STUDIO: urbanism, los angeles
YEAR: five (5)
DATE: september, 2011
TOPIC: public space, los angeles
LOCATION: los angeles, california
Los Angeles is a fascinating study in the notion of 'Identity' because in many ways it lacks an identifiable or unified one. Terms like sprawl, suburbia, car culture, or even spectacle have been employed to describe the urban condition of Los Angeles but all fail to capture the essence of the city. While many urbanists have deemed Los Angeles a lost cause, a failed metropolis lacking public infrastructure that has "sold its soul to the motor-car" and the suburban sprawl that results from such, it is also a globally relevant economic and cultural city that would rank 11th in the world if compared to other countries by GDP. If Los Angeles performs the functions of a great city, in terms of size, lifestyle, cosmopolitan energy, and international influence, then perhaps the belief that certain densities of population, physical forms of structure, robustness of public infrastructure, or open green spaces that are essential to the working of a great metropolis - all qualities represented by Corbusier's Plan Voisin & Ville Contemporaine - must be to some extent false.
What is one of the most fascinating aspects about Los Angeles is it's almost unashamedly lack of true public space. Characterized by open lots of parking, gone are vibrant plazas, green parks, or squares where true and liberated public activity can thoroughly take place. Reyner Banham in [LA: the Architecture of Four Ecologies] optimistically explains that Angelenos leave their homes and drive on the freeways in order to be publicly seen, where the act of getting to respective destinations is only a byproduct of this public display. To him, the car, the freeway, the on/off ramp, or 'Autopia' is a form of public or open space, an extension of the 'front lawn' of suburban homes. On the other hand Rem Koolhaas in his pamphlet [The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping] argues an almost pessimistic view of the same issue at hand. To Rem, the programmatic act of shopping is methodically encroaching on a widening spectrum of territories so that it is now arguably the last defining activity of public life: the ultimate and triumphant privatization of public space from a result of the globalization of the world.
Perhaps public space is not tied to something as volatile and unstable as shopping - vulnerable to the rapidly shifting desires of the market - but is also something that is less transient than the freeways as a construct of public space. There is still something to be said for true public space embedded and essential within the DNA of a metropolis. But what does the notion of 'true public space' really mean in a city like Los Angeles. For example, earlier this year saw a revolution in Egypt take place in Cairo's Tahrir Square. What space in Los Angeles would revolution - one of the most defining and liberated representations of public activity - take place? Certainly, not the freeways as identified by Banham. Nor would the beach, or 'Surfurbia' - one of the last bastions of public spaces in LA identified by Banham - filled with endless and indifferent lines of sun-tanning beach-goers see true public activity like that of revolution take place. True public activities, and our role as designers to create space to accommodate, evolve, and form itself to the ever-changing needs of the public is what is fascinating in a morphology like Los Angeles.
// Evan Shieh
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