Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Reports of Suburbia's Demise Have Been Greatly Exaagrerated


Hello Everyone:

I can almost taste the 1500 page view mark.  We can do this people, this week even.  How about it?  Let go for it. This is a doable goal.  I'll keep writing and you keep reading.

Today we return to the subject of suburbia.  Specifically, the American suburbs and reports of its demise.  I know I've repeatedly said that we are are becoming an urbanized society and I'll admit I've jumped on the "suburbs are dying" bandwagon, however in his article for the July issue of The Atlantic, "Are the Suburbs Where the American Dream Goes to Die?"  Matthew O'Brien reports on the findings of a new study by the Equalitynof Opportunity Project led by Harvard Berkeley economists suggests that reports of the connection between geography and social mobility in the United States.  It would seem that contemporary up-and-comers in the country have as much chance anywhere else in the world.  Translation, if you want to move up, don't move to the American South.

So why does a future President Barack Obama from the Rust Belt or Southern states have a harder time climbing the ladder than a future president from West or East Coast states?  The answer has little to do with progressive local taxes, the cost of college, or how unequal a place is.  According to Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard University and Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California-Berkeley, found that the progressiveness of taxes, the cost of college, and the equality of a place only slightly correlate with a region's social mobility.  What seemed to matter the most was sprawl, the number of two-parent family households, the quality of elementary and high school education, and how involved people are in community and religious groups.  

In his Monday OP-Ed column for the New York Times (, Paul Krugman looks at how sprawl is strangling the city of Atlanta.  Professor Krugman states the city is too spread out so at employment opportunities are out of reach for people stranded in the wrong neighborhoods.  Whereas, a child born in a more compact city such as San Francisco had a greater chance of making it to the top fifth social standing than the same child born in Atlanta.  Let me qualify that, the number is 11% for the child born in San Francisco versus 4% for the child born in Atlanta. Does that sound really encouraging to you?  I don't think so.  In Atlanta, the upper and lower class neighborhoods are further apart simply because so is everything else. Thus, the ability for the city department of transportation to provide effective mass transit is nearly impossible, even if the politician were willing to write personal checks to pay for it, which isn't happening.  The result is that disadvantaged workers are stuck, limited in the range they can seek employment.  

Twenty-five years ago sociologist William Julius Wilson argued in his book The Truly Disadvantaged that the postwar migration of employers out of the city centers left African-Americans bereft of economic opportunities just as the Civil Rights Movement was finally ending overt discrimination.  Mr. Wilson added that the prevalence of single mothers was, often cited as a cause for lagging performance in said communities, was an effect of the family structure being undermined by the lack of good jobs.  This seems to be the foundation of the findings of the Harvard-Berkeley team.  In contemporary times, this argument seems weak because the traditional families among the Caucasian working-class have also been seriously compromised.  How come?  The hollowing out of the job market and rising inequality are to blame.  However, the new research heaps sprawl onto the pile of blame.  Not just movement out of the city but also out of reach of the less affluent suburban residents as well.

Before you get the idea that sprawling metropolises outside the Southern and Rust Belt states are the places to be, I'd like to point out my hometown, Los Angeles, is not exactly utopia.  We still have a limited mass transit system but upward mobility has adapted.  Upward mobility in Los Angeles has a more local flavor to it.  Thus it might be a good idea for cities such as Atlanta or Detroit to take a look here and formulate policies that are beneficial to families without cars.  Reihan Salam has argued that easing zoning restrictions and building out public transit would allow cities to become less dense and more livable.  Not going to happen anytime soon thanks to national NIMBY-ism.  So President Thomas Jefferson's utopia vision of a nation of self-sufficient farmers is obsolete.  The Industrial Revolution saw the mass migration of people from the rural lands to the cities in search of opportunity.  What about Sarah Palin's "Real America?" Or the dire warnings of the Republican Party that high-speed rail lines and bike paths were some fiendishly wasteful spending.  Guess what?  As it turns out these modern day Cassandras were at odds with the contemporary version of the American Dream.  Where does one go to pursue upward mobility?  Try the cities.

I will make every effort to post the images from yesterday's blog on Pinterest by the end of the day tomorrow.  In the meantime, follow me at or on Twitter at  Like me on Facebook at or check me out at google +

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Conditions for Diversity

Hello Everyone:

Before I launch into today's rant, I checked the page view count and to my stunned surprise, we're at nearly 1500.  Wow and thanks so much for your continued support.  I can't do this without you.  You're all the heart and soul of this blog.  We can do 1500.  I'll keep writing and you keep reading.

Today I'd like to return to the subject of Jane Jacobs' seminal book on urban planning, Death and Life of Great American Cities.  In the firs post, on July 17, 2013, I wrote on the subject, I looked at some general conclusions reached by Matthias Wendt in his article "The Importance of Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs to the Profession of Urban Planning." (  In the last post on he subject, I sketched out the profession of Urban Planning and American cities in the post-World War II years, the central theses of the book, and the foundations of modern orthodox urban planning.  Today, I'd like to look at the conditions for diversity outlined in the book.  Diversity is just about people, as it's commonly used today.  Diversity, in this case has to do with place making.  Ms. Jacobs laid four general conditions for diversity of place which take up the second part of the book.  They are: a district must serve more than one primary function; short blocks; buildings within the district must vary in age; a sufficient density of population.  These conditions, were/are considered by Ms. Jacobs to necessary for planning a diverse and vital city life.  One caveat, the can never be achieved by designers and planners sitting down and laying all out.  Great cities don't automatically generate diversity, it's an organic evolution.

The first condition, multiplicity of primary use is something that draws people together in a specific place.  Think about the places that bring you and your neighbors together.  According to Death and Life, not only is this necessary to ensure public safety in the streets and neighborhoods but also have economic relevance.  My first thought is the ubiquitous mall.  They have multiple functions of retail, commercial, and entertainment.  From an economic point of view, well, I don't think I need to go into great detail, do I.  Mr. Wendt uses the analogy of the park and shops to make his case.  Just as local parks need people in the immediate for a variety of functions, shops are dependent on foot and automobile traffic for their livelihood.  It's a pretty simple equation, if there are no customers, there is no business.  Similarly, the shops are dependent on the workers in the area who contribute their demand to the variety of goods and services.  When I think about this, the first thing that comes to mind are the shops and restaurants that service the Downtown Los Angeles area.  

Conversely, Jane Jacobs describes the insufficient primary mixture of uses as a shortcoming of American postwar American downtowns.  In the pre-war period, downtowns fulfilled all four general conditions for creating diversity in place making.  By the time Death and Life was written, downtowns had become place solely dedicated to 'work' that they came to be referred to as Central Business Districts.  The urban central core has a direct impact on other parts of the city, the primary mixed-use of the downtown is particularly important because, according to Ms. Jacobs, "a city without a strong and inclusive heart, tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another." (Jacobs, 1961, p.165).

