and fires of 1906, and as an opportunity to promote trade in the wake of the opening of the Panama Canal. Less well-studied are the messages that fair planners hoped to convey to the millions of visitors who strolled the grounds. The physical embodiment of those goals could be found on the grounds and among the floral exhibits, which conveyed subtle arguments about the nature of California and its new place in the wider world. Their success was mixed; reading fairgoers’ descriptions of their experiences—of the exposition more broadly and the grounds specifically—the limitations and unintended consequences of the planners’ visions are as apparent as their triumphs.

Using flowers to represent California as a refined part of the Euro-American world was old hat by 1915. From their beginnings in the 1850s to their establishment as fixtures in the societal and intellectual life of San Francisco in the early twentieth century, flower shows in San Francisco attempted to provide the same enriching experience that visitors enjoyed in refined cities across the continent and in Europe. San Francisco’s flowers were pleasing in their own right, but they were also always compelled to convey the superiority of California’s climate and soil, which promised exciting possibilities for growing non-European plants such as cacti and tropical plants, some of which were often not native to California either. Flowers were at once decoration, commodity, and symbol through which local, national, and imperial meanings were created and conveyed, although not always internalized.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Even though they sometimes used language that positioned themselves as “westerners,” San Francisco floriculturists more often demanded that the state—and more specifically their city—be seen as not west of center, but as the center of an inclusive whole defined in reference to Chicago and New York, but also to England and Europe, as well as China and Japan. San Francisco was the middle point in the US empire. Sometimes the language ventured into hyperbolic space as San Franciscans announced, “Hong Kong or Manila or Yokohama seem nearer to us than Chicago or St. Louis.”5 Sometimes the dialogues forecasted tensions between northern and southern California, as when a business in 1913 remarked, “Los Angeles is western…we are not. We are ‘the Coast.'”6

These notions of California’s abundance and of San Francisco as the emerging center of the American Empire were central to the fair planners’ vision—and they said it with flowers. The organizers recognized the importance of horticulture and floriculture to the success of the exposition, even though the business leaders backing the endeavor were not particularly interested in the commercial growing of flowers. The Panama Pacific was the first international exposition to create a separate and independent department of horticulture. Chief of the Horticultural Department G.A. Dennison and Chief Landscape Engineer John McLaren worked together to landscape the fair focusing not only on fruits and flowers but the methods and tools for their successful culture.7

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

These messages about California’s role come to life in three settings at the fair: McLaren’s expansive grounds, Carl Purdy’s California Garden, and Dennison’s exhibits for the department of horticulture. Taken together they paint a picture of San Francisco, and California more broadly, as a place that was emerging from a European past into a more worldly future.

John McLaren was hired as landscape engineer for the exposition in February 1912 and tasked with gardening twenty-six separate areas, landscaping more than seventy-three acres, with a budget of $620,784 (approximately $14 million in current dollars).8 Portraying the nature of California, it turned out, required a significant investment of money and labor. The mammoth undertaking required gardeners to transform dunes, swamps, and wetlands into verdant, natural-appearing landscapes.9 Thirty thousand cubic yards of fertilizer and fifty-five thousand cubic yards of loam were brought in to prepare the ground. McLaren’s team turned swamp into land, displacing water by pumping up mud from the floor of the San Francisco Bay and depositing eighteen inches of soil over the filled in bayshore.10

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Once this new land was complete, McLaren tackled plans for diversifying the scene. He and his team brought in seeds and bulbs from Japan, Holland, Belgium, and England to supplement thousands of blooms bought from local growers.11 While the Panama-Pacific International Exposition welcomed the world, fair planners had to ensure that foreign exhibitors did not put California’s horticultural interests and growing industries at risk. Plants began arriving from abroad in October 1913, more than a year before the official opening of the fair. To ensure no import threatened California’s plants and industries, state inspectors built an inspection shed and fumigating room and demanded all foreign horticultural materials pass through it. Non-offending plants received a certificate. Japan and the Netherlands earned unofficial prizes for sending the cleanest specimens. Every Japanese sample passed inspection, as did all but one from the Netherlands.12

