with Christopher Hawthorne
The third Los Angeles
Editor’s Note: As the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne has an enviable beat. Not only is he charged with covering new developments in architecture and urban design in the second largest city in the United States, he gets to travel around the state, the country, and the world, thinking and writing about new buildings and how they might—or might not—change the way we live. But Hawthorne has also used his beat for something more. His subject is not just buildings, but the city itself, and how we understand it and ourselves. So he has written about boulevards and freeways, books and art, immigration and homelessness. Thinking about the built environment is never just thinking about the built environment.
Hawthorne calls his big project “The Third Los Angeles.” It’s what the changing city is becoming. And it’s what comes next—if we can make it so. Like no other critic in the land, Hawthorne has grasped the challenge of telling the story of a great city—its past, present, and future—while playing a prominent role in shaping the city’s vision of itself, intellectually, creatively, and pragmatically.
This interview was conducted by Boom editor Jon Christensen and Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture, urban design, and urban planning, and director of cityLAB at UCLA.
Jon Christensen: What is the Third LA?
Christopher Hawthorne: For a number of years, I’ve been writing about a significant transition that Los Angeles is going through. In a range of ways, a city that was deeply privatized in the postwar years, that was organized largely around the single-family house and the car and the freeway, is trying to rediscover and reanimate its public realm. That’s been, in many ways, my main subject, that transition and the various factors that make that transition difficult—not simply politically, but in terms of urban design and planning.
Mayor Garcetti recently talked about this as being a “hinge moment” in the city’s development. That idea that the city is navigating this transition has become part of the popular, broader discussion about the city. But the more that I wrote and thought about the history of Los Angeles, it occurred to me that a lot of the elements that we’re struggling to add—whether it’s mass transit, places to walk, more ambitious public architecture, innovative multifamily housing, or more forward-looking city and regional planning—we actually produced in really remarkable quantities in the prewar decades. In the DNA of the city’s history is something before the car and the freeway.
Christensen: And that’s in the “First LA”?
Hawthorne: Right. And so it struck me that rather than just going from A to B, in this binary progression, it might make more sense to think about three phases of the city’s modern civic development. For the purposes of this framework, the First Los Angeles starts in the 1880s. The city was founded a whole century before that, but I think it’s fair to say that modern Los Angeles begins in the 1880s. That’s the decade of the first population boom, the first real estate boom, right after the transcontinental railroad got here. It is the decade that the telephone system was established. The population of LA in 1880 is something like 10,000. It’s a very small place. But the population more than quadruples in that decade. And then every decade after that until pretty recently, there’s significant growth happening.
So I’m thinking of the First LA as running from the 1880s through World War II. And then the Second Los Angeles as running from World War II through, let’s say, 2000. That’s the period in which the city produced the tropes and stereotypes that most of us are familiar with: this privatized city that’s organized around the car and the freeway, but also an immigrant city, a city that continues the growth of the First Los Angeles, and really remakes its own infrastructure, with lots of subsidy and encouragement from the federal government. So think about private homeownership, the growth of the single-family house, the subdivision, and the freeway, all of that as being heavily encouraged and subsidized from Washington, too. It’s not just that we love cars and houses and lawns more than anybody else. We were growing and expanding in a time when the federal government was making it very easy to expand in precisely that way—and making it difficult to expand, in fact, in any other way. So that’s the Second LA.
And it seems to me that this phase that we’re moving into now is the Third Los Angeles. It was emerging even as I arrived in 2004, and I think its emergence has accelerated. But it’s also important to say we’re in the early stages of that transition.
In some ways, there are lessons that we can draw in this new LA from the First LA. In terms of transit, in terms of landscape, in terms of attitude toward the natural world, in a whole bunch of ways, there is this earlier history that we can draw on.
I mentioned multifamily housing. It’s interesting. LA is known as a city of houses. But think about the twenties and thirties. We produced incredible experiments in multifamily and modernist housing in those decades. Irving Gill, beginning in San Diego, but then moving up to LA, is doing work in the 1920s that is as innovative and experimental as what anybody in the Bauhaus is doing. And a lot of it is collective, cooperative, or multifamily housing, all over the region. Neutra and Schindler are not just doing single-family houses. They’re doing a lot of multifamily work. And then there’s an even bigger scale, what we think of as public housing in the thirties and into the forties, with incredible rosters of architects and landscape architects working on those projects. That history can be useful for architects trying to work on new multifamily architecture.