The second condition for urban diversity is short blocks.  Why short blocks?  Ms. Jacobs uses the city of Manhattan to illustrate her point.  As a native Angeleno, all the images of Manhattan I'm familiar with is of people, lots of people, walking.  Yet, in the example given, Jane Jacobs describes the long, 800-foot blocks on West Eighty-eighth street in Manhattan a having a tendency to segregate the regular users of one street from the regular users of another, isolating neighborhoods socially and economically.  Forgive me, but, again as an Angeleno, I'm having a little difficulty reconciling this with the image of throngs of people on the streets of Manhattan.  Her conclusion is that this impedes the exchange of people between different streets.  Ms. Jacobs recommends offering residents alternative routes to chose from.  Matthais Wendt points that Jane Jacobs opposed the concept of the Garden City plan, first developed by Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier's Radiant City plan, opening that plentiful street are wasteful.  Jane Jacobs argues that short blocks and frequent streets are valuable because they allow an intricacy of cross-use among the users of the city neighborhood.  The connection to the first condition of diversity, a mix of primary use, is that short blocks are useful in encouraging a real mix of people and experiences that contribute to the carnival of urban life.

The third condition for urban diversity, a personal favorite (no bias here), is a melange of building of different ages.  Ms. Jacobs notes that cities need a combination of old buildings in a good state of rehabilitation and run-down buildings because they can accommodate most ordinary enterprises, necessary to public streets but not able to pay the high overhead costs.  Further, even new businesses that can afford new construction still need the older buildings around or risk falling into a bland uniform environment.  I can't help but think of the spirited defense of the Bowery made by director Martin Scorese.  In a blog post dated April 24, 2013, I wrote that I agreed with the Oscar-winning director when he asserted that the introduction of high-rises and condominiums into the Bowery would create an atmosphere of conformity to an area that has historically resisted conformity.  Conversely, if there is a district where there are uniformly older buildings, it conveys the impression that commercial entities and he residents are unable to support and attract new businesses.  The exception being, of course, designated historic districts.  The points here is that Ms. Jacobs is arguing for a balance of old and new construction that create a panoply of cultural, population, and business experiences, thus contributing to urban diversity.

The final general condition for urban diversity is a sufficient density of population.  While traditional planning advocates low-dwelling densities.  Opposing this, Ms. Jacobs argues that high dwelling densities are an important factor for the vitality of an urban environment.  To demonstrate her thesis, she points to high-density residential districts in U.S. cities such as: Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Brooklyn Heights in New York, and Boston's North End.  The overcrowded slums, that high density and traditional planning theory bring to mind are, according to Ms. Jacobs, actually vital thriving areas, while the real-life slums of America are found in areas of low-density dwellings.  However, high density dwelling by itself is not enough to attain urban vitality if diversity is suppressed by other other insufficiencies.  To wit, the housing projects that were popular in the the mid-twentieth century.  If dwelling densities are too high, then they begin to repress diversity.  At a certain point, building typology standardization sets in so that it creates that bland uniformity that seem to be increasingly characterizing our cities today.  Ms. Jacobs concluded that people gathered in concentrations was not a bad thing, rather it promoted a richness of experiences, differences, and possibilities.

Jane Jacobs' concept of urban physical diversity encouraged neighbors to interact with each other and discourages crime, everyone gets to know and trust each other-"eyes on the street."  This was not embraced by planners and sociologists in the mid-twentieth century.  The idea that lack of physical diversity having an undesirable effect on social behavior which could be resolved by building in a more physically diverse mode was also reject as to simplistic.  Sociologist Herbert Gans postulated that the majority of the American middle class did not want a vital and bustling neighborhood such as the North End. Instead, they preferred the peace and privacy  found in low-density neighborhoods and high-rise apartments.

What about present times?  If you examine the mega-master plans on the books for cities such as Los  Angeles, Silver Spring, New York, and Denver, they seem to be making an effort to find a balance between the traditional urban planning thinking and the theories of Jane Jacobs.  It'll be interesting to watch and see what happens in the next ten to twenty years as our urban regions continue to grow.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

Architecture That Was Never Built


Hello Everyone:

The space bar is officially not working and I'm still using the iPad to get my blog posts out.  It's actually not an inconvenient thing.  Like the fabled mail carrier, nothing shall keep me from my appointed round rounds.  Today's post was inspired by a review in the current issue of the LA Weekly ( of a new exhibit at the Architecture and Design Museum ( by Wendy Gilmartin.  Ms. Gilmartin reviews an exhibit dedicated to plans for the city of Los Angeles that never made it off the drawing table.  Some it is rather quite fanciful but it got me thinking of speculative architecture from another era, 1920s Soviet Union.  In particular, I'm thinking of the Constructivist architecture imagined by Soviet architects such as Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Vesnin for a "brave new world."  These buildings never made off the table but it was intended to present a new form of architecture and design that was free of the past bourgeois conventions; demonstrating the superiority of Soviet architecture.  It's very imaginative and work worthy of further consideration.

What is Constructivist architecture?  Constructivist architecture is a genre of modern architecture that began in the former Soviet Union in the twenties, emerging from Constructivist art.  This mode of art applied three-dimensional Cubism to abstract and non-objective elements.  It combined straight lines and various geometric elements such as cylinders, squares, rectangles, and cubes.  The principles of Constructivism emerged from Suprematism, Neo-Plasticism, and the Bauhaus.  The elements of Constructivist art and architecture are: minimalism, geometry, spatial, architectonic, and experimental. Constructivism explores the opposition between different form and the contrast of surfaces-such as wall and windows- squares and rectangles.  Movement was emphasized and took advantage of the possibilities of new materials such as concrete and glass.  The steel frames that held large panes of glass were exposed.  The joints between the parts of the buildings were also brought into full view. (Http://

The driving force behind Constructivist architecture was the idea that the laboring class-the worker- was the new consumer of architecture.  To create architecture that would service the new consumer, Moisei Ginzburg (1892-1946) founded the Organization of Contemporary Architects (OSA) in 1925 with fellow architect Alexander Vesnin.  The OSA were a group of men and women who were dedicated to: 1) the radical transformation of current architectural concepts, 2) command of the latest technical data, and form, and 3) derived from a mathematical solution of correctly stated problem.  These goals served as the foundation for Constructivist architecture and what Ginzburg stood for the future of architecture.  Eventually, the group fell by the wayside as the thirties approached. (Http://

