While putting the finishing touches on this combined west and southwest issue, AN received word of the passing of Edward Soja. According to colleagues, he had been ill for some time but I was unprepared for the news and was left mulling the death of one of Los Angeles’s critical voices at a time when questions of equity and identity— topics that he often wrote about—still need addressing.
A professor emeritus at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, Soja was considered part of the L.A. School, a group that also includes Mike Davis. His 1989 book, Postmodern Geographies, came with the chunky academic subtitle “The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory,” yet its ideas influenced architects and students well into the 1990s. For my generation, the use of “deconstruction” by Soja and others opened up new ways to understand, write about, and practice in the city.
“Ed was a magician who mesmerized an entire generation of young scholars, and made L.A. a decisive paradigm for postmodern urban geography,” said Davis over email. “The sprawling metropolis for him was an infinite theoretical adventure, which he enjoyed with incomparable gusto.”
In describing John Portman’s Bonaventure hotel, Soja wrote, “Fragmented and fragmenting, homogeneous and homogenizing, divertingly packaged yet curiously incomprehensible….” Comprehensiveness was understood as impossible, but multiple perspectives—however incomplete or eclectic— could go a long way into aggregating into an entire urban narrative. In today’s digital age this still seems spot on.
Certainly the postmodern affinity for the fragment to stand in for the whole is at play in Hopscotch, a new opera by Yuval Sharon and his company, The Industry, which takes Downtown Los Angeles and the Arts District as its stage. Black limousines shuttle audience members and performers alike along multiple routes and acts take place in the prom-ready limo interiors and at pit stops along the way. A tale of lost love is sung in the empty auditorium of the Million Dollar Theater and in the Bradbury Building’s ever-stunning atrium. To tell the story of a pending motorcycle crash, an animation is projected from the roof of the sedan onto the side of the 2nd Street Tunnel.
Technological assists keep the performance in sync, but the overall experience is a blur of mobility dotted by moments of recognition of the Orpheus myth and fragmented views of architectural landmarks. Viewers who want a more complete, although not necessarily coherent, version can watch simultaneous feeds on dozens of monitors in a pavilion in SCI-Arc’s parking lot.
Hopscotch reinvents opera, but more importantly for our purposes, it rethinks how the city is perceived. In looking at the booming development in Oakland in this issue, AN’s Audrey Wachs compared the multiple perspectives on investment versus displacement to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and its many chapters describing one unknowable place.
Similarly, when contributing editor Sam Lubell interviewed Christopher Hawthorne about his “The Third L.A. Project,” the Los Angeles Times architecture critic suggested, “[A] lot of the basic ways in which the city defines itself are up for grabs in a way that’s not true in any other major American city that I can think of.”
He sees changing civic attitudes shifting away from the car (including limos) and the freeway toward bikes, public transportation, and overall urban density. The move, he said, is the nascent establishment of a post-suburban identity—what he calls a third L.A.
Positioned against egregious L.A. clichés about car culture and California living, Hawthorne’s urban concept is optimistic and holistic (even if he’s pessimistic about the future of architecture here).
Perhaps in my affection for the eclectic, I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t a little overly profound in the pronouncement of a new era for the city. But that’s okay, too. Dionne Warwick may have sung, “L.A. is one great big freeway,” but the legacy of the L.A. School (and the traffic app Waze) tells us there’s always another surface street.