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

McLaren and his team prepared by growing flowers and “bedding plants” in greenhouses years in advance of the exposition.13 Just a month after he was hired, McLaren began collecting and nurturing seedlings, and set up a temporary nursery in Golden Gate Park. A permanent one followed in November of 1912 in the Presidio, with six greenhouses and thousands of flats of seedlings transplanted from Golden Gate Park.14 McLaren “rehearsed the whole floral scheme” for three seasons before the exposition opened. Day by day, he “knew the time that would elapse between the planting and blooming of any flower he planned to use.”15

The fairgrounds, under McLaren’s supervision, showcased San Francisco’s ability to nurture abundant flowers from every corner of the world, demonstrating the city was at the center of the map. The Court of Flowers featured fifty thousand yellow pansies, and the same number of red anemones, red tulips, and red begonias.16 The South Garden re-created “a formal French garden.”17 Moving past yellow-themed blossoms, visitors encountered twenty thousand pink begonias “blended” into a floricultural “old-rose carpet around the Fountain of Energy.”18 Orchids, lilies, and bulb begonias surrounded the Palace of Horticulture, as well as alternating beds of plants and ponds, including a Japanese garden.19

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

State and regional gardens represented the varied flora of the United States. The Massachusetts Garden captured the colonial era with carnations and gladioli from B. Hammond Tracey one of the “most noted gladioli growers in America.” The Eastern Garden featured roses from Rhode Island and Maryland, heliotropes “of exquisite color and rich fragrance” from New Jersey, and irises and peonies from Pennsylvania.20

Although McLaren and his team worked on the grounds and conveyed the worldliness of San Francisco and the fecundity of its soil, the task of designing the California Garden fell to Carl Purdy, who was widely known for his work on the domestication of California wildflowers.21 Purdy’s vision for the garden was supported by California nurserymen, including noted plant geneticist Luther Burbank, who pitched in to fill the space and draw attention to their stock and seed catalogs.22

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The California Garden was nestled inside a cypress hedge surrounding the California Building, designed to mirror the Forbidden Garden in Mission Santa Barbara. Donald McLaren, John McLaren’s son and assistant, explained: “the scheme of the California Building’s exterior and the California Garden together is to epitomize the State as she is known in art and nature. Mission architecture and native flora join in unity of purpose.”23

Here some of the mixed messages of the fair’s landscape conflicted. Fair planners wanted to promote San Francisco as the center of a new empire, yet they fell back on well-worn depictions of the state as a regional, Spanish-mission style folkloric outpost. In an era dominated by Helen Hunt Jackson’s romantic novel Ramona, Charles Lummis’s efforts to “save” the missions, and San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition, it is not surprising that the California Garden leaned on California’s Spanish past. But while McLaren’s grounds sought to demonstrate the richness of California’s climate and ability to support all of the world’s plants and by extension California’s global commercial ambitions, Purdy’s garden offered a nostalgic refuge in a romantic version of California’s past.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Then there were the flowers and plants in the first ever Department of Horticulture at a world’s fair. Chief of Horticulture for the Exposition, G.A. Dennison was a didact, and he wanted his exhibits “to appeal with equal interest” to five target audiences. The tourist needed to see “the pride and glory of the soil” from every corner of the world. The visitor must be “entertained by the beauty and novel wonder of all that is before him.” The student should find “an unequaled opportunity to increase his store of knowledge of all points pertaining to the horticulture of the earth.” The businessman could find every item so perfectly arranged that he could make an order before even leaving the display, and the investor might “discover, through actual living evidence, the productive possibilities of soil from almost every section of the earth.” To show off its wares, the Department of Horticulture built a massive conservatory, with a central dome larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. Contributions from more than fourteen nations and twenty-three states were packed inside.24

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

So visitors to the fair walked the grounds and took in Dennison, Purdy, and McLaren’s efforts to capture the world and harness the power of flowers to entertain, educate, and inspire, just as they had planned. What was not in the plans was that the fair would open in the early months of World War I. Yet even the war and hopes for peace were reflected in the exposition’s horticulture. In showcasing how California fit into the world, fair planners created a place that visitors might imagine as an ideal, peaceful, harmonious, and diverse world revolving around San Francisco.

