Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

September 30, 2013

What If?

On Never Built: Los Angeles


Architecture, Articles, Los Angeles, Urbanism

For an exhibition about architectural projects that never broke ground, there’s something rather cheery about Never Built: Los Angeles, on view at the A+D Museum through October 13. Outside, an oversized lenticular facade is a shade of yellow that shouts Southern California—it’s all citrus groves and sunshine. A billboard-sized image of the Cadillac-like Goodell Monorail is frozen mid-zoom along Wilshire Boulevard. Inside, a map of the Los Angeles Basin stretches out across the gallery floor. Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin have brought together a selection of unrealized works, many of which, if built, had the potential to change our understanding of the city. For the curators “what if” is not a lament, per se, but rather a celebration of speculative possibilities and a challenge to the present status quo.

“The message of these unrealized projects is one of not only regret but also optimism… We see that our city clearly still holds its original promise—that there remains unfinished space here to transform and build,” writes Thom Mayne in his forward to the impressive Never Built catalog. And that’s the thing about LA, its endless urban fabric still inspires a kind of starry-eyed hope in the possible among Pritzker Prize winning denizens, even though according to the latest census it is the densest city in the nation. Where once the civic landscape begged to be filled with new construction, now it teases.

Never Built divides into a few categories: buildings, master plans, parks, follies, and transportation schemes, with works illustrated via models, drawings, renderings, and, in the case of Lloyd Wright’s Twentieth-Century Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral (1931), Legos—neatly accommodated by an exhibition design by Clive Wilkinson Architects.

The scope of potential projects for inclusion at first seems as vast as LA’s sprawl; Lubell and Goldin mindfully narrowed the checklist to works in the civic realm. Notably, the single-family residence, the city’s most famous piece of architectural cultural production, barely makes an appearance.

Architecture media is currently awash in speculative design, those projects that digitally render fictional futures with the same technique as fact. As such, there is little expectation for proposals to manifest outside the screen and to encourage a larger public debate. Although unconstructed, the designs in Never Built are not exercises in fantasy or “paper architecture” polemics. The wall texts and the catalog make clear again and again, these are commissions that failed fruition for any number for reasons—city hall sputtering, developer nerves, political gamesmanship, overreaching scope, financial ruin. The proverbial noir to LA’s perennial sunshine.

Still, some of the works are more suitable to imagination than implementation. There are the numerous people mover, automatic vehicle, and monorail schemes. But it’s Pereira and Luckman’s mammoth plan for Los Angeles International Airport that truly captured the enormous mid-century mythos of flight. Watercolor illustrations depict a central terminal topped in a three-story-high glass dome. According to the curators, the cost of air conditioning killed the scheme.

Then, consider the towers: There is the 1,290-foot-tall dream cocked up by William H. Evans, the Tower of Civilization for the Los Angeles World’s Fair, Jean Nouvel’s 45-story Green Blade condos proposed for Century City in 2008, and, at 50-story-tall, Welton Becket’s Century City Theme Building (1963) for Alcoa would have dwarfed the modest office buildings that were built as part of the master plan.

Or Anthony Lumsden of DMJM’s beachfront scheme for Pacific Ocean Park Development (1969), commissioned by real estate developer and rancher John “Jack” Morehart, proposed a 600-room cylindrical hotel rising from the Pacific. As with the Theme Building, Carlos Diniz evocatively illustrated the project in black and white. Here on the coast, the renderer added in breaking waves and seagulls. Lubell and Goldin give the backstory in the Never Built catalog, chronicling the back-and-forth posturing of Morehart, the Santa Monica Redevelopment Agency, and the city of Los Angeles over four years that resulted in the acquisition of the 20-acre parcel for what is now the public beach.

Of course, there are the projects that seem to blaze a utopian trail only to end in tears. Such is Robert Alexander and Richard Neutra’s housing plan, Elysian Park Heights (1958). The scheme for Chavez Ravine, then home to a Mexican-American community, is a reformist vision with a socialist heart that nods to the modernist Weissenhof Settlement. The progressive plan to transform the “slum” was met with anti-public housing opposition, which ultimately gave way to one of the biggest social injustices in the city’s history: the controversial razing of the original village and the construction of Dodger Stadium. The curators don’t pull punches, but the works, while treated thematically, are also treated neutrally. In a city like Los Angeles, political history is always the elephant in the room. But by including Elysian Park Heights, they introduce the possibility for a smaller, more reactive show with a tighter checklist.

“Something about the innate beauty of the hills, the ocean, and the pellucid air combined with an uneasy feeling of upheaval—fed by earthquakes, drenching rains, and scourging fires—aroused architects’ daring impulses in this caldera of ceaseless striving,” reads Lubell and Goldin’s catalog essay entitled City of Illusions. “Daring impulses” invokes images of grand formalist gestures, but perhaps the most daring of Never Built’s proposals are the most mundane and infrastructural. As the City of Los Angeles continues to build its Metro Line, the show features subway and elevated rail systems dating back to the 1930s. But it is the Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew map of Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region from 1930 that breaks hearts. The lacy green filigree of green spaces and preserves across the city was proposed as a barrier to unmitigated urban growth. It’s the promise of “not building” that Angelenos are still waiting to be fulfilled.