But there are other ways that this emerging city is completely different. First LA and Second LA are both driven by huge growth. And the Third LA is really a kind of post-growth city. Population and immigration have both slowed really dramatically in Los Angeles. Manufacturing is a shell of what it once was. So, in some ways, we have the first chance since the 1880s to really catch our breath and think about how to consolidate our gains—and about what kind of place we want to be. So that’s the basic framework. Another way to talk about what’s happening in LA is that all of the LA clichés—all the things somebody from outside of LA might think of as being the prototypical building blocks of Los Angeles urbanism and civic identity—they all have a prehistory as well as a future. They have a before and they have an after. So, if you take the long view of LA history, a lot of those things are not permanent, as we’ve been led to believe, but transitory. Think about the lawn. People think of the lawn as being so intrinsically connected with an idea of Los Angeles. But if you look at pictures of residential architecture in the late nineteenth century, those landscapes look a lot like what people are tearing out their lawns to plant now, what we would call a drought-tolerant landscape. You can say something similar about the single-family house and you can say that about the car. You can say that about the freeway and you can say that about mobility. In the First LA, we had this incredibly far-reaching streetcar system that was the envy of most cities in the country, if not the world. The river is another classic example. We had a first river, a seasonal river that sometimes flooded dramatically. Then we had a channelized river. Now we’re trying to imagine what a third river looks like. So it’s too easy and simplistic just to say, “We have lawns, and we’re taking them out,” or “We’re imagining the city after the car.” We also had a city before the lawn, before the car.
Dana Cuff: Do you think that there is always a return? A number of the things that you’ve mentioned have basically been about coming back to something that was there before.
Hawthorne: It’s important to say that in certain ways, it’s very much not a return. There are certain ways in which it’s really different. We’re facing climate change, and our attitude about the natural world, natural resources has changed. What’s really come to an end is this kind of frontier mentality about the city—this idea of infinite growth and infinite expansion, and that the way to study the city is to look at the edges, where it’s gobbling up new territory. This is a city that is very aware of its limits now.
Mike Davis starts City of Quartz out on the edges, and he talks about a city that dreamt of becoming infinite. He talks about Los Angeles as the city that ate the desert. As I think about how to structure a new book, the last thing I want to do is start at the edges. I want to start in the middle of things. That’s where the city is being reinvented. It’s a city that’s folding back on itself. That’s one thing that’s really changed. This idea that we can grow our way out of any problem and that we’re always a city that’s expanding and finding or even colonizing new territory—that has ended. And water, too. This idea that we could always just find new sources of water versus thinking, as we’re starting to do now, about how we treat the water that falls here and the water we have—that strikes me as a big change in mindset.
Cuff: Well, that’s an interesting segue to talk about the LA River, because I believe there’s a kind of nostalgia for a metropolitan nature. You can understand why, because parts of the river are surprisingly beautiful as natural spaces. But the people who see it as a flyaway or as a place to kayak, or only in those ways, forget that there are all these neighborhoods of every different economic and ethnic background that front onto the river. It’s also this incredible seam through the center of the city that actually could be something unifying and maybe not just as a piece of wilderness in the city, but as something that is designed to stitch together our urban fabric.
Hawthorne: I agree. And I’ve been surprised, in the discussion about what should happen with the river, by how much power that nostalgia holds. First, restoration is not practical or feasible in terms of taking out all or even most of the concrete. But even if it were, I think we should be asking the question: What vision of the river are we trying to get back to? And did the river ever operate that way?
Frank Gehry told me that not only does he not think it is possible, maybe it isn’t desirable to take out the concrete in certain parts of the river. The reaction that I got when I included that comment in one of my pieces was surprising. People still have this idea that the river can be “restored” to some past that never really existed, a green landscape full of water, with tree-lined banks. I think that particularly when the river gets really wide as it goes south, you have this almost sublime scale of concrete. The idea that that is not an LA landscape or that we should be in a hurry to tear that out to plant some representation of a natural world that maybe didn’t ever exist, that strikes me as a misreading of our own history. What history are we talking about? It’s like Ed Ruscha and Bob Irwin never existed. If you say it’s an insult to LA to keep that concrete, that whole idea of reading the landscape here and understanding a particular kind of beauty here is out the window. Fifty years of new ways of reading the city by architects and artists alike—that’s just out the window. Or, the idea that the postwar infrastructure of the city is both beautiful and in certain political, social, or ecological ways was deeply misguided. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.