The post-World War I years in the fledgling Soviet Union were characterized by poverty which added to the paralysis in the construction industry.  Thus, the job of creating new buildings for a new way of living became a powerful lure.  Interestingly, none of the architects connected with the OSA fled the country.  Unlike some of their  Austrian counterparts (Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra), they stayed.  I think part of it had to do with politics.  In lectures and "paper" architecture projects in the twenties, trends were emerging that would leave their mark on architecture for the future.  The most significant of these trends were the Constructivists and the Rationalists, who had much in common with each other.  Both groups rejected the stylized superficial use of the new (modern) architectural language.  They both studied the psychology of perception and applied their findings to their practice.  Members of each group not only created completely new building typologies but also took a keen interest in urban planning.  Together with "unaffiliated" architects, such as Konstantin Melnikov and Yakov Chernikov, the Rationalist and the Constructivists created the Russian architectural Avant-garde.  (Http://

So what does this very brief look at a very rich subject mean?  From an architectural stand point, the architects of the early Soviet Union were eager to use their art as a way to create an identity for their "new" country.  They wanted to create a whole visual vocabulary that was not dependent on anything previously seen.  The Constructivists were following a trend established by other newly modernizing nations in the early twentieth century such as Japan and Turkey.  Both Japan and Turkey wanted to created a new visual identity for themselves that presented their countries as modern and progressive. Yet, they relied on established forms for that new identity.  On the other hand, the Constructivists decided to take the bolder step and create something entirely new.  On paper, it was exciting but in reality, it never got past the drawing table.  Like the speculative work imagined for Los Angeles in the new exhibit up at the A+D, it's thrilling to see what the imagination can do when given room to roam and ideology is allowed to have free run.  Even more exciting would be if any of it gets built.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Follow Up To Yesterday's Post

Hello Everyone:

First I want to just clarify how I got out yesterday's post, iPad.  Thank you Apple Computers.  Second, I've posted the images accompanying yesterday's post on Japanese Internment Camps on a Pinterest board.  You can see this and more at  For my American readers, I want to make you aware that Congress is considering getting rid of the Historic Preservation Tax Credits.  Over the last several years, the amount of credit an owner of a historic property can receive has been declining.  This can be detrimental to property investment in urban areas such as Detroit, Michigan.  The reason why it's necessary, this is for all my readers across the globe, to invest in historic property rehabilitation is that through private initiatives, older buildings can be repurposed to add to the housing stock, provide places for much needed clinics and community centers, and so on.  You can argue that it's too costly to rehabilitate an older building or the return on the investment or the credit it isn't worth it.  However, I would urge everyone to look beyond the bottom line and consider that rehabilitating an older building can provide greater long-term return, if the investment is handled properly.  Another argument you can make is the tired "I won't be allowed to make any changes to the property."  That's not entirely true.  You can make upgrades as long as it DOESN'T compromise the historical or cultural character defining features of the resource.  Of course you must bring it up current health and safety code, that's paramount.  If you'd like more information, please go to the National Historic Preservation Trust website at  Remember "the greenest building is the one already built."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Preserving Part of A National Shame

Hello Everyone:

Before I get going today, I want to add a comment to my post from yesterday about the proposed plan for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (7/23/13).  I think it's great that Christopher Hawthorne took the time to reconsider the William Pereria/ HHPA designed build on the LACMA campus.  I also think it's good that he appreciates them for the way they work together.  What I'm not too happy about is his giddiness about demolishing them.  To me his appreciation for the 'older' buildings contradicts his support for the Peter Zumthor proposal.  So it's hard to tell what he was getting at in his article from the Sunday Los Angeles Times article and his previous articles on the subject.  Does he endorse the new campus plan or is reconsidering his support?  After reading it over and thinking about it, I'm not quite sure where his thinking is.  Perhaps Mr. Hawthorne can clarify his opinion in future articles.

Now on to today's topic, the recognition of a Japanese-American Internment Camp as a historic-cultural landmark.  During World War II, the Japanese-American citizens of the United States were rounded up and placed in internment camps in California, the Rocky Mountain, Southwestern, and Midwestern states.  The overwhelming majority of the men, women, and children sent to the camps were hard-working American citizens who victims of venomous racism.  Some of the male internees, eager to prove their loyalty, signed up to fight in the war and served with distinction.  When the Japanese-Americans were finally allowed to return home, they found that their houses and businesses were confiscated and sold off and they were no longer welcomed in their neighborhoods.  These camps are part of the shameful history of the United States that includes slavery and the exploitation and destruction of Native-American culture.  However, I and the State of California believe, that despite their dark history, the camp sites should be designated as an ever constant reminder of our shame.  To that end, the City of Los Angeles recently designated a site in Tujunga, associated with Japanese-American Internment, Historc-Cultural Monument #1039.

The site of the former Tuna Canyon Detention Station is bordered by La Tuna Canyon Road on the south and Tujunga Canyon Boulevard on the east.  The former detention station is located on a portion of land that was originally used by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a federal public works program established during the Great Depression.  The camp was used by the CCC until the autumn of 1941, when it was vacated but the buildings remained intact.

Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Station on December 7, 1941, the site was converted into a temporary internment camp for American citizens of Japanese, Italian, Polish, and German descent.  Interesting, how citizens of Axis county ancestry were never interned for the duration of the war while citizens of Japanese descent were.  As I said, venomous racism.  The site became one of the first temporary detention centers established and renamed "Tuna Canyon Detention Station, Immigration and Naturalization Service."  The existing buildings were repurposed for holding detainees, barbed wire was installed enclosing the entire compound.

After the camp was closed, the property changed ownership twice and radically altered.  In 1947, the County of Los Angeles purchased 10-1/2 acres of the site and established the Los Angeles Probation School for boys.  In 1960, it was acquired for the purpose of constructing the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, which resulted in the demolition of the all the original buildings and major changes to the topography and landscape.  Currently, the property still acts as a golf course.  In recent year, Snowball West Investments has proposed to develop a housing estate of 229 single-family homes located on half of the golf course property.  The proposal has received very little support from the local community.

In late 2012, the site was nominated for designation as a Historical-Cultural Monument through a CitynCouncil motion put forward by member Richard Alarcon, with support from the Sunland-Tujunga community organizations and the Little Landers Historical Society (http// and a broad coalition of Japanese-American and other cultural groups.  While the site did, without a doubt, present a significant amount of historical and cultural importance, the Office of Historic Resources ( did not recommend designation because the property lost its physical integrity from its period of significance.  This loss of historic fabric stemmed from all the changes made during the post-World War II.  Let me back track and explain.  In order for a historic or cultural resource to be considered for designation, one of the qualifiers is that it retain approximately 2/3 of its original character defining features from its period of significance.  The Cultural Commission followed form by also declining nomination.  However, the Commission recommended that the community work with the property owner to develop a vigorous on-site interpretive and educational program, which would include signage and displays, in order raise awareness of the site's historical value.

