Back to the Future

Ian Volner surveys new developments in Los Angeles

View of Beckmen YOLA Center from La Brea Boulevard. Photo: Los Angeles Philharmonic.

WHEN DAVID HOCKNEY first arrived in Santa Monica, in 1964, he decided to ride his bicycle across Los Angeles as far as Pershing Square, which he had heard was a prime cruising spot. Only too late did he realize that the journey was eighteen miles. The painter resolved to buy a car the next day.

Christopher Hawthorne told this story a couple of Fridays ago, delivering it with a wan smile. “There’s a whole genre of non-LA artists and writers coming here and trying to bike the city,” he said. “Newcomers just don’t understand the scale.” The former architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times—now ensconced in city hall as its first-ever chief design officer—was sitting in a courtyard at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, looking off to the west and the uncyclable expanses beyond: Somewhere out there, for the first time in a long time, a full battalion of artists and writers, many of them deploying from New York, was once again dashing around town, having arrived in the city for the much-deferred Felix Art Fair. Only the foolish among them would do their dashing on two wheels; Hawthorne, naturally, knew better. “LA hasn’t changed that much,” he said. In many ways, around these parts, it’s still 1964.

Rendering of the OMA-designed Audrey Irmas Pavilion of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Image: OMA.

But then, in many other ways, it isn’t. The LA these visitors descended on last month was not the pre-Covid one they remembered. The rude stop-start of the pandemic economy has meant that scads of new marquee developments—new infrastructure, new performance venues, new housing, new museums, new everything—are now hurtling toward completion almost simultaneously. At the same time, the social tumult of the past eighteen-odd months has meant that the cultural landscape of the place has shifted almost as dramatically as the physical one. Five days spent crisscrossing from the hills to the beach and back, occasionally by car but also by bus, by train, and, yes, by bike, revealed a city seized by startling, epochal changes. For Los Angeles, it has been a long time coming.

Notwithstanding its ongoing love affair with the automobile, LA is in a public-transit frenzy. In Mid-Wilshire, crews were clogging up the westbound side of the boulevard around La Brea, readying the D Line extension for its anticipated debut a scant eighteen months from now. Downtown, the Regional Connector is slated for completion next year, giving Angelinos a one-seat train ride from East LA to North Hollywood. Even transportation projects that aren’t really public have a public gloss: Visible from the eastern edges of downtown, the Michael Maltzan–designed Sixth Street Viaduct, currently being hoisted into place over the Los Angeles River, will include twelve acres of public park at ground level.

Yet another rail line, expected to open next year, now slashes south and west along the Crenshaw corridor, offering a future direct route to LAX—welcome news to tourists, but even more meaningful for locals, since it will provide a much-needed link between the predominantly Black and Latino, lower-income city of Inglewood and the metropolis at large. Together with a new-and-improved surface line running southward from downtown through Watts, the Inglewood extension shows LA trying, after decades of segregation and sprawl, to impose some semblance of equity on its vexed social topography.

Rendering of the Michael Maltzan-designed Sixth Street Viaduct. Image: City of Los Angeles, Bureau of Engineering, Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc. / HNTB Corporation.

Within shouting distance of the soon-to-open LAX rail line in Inglewood is the first-ever permanent home of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA). Founded in 2007, YOLA is an educational initiative of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—and just like its big brother on Bunker Hill, the group’s new facility was designed by Frank Gehry, who here succeeds in transforming a quaint-if-stodgy midcentury bank into an all-purpose practice-and-concert venue. Unsurprisingly, the project is a more modest affair than Disney Hall (no billowing steel here; the architect did the job pro bono), but its unfinished wood-clad interior is a reminder of an earlier, homier Gehry, and the central performance space has precisely the same dimensions as Disney’s. The broad glass front of the building allows passersby to have a peek at the activity within, an attempt to forge a connection with a community that, even now, usually ends up more the object of redevelopment schemes than an authentic partner in them: Other ongoing projects in Inglewood, such as LA’s new football stadium and a revamp of city’s historic Market Street, are inorganic at best, seemingly tossed onto the streetscape by someone speeding down the 405.

As ever in Southern California, housing is the paramount issue, the ghost at every urban-development feast. A small but dense exhibition at the Helms Design Center that closed in August, “High Rise, Mid Rise, Low Rise,” documented an encouraging uptick in subsidized multiunit projects. Yet even as the city’s homelessness crisis deepens, the struggle to fix it grows more and more contentious. One key battleground: a 2.65-acre swath of Venice Beach, steps from the ocean and vaulting over one of the area’s celebrated canals, where the Los Angeles Planning Commission recently approved the construction of a 140-unit project for low-income residents, including artists and formerly unhoused people. In an intriguing break from form (literally and figuratively), the designer of the would-be development is Eric Owen Moss, better known for highly idiosyncratic, lyrical buildings concentrated around Culver City. His proposal for Venice, though recognizably Mossian, is fairly subdued and would include the full rehabilitation of the onsite waterway along with new ground-level retail spaces, a community arts center, and other amenities. Notwithstanding its obvious advantages, the project has faced vehement resistance from its wealthy, homeowning neighbors—a puzzling phenomenon given that the site is presently occupied not by some historic treasure or beloved park, but by a large, particularly unattractive parking lot.

