Launch Slideshow

Never Built LA

Never Built LA

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    Courtesy OMA

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    Courtesy USC

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    Courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

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    Courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

I wish I could go out to Los Angeles to see Sam Lubell’s “Never Built Los Angeles,” an exhibition at that city’s small Museum of Architecture and Design. Then again, this being the age of digital media, I don’t have to visit, as most of the images are available online. Click on the tantalizing video (but can’t we lose the default tinkle music, please?) and you will see some of the beautiful things Los Angeles could have had –as well as some of the scary structures it was spared.

My favorite scheme for L.A. remains the 1930 Olsmsted and Bartholomew plan to thread a network of parks and waterways through the whole basin, using natural features, drainage ditches, and other lines to connect sprawl. We could still do it. And these days there are even more lines we could green, from power transmission right-of-ways to freeways.

There are, of course, ambitious schemes for grand civic buildings and developments, including several by the original Howard Roark architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. While his Marin County Civic Center seems a bit overbearing, his Doheny Ranch development for the Hollywood Hills would have interlaced nature and private homes in a manner that would have made full use of the area’s spectacular geography. DMJM, on the other hand, proposed a giant terrace oozing over those hills a little further to the west and thirty years later, and we should feel lucky that their concrete cap does not surmount those craggy peaks, no matter how gross most of the individual McMansions clinging to the slopes are.

I have also always liked William Pereira’s original scheme for LAX (pictured), which would have turned the central area into a sea of asphalt across which the planes would wander until they docked at radiating pavilions rising out of the apron as glass domes. It might not have been very practical, but would have been much more dramatic than the meanders of overblown people hangars connected to the planes with nasty constrictions that now make up the airport.

Lubell shows in the exhibition how Southlanders still dream today, coming up with schemes that almost inevitably are better than what is built. I do note, however, that the scale seems to becoming ever smaller –the last large vision seems to have been OMA’s flying roof sailing over LACMA.  I have a feeling Peter Zumthor, the latest in a long line of architects trying to dig themselves and decent galleries out of the La Brea Tar Pit, will do something more delicate and fine-grained.

Let’s hope that the Architecture and Design Museum posts a full selection of the images in due course. They are planning to show not just original drawings, but interactive displays and models to make the schemes come alive. Of course, the whole point is that they cannot. The visions remain just that and, even if they had been realized, that very act would have buried them in the nitty-gritty and the vagaries of everyday life. Lubell claims the exhibition is a way of “seeing the future,” and continuing the dreaming. As he points out, “Los Angeles--a cultural nexus that defies all the rules of urban placemaking [sic]—never fails to capture peoples' imaginations.”  It continues to capture mine, even if I am more than two thousand miles away: L.A. is an idea of utopia, dystopia, and heterotopia, brought to us by Hollywood and by some of the world’s most visionary architects. Its schemes are blueprints for dreams and nightmares more than real proposals.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.