Cuff: One of the things that’s cool to me is that Gehry—and I take him at his word—says he’s starting with hydrology, which everyone agrees about. We have to reclaim the water and not let it go back out to the ocean without capturing it. But just what that would mean, and the possibility of designing around the water in a variety of ways, rather than only as a restoration project, is hard for most people in the city to imagine. We have only seen the river as a movie set for drag racing or as a myth of what it might have been as a beautiful natural setting, which I don’t think it ever was.
Hawthorne: I am really ambivalent about Gehry’s involvement. I do think there’s reason for cynicism. But I think some of the cynicism forgets the history of the river. Take this idea that what Gehry’s involvement will mean is to allow the river to become a vehicle for gentrification. I mean, we channelized the river in the first place to allow real estate development, to protect real estate interests. The whole project of the channelization was basically a real estate project driven by people who had a lot of interest in developing the city more densely, or protecting what they already owned.
Cuff: People may not trust Frank Gehry to have that broad-minded nature. But to me, it seems like he’s a perfect character.
Hawthorne: And we need somebody to do it. Absolutely.
Christensen: On the other hand, it seems to me, that we haven’t seen such a starkly framed battle royale over two different visions of the city since Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses in New York.
Hawthorne: The problem is that we lack the vocabulary to talk about it. Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses? That’s a New York sort of dichotomy, and a dated one at that. I think the challenge in any city, particularly in LA right now, is to think about the local and the regional scale together, simultaneously. We do need to have a vision for the whole river because it’s a huge piece of infrastructure. It has been since the Army Corps wrapped the whole thing in concrete. So the Jane Jacobs approach isn’t enough to solve this problem. We have to be thinking about it at a regional level.
That’s one of the reasons I did a series for the Times a few years ago on the boulevards, because the boulevard is really the only part of the built environment that operates at both scales. Sunset Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard are huge regional pieces, but also have connections at an intensely local scale. You can talk about the meanings of a half block of the boulevard.
Cuff: Besides the river, the only two pieces of LA landscape with which the whole of the city identifies are the boulevards, especially Wilshire Boulevard, and the beach.
Hawthorne: Exactly. The problem with the boulevards is we tried to make them like freeways. And we sort of made our river like a freeway, too. We made it operate only at the regional scale. We made it a monoculture, a piece of infrastructure that achieved flood control and nothing else. The difference between the boulevard and the freeway is that the freeway does not operate at a local level, except in a destructive way, right? It doesn’t have any connection to the neighborhood. It looms over the neighborhood or under the neighborhood or destroys the neighborhood to make room for itself. And the way the river was channelized made it operate that way, too. That channelization was accompanied by cutting it off from the public, fencing it, again, like the freeway, essentially turning it into private property. It was inaccessible on a neighborhood scale.
I think the reason that there is some frustration about Gehry’s involvement among the advocates who have been working on the river for so long, Lewis MacAdams and others, is that they were attempting to make some connections at a neighborhood scale and say, “This thing is in your backyard, and it belongs to you.” And that was an incredibly difficult and important political battle. So I think seeing somebody coming in, as if from above, Robert Moses style, saying, “I’m going to produce this solution for the whole fifty-one miles”—it seems to suggest their work is being undone. And I can understand that.
At the same time, the most effective way to think about the river is as a platform for building new kinds of urbanism in the city—not getting back to something that we had and lost, but producing something we need. What are we missing in the city? We’re missing public space, green space, collective space—space where we can come together. We’re missing connections in terms of mobility across the region. And we don’t have enough housing. So rather than a rendering that shows a green riverbank—and I’m sure this is not going to please some river advocates to hear me say this—we should be thinking about using the airspace over the river. We should be thinking about building housing on the river—as long as it’s high enough not to flood—and over the river.
Maybe the best thing you can say about the river politically, as complicated as it is, is that it’s not on the West Side, which seems entirely closed off to big ideas at the moment. It runs through places that are desperate for development, that want investment. It also runs through places that are wary of development, and for good reason. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. But we need to think about LA as a city that’s run out of open space to build. We have this landscape, fifty-one miles, that should be a platform to address the most basic problems that we’re facing—inequality and lack of open space and mobility. If you think about it as a spine that could produce housing, that could connect us in terms of getting around, that could be open space, the kind of shared collective space of the city, that’s an incredible opportunity.
