The LA That Might Have Been

Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, Never Built Los Angeles (Metropolis, 376pp, $55)

Never Built: Los Angeles, an exhibition at A + D Architecture and Design Museum, Los Angeles, July 28 – October 13, 2013.

Reviewed by Eve Bachrach

Never Built Los Angeles—based on the Architecture and Design Museum’s exhibit of the same name—is many books in one: art book, history, criticism, and choose your own adventure. The meat of the book is a collection of 100 or so unbuilt buildings, master plans, transportation projects, and parks proposed for LA over the past century, complete with drawings and descriptions. So many of the projects leave one with either eyes wide with wonder or head shaking in disbelief that flipping through the pages too quickly is liable to cause dizziness and discombobulation.

Greg Goldin and Sum Lubell curated the Never Built exhibition and wrote the essay and project blurbs here. The book allows us to imagine a thousand different what-could-have-been Los Angeles, and they deftly cover LA’s (admittedly brief) history of development in just a few engaging pages. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, who is based in LA, writes in his introduction that the city’s reliance on private owners and donors to build so much of the city has enabled much of our important, if idiosyncratic, experimentation in building. But he indicts our failures in civic architecture and coherent planning. Goldin and Lubell agree that our civic architecture makes a pretty poor showing, and blame the city’s infrastructure and politics, weak central government, conservative developers, NIMBYish citizens, and some terrible ideas for many of the unbuilt proposals in the book. Where the city lacks the ability to muscle through grand municipal plans, private developers are too often interested only in how a project pencils out.

This diagnosis isn’t new, but it’s striking to see it made in the context of all these fabulous (in all senses of the word) projects. There’s Pierre Koenig’s unlikely design for a mosque in Hollywood funded by the Kuwaiti government, AC Martin’s helicopter buses from downtown’s Union Station to LAX, and Lloyd Wright’s Twentieth Century Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral—which could have been LA’s answer to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. A proposal from John Lautner could have provided a new model for high-density living, if building it had been technologically possible. And thousands of miles of highways, train lines, and monorail could have either freed us from our cars or locked us in them forever.

The book is arranged by project type, not chronologically, so it can be difficult to see the march of time and trends throughout the proposals; Goldin and Lubell’s essay provides the necessary narrative. But taken cumulatively, the proposals here reveal a city brimming with ideas, but a city that still hasn’t figured out what it wants to be—horizontal or vertical, beautiful or functional.

The book and exhibit come at an interesting time. Los Angeles recently kicked off a five-year program to rewrite the city’s zoning code for the first time since 1946. The current code, which governs what buildings can be built where, is a 600-page doorstop full of confusing, unintelligible, and contradictory rules. While the new code will undoubtedly put rules in place that will reshape the kinds of neighborhoods we live and work in—will they be more walkable and more vertical, or preserve the urban-suburban character?—one of the chief goals of the code reform is to make it easier to build.

Just across the street from the A+D Museum, and the Never Built exhibit, is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, site of an unbuilt 2001 project by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas which would have demolished much of the mishmash, mid-century (plus worse—mid-80’s) campus and replaced it with a single, unified design above a central plaza. Nervous donors killed the radical plan, but LACMA’s current director Michael Govan is now trying for a do over. This time he’s brought in Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who has also proposed demolishing much of the existing museum campus in favor of a single structure, this time a free-form shape inspired by the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits. Time will tell if the proposal will transform Miracle Mile or kick off volume two of Never Built Los Angeles.

Images from Never Built Los Angeles top to bottom: SKY-Arc, Coop Himmelb(l)au, 2005; Santa Monica Offshore Freeway, John Drescher and Moffat and Nichol,1965; Hollywood Mosque, Pierre Koenig, 1963; Los Angeles Civic Center, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1925.





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