Rendering of the Eric Owen Moss-designed Reese Davidson Community. Photo: Venice Community Housing.

Opponents say the “Monster on the Venice Canals,” as they call the development, would turn the area into a “designated homeless hub,” giving away “hundreds of units of free housing for life on some of the most desirable lots in the world.” When I visited Venice last month (from Hollywood, by scooter and bus), the land in question was occupied by an all-too-familiar LA sight: a homeless encampment about a dozen strong, situated mostly along the western perimeter. There was a notable dearth of cars, even for a weekday afternoon, and not much else. “Venice needed that project yesterday,” Moss said later in his office in Culver City. “We’ve been working on this for four years.” Moss knows from patience—scarcely a mile from his studio, his (W)rapper tower now breaks the warehouse-level skyline of the industrial Hayden Tract, an exhilarating iceberg of glass girded by cursive loops of steel. “I designed that thirty years ago,” he says, standing next to the tower model; in the intervening years, an elevated train line had appeared next to the site, so Moss’s team added a scale version of it to their maquette. It looks like it was meant to be there, as though the design had only been waiting for the city to catch up.

On the institutional front, LA seems even more determined to change its stripes. The demolition of the old LACMA is now complete, though the hole in the ground that replaced it is going to take some time to fill; next door, at the La Brea Tar Pits, a revamped museum is just getting under way, with New York–based firm Weiss Manfredi fixing to have the showplace ready by 2028, when Los Angeles will host the Olympics. But the bigger game is on the other side of the Wilshire cultural campus—and across town.

View of the Renzo Piano-designed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Image: Josh White, JWPictures © Academy Museum Foundation.

However unintentionally, LA has set up a curious contest between two major museums whose curatorial missions converge, albeit from different directions, upon the city’s favorite industry. Next month, on the western flank of LACMA, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will open the doors of its Renzo Piano–designed museum, a former department store with a striking, globular outbuilding to the north. Halfway across the city—though, it should be said, only forty-five minutes by bicycle—George Lucas’s Museum of Narrative Art is rising quickly on a lot adjacent to the USC campus, the vast hulk of architect Ma Yansong’s structure bristling behind an immense scaffold. The latter outfit will also boast exhibitions on comic books, photography, and likely Norman Rockwell, its prime objective to bring not just movie magic but “visual storytelling,” broadly conceived, to the museumgoing masses. The architects’ agendas, meanwhile, could hardly be more different: Piano’s building is soft and quietly glamorous, with a dramatic red carpet leading across the skybridge to the main screening room; Ma’s is, at least from what can be seen of it, impressively intergalactic, but appears somewhat lost in space amid the forsaken lawns and service roads of Exposition Park. Significantly, the municipal government realized only after it had approved Lucas’s vanity project that no master plan was in place for the surrounding district. One was imposed post facto, another instance of the city rushing to keep pace with itself.

Rendering of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Image: Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

But even as a constellation of other institutional forces tries to make sense of LA’s sundry contradictions (of particular note: OMA’s new public-events annex for the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, intended to open the venerable synagogue up to the primarily Korean and Latino community that surrounds it), the social fabric of the city is being pulled in new and extraordinary directions. In his role as a member of the Mayor’s Office Civic Memory Working Group, Hawthorne contributed to the advisory panel’s recently published report “Past Due,” a remarkable document that catalogues the efforts of LA’s historically marginalized and dispossessed—Chicanos, African Americans, Indigenous groups—to lay claim to their slice of the city. “We’re exploring a number of different avenues for reckoning with the darker moments in our history,” Hawthorne said; the city has even begun mooting the idea of “cultural easements” allowing previously banished communities access to ancestral property, as well as other forms of land reparations that would give partial title back to those pushed out of the way in the course of LA’s explosive growth. The growing demands of a rising generation of Angelenos, and their calls for a better, more livable city for all, may be the most important legacy thus far of the long, strange Covid interval.

Former site of Bruce's Beach. Photo: Ian Volner.

Already, those calls are being heard, albeit outside of Hawthorne’s technical jurisdiction, in the independent municipality of Manhattan Beach. There, in the late 1920s, a Black-owned, Black-operated resort colony called Bruce’s Beach was destroyed by a combination of real-estate interests and white civic leadership; today, following years of protest and agitation, Los Angeles County officials are preparing to return the deed to the descendants of the original proprietors, with the expectation that the land will then be leased back to the public. For now, all that remains of the vanished community is a commemorative plaque sitting in the patch of green space that once was Bruce’s Beach. On a recent morning, with the mist rolling off the sea, the place had an eerie peace to it: just the surfers and the gulls and a low rumble of something, possibly an airplane or of traffic, coming from far off but approaching fast.