Cuff: We have not had good large-scale infrastructure interventions in LA. Think of the freeways displacing neighborhoods—or Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium. People are right to be wary. But the river’s fifty-one miles are on a scale that is beyond imagination. You could talk about it being a place where you could have housing and park benches and cycling and bird sanctuaries and concrete. We don’t have any way of picturing a locally based, large-scale piece of infrastructure. We just don’t have that. That’s what the reimagined river could demonstrate: the next generation of our city, with neighborhoods linked along the way that are all part of something bigger. This would change our mindset about Los Angeles, from the “fragmented metropolis” and “suburbs in search of a city” to considering the city as a whole. This is not the way we have thought about Los Angeles.
Hawthorne: That’s a really good point because it’s also running counter to other forces in the city which are promoting a kind of balkanization, with a new focus on the neighborhood. One of the characteristics of the Third LA, as I see it, is the idea, the concept, of the greater city has broken down, largely because of freeway immobility, and because we haven’t built out a comprehensive transit system yet. People who live on one side of town once thought about the other side of town as being part of the same city in a very intimate way. That idea has been broken for a number of years, and there’s been a more of a focus on the neighborhood as a result. And there are good things and bad things about that. The good thing is that there is new attention to the neighborhoods. There’s a constituency for how neighborhoods are designed, what our sidewalks look like, whether there’s a park on the corner, what the public and collective space in the neighborhood looks like. There’s a renewed interest and focus on that, which is a very good thing.
But what makes the river tricky is that, at this moment where things are turning inward and more local, there’s this breakdown of regional connection. The river is this piece that requires a huge, wide regional vision to think about successfully. And so it’s even more challenging at the moment because our attention is fixed on a different level. We’re not thinking at the William Mulholland, Robert Moses, freeway-building scale, for better and worse. But now we have to think about that, at least in part, to make the river work.
There is a diversity of communities on the river. Some are desperate for investment and change. They can’t wait for things to happen. Others feel that their neighborhood already has a strong sense of community, and they want to protect it, and they’re worried about that for good reason.
Cuff: How do you think about the housing affordability problem?
Hawthorne: In general, I try to be careful not to say that things are generational. It’s too easy sometimes. But I think in the case of housing production, it’s very much the case. It goes back to state policies like Proposition 13, like CEQA, and a generation of homeowners that, in my opinion, has been extraordinarily fortunate and…
Cuff: …basically pulled up the ladder after itself.
Hawthorne: Yes. And is very active in doing whatever it can to protect what is at stake in whatever city they’re in, whether that’s Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles. If you bought your house in the 1970s, it’s not just that its value has doubled or tripled. I would be thrilled if the house that I bought a couple of years ago were to someday triple in value. But the houses people bought in the 1970s? They might be worth 30 or 40 times what those homeowners paid. And these are the same people, thanks to Prop 13, who are paying a tiny fraction of the property taxes of their neighbors. So there are larger questions about what kind of reform we can talk about with Prop 13 and CEQA.
There has also been an attitude among the political left that sees development—even smart growth—as suspect, always, that sees the larger environmental project as including opposition to development, even in cities, even near transit. And this is perhaps most extreme in places like San Francisco and Santa Monica, where people see opposing development—and even mass transit—as consistent with the left, progressive environmental and political agenda. I think that is, in many ways, directly responsible for the housing situation that we’re in now. People in very good conscience who live in Santa Monica or San Francisco think of a moratorium on development as a progressive thing to support rather than reactionary or conservative or just in their own political self-interest. I don’t have a problem with somebody who bought a house at a certain point saying, “I bought into a certain place, you know, I want it to stay this way, and I’m going to use whatever resources I can to keep it that way.” They have every right to say that, even if I disagree. I have a problem with people saying that’s consistent with a progressive agenda about cities or a forward-looking attitude about the environment or about resources. It’s not.
Christensen: Do you think the discourse around climate and urbanism is going to change that?