As the nomination process continued onto the City Council, new information revealed by supporters and additional historic photographs of the Detention Center presented a better timeline of the site's evolution including a portion of the property, a one-acre oak tree grove largely untouched by war.  Council member Alarcon worked closely with other members to craft a compromise, approved by the full Council on June 25, 2013 which provided for HIstorical-Cultural Monument designation for this one-acre portion.  In a follow up to designation, the OHR, at the behest of the City Council, has convened a working group of Japanese-American cultural leaders, the Golf Course property owners, and other community leaders to create a consensus on how best to approach future site interpretation or commemoration.   A report is expected later this summer.  Regardless, it is important to raise public awareness for sites such as the internment and detention camps because of their role in history.  History is not all about the bold-faced happy glorious events.  History is also about commemorating and learning about the shameful past because through doing so we can learn for the future.

For more information go to: http://city
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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

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Hello Everyone:

Wilshire Entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Today I'd like to come back to a topic I've previously talked about, the proposed redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (  Specifically, an article in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times by architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, "For LACMA's 'old' buildings, no time like the present," provided inspiration for today's post and a field visit to the museum.  Mr. Hawthorne asks the reader to reconsider the 'old' buildings, slated for demolition to make way for the proposed plan by architect Peter Zumthor.  What Mr. Hawthorne tries to discover is who the new building fit on the site.

Los Angeles Times Central Courtyard
Proposed courtyard of new LACMA
I spent part of a warm July afternoon sitting in the Los Angeles Times Central Courtyard observing how the space is used.  What I was looking to find out if the proposed plan would indeed open the space up more to Wilshire Boulevard on the south side of the campus and be more inviting to pedestrian traffic.  Would people want to come into the museum or, at the very least walk through the facility.  Here are some of my observations:  the courtyard space hasn't really changed much over the twenty-ish years it's been in place.  It's been spruced up over time and the really good coffee cart that used to be in front of the Art of the Americas Building (Anderson Building) has either been moved or taken away.  The courtyard is not really closed off to the north or south sides of the campus.  The gateways provide a transition space between the busy street and green spaces to the main campus.  My only critic is that perhaps the museum should install some sort of interactive kiosks along the walls or on the column inside of the courtyard for patrons to learn about the exhibits or buy tickets.  I'm not one hundred percent sure why this space has to be eliminated.  As I was sitting there, making notes, I noticed that the tables and chairs in the courtyard were rarely used by patrons and employees.  The courtyard had the same feel as train or airport terminal, people just moving along, going to where they need to get to.  Maybe this is a good enough reason to eliminate it in favor of Mr. Zumthor's more open approach that addresses all sides of the campus.  I'm curious, could this space be used for other cultural activities like outdoor movies, theatrical presentations, or concerts?  When you look at the two spaces together, what you see in the proposed plan is definitely a more open space that has a Zen garden-esque feel to it.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art map
However, Mr. Hawthorne asks us to reconsider the 'old' buildings.  Mr. Hawthorne states, for the record, that he was an early supporter of the new campus design.  What did our architecture critic discover?  Mr. Hawthorne discovered that the buildings slated for demolition, the William Pereria designed Ahmanson Building, Hammer Building, Bing Building, and the much-hated Art of the Americas Building by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, work better together than separately.  In fact, Mr. Hawthorne gained a new appreciation for the Art of the Americas Building, calling "...a piece of architecture with more verve-better sense of humor-than I'd realized."  The William Pereria plan for LACMA consisted of three separate, mostly windowless buildings clad in split-face marble tile, set back from Wilshire Boulevard, and lifted above a series of reflecting pools.  The pools have been paved over and converted into the existing central courtyard.

Proposed plan by Peter Zumthor
In a previous blog post ("The Future of a Los Angeles Icon," June 18, 2013), I wrote that when it came to large-scale civic buildings, Los Angeles has historically fallen back on period-style academic architecture tropes. The proposed design seems to takes its cue from post-modernism, referencing the tar pits on the site.  When you look at the plan from above, what you see is this amoebic looking shape that appears to be oozing out of the main pit, which faces Wilshire Boulevard.  The new buildings, described as "the black flower," would be raised up on legs and clad in floor to ceiling glass.  From certain angles, the new buildings will appear transparent, open at ground level.  Mr. Hawthorne finds this proposal potentially quite thrilling in terms of bold civic architecture.  I tend to look at it from a more nuts and bolts approach, will there be something of interest for the people to come?

LACMA from Wilshire Boulevard, east
This ambitious plan still has a long way to go before the first corner stone can be laid.  Aside from the extremely entrenched bureaucracy of Los Angeles City and County government, the design still has to undergo many more revisions.  Of course, there is the whole "who's going to pay for this" issue.  It would be exciting to see what finally comes out of all of this.  Mr. Hawthorne's observations about the potentially thrilling and bold civic architecture seem a bit giddy.  While I agree with his observation that Los Angeles civic buildings have far too long relied on historicism and there isn't enough innovation, however, I don't think that civic architecture should be about coming up with the latest design bells and whistles.  It should be about working with the site and the other buildings around it.  That said, there nothing wrong with a civic building standing out from the crowd.  Just not like a sore thumb

Monday, July 22, 2013

Traveling Along The Silk Road

Hello Everyone:

First of all, a hardy Mazal Tov to the new parents Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their son.  The little prince made his entrance into the world at 4:24pm BST weighing in at a very healthy 8 pounds, 6 ounces.  Mother and son are doing well.

On to today's topic, the Silk Road.  Historically, the Silk Road was a conduit for trade between
Far East Asia and the Western World.  The Silk Road was literally the first information highway.  Not only were spices, gold, silk exchanged along the network of trade routes but also ideas and information about other cultures were traded along the way.  It's pretty amazing when you think about it.  All of this information exchange was happening long before computers, isomething or another, texting, the social media, and whatever else was even a thought.  In contemporary times, a portion the Silk Road is being revived. In an article published in yesterday's New York Times, titled "Hauling New Treasure Along the Silk Road" by Keith Bradsher, one of the routes is being revived in order to haul electronic parts and equipment between China and the Western world.  That got me thinking about a paper I wrote almost two years ago for an  Urbanism case studies class at USC. The paper highlighted five cities along the route and briefly discussed them.  The paper was inspired by an exhibition that was held at the  Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. (  So, today what I would like to do is talk about the revival of this portion of this historic trade network, including some its history and significance.

Map of the Silk Road
The Silk Road began its life as a way to protect the Han Empire (200BCE-200CE) from its aggressive neighbors to the North.  Emperor Wu Di (141 BCE-87 CE) sent a series of diplomatic missions to its Central Asian neighbors and slowly, this coupled with mercantile activities, led to the opening of the Silk Road.  Chinese merchants were able to trade their good with merchants from other countries, some of whom, came from as
Emperor Wu Di
far as the Roman Empire.  Oddly, the goal was not developing an export market, rather increasing communications was the focus.  The first diplomatic mission was led by  Chang Ch'ien and took him as far as Afghanistan.  Chang Ch'ien brought back with him knowledge of places such as Persia (Iran), Syria, and Li-jien, thought to be Rome.  

