“Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne is leaving the paper to take the newly created position of chief design officer for the City of Los Angeles.

According to a release from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, Hawthorne’s new role will include bringing a “unified design vision to projects that are shaping Los Angeles’ urban landscape,” and collaborating with city officials, departments, and architects on a wide range of public projects including housing, parks, and transit.”

-LA Curbed 3/12/18


Imagine Los Angeles and “unified design vision” in the same sentence, and you might be able to swallow the strange challenges Christopher Hawthorne will face in “shaping Los Angeles’ urban landscape.”

A laudable, admirable position, Chief Design Officer, but how will it work?

In Van Nuys, if this area can be considered a microcosm for the city as a whole, nobody has the slightest idea, in power or out-of-power, what design the broken down district should undertake.

There are people like me, believers in public transport and walkability. And law and order: with clean, safe, well-maintained streets and sidewalks.

There are others, hating any building taller than four stories, fearing road diets, terrified the Orange Line will bring dense development to Van Nuys.

Public projects in Los Angeles are almost invitations to desecrate. I see the archway erected over Lankershim Blvd in North Hollywood, north of Camarillo, a pile of steel whipped together like tsunami debris and wonder who ordered and paid for it?

In Westlake, in MacArthur Park, in Pershing Square, the public realm must fight against the persistence of homelessness which seeks to establish its own rights within the public parks.

Homeless on Aetna St. Feb. 2016

In our city, the billboard is holier than religion. Will the Chief Design Officer fight against the outdoor advertising industry even as their pervasive ugliness destroys the public roads all over Los Angeles?

We need public squares and public places to gather, like they have in any impoverished Mexican town. But who will stop traffic in Mar Vista to carve out a plaza? Who will put a monument like the Washington Monument in the middle of Sepulveda Bl. to commemorate Francisco Xavier Sepúlveda? Can you think of a quiet conversation in the Fairfax District with a room full of old people as you propose carving out some back alley for public gathering space?

Where will they park? Who will hang out here? I don’t like it!

Almost every neighborhood honors the car first, and identity politics second. Can you imagine the fights in South Central, Boyle Heights, Koreatown, and other areas when trying to unite the indifferent, the angry, the argumentative members of the community on something as small as a little pedestal honoring a local somebody chosen for their ethnicity first and achievements second?

Every civic proposal will need to pass the gender test, the inclusion test, the not-a-white-man test. Even if the Eiffel Tower were built it would need to pay tribute to some forgotten and abused figure.

Los Angeles is a place where the historic car wash, the historic bowling alley, the historic hot dog stand all have a place in the civic realm. And perhaps that is a good thing, we simply don’t live in a city definable by standards used to measure Barcelona, Paris, New York or Boston. When we try to be grand, we do it privately, behind gates, on our own property.

When we erect grandly, we like to ruin it, with tags, trash, and irony. See any of the new bridges going over the LA River.

And lovely old homes, and fascinating vintage buildings are bulldozed regularly. See the two examples below from Van Nuys. Now gone forever.

14827 Victory Blvd.
Vintage Auto Repair
6200 N. Kester Ave.

We lived for the day when Echo Park was redesigned, and now people sleep all over it, and anyone with a cart can sell anything anywhere. So we modify our laws to accommodate and placate illegality. You want to get high here? You want to sleep here? You want to park your RV here? No problem. Everything is allowed no matter how it demeans.

The problem with civic life is there must be civilization and there must be a minimal, publically acceptable standard of how to conduct oneself in public. And we don’t have that. Just ride the Metro Red Line, daily, and see how often people ignore rules. And get away with it.

We can’t just build ourselves into civic pride. We have to bring it up through our own character. And right now we are busy ripping it down, hoping that our urge for destruction will somehow open up a bright new world of self-realization. But it won’t.

So good luck to Mr. Hawthorne and his Chief Design Office.

I imagine he will be a regular on KCRW and KPCC, there will be plenty of conferences and appearances with Frances Anderton and Frank Gehry, and Instagram posts at Intelligensia and MOCA.

And then a year from now, the job and the title will quietly be gone, and he will find another position up in the Bay Area as Apple’s Chief Aesthetician, “devoted to the virtual civic realm on Apple devices.”


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