Hawthorne: Yes. I think the conversation is changing. The conversation around climate change sees densification, urbanization as part of the solution. And think about water. The New York Times did a piece about whether the water crisis and climate change and all of these shifts meant the end of the California dream, the end of growth, when in fact, as that piece itself acknowledged, growth is the only thing that has saved us in terms of our water. Our water use in Los Angeles has gone down since the 1980s—and not just per capita. Our total water use has gone down. Now, that has to do with efficient appliances, in part, but in the city, it’s also gone down because we’re living closer together and we’re not building subdivisions in the same way.
So it doesn’t make sense to say that the water crisis is a challenge to the idea of growth. Growth and densification is the one thing that is going to help us solve the water problem. But there’s this idea that those things are at odds. That to me is a direct product of exactly what we were just talking about, this idea that opposing growth or being wary of it, being wary of densification, is consistent with a progressive or environmental agenda. I think climate change is going to expose the contradiction in that. It already has in many ways.
Cuff: We seem to be arguing that the LA River could give Los Angeles an identity, but the key is also how you recognize the differences along the river and still make that a single thing. I wonder if there’s a way to do that with the high-speed rail, so that it stitches the state together, but every time it stops, there’s a station identity that’s related to Fresno versus LA versus San Francisco.
Hawthorne: I have some doubts about that approach because I’ve seen it play out locally, in LA, with the design of the Metro stations in a way that I don’t think was successful. When transit was controversial and Metro needed to get community buy-in to get different lines approved, one of the ways that they did that was to have stations whose architecture reflected the neighborhood. From an architectural and a practical point of view, it was a disaster. Just think about maintenance. You can’t clean the stations in the same way. You can’t replace the lightbulbs in the same way, because each one had a different design.
On top of that, I think it was important to say that the city as a whole—and the region as a whole—was putting in a new generation of transit and that those stations would relate to each other as a system rather than to each different neighborhood. And Metro has finally, I think, seen the light on that issue.
That colors how I think about high-speed rail. It’s a little different because those cities do have really distinct identities in the way that parts of LA might not. I would be interested to think about it. But I’m still baffled that high-speed rail is even controversial. I mean, it’s been horribly mismanaged. Putting aside the question of how it’s been rolled out, which has been a disaster, this is proven technology, in use for decades all over the world. As someone who drives and flies this corridor all the time, I guarantee you the high-speed train will be wildly popular from day one.
Cuff: What’s your explanation of the opposition, then?
Hawthorne: I think there is an incredible amount of distrust of public projects. I think the opposition is different in Northern and Southern California.
I think here, it was such a privatized landscape that there is a lot of doubt about what the public bodies can accomplish in terms of infrastructure. They see both the transit system and the freeways as failures for different reasons. That breeds a lot of anxiety—and a lot of cynicism.
In Northern California, unfortunately, I think a lot of the opposition comes from Silicon Valley. It’s connected to the libertarian distrust of government that is really rampant in Silicon Valley. And that is connected to this idea of Silicon Valley wanting to secede and form its own state, and to its enthusiasm for projects like Hyperloop, for example.
Christensen: Well, let me ask you a visionary question to conclude. What do you think the city of Los Angeles is going to look like in a generation or so? Say, around 2050? It’s a time far off, but close enough that anyone under forty is very likely to still be alive. Is LA going to be more like the movie Her or Elysium?
Hawthorne: I don’t think it’s going to be either of those things. I think we’re going to do what we always do, which is muddle through. Despite these big changes, I don’t think that’s suddenly going to either allow us to magically solve the political obstacles or produce a dystopia. I think we will continue to build transit. I think the obstacles to new housing, though they are substantial now, will begin to fall away over time. So we’ll be smarter, hopefully, about how much housing we can produce and where it goes.
We’re going to have a new transit measure on the ballot in the fall, the new Measure R. And if it passes, it will probably raise at least $100 billion. Now, not all of that will go to mass transit. There’s always some road money in those things, but the lion’s share of it will. And that’s enough money to reshape the landscape of the city around transit, in much the same way that we reshaped it around freeways. That’s enough money to put a train tunnel under the Sepulveda Pass. That’s enough money to think in a really ambitious way.
That said, I’m still pretty pessimistic about the leadership of the various agencies and how much they see themselves as being in a position even to think in this visionary way, let alone their ability to execute visionary plans. So I don’t think we’re magically going to get good at doing that. But we are in the midst of reshaping the whole landscape of the city. That’s just going to accelerate. We’ll do some things well. We’ll do some things not so well. But we’re already further into this transition than people realize.