The mission's prime directive was to find allies and encourage aggression towards the Hsiung-nu.  Economic and mercantile factors developed out of this relationship.  Not only did the foreign merchants find a profitable trade in Chinese silk, porcelain, and other goods, the rules of the Central-Asian nation-states and nomadic tribal leaders found that trade in Chinese luxury goods was a valuable tool for negotiating alliances and them revenue  In particular, silk was a valued commodity. It was originally used for gifts and during the Han Dynasty.  Over time, the Hsuing-nu became dependent on Chinese goods.  This played into the realpolitik of the period, creating a more submissive, less hostile neighbor.  To further the Han goal of controlling their neighbor, markets were established along the border where the Hsuing-nu could trade horses and fur for agricultural and manufactured goods.  This deceptively simply strategy of supply and demand was used for political purposes.

Today, the Silk Road is being used to meet an entirely different demand.  Instead of hauling silk and porcelain to the West, the Silk Road is being used to haul laptops and accessories from factories in China to London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome. Silicon Valley-based company Hewlett-Packard is behind the revival of the trade route once used to carry gems and spices across vast territory.  The company has been doing this for the last two years with increased frequency, using express trains.  Initially, H.P. experimented with this idea during the summer months but now the company is dispatching trains along the 7,000 mile route once a week.  H.P. plans to continue this activity during the winter months, taking elaborate measures to protect the cargo from temperatures that can get as low a -40.

This route accounts for a small fraction of the Silicon Valley giant's total shipment's from China to Europe but other companies are starting to follow suit.  This past Wednesday,  Chinese authorities announced the first of six long freight trains will depart from Zhengzhou, in central China, destined for Hamburg, Germany.  The trains will follow much of the same route across western China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Poland, following H.P.'s lead.   On June 20, carrier DHL announced that it had begun weekly express freight train service from Chengdu in western China across Kazakhstan with a final destination of Poland.

The Silk Road was never just one road.  It was a network of roads traveled by camel and horse caravans for centuries.  The starting point for the trade route was Xi'an, China, China's then Imperial capital and also know for the terra cotta warriors.  The web of roads covered Western China, Central Asia, before terminating in Istanbul, Turkey.  The Silk Road flourished during the Medieval period until the fourteenth and fifteenth century when maritime navigation expanded and China's political capital shifted east to Beijing.

In contemporary times, the economic geography is shifting again.  Rising labor costs in China's eastern cities, have manufacturers scrambling to reduce costs by moving production west into the country's interior.  Trucking products from the inland factories to the coastal cities is slow and cost ineffective.  High oil prices have made air freight extremely prohibitive and forced the world's container shipping companies to reduce speeds in order to save fuel.  The Silk Road trains cut shipping times from western China to distribution centers in Europe down to three weeks.  The sea route is still twenty-five percent less than sending goods by train.  However, time is money.  Thus switching from ocean freight to rail freight inventory costs and lead times improve.  Enter the Silk Road.

What does this all mean in the grand scheme of the ever shrinking world we live in?  When the Silk Road sprang to life, it was intended merely as a way to ensure that a potential enemy not attack it's neighbor.  Gradually, the Silk Road became an exchange of commodities and cultures.  This still quite true today when a truck driver from Zhengzhou pulls over at a truck stop in Kazakhstan and sits down to a meal with a truck driver from Kabul.  The two don't speak the same language but some how they find a way to connect.  What results is a cultural cross pollination that benefits all in the end.  This not not something new.  This has been going on for millennia and will continue.  Think about for a second, when we have the world literally at our fingertips.  Yet thousands of years ago, a group of merchants from disparate parts of the world sat around campfires just talking to each other face to face.  What a world.


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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Update July 18, 2013

Hello Everyone:

Yours truly is taking the usual weekend break from the blogging.  However, make sure you check google+ for any new postings.  I occasionally put up interesting articles, blogs, or Youtube clips on architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design.  Feel free to read, watch, and comment.  I'd love hear from you.  You can also friend me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter or Pinterest http:/  Just make sure you tell me who you are and where you saw the link.  I'll try to check in on Sunday.  Have a great weekend and we'll talk again.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Some Observations On the Relevancy of Death and Life of Great American Cities
Hello Everyone:

Jane Jacobs
The other day I started reading Death and Life of Great American Cities, the seminal book on urbanism by the late Jane Jacobs.  I'm not deep into the book but already what she's written about neighborhoods makes absolute sense.  Jane Jacobs was a community activist and writer in the late fifties, early sixties New York.  Her book was a reaction to the effects of post-World War II American urban renewal.  Ms. Jacobs attacked what she believed was the "orthodox" approach to city and regional planning, rebuilding, and chronicles the failures of the modernist planning ideas. I was thinking about my blog post from yesterday as I was reading.  I thought to myself "I wonder what she would say about the mega-master plans of today?"  Jane Jacobs argues that the various foundations of planning history, through the late fifties, all suffer from the misconceptions of how cities work.  Like the author of an article published by Matthias Wendt for the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Delaware, "The Importance of Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs to the Profession of Urban Planning," I also believe that the ideas put forth in her book still have relevance today, especially in the face of a growing urban population.

First some background.  Jane Jacobs evolved her ideas in context to the postwar period when American cities were in a state of crisis.  The United States experienced an unequaled period of prosperity during the fifties.  The increase in automobile manufacturing and sales along with federally subsidized highway building made very easy for people to move out to the suburbs and commute to and from urban centers.  In terms of community development, this was a disaster.  The cities were perceived as a dirty, noisy places with dubious (read ethnic and racial minorities) people.  "White flight" of the middle class was joined by an influx of immigrants from Puerto Rico fleeing poverty and "the great migration" of African Americans looking for a better life. Added to this, among the benefits the returning soldiers received was federally subsidized mortgages that allowed them to buy homes in newly built housing estates.  This resulted in the downward spiral of American cities.

However, the federal government did not completely neglect American cities.  In conjunction with the think and act big approach of the postwar prosperity mindset, Congress passed the Federal Housing Act, which allocated larges sums of money to build public housing for the urban poor.  This heralded the beginning of the master plan.  Across the country whole blocks, defined by planners as "blighted," razed and replaced with monolithic high-rises.  At the same time, municipalities were drawing up their own master plans in an effort to revitalize downtown areas.  The public housing projects were celebrated as the panacea for all the urban ills.  Housing people in high-rises was considered a big step forward economically and aesthetically.  In place of the dark tenement houses, people were now being housed in apartments that were well lit and ventilated.  The projects were built around grassy areas where children were supposed to play like their suburban counterparts.