After the exposition’s gates closed for the last time, a committee gathered and preserved some of the many letters received from visitors. It is a curated, or even biased, sample. The committee seems to have chosen to preserve many of the letters based on the relative importance of the writers. Nevertheless, this archive allows us to gauge some of the public reactions to the exposition. Overall, the letters reveal that while the message that California was now at the center of the world resonated with many visitors, the dark shadow of World War I loomed over the fair. The letters are dominated by a desire for peace, and recognized the fair as a space where the world was drawn together for a spell.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Some letters point out the value of the exposition for promoting education, industry, peace, and even the “high ideals” that might be found in plants and flowers, at least metaphorically. T. Morey Hodgman, the President of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, noted, “The Panama-Pacific International Exposition is the handmaid of civilization, of which the perfect flower is industry and peace.”25 C.A. Tonnenson, the Secretary of the Pacific Coast Association of Nurserymen of Tacoma, Washington, wrote: “Not only was there every opportunity to learn about plants and flowers and their appropriate settings, but there were featured high ideals through this work of landscape art which cannot fail to benefit those who were fortunate enough to visit and see the Exposition, and through their influence future generations will be uplifted by these emblems of purity and truth which can only be portrayed in plant life.”26

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Efforts to define California’s role within a newly expanded US empire blended with the rhetoric of peace. Lyman Abbott, editor-in-chief of New York City’s The Outlook concluded: “The Panama-Pacific International Exposition has not only testified to the unity of America, but it has served to bring to the national consciousness the truth not yet adequately realized, that the Pacific Coast with its western outlook is as important as the Atlantic Coast with its eastern outlook, and that it is as essential to the interests of America and to establish and maintain friendly relations with Japan, China and India toward the west as with the European nations toward the east.”27

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

When writer Peter Clark MacFarlane described the fair as a “perfect flower,” he added that its “fragrance lingers.” The exposition “helped the world to become acquainted with itself,” he wrote. “It was a revelation of the spirit and genius of many tribes and nations, a lesson in the brotherhood—in the essential neighborliness—of all mankind, which none who saw it, or from afar felt it, can forget.” Although the exhibition had closed, it “passed only out of the gates in order to make the whole world into an exposition of the things for which that institution stood and which it has inspired.” The fair’s “material features,” he wrote, “are buried like seeds, to sprout again—the seeds of this perfect flower—in every country in the world, to grow up in the lives of men, in better houses, better governments, better industry, better art, better life, better ambitions, better everything.”28

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

MacFarlane captured the universalism of the exhibitions in his florid metaphor. He conjured notions of seeding ideas, sprouting opportunities, and hopeful possibilities for superior regrowth in every aspect of life from politics to commerce to culture. He did not see California as poised at the Pacific edge of the United States ready to capitalize on commercial interests, as the planners probably would have appreciated, but he did see the exposition as a space that contained a world at peace and then pushed that metaphor out into a larger world of “essential neighborliness.” Perhaps MacFarlane and other visitors lost themselves in the world of the fairgrounds, imagining the possibility that the exposition was the world. But the neighborliness he articulated was the representation of human relations that the fair’s landscapers and gardeners consciously created and many living in the turbulent world of 1915 desperately craved.

In the years following the exposition, California lost its place as the center of a vast transpacific American empire, and the century that followed was not scented with the fragrance of peace, as the more optimistic fair visitors had hoped. But McLaren and the exposition planners’ vision of California as a place neither exclusively Eastern nor Western, and well suited to support all manner of diverse living things persists.


Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

For title quote see, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, “The Lotus and the Rose,” Sunset Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 6 (Jun., 1914), 1288. Seed catalog images courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Los Angeles County Arboretum, and California Historical Society.

1. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition, Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal, vol. 2 (New York: Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company, 1921), 339.

2. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 28, 30; John Brisben Walker, “The 1915 Exposition and Education: The Subjects Submitted for Consideration by Educational Congresses During the Panama-Pacific Universal Exposition,” Sunset Magazine 28: no. 6 (June 1912), 751–758.

3. R.B. Hale, Letter to the Directors of the Merchants’ Association from 12 January 1904, reprinted in Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921), 35–37. See also, Sarah J. Moore, Empire on Display: San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

4. Rufus M. Steele, “San Francisco the Exposition City,” Sunset Magazine 25: no. 6 (December 1910), 607–620, 608–609, 620.

5. As quoted in Carl Abbott, How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 73.

6. As quoted from Edward Hungerford, The Personality of American Cities (New York: McBride, Nast and Co., 1913), 295 in Abbott, How Cities Won the West, 73. See also, Charles Sedgwick Aiken, ed., California To Day: San Francisco Its Metropolis (San Francisco: The California Promotion Committee, 1903).

7. The Blue Book: A Comprehensive Official Souvenir View Book of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco 1915 (San Francisco: Robert A. Reid, 1915), 12. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 110. See also, George A. Dennison, Chief of Horticulture of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, “Horticulture,” California’s Magazine, 1: no. 1, E.J. Wickson, ed. (San Francisco: California Publishers Co-operative Association, 1915), 337–340, 337.

8. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 307–8.

9. Donald McLaren, “Landscape Gardening,” California’s Magazine 1: no.1, E.J. Wickson, ed. (San Francisco: California Publishers Co-operative Association, 1915), 345–348, 345.

10. Arthur Z. Bradley, “Exposition Gardens: How Landscape Architects at California’s Two Exhibitions Have Kept Pace with Planners of Palaces, Designers of Sculpture and Wizards of Imagination,” Sunset Magazine 34: no. 4 (April 1915), 665–679, 668.

11. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. I, 308, 339.

12. Frederick Maskew, “The Work of the Quarantine Division in Connection with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” The Monthly Bulletin of the California State Commission of Horticulture 4: no. 8 (August 1915), 351–360.

13. Lela Angier Lenfest, “Interesting Westerners: The Landscape Gardener of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915,” Sunset Magazine 31: no. 6 (December 1913), 1,215–1,217.

14. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 308–9. Maud Wotring Raymond, The Architecture and Landscape Gardening of the Exposition, A Pictorial Survey of the Most Beautiful of the Architectural Compositions of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Paul Elder and Company, 1915), 6–7.

15. Ben Macomber, The Jewel City, Its Planning and Achievement; Its Architecture, Sculpture, Symbolism, and Music; Its Gardens, Palaces, and Exhibits (San Francisco: John H. Williams, 1915), 20. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 308. Bradley, “Exposition Gardens,” 665.

16. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 2, 340. See also Macomber, The Jewel City, Its Planning and Achievement, 78; and the fictional account in Elizabeth Gordon, What We Saw at Madame World’s Fair: Being a Series of Letters from the Twins at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to Their Cousins at Home (San Francisco: Samuel Levinson, 1915), 54.

17. The Blue Book, 24, 132. See also, Raymond, The Architecture and Landscape Gardening of the Exposition, A Pictorial Survey of the Most Beautiful of the Architectural Compositions of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 18.

18. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 2, 340.

19. The Blue Book, 20.

20. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340, 339.

21. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 4, 314. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340, 338.

22. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 4, 314. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340, 338.

23. McLaren, “Landscape Gardening,” 348.

24. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340. Official Catalogue of Exhibitors, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915 (San Francisco: The Wahlgreen Company, 1915), 11–28.

25. James A. Barr and Joseph M. Cumming, The Legacy of the Exposition, Interpretations of the Intellectual and Moral Heritage Left to Mankind by the World Celebration at San Francisco in 1915 (San Francisco: 1916), 87.

26. Ibid., 165.

27. Ibid., 4.

28. Ibid., 119.