What can we learn from the aborted potential icons of Los Angeles? Whether underfunded, over-dramatic or anachronistic, the structures on display in "Never Built: Los Angeles" at the Architecture and Design Museum in L.A. never saw the light of day. But because they were the twinkle in the eye of a few established names in post-war American architecture, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and John Lautner, these imaginings are vetted with their creators' robust reputations for modern, revolutionary forms. Seen with a 21st century perspective, jaded by the likes of Frank Gehry or Bjarke Ingels, it's actually pretty easy to imagine these never-built structures existing -- at least in terms of form, anyway.
They were never built for a variety of reasons, but as the show points out with a few more recent examples of arrested development, architecture as art is always subject to the whims of the market. The tone of the exhibition isn't so much a romanticized "what could have been!" cry for Los Angeles' architectural image, nor is it a cautionary tale of architectural hubris. It's a bit like looking through an old photo album, where everything looks so different, but nothing has changed.
The bulk of the works on display in "Never Built" belong to the era between the end of the second World War and the 1973 oil crisis. Specifically when a project was vetoed is a big indicator of why -- the post-war landscape, while economically lush, shied away from immodest displays of success (as in Donald R. Warren's "Tower of Civilization"), and developers ran out of funds when the oil crisis hit (John Lautner's "Griffith Park Nature Center"). But what makes the structures fascinating, and at times familiar, is that they engage with L.A. on the same level as folks are doing now -- through transportation, predictive futuristic-forms, and L.A.’s contentious urban potential.
Take for instance, helicopters -- not exactly the flying cars of a Jetsonian future, but they are relied on heavily by the Los Angeles Police Department while patrolling the current sprawl. For 20 hours of every day, there are at least two helicopters in the air, assisting officers on the ground. In May of this year, local radio station KPCC aired a fascinating three-part story on LAPD helicopter pilots, and their disproportionately large role in comparison to other major cities' police forces. Instead of becoming a transportation staple of the super-rich or a futuristic taxi cab, helicopters occupy a different type of ubiquity in the Los Angeles landscape than predicted by renderings of the Griffith Park Nature Center, for instance, which casually depicts commuter-helicopters approaching the Center. Nowadays, they are a constant sonic presence, both noisy and comforting, and a hallmark of the LA atmosphere, if not a revolutionary transportation option.
While helicopters occupy a functionalist role in L.A.'s urban image, they aren't seen as urban icons, so much as symptoms of the sick sprawl. In fact much of the discourse around L.A. refers to its lack of iconic buildings -- sometimes this is seen as a problem or disadvantage, while at others a remarkable idiosyncrasy for a modern world-city. In a recent episode of KCRW's "DnA: Design and Architecture" podcast, host Frances Anderton explores this absence in reference to "Never Built: Los Angeles", and Frank Lloyd Wright's impact on the city. The architect known for melding structure and environment had a terrestrial playground at his disposal in Los Angeles, but his vision for the Huntington Hartford Sports Club was nixed by neighbors disgruntled by the price and its namesake's lifestyle. Mounted atop a hill in Runyon Canyon and resembling castle turrets embedded with flying saucers (complete with waterfalls), the Sports Club would have made a dramatic impact -- but instead, Wright's influence on Los Angeles would be far more subtle. His Usonian houses, open-plan single-story structures for middle-class families, were the blueprint (pun intended) for the ranch-style home, now a staple of Southern California residential architecture.
The most drastic project on display at "Never Built" has to be the Santa Monica Causeway, a 7-mile artificial archipelago built 4,000 feet from the Santa Monica coastline. Conceived as a relaxer for the Pacific Coast Highway's gridlock in the 1960s, the Causeway's "Sunset Seaway" would give cars an alternate path between Malibu and Santa Monica. There's a certain naive, Manifest-Destiny-tinged tone to this project, as it proposes unapologetic expansion beyond the physical end of the western United States to solve a transportation issue, certainly at the price of unimaginable ecological impact. The project prefers expansion, rather than adaptation or densification, as the solution to a problem -- a continually topical issue as mass transit becomes more pervasive and Los Angeles more accessible.
There are many more engrossing "Never Built" projects on display at A+D -- some given new life through digital animation or rich models, others refreshingly recent, including a work by Thom Mayne's Morphosis. It's important to remember, though, that there are far more never-built structures out there, and the ones on display are vetted with the most potential, based on their architect's reputation or the project's audacity. While not featured in the exhibit, Thom Andersen’s video essay, “Los Angeles Plays Itself”, exhaustively documents Los Angeles’ depiction in film, and explains how a region, boulevard or building informs the fictional (or not) narrative taking place within it. When Los Angeles appears so often but rarely as itself, Andersen’s piece honors the city’s ability to be a kind of transforming icon -- each destination in conversation with its inhabitants. It's impossible to know exactly what Los Angeles would be like today were these projects successful, but that isn't the point of "Never Built" -- it captures the collective consciousness of a city in the unrealized language of iconic architecture.
Managing Editor and Podcast Co-Producer for Archinect. I write, go to the movies, walk around and listen to the radio. My interests revolve around cognitive urban theory, psycholinguistics and food.Got a pitch, or want to write for us? Contact me!