The Blairs
As an associate editor for the Architectural Forum in New York wrote about several urban renewal projects, observing the disastrous consequences of urban renewal efforts.  What Ms. Jacobs observed was that while the new housing was appreciated by planners and architects, they actually had no connection to the way people actually lived.  This got me thinking about the mega-master plans I wrote about yesterday (  On paper they all sound very utopian but what connection do they actually have to way people really live and use the space?  For example, proposed master plan for The Blairs in Silver Spring, Maryland.  I wrote yesterday that the architects, Sasaki and Bing Thom Architects, endeavor to create a housing development that has a human scale to it.  Meaning, in place of the monolithic towers, the design teams would create smaller residential blocks that are complemented by commercial spaces and open green spaces.  Yet, I can't help thinking how would this relate to the people that live there.  Would they patronize the commercial spaces (eg. restaurants) and make use of the green space?  Jane Jacobs questioned the basic premises of modern city planning in place since the end of the Second World War.

Model of Broadacre City, Frank Lloyd Wright
Death and Life of Great American Cities challenged the dominant theory of decentralization that most planners shared in the sixties.  Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City (1932) was the extreme case of decentralization.  Frank Lloyd Wright argued that the cities were much too crowded and Americans wanted to live in lower densities.  In Design with Nature (1969), author Ian McHarg made a similar argument but was improperly located in the ecosystem.  American sociologist and historian Lewis Mumford's equally important book, City in History, also attacked the  metropolis as cultural disaster and advocated creating new towns in the country.  Jane Jacobs make the opposite argument, Americans should have never left the city.

The Radiant City, Le Corbusier
Jane Jacobs' central theses of Death and Life of Great American Cities can be summed neatly with one statement, "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.  It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding..."  Ms. Jacobs attacks the methods, objectives, and results of orthodox planning principles and methodology.  She blames the modernist principles of planning, exemplified in Le Corbusier's Radiant City, for the giant slabs of housing projects that aggravate the problems of the residents.  The projects are characterized by their unending dullness, uniformity, and isolated from the vitality of the city they're located in.  In this case, the developers, of the proposed housing and transit projects I profiled yesterday seem to depart from the this orthodoxy.  The overarching objective in each case is to connect the master plan to the city so that the place does not become an island in the urban ocean.  What would the deity of orthodox master planning Robert Moses have to say?

To understand how cities work, Jane Jacobs used inductive reasoning and close observation of city life.  She regarded inductive reasoning as an activity that anyone can engage in.  Ordinary interested citizens, using their own observations, have an advantage over urban planners, educated in deductive theories instead of experiential understanding.  By making empirical observations, Ms. Jacobs was able to see how cities, specifically the Greenwich Village area where she lived, worked in real life.  This makes me wonder if the master planners from yesterday's blog used the personal observations of the current residents as a basis for their schemas.  Ms. Jacobs was not so much concerned with the physiognomy of the city or how to make a city pretty, rather, she was more interested in how a city works.  The key thesis of the book is the idea of a combination of interrelated mix of uses, buildings, and people.  Jane Jacobs writes, "This ubiquitous principle is the need for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.  The components of this diversity can differ enormously, but they must supplement each in certain concrete ways."

So far, Death and Life of Great American Cities is an enlightening read and I'm very happy that I have a chance to finally sit down and read it.  I'll be coming back to this book as I move along.  I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in planning theory.  Don't worry about the fact that it's over fifty years old, the theories put forward in the text still have relevance today.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

If You Love or Hate Master Planning, Thank an Architect

Hello Everyone:

Today we're going to look at the subject of master planning cities.  I'm starting with a terrific article by John Gendall, "Emergent Master Planning," in Architects Newspaper.   Specifically, master planning in the post-2008 economic collapse.  Master planning in the pre-economic collapse was a product of the Clinton/Bush real estate boon and was associated with the evil triumvirate of bankers, big government, and risky developers.  In the post-meltdown period, urban theorists had a go at the grass roots, self start up stories that sprang to life in the wake of global economic collapse.  However, in the wake of all this, the American city is at a critical juncture that mandates reckoning with changing economic drivers-the public health realities of environmental abuse and the changing cultural relevance of the suburbs.  While do-it-yourself startups and micro-gardens are nice, Mr. Gendall asks "where has the master plan gone?"  Good question, let's discuss shall we.

Downtown Chicago
 It only seems fitting to start in the home of modern American Architecture and Urbanism, Chicago.  We'll get to New York later.  "The City of Broad Shoulder"  expects to undertake a $4 billion dollar reconfiguration of an entire section of the South Side.  In 1901, when U.S. Steel dropped anchor on a 600-acre landfill on Lake Michigan, a site specifically chosen for its close proximity to a water source for waste management and incoming supplies.  Although the site drove a wedge between the South Side and the waterfront, the thousands of jobs the mill generated justified the location.  However, the environmental damage cause by the operation blighted the neighborhood.  Less than ten years ago, Lakeside Development hired the architectural firms of Skidmore, Owing, and Merril and Sasaki to develop a master plan for the site.

Aerial View of the South Side of Chicago
According to Douglas Voigt, the director of urban design at SOM, "One of our first priorities is to deliver infrastructure to the site."  Good start.  Specifically, Mr. Voigt wants the infrastructure technology of the future, not forty or fifty year old technology.  What the designers imagine is a micro-grid, similar to university campuses, where wind and/or solar technology can be generated by the district and sold to the city when there is surplus.  The plan also overhauls the site's relationship to the water.  By taking advantage of the landfill's porous slag, the designers intend to create a way for rainwater to filter through remediated terrain, returning to the lake recharging its water table.  It's not about undoing the environmental damage of the past, rather, it's about making development an environmental possibility.  Oh?  Again Mr. Voigt, "We want to create a positive contribution to the site's ecology."  The SOM team does not intend to make the site a testing ground for environmental technologies.  They plan to foreground the human experience of a potential new district.  There are parks and open space, a recreational marina, smaller blocks in the works in order to enhance the quality of life for the residents.  Notice how he didn't mention anything about schools, grocery stores, clinics, or affordable housing?

