Is Open Space What Inspires L.A. Designers?

Like contestants in a never-ending high school popularity contest, insecure Angelenos and jealous New Yorkers continue to fuel the century-old debate about which is better, L.A. or N.Y.? Admittedly, the latest round of the fight, which occurred as part of the Art Center Design Conference, held March 18-21 in Pasadena, California, was rather one-sided. Led by UCLA professor of architecture and urban design Richard Weinstein, the defenders of Los Angeles were preaching—mostly—to the converted. But Weinstein’s thesis was worth hearing: He believes that Los Angeles, with its physical and psychological open space, encourages creativity that Manhattan does not.

“L.A. is full of holes,” insisted Weinstein, a former New Yorker. In crowded Manhattan, the only way to catch a glimpse of empty space is to look up, but here, in the fractal geometry of Los Angeles, “we have vacant spaces at different scales.”

He continued, “Even a block of parking lots is full of spaces…[where] unintended circumstances flourish and seams open up.” Many of the diverse group of scientists, theoreticians, artists, entrepreneurs, and inventors invited to the four-day Art Center conference seemed to embraced the theory.

Morphosis principal (and Angeleno) Thom Mayne continued the theme, concentrating on the city’s physical holes. “It moves,” Mayne said, noting that Los Angeles is built on several major fault lines, “and it burns at regular intervals.” The region’s fires and earthquakes mean that gaps are constantly being created by the land itself, and the city is “changing at a pace beyond our ability to understand it.”

Manhattan is built on bedrock and Los Angeles is built on sand; this fundamental geographic difference carries over to the city’s civic and cultural institutions. Instead of an ingrained, tightly-woven power structure, said Weinstein, Los Angeles is made up of constantly shifting coalitions that can push daring projects—like the band that finally put the Disney Concert Hall in place.

Like Weinstein, Mayne and fellow speaker/FORM principal Greg Lynn teach in UCLA’s Dept. of Architecture and Urban Design. The latter two are also practitioners of a recognizably West Coast style of design that uses rapidly developing computer technology to mimic organic forms and push them to extremes; it’s a proclivity that they share with Disney Concert Hall designer Frank Gehry.

Lynn attributes much of L.A.’s available technology to the film and aerospace industries. He called the city a “crucible” of new technology, adding playfully, “This is our Ford Taurus moment,” wherein architects are beginning to realize the potential of the blob, much as car designers did in the mid-’80s. He and his students have also been using software technology to map out the city.

Perfect architecture, said Weinstein, needs a mélange of talent, patronage, contractors, and government permission; the only comparable creative enterprise, he asserted, is film. To illustrate that point, documentary filmmaker James Sanders talked about his upcoming collaboration with Ric Burns on a four-film history of Los Angeles. Each of the volumes is named after the city’s essential elements—Earth and Water, Light, Wind, and Fire—and provides a chronological narrative of the city’s past. The second, Light, deals with the period from the arrival of the movies (1915) to the attack on Pearl Harbor (1941).

In that golden age of film, movies were good because they were made far from the controlling eye of the East Coast money men. At least that was what Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn had in mind when they first hopped a train across the country to set up their production studio.

Today, if we are to believe Weinstein, architecture and design are at a similar moment. There is talent in Los Angeles that is free of the strictures of the East Coast, and free to revel in the sensual pleasures of oceans, mountains, and sky. As Weinstein summed it up, “Opportunities are born of incompleteness and lack of a there here. [Los Angeles] is in the in-between spaces that dreams just fit into.”

Categories: Cities

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