Aerial View of Downtown Los Angeles
Mention large-scale master planning and the word transportation is one of the words that immediately pops into the head.  Think of a city with non-existent mass-transit (alright semi-existent) and the city of Los Angeles comes to mind.  After all this is the city mythologized the car.  Now, city transportation planners are engaged in expanding its subway system, witnessing surges in regional rail line ridership, all in anticipation of a high-speed rail.  At the heart of this is Union Station, that 1939 architectural gem dedicated to train travel.  It's truly a dynamic space with vast expanses
Union Station, Los Angeles, Ca
of corridors circulating through lovingly cared for architecture.  A must see even if you're taking a train.  In 2011, the Metropolitan Transit Authority bought the property and hired Gruen and Associates and Grimshaw Architects to make the National Historic Landmark into an urban workhorse.  Cal Hollis, Metro's executive of countywide planning states, "Our first goal is to address the transit needs..."  Perhaps rail lines dedicated to going from Downtown to the Airport?  Union Station was original built as a transit building but has grown into a multi-modal transportation hub.  Union Station sits on the outskirts of Downtown Los Angeles, apart from core, much like Dodger Stadium.  The design teams hope to integrate the train station with the downtown.  The master plan would include two office buildings and about 250 residential units as way to connect the station with downtown.

Denver, Colorado
 If Los Angeles needs a helpful model for a multi-modal transportation network, which it does, it can look no further than Denver, Colorado.  Next spring, the "Mile High City" will cut the ribbon on its own historic Union Station as the center of a multi-modal transit network.  Bill Mosher, senior managing director of development for Trammell Crow and the owner's representative for Union Station explained, "We had several elements feeding into downtown...The issue was where to put the hub."  It was decided that the hub
would be Union Station, Denver.  The joint
Union Station, Denver, Colorado
design/build venture between SOM, Hargreaves Associates, and Kiewit is now reconfiguring into a centerpiece for a made over city and regional transportation scheme as well as a connector space between downtown and the Central Platte Valley.  This project highlights an Obama era touchstone: government spending.  Bill Mosher explains again, "There is to be an understanding of the role of government."  Pointing to a 2004 voter-approved financing for a transportation initiative, Mr. Mosher continues, "there has to be public investment investment, which is then followed by the private sector."  Private money follows public investment, that works.

Downtown Silver Spring, Maryland
Silver Spring, Maryland is an unincorporated part of Montgomery County, Maryland and a census-designated place that lies at the northern apex of Washington D.C. Currently on the books is a master plan for the The Blairs.  The Blairs were built in the sixties as suburban foil to our nation's capital.  The twenty-seven acre community features 1,300 residential units in slab buildings circled by parking lots.  Must make for a lovely view (lol).  The development's original owners, The Tower Companies hired Bing Thom Architects and Saseki to create a plan for a denser development by relocating most of the 3,200 spaces underground.  According to Ling Meng of Bing Thom Architects,
The Blairs
"The key was to create a series of public spaces that not only allow for recreation. but complement the commercial space around it."  Sasaki principal Alan Ward states, "The challenge in developing this many units would that it could have resulted in a mega-tower, but by keeping the geometries varied and developing residential block wrapped by townhouses, the entire community will have a very human scale."

New York City
O.K. As promised, it's time to talk about master planning and New York City.  If the transit project in Denver project highlights integrating a multi-modal hub into a the city and the role of public investment coupled with private money, then New Yorkers will have no trouble recognizing this formula in the much awaited Hudson Yards redevelopment, whose beginnings are found in the extension of the Number 7 subway.  The $2 billion transportation investment master plan conceived by KPF will harness 13-million square feet of mixed-use development-commercial and residential-onto a 26-acre site.  In previous efforts, urban development on this scale
Hudson Yards, New York City
have been given a bad reputation for heavy-handed top-down approaches, KPF is quite determined to avoid the mistakes of the past.  "The key is to create an exciting urban experience," says KPF founding partner Bill Pedersen.  Much of the master plan's emphasis is at the street level.  "We considered the position of the human body and its relationship to the environment so that it's always changing as walk around," say Mr. Pedersen.  As his example, Mr. Pedersen points to the way the proposed towers scale down to meet the Culture Shed, designed by Diller, Scofidio+ Renfro.

What can we take away from all these mega-master plans?  These rather ambitious plans point to the changing cultural and demographic reality, we're becoming an urbanized society.  The recent U.S. Census data indicates that that urban populations are growing faster than non-urban populations.  The lack of outward expansion means that up is only way to go.  Further, the ongoing debate between the do-it-yourself and master planned urbanism still echoes the debate between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.  In its most reductive terms, Robert Moses is an urban disgrace and Jane Jacobs has a wonderful history of urban activism, highlighted by her efforts to save Greenwich Village.  While all of these grand schemes involve decades of often contentious public debate, tortured political processes, and very expansive budgets, they all borrow from these urban arch-enemies.  Master planning and community activism.  To adhere to one or the other is counterproductive.  The dense urban areas make the environmental and economic cased on their own.  However, there is also a case to be made for another urban regeneration: the cultural reconsideration of the suburbs as the ultimate be all and end all.  They are a product of an annual $100-billion-per-year subsidy.  Ask yourself, can really afford to continue to sustain this or is there another way? 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Horace Gifford, The Seductive Modernist

Hello Everyone:

Horace Gifford
After yesterday's burst of inspiration, I decided today to talk about the role of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender persons in architecture and historic preservation.  The article I'm starting with, "Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford's Architecture of Seduction," posted on July 11, 2013 by Katherine Flynn, reveals the work of little known architect Horace Gifford.  Horace Gifford was active during the 1960s, contemporary with the nascent Gay Rights Movement.  A prolific designer, Mr. Gifford designed and built sixty-three homes on Fire Island, which flanks Long Island's south shore.  Fire Island has a reputation as a place of amazing natural beauty.  Counterpoint to this, is it's reputation for being a vibrant gay vacation spot.  This freakishly beautiful place served as Mr. Gifford inspiration for creating very sixties modern houses entirely from cedar and glass that embrace the landscape.  Why are we talking about it now?  Christopher Rawlins, an architect and the author of the book Fire Island: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction, argues that Horace Gifford's houses present an intuitive feel for coastal landscapes.  They have a sense of place, dare I say like a certain iconic America architect with the initials FLW? (!/entry/horace-gifford-fire-island-beach-houses,51d1ebc287443dd68e58764a)
Map showing Fire Island

Fire Island Pines
Burge Pavilion, 1965
Horace Gifford was born and raised in coastal Florida, later attended the University of Florida in Gainesville.  After graduation, Mr. Gifford moved to New York for work, then attended the University of Pennsylvania to pursue his master's degree under the tutelage of renown architect Louis Kahn, but left for no real reason one semester short of graduation.  Mr. Gifford returned to work at his previous firm.  One summer weekend, he found himself in the Fire Island community of the Pines where he was entranced by the social life and the natural splendor.  This began a love affair with the place and would provide an inspiration for future work.  His clients were members of New York's elite creative class (writers, art directors, painters, et cetera) who fell in love with the inherent simplicity of the design and the way the buildings became part of the landscape.  Instead of making the site subservient to the building, the building became complimentary to the landscape.  Mind you, this was an era where prefabricated structures were the norm on the island until that point.

Kauth Residence, 1964
According to Christopher Rawlins, "The 1950s were an era when pre-fabricated homes were very popular as a means of making affordable building available to a larger audience."  In a certain respect, this building type was completely appropriate, however, the island is only approachable by water.  Thus having to send building material via barge and then drag it across the land was extremely time consuming and cost inefficient.  By contrast, Mr. Gifford made use of the available materials and built the houses around the landforms.  This not entirely unlike the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, especially his concrete textile block houses of the 1920s which incorporated aggregate from the site into the concrete and were built into the hillside.  The result was vast expanses of open space and a blurring of interior and exterior.

Luck House, 1967
Sits above ground because of flooding
The Fire Island homes of Horace Gifford mirrored the growth of the Gay Rights movement in the mid- to late-sixties.  As the movement began to shape and form, coming out of the metaphoric closet, the openness of the Gifford-designed homes implied a sense of flirtatiousness.  So much so that the spaces are literally named for sexual escapades: make-out lofts and conversation pits-all referencing the loosening of sexual mores and experimentation during this period.  Quick side note, "Mad Men" references the sexual experimentation of the sixties in some of their episodes.  The open quality of the houses do imply a certain laid back sexiness that comes with summer beach vacations.  The houses seem to encourage the occupants to let go and be carefree.

Lipkins House, 1970
It's no surprise that there is an element of seduction in Horace Gifford's work.  The majority of his clients were homosexual men.  The sixties and seventies, the period which Mr. Gifford was active, was crisscrossed by Stonewall Riot in 1969.  This was a real moment in the cultural history of America because the Gay Pride Movement came into the light while social constraints fell away.  This was the pre-AIDS era where sexual bacchanalia was in full swing.  San Francisco-based writer Amistad Maupin chronicles this mood very nicely in the first two volumes of his Tales of The City series. (
Conversation Pit
 The cushions in the built-in sofas around the conversation pits were tailored such that they created love nests.  The Make-Out loft entered the architectural vocabulary through Mr. Gifford's work.  In the early seventies, Mr. Gifford added a sheepskin-lined pit to his own house, perfect for a wolf on the prowl.  Culturally, these details and others, worked within the counterculture zeitgeist of the period.  This element of sexiness ran through Mr. Gifford's work.

Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli
FĂȘte ChampĂȘtre, Andrea Watteau
Seductive living isn't a new thing.  If we look through the entire history of architecture and design, we can find examples of space used in the art of seduction.  For example, the Roman villas have an element conducive to creating an element of hedonistic pleasure that freed the ordinary person from their inhibitions and encouraged unrestrained behavior.  The paintings of Andrea Watteau also celebrate the idea of going out into nature, way from the constraints of society and revealing in all the freedoms.  My point is that Horace Gifford is continuing in the tradition of using seduction in design.  What makes his work right for the time is that they mirror a period in cultural history that continues to have an affect, thus make them contemporary.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

Hello Everyone:

Raymond Chandler Cartoon
I know I said we'd talk again on Monday but I was just thinking about the cover article I read yesterday in the current issue of the LA Weekly (  The story is about an NCAA-type tournament the editors held to determine the best book written about Los Angeles. There were many fine entries and the winner was a dark horse selection, If He Hollers Let Him Go, by Chester Hime.  You can read why in the article.  The article did get me thinking about a paper I wrote for a class on Southern California architecture two years ago as a first year grad at USC.  The topic I chose was on Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles.  I was inspired to write about it because I was reading his books at the time.  If you've never read or heard of Raymond Chandler, you don't know what you're missing.  Raymond Chandler is by far one of the best detective fiction novelist  of all time.  I believe he ranks up there with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe
What makes Chandler so good is that his iconic alter ego Philip Marlowe was so enmeshed with the city.  Also, like Chandler, Philip Marlowe was an urban nomad in a city of urban nomads.

One recurring theme of the of detective fiction genre is constant movement.  The flawed hero of Chandler's stories was constantly on the move: the mean streets, cocktails, seedy waterfronts, and opulent mansions.  This restless quality in Marlowe mirrored the restlessness of the city and his creator.  Where did all this come from?  In the thirties and forties, Los Angeles was a region of rapid growth and by 1940, the car culture was in full swing heralding the way the rest of nation would live in the post-World War II years.  Los Angeles was a city of immigrants from the East Coast and Midwest who came to reinvent themselves.  The irony of this is that attempt at reinvention, this 'new society' was still rooted in the past which shaped its public manifestation as were its inhabitants free to make themselves over.  Raymond Chandler and his beloved wife Cissy were part this nomadic tribe.  The Chandlers were constantly moving around Southern California in search of some sense of connection.

When it comes to reinvention, Hollywood is the solar system for the those looking for a make over.  Hollywood is this rather strange invention.  As a place, Hollywood is 503 square miles (1,214 square kilometers).  Most of the housing consists of apartments with high turnover rates, attesting to the mobile nature of Los Angeles.  The majority of the population is engaged in, some form, in the motion picture/television industry.  These "workers" can be divided into three parts: the elite-the boldfaced executives, actors, directors, et cetera, the junior elite-i.e the executives, and the lesser elite-the administrative staff, skilled and, unskilled workers.  At the bottom feeder levels are the hangers on such as the extras and sycophants who move about looking for their big break.  Horace McCoy and Nathaniel West, contemporaries of Raymond Chandler, capture this stratified society within a a society in their equally terrific novels They Shoot Horses Don't They (McCoy, 1935) and Day of The Locust (West).  This Hollywood is the place that sucks the very soul of its dwellers right out of their bodies and tosses the carcasses out to rot in the street.

Aerial View of Los Angeles, c. 1940s
The relationship between Raymond Chandler and his fictional alter ego is complicated.  One the one hand, Los Angeles is a city that's devoured them, keeping on the edge of nothing.  Conversely, without the city, they're like the disembodied ghosts, nameless, faceless spirits that wander the streets of Tinsel Town in search of the big break.  Los Angeles was a city that fired Chandler's imagination and vice versa.  Without the crime, corruption, seedy locations, femme fatals, and shady characters what else what he have written about?  How else would the fictional detective made a living?  Like Chandler, Philip Marlowe knew the raw underside of the city that could destroy people by giving them false hope.  Where else could Philip Marlowe have existed?  Pain and bad behavior his passion and obsession.

One thing that the LA Weekly article made quite clear is that Los Angeles, the real Los Angeles, is not a glamourous place.  It's certainly not the place you see on television.  It's a hard place to live.  Yet it is a place where people do come every year looking for a fresh start.  I believe that if you're honest about yourself and dreams, you can thrive in the city where dreams die hard and fast.  Life isn't easy anywhere.  A city like Los Angeles does fire the imagination with thoughts of glitter and glamour but get rid of them.  It's a city like anywhere else.

For books about or by Raymond Chandler please go to